From the loss of a loved one to the legal travails that plagued them, HAWTHORNE HEIGHTS are shaking off the ghosts and moving forward. STORY: Kyle Ryan PHOTOS: Evan Hunt
Well, this is awkward.
About 20 kids stand inside Victory Records’ Chicago headquarters, where they’ve spent the past half-hour or so listening to new songs from Hawthorne Heights’ upcoming album, Fragile Future, anticipating an appearance by the band. When label owner Tony Brummel finally brings the group in, everyone just stands around nervously without saying a word. Hawthorne Heights- vocalist/guitarist JT Woodruff, drummer Eron Bucciarelli, bassist Matt Ridenour and guitarist Micah Carli-say hello and look around, waiting for someone to do something. Woodruff smiles before asking, “Tony, what do you want us to do?”
Just months ago, Victory HQ would be the last place you’d expect to find Hawthorne Heights. You definitely wouldn’t see them palling around with Brummel, whom they very publicly derided on their website for caring “more about his ego and bank account than the bands themselves.” The two parties spent two years embroiled in a bitterly contested, extremely expensive string of lawsuits and personal attacks. The process left Victory’s reputation tarnished and Hawthorne stuck in legal limbo. Yet here they are, one big, happy family on a gorgeous summer day in Chicago. What the hell happened?
The Dayton, Ohio, band asked themselves that very question in December of 2007. The lawsuits had been dragging on for 18 months, with no apparent end in sight. Their second album, If Only You Were Lonely, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart in February 2006, was now a distant memory to the mainstream. Late this past November, the band embarked on tour, excited to be on the road, writing new music, and generally full of resolve.
“I think at a certain point, we were so bound and determined to prove our point, and we were pushing on through financial issues, emotional issues,” Bucciarelli says. “We sort of let our egos interfere with our careers. Then all the sudden, ‘at all costs’ actually happened, and we lost Casey. That opened our eyes and made us realize there’s a lot more to life than proving your point.”
Casey Calvert, Hawthorne guitarist and designated screamer, died suddenly on Nov. 24, 2007. His death was ruled accidental, caused by an interaction of two anti-depressants and an opiate. (The band says Calvert had taken Vicodin, an opiate, for pain related to a root canal.) Devastated by the loss of Calvert-by all accounts an affable soul known for his sense of humor-the band retreated to Dayton and avoided each other. The group who were once so determined to extricate themselves from Victory Records’ alleged house of horrors were done fighting.
“When you can’t do anything, and the one thing you could do, something got in the way of, and you lost a best friend in the process, then you kind of step back,” Ridenour says.
“You think, ‘Life should be better than this,’” Woodruff adds. “We shouldn’t be worrying about stupid things. We should start focusing on the pure enjoyments of life. Stop fighting for the sake of fighting.”
It wasn’t that simple in 2006 when Victory deployed all its firepower attempting to rocket If Only You Were Lonely to a No. 1 debut, a first for both label and band. Hawthorne’s MySpace page was a bandwidth-devouring amalgam of streaming audio, photos and embedded videos-including one of Woodruff asking people to vote for them on TRL. There was a MySpace-like social-networking site created for Hawthorne fans, magazine ads, commercials, internet banner ads and more. Then there was The E-mail. Supposedly written by street-team coordinator Abby Valentine, the e-mail directive suggested fans go to retailers to hide CDs by Ne-Yo, an R&B crooner who was Hawthorne’s main competition for the No. 1 slot that week. The memo leaked, leading to a public-relations disaster for Hawthorne and Victory (the label meekly tried to play it off as a “joke”) and some psychic saber-rattling from Ne-Yo’s label and retailers. In the end, Valentine resigned and Ne-Yo blew Hawthorne out of the SoundScan waters. Lonely debuted at No. 3, pushed further down by the High School Musical soundtrack. (Former Victory executive Ramsey Dean later claimed responsibility for writing the e-mail.)
Behind the scenes, the members of Hawthorne Heights seethed as the months progressed and Lonely fell from the mainstream favor it had courted so voraciously. At the beginning of August, Hawthorne abruptly announced, via a website missive dubbed “The REAL Manifesto,” not only were they leaving Victory, but also suing the label, who they claimed owed them $1.2 million in royalties.
