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15 years on, Hawthorne Heights continues its famous DIY approach

A Q&A with two members of pop-punk band that hails from the Gem City.

It’s been 15 years since the members of A Day in the Life entered an intense period of songwriting and emerged under the better-known moniker Hawthorne Heights. Since then, the pop-punk act has weathered its share of ups and downs, from chart-topping releases and sold-out shows to the death of a founding member, lawsuits with record companies and several label changes.

Founding members JT Woodruff (vocals, guitar) and Matt Ridenour (bass, vocals) and longtime members Mark McMillon (guitars, vocals) and Chris “Poppy” Popadak (drums) have countered the many professional peaks and valleys with grace, humor and a solid DIY work ethic.

After a period self-releasing its recordings, Hawthorne Heights returned this year with a powerful new album and new label. “Bad Frequencies,” the band’s sixth studio album, was released by Pure Noise Records in April.

We had a chance to sit down with two members recently in Dayton to talk about the band’s past, present and future.

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Hawthorne Heights, (left to right), Matt Ridenour, JT Woodruff, Chris Popadak and Mark McMillon, releases its sixth studio album, Bad Frequencies (Pure Noise Records) on Friday, April 27. CONTRIBUTED (Contributing Writer)

THE SECRET TO SUCCESS

JT Woodruff: “The only thing you can do for longevity is try to be nice to each other when you can, and really get in a room together and focus on writing songs you feel will change your life. If the songs will change your life, then they’ll change somebody else’s life. The most important thing for us was everybody getting in a room. I attest to that being the early success of Hawthorne Heights.”

Mark McMillon: “There’s no shortcut. The industry is always changing and evolving, and that’s part of trying to be in a professional band, but at the end of the day, your songs have to be good and memorable and lasting.”

JT Woodruff: “In A Day in the Life, we played a lot and we had fun but we were cycling through members. A couple of us wanted to really take it seriously and get out of town. One summer we all made a pact not to play any shows. The shows are the fun part but we wanted to try to write a group of songs we’re 100 percent proud of and spend all summer on those songs.”

Mark McMillon: “Aside from the business aspect of a band that’s trying to do it, when it’s all said and done, no one remembers your band because of something cool you have going; they remember your songs.”

JT Woodruff: “You have to love that song so much you’re willing to drop everything you’re doing and get out on the road and play that song because it’s that important to you. We’ve been doing this for so long, the easiest thing in the world would be to quit doing all the hard work and go get normal jobs. The songs are that important to us and they help other people as much as they help us and that’s why we still do it after all these years.”

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Hawthorne Heights, pictured in 2005. CONTRIBUTED (Contributing Writer)

DIY APPROACH TO MUSIC

JT Woodruff: “From the 2000s on, you’re either this huge band that’s financially set for life, or you’re constantly working on your next project. One of the best things about the arts is it’s a grind every single day. We’re all working on this band every day because it matters to us so we’re able to cut corners by doing it ourselves and that’s how we continue to keep it fulltime.”

Mark McMillon: “We have management and booking but we still handle our own merch and do a lot of other things ourselves. Because we’re so hands-on, that affects our attitude about it. When this band started they were playing the Knights of Columbus Hall. They didn’t start and get successful overnight. The band has played venues on every level. We’ll go out and support Blink 182 for these massive shows and then we’ll do headlining tours where we play different-size venues depending on the city. We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty and play a show somewhere new.”

JT Woodruff: “We spent the last couple of years being completely DIY, which is a blessing and a curse. You get to see every bit of your hard work come to fruition so you literally get to reap the benefits for everything you’re doing daily. There are obviously shortcomings when it comes to doing it yourself because we don’t have degrees in marketing, advertising or finance. We don’t have any of that stuff but we do know how to write songs and be in a band. We also learned how to run our band like a small business.”

Hawthorne Heights, (left to right), Matt Ridenour, Chris Popadak, JT Woodruff and Mark McMillon, releases its sixth studio album, Bad Frequencies (Pure Noise Records) on Friday, April 27. CONTRIBUTED (Contributing Writer)

BAD FREQUENCIES

The band started writing sessions for what would become “Bad Frequencies” in February 2017.

Mark McMillon: “We’ve learned to write when we can and then when we get blocks of time at home. In our situation, it’s always been tour, tour, tour and then, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do a record.’ Then we’re pushed to write songs at the last minute. This is the first time in a long time we’ve essentially had a couple of different pockets throughout the year when we were going to be home for a month at a time where we could work on it.”

JT Woodruff: “Because we did it DIY, we were able to keep it pretty flowing and write throughout pockets of the year. I wrote a ton of songs when I was on my solo tour. It was such an awful time at times and an incredible time at times so it made for some interesting stories I was able to craft into songs.”

Mark McMillon: When JT was out on a solo tour, I built a studio in my house. When he got back, we did an acoustic tour and then we had a block of time before Warped Tour and we started demoing the first batch of songs for this. We really honed in on the songs when we got home from Warped.”

