Frontman Tim Skipper discusses why the band’s new record Cold Hard Want comes from a desperate place, going after massive-sounding moments, and the legacy of staying true to who you are.
The opening in the bio for this record you say how you were making this record in a little bit of a desperate place but that you work best under pressure. Can you talk a little about that?
Sure, yeah. The approach for this record was we want to do this for a living. We want to do this full time. For 15 years, I’ve been playing music with the same three guys, in one form or another. We’re at the point now where we just can’t afford to keep doing it unless we start selling some records and taking off a little bit more. We felt that pressure to write the best songs that we possibly could.
In addition to that, when we went in to do the record, the guy we wanted to do the record said, “I only got 15 days, so we got to get this done in 15 days,” which is not a lot of time to make a record. So, there was that pressure on top of all that. I think it was the best thing for us because we were so dialed into what was going on. The preparation was really solid.
So you had everything rehearsed and worked out before you entered the studio then?
We did, yeah. We actually ended up writing about 30 songs and we knew them front ways and back ways, just every which way. We knew if we only had 15 days, we had to know these songs inside out, so we were very well rehearsed.
On the last couple records, how long did you work on those in the studio?
Those were kind of divided up. We usually would do about two or three weeks in a row, then take two weeks off and come back and do another three weeks. We had tons of time to do those ones. The only way this one worked to do within 15 days was the core basic tracks we recorded live, whereas we had never done that before. We had always done drums first, bass second, then guitars and vocals.
This time around, though, we were in a studio big enough to keep everything set up. We would get in in the morning, rehearse whatever song we were doing that day, play about six or seven takes of it until we got one we all liked, and then we’d move on to overdubs and vocals. We tried to do a song a day. I just absolutely loved it. In my mind, that’s the only way I really want to do records from here on out.
Everyone that records live seems to come away with that same impression, which is really interesting.
Yeah, it’s very interesting. It’s definitely not easy, and you definitely do have to be prepared, but when it works out well, it’s super addicting.
The last couple albums were loose concept albums, while this one isn’t really that case. What did you want to do with this album? Were there different things you wanted to do you weren’t able to on the last two?
The last two started with a concept, or at least a theme. With this one, we really wanted to focus on the songs. We made a decision before we started writing lyrics or anything like that to really make these melodies as good as we can, and make the music as good as we can, and then we’ll work on lyrics. If a theme comes along, then great, but let’s not shoot for it. In a way, once you establish a concept or a theme, that sort of dictates what the music is going to sound like. We wanted to basically do the opposite of that this time and let the music dictate the themes we were going to sing about.
I think at the end of the day there are a couple themes running throughout the album. A lot of it has to do with just being in a desperate place, or really standing up for what you believe in, which in our case was rock music. We’ve been told countless times, “You guys can be a very successful band. We’ll give you a major label deal, we’ll do this, we’ll do that, if you make things a bit more pop or more commercial, more this way or that way.”
After doing some soul searching, it’s just like, man, that is not who we are. If we did that, we would be doing ourselves and our fans a disservice. Honestly, I think people can see through that for the most part. Not all of them can, just look at what’s popular on the radio these days. Obviously, not everyone can see through that, but I think our fans would.
One of the huge breakout bands this year has been fun., and they have that massive sound that they didn’t have to dumb down. Does that give you hope, that you can still have that huge sound and smart music and still have it connect with people?
It really does, yeah. I was absolutely blown away when I first heard “We Are Young.” My girlfriend said, “Oh, yeah. This is on the radio all the time.” I said, “Did they do an edit of it? What’s the deal, because there’s no possible way they’re playing this on the radio the way that it is.” She said, “No, they didn’t touch it.” To me, that’s the coolest thing that’s happened in a long time.
What’s really neat about that, like you said, is they did not stray from who they are. I’ve been a fan of the Format and of the first fun. record, and I don’t feel like they really strayed from who they are, as far as songwriting or anything like that. The production was definitely different, which was fine. There’s nothing wrong with exploring different ways to make new sound.
It’s an interesting thing, man, because it feels a little bit like with that song, or with “Somebody That I Used to Know,” I never thought that would be on mainstream radio either, but it seems like there’s a slow changing of the guard. Maybe not a massive shift, but a small one at least to where there’s more interesting things in the music that’s getting popular these days.
You wanted to make this a very anthem-driven record, and you revisited some old anthems that were these massive hits before you started writing. What did you learn from doing that?
I think what we really learned a lot from that was you have to be able to envision. Honestly, what I thought about was some of the best shows I’ve ever been to and the moments that really stood out to me. To me, the best part about going to a show is experiencing the energy that happens between a band who loves what they do and the fans who also equally love what they do.