“It was this whole package that was sold to us,” Bucciarelli says. “‘It’s gonna only take three months. By the time you get done, you’re going to get a huge advance from a major label,’ and on and on and on. You hear this from multiple people, and you start thinking, “‘Yeah, you know what? I am pissed off at this label, and that makes sense, and we should do that!’ In retrospect, you realize those people are only telling you that so they can get a piece of what you’re going to get.”
Even though the hype around Lonely had subsided considerably by August, it was nothing compared to the deafening silence that came once Victory stopped promoting the album and launched its countersuit in September. “Once the radio stations stopped getting calls from the label, they stopped spinning the songs as much,” Bucciarelli says. “Same with MTV and Fuse. And you’re not getting coverage in magazines because there’s nobody to pitch them anything.”
“It’s going from the forefront of everything to being a local band in about 12 hours,” Ridenour adds. The months passed, and the people who advised Hawthorne to sue predicted closure was imminent.
“Literally every day we would hear, ‘Oh, just next week. This will happen, and then we’ll be free,’” Bucciarelli says. “And sometimes that would happen, and then some other issue would come up. But more often than not, nothing would happen, and you’re just sitting there.”
“After you hear, ‘Maybe something will happen next week’ for about a year,” Ridenour adds, laughing, “you say, ‘Fuck next week! I want to release a record.’”
In the spring of 2007, a judge ruled the band could record for another label, but it still owed Victory two albums. Brummel sued Virgin Records (the major label interested in adding Hawthorne to their roster) and Virgin backed off. The aggressive strategy worked: Hawthorne Heights were now a liability to any label that wanted them.
“Ironically, Tony kind of saved our ass,” Bucciarelli reveals. “A few months later, [Virgin was] bought out by a private-equity firm, dropped half their artists and fired 3,000 employees. We would have been in limbo there and probably in a worse position.”
But at the time, it looked like there was no end in sight, no matter what the members of Hawthorne Heights or their advisors told themselves. Then, one day into the band’s tour, everything changed when Bucciarelli went to find Calvert for soundcheck on the afternoon of November 24th. At that point, the band’s legal travails were hardly a concern, when faced with the death of their close friend. The big picture made itself abundantly clear.
“That’s what, unfortunately, took us a year-and-a-half to figure out,” Bucciarelli says. “[We realized] ‘Hey, you know our issues we have with Victory, are solvable issues. We can discuss them like adults and come to some resolution and compromise,’ and that’s what we ended up doing, and that’s why we’re sitting here today-which is just fine for us because all we want to do is be a band.”
And here, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Hawthorne Heights are a band with a new album. (Ironically, the same day as Ne-Yo’s new one.) “It’s amazing what you take for granted-like a release date is like the coolest thing in the world to me now,” Ridenour says. “I never thought [about it]. The second I see it in the store, I’ll believe it actually happened.”
Recorded during six weeks this spring with producer Jeff Schneeweis, Fragile Future had one thing going for it: Two years of preproduction. The band had written, refined, discarded and re-written dozens of songs before settling on the ones for the record-that includes a couple dozen written with Calvert, none of which made the cut.
“We put egos aside for the sake of writing a quality song,” Bucciarelli says. “So with Casey’s parts, if they sounded good, they stayed; if not, they were changed or cut. We felt the best way to honor him was to make the best record we could, which meant being ourselves and not forcing something that didn’t sound right, just because Casey wrote it.” Woodruff adds, “All the songs written after Casey’s passing were written with him in our hearts.”
The most obvious example is “Four Become One,” which directly addresses Calvert’s death. Woodruff’s lyrical directness-and the album’s overall pop sound-is crucial in separating Fragile Future from Hawthorne’s previous releases. “In the past, I have written a bit more in general metaphors, so the listener can relate to what I am going through,” Woodruff says. “The lyrics on our new record are more ‘what you see is what you get.’ This is me, and this is what has happened in my life… I put myself out there on this record. I opened up my heart-what’s left of it, anyway-for everyone to see.”