Hawthorne Heights, pictured in 2005. CONTRIBUTED (Contributing Writer)

THE SONGS

JT Woodruff: “There are enough people writing about the sunshine of life. There’s enough people writing songs to be cranked up super loud in a dance clubs so people can party on a Saturday night. We are the antithesis of that. We write about the gloomy days. We write about the days you can’t get out of bed because it just seems like nothing goes right. I won’t say those are the moments you focus on but those are the moments you notice that you have to get through.”

Mark McMillon: “I’ve been in the band eight years now and every time we’ve done a release we’ve been prepared but there’s always a lot of last-minute tweaks. At this stage in the game, we’re all good at editing ourselves in the studio and editing ourselves but this is the first time the entire record was demoed and done. It was a rawer version of the record but we wanted to go in and replicate that in a nice studio.”

Hawthorne Heights, pictured in 2006. CONTRIBUTED (Contributing Writer)

‘BAD FREQUENCIES’ SESSIONS

The new material was recorded by Nick Ingram at his Capital House Studio in Columbus.

JT Woodruff: “We recorded our EP, ‘Hurt,’ with Nick, so we’re very familiar with him and we didn’t want a destination recording. We recorded in pockets. We’d work three days and go home and relax for a few days. We did that a few times. It worked out well.”

Mark McMillon: “It was nice because we got so far ahead very early on we were able to leave Thursday and not come back until Monday. Nick would go ahead and start mixing the songs we already had done.”

JT Woodruff: “There was very little down time when we were waiting on anything and there’s usually a lot of downtime when you’re in the studio. You’re messing around on your phone or playing video games and I would rather be home than doing that. If we were 22 years old, we’d record in LA for six months. That would be great, but now we’d rather make the record efficiently so we can get back home and actually take the break we need.”

Hawthorne Heights, (left to right) Matt Ridenour, J.T. Woodruff, Mark McMillon and Christopher Poppy Lee in a 2016 promotional photograph. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO (HANDOUT)

PURE NOISE RECORDS

The band had the album recorded and mixed before hooking up with Pure Noise.

JT Woodruff: “We wanted to show the full scope of what they’re getting so they wouldn’t have to worry about how it was going to turn out. We said, ‘Here’s the record and the sequence. This is the vibe and this is our vision.’ We had people working on artwork for this at the same time. They got to see the whole package. It’s like, ‘Climb aboard or don’t, we’re 100 percent prepared to do it ourselves. Again’ We sent it to four or five labels that we actually enjoy what they do, we like their artists and we think they’re doing things the right way. If none of them wanted to put it out we would have been happy to continue doing things ourselves.”

Mark McMillon: “That being said, Pure Noise was our No. 1 choice.”

JT Woodruff: “I had conversations with Jake, the owner of the label, and I liked his point of view and how he carried himself. You could just tell by talking to someone if they have similar beliefs and ideals about how to make records and they’re not afraid to work hard. We’ve got no complaints. This is definitely the best push we’ve been given in a long time.

Hawthrone Heights band in a 2005 promotional photograph. From left to right are Casey Calvert, Eron Bucciarelli, Matt Ridenour, JT Woodruff and Micah Carli.

DAYTON CONNECTION

JT Woodruff: “I grew up in a small town in West Virginia before I moved to Dayton. I didn’t start playing guitar until after I graduated high school because there were probably four people playing guitar in my entire town. It just wasn’t a thing. It was a small town and not everybody thought they could be in a band. I specifically moved to Dayton because of the music scene in Dayton. I’d heard about the Breeders, Guided By Voices and all these other bands from Dayton and it was only three hours from where I grew up. I was like, ‘Something’s happening there? I’ve heard of these bands, these bands are great, I’m moving to that music scene.’ In 2000, I made a conscious effort to move here with one of my friends. I was like, ‘I’m moving and I’m going to make it happen.’ And I made it happen and I’ve been here ever since.”

Mark McMillon: “I love Dayton. My vacation is, when we get time off I want to stay here. I want to stay home and go to Marion’s and I’m going to go get coffee.”

JT Woodruff: “For some reason, the entertainment industry is built on this vanity that everybody is having the time of their lives. They’re all on private jets and flying to islands and stuff, and that’s not real. That’s a real portion of about 10 percent of it and that’s the portion people choose to broadcast. We’ve never been like that and sometimes to our detriment. We’re a little bit too real but we’re from Dayton, Ohio, and we love that fact. We’re from the Midwest and we’re able to wear our hearts on our sleeves a little more because we’re not from the Coasts where every moment in wonderful. We’re from working-class upbringings in the middle of the heartland.”

Hawthorne Heights (clockwise from left) JT Woodruff, Matt Ridenour, Eron Bucciarelli, Micah Carli and Mark McMillon celebrates the 10th anniversary of its breakthrough debut album IN 2014. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO (HANDOUT)
Hawthorne Heights in a 2008 promotional photo. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

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