I saw Thrice later on in their career and I was absolutely blown away. I was right in the middle of everything with everyone there, singing along to these key moments that were just so massive. What we thought about were those moments. Let’s try to create those moments that we can share. Every time we sing these songs, we can mean it with everything we have, and the people that come to the show can feel it and mean it right back at us. We can create that intangible energy. We spent a lot of time actually watching live DVDs and stuff like that to find those moments in a Foo Fighters show, or an old Queen show or something like that, because those were the moments that we really wanted to chase.
One of the things that is interesting about the band is A.J. does most of the lyrics. How does that dynamic work between the two of you? What is it like singing words that aren’t necessarily yours?
There’s been a few songs that have been tough in the past, where emotionally it’s hard for me to connect with them. On this album, a lot of the songs deal with us being a band. They’re lyrical themes we can all relate to. Another cool thing is when we first sit down together to write, we come up with some melodies and music, and then we sit together to talk about what the lyrics should look like before he would actually write the lyrics. He’d say, “I have this idea for this song,” and we’d talk about it. As we’re sharing the ideas, we start to form the emotional connections with the song.
A lot of times on these new songs, Colin and I would have a line or two but just couldn’t finish the thought. That’s really A.J.’s gift. He’s just so good at that, so we really feel better leaving it up to him to come up with the best lyrical ideas for those parts. With this one, even though they weren’t necessarily my words, I could still have the same feeling.
One of the themes that stood out to me on a couple of these songs, which I didn’t necessarily pick up on the other records, is there seems to be a little bit of a stubbornness, almost rebelliousness, on songs like “Comfort Trap” and “Out My Way.” Does that go along with writing about being in a band and rock music and all that stuff?
I think so, yeah. “Out My Way,” I remember playing that for a couple people and they said, “Man, this is tough to hear you guys singing about this. You almost sound arrogantly defiant.” For us, that’s a song where we have to say that for our own sake. That’s almost like something we’re saying behind closed doors, but then everybody gets to hear it.
It’s like a sports team that has a pregame meeting and they just tell themselves how good they are. They say, “Hey, we’re blaming each other. We know we can beat this other team.” I feel like that’s our anthem to say, “Hey, if they’re going to try to take us down, they just can’t do it. We’re not going to let that happen. We’re going to keep doing what we do.” It’s just an internal rally cry, but we’re saying it externally now.
The last song on the record, “I Am a Symbol,” got me thinking if House of Heroes had a symbol that represented you guys, what do you think that would be?
Hmm, that’s interesting. That’s a good question. Man, I don’t know. Let me think about that for just a second. The other guys could probably come up with something way quicker than I can. I guess it would have to be something kind of working class and raw, but at the same time… I have no idea, man [laughs].
No worries, we’ll come back to it [laughs]. Another song that stood out to me was “The Cop,” which is more of a quiet storytelling song than you have traditionally done. What was it like playing around with that one?
We wrote that song for Suburba. It actually was going to fit really well with the storyline we had going for Suburba, but the producer didn’t really like it. It got lost in the shuffle a little bit, but we still really liked the song. So this time when we went with a different producer and brought it to him, he right off the bat said, “Guys, I think this is your best song. We’re definitely recording this.” We were really excited about that, because even though it was on the backburner, it was something we were really proud of.
The way we recorded that one was really cool. It was one of the times where he had to say, “I believe in you guys. I think you can do this, but it’s going to be tough.” Basically, he just said, “All right, Tim. Go in the room. Sit down. I’ll set up two mics, and I just want you to play this thing live.” So I did. We got a good take of it, and then he said, “OK, now I want you to double that, playing and singing again exactly like you did.” That’s what that song is. Each performance is one panned to the left, one panned to the right. We added a few extra things in there, but we’re really proud of that song.
Another thing on this record that is really cool is you open with an a cappella song and then the second-to-last song is also a cappella. I know when you were younger, you did choir and barbershop quartet. What was it like to do that kind of stuff now at this stage in the band’s career?
Man, it’s awesome. We’ve always loved doing really big vocal stuff, but we’ve never quite done anything a cappella before. That was really fun. That was another song we’ve had for probably four or five years. Our drummer, Colin, wrote that. There was a lot more to it, but we kind of chopped it up into a couple different parts. We said, “All right, let’s give it a shot. Let’s go in there.” We had five guys standing around one mic, because we thought this could really be a neat way to start the record and to also have a transitional period. We gave it a shot and I think it turned out really cool.
In the past, you’ve mentioned about doing some music apart from House of Heroes, either a side band or some solo stuff