To ensure that direct connection, Hawthorne chose Schneeweis, an unknown and untested producer (and former member of defunct emo-pop outfit Number One Gun), with whom they felt comfortable. “Our life as a band had been nothing but stress and tragedy for two years straight, so we didn’t want to deal with a stranger for six weeks who was going to yell at us if we messed up,” Woodruff says. “We wanted a relaxed time in the studio so we could concentrate and have fun.” The band would arrive at the studio in Chico, California, every day at 9 a.m. and left at 2 p.m., sometimes returning later in the evening to continue working. With few distractions in Chico, the band recorded, wrote, played a lot of Halo 3, went for the occasional swim and produced what is Hawthorne Heights’ most melodic, self-assured album yet.
“It’s an actual album, as opposed to our last few records, [where] there were songs that we liked, and we just threw them all on and called it a record,” Bucciarelli says. “This time, everything flows from the first song to the last song, and it’s a cohesive piece of art.”
“We definitely have better songs now than we did a year-and-a-half ago, when we thought we were going to record,” Woodruff adds. “I’m a lot happier with the record now than I would have been, I’m sure.”
That’s the word Woodruff & Co. keep using today: Happy. For a band who went from rags to riches and then back to rags with bewildering speed, they sure smile a lot. Even Woodruff, whose blank expression in photographs is practically a trademark, breaks into an occasional smile as a photographer takes pictures. It’s the smile of a man whose band has reclaimed their future and moved on from their past.
“That’s the whole point; that’s why we’re so happy now,” he says. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore. We don’t have to sit here and actually worry about what’s going on because we’re ready to move forward instead of continuing to move backward-or staying in the exact same spot for another year.”
THE FUTURE NOW
Ashley Calvert talks about moving on
Casey Calvert and his wife, Ashley, had only been married for a year-and-a-half when Casey died from a lethal prescription drug interaction late last November. The couple had been together for more than five years and had known each other since childhood. Casey’s death was a stunning blow for Ashley, a schoolteacher who found herself at age 25 in the unlikely position of planning a funeral for her husband.
How did you learn he had died?
I talked to him [that] Friday evening on the phone. Then Saturday morning, I went and volunteered at an animal shelter and came home. I was driving to Middletown [Ohio] to see my family, and my brother called me and was [noticably] upset and crying on the phone. He said, “You gotta come home right now. I can’t tell you over the phone.” I thought something had happened to my childhood pet or to my grandmother, so I was like, “Calm down, Luke, calm down, I’ll be there in a minute.” When I got there, they told me. I just remember my knees buckling. I’ve never really had that sensation before. I just collapsed into my mom’s arms.
Did the two of you have life insurance?
No, we didn’t. We didn’t think about it. We had planned to have kids-everybody says you wait until you have kids, and then you kind of do that whole route.
How hard has it been financially?
It’s definitely been a huge shock. There’s a lot of legal stuff that you don’t realize. Casey and I chose to keep separate accounts, so his money was untouchable [for a] period of time. It’s been tough, but luckily, family’s been really good, fans have been really helpful, the [band] have been helpful. To Write Love On Her Arms raised money to help me with the funeral expenses and that was a huge help because that basically paid for the funeral.
In interviews, Casey expressed frustration at Hawthorne’s tour schedule and how it kept him away from you. How did you make it work?
He didn’t like being gone for an extended period of time. It was something that you got used to, and that kind of became the normal way, just to talk on the phone every single day and go out to shows when I could. When he had time off, that was always nice. They would usually work pretty hard, but then they’d have a month off or something, so that really helped.
Does it provide any peace at all knowing he was out on tour doing what he loved?
It really does, because so many people who are our age haven’t even begun a career. I feel like he accomplished a lot with the short amount of time he had. After he died, I think something that really helped me was reading things fans would say [about] how much they enjoyed meeting him, or talking about their experiences seeing him onstage. Just knowing he was able to impact a lot of people while he was a part of it really helped a lot.
Did you think Hawthorne Heights were going to continue?
I assumed they would keep going. That wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but I had a feeling that they would continue because I know Casey wouldn’t have wanted them to stop playing, for sure. He wasn’t that kind of person. I figured they would take some time off like they did, too, but I’m really happy that they’ve worked out everything and they’re going to be able to continue.
You’ve said this changed your whole perspective on life. How so?
I’ve always been one to have a specific plan. Casey was always relaxed, like, “Oh, just do whatever,” and I was always more uptight, having plans, knowing what’s coming, always wanting him to save money for the future and things like that. It’s changed me in a good way in that I don’t look so far ahead; I just try to enjoy the moment as much as I can.–alt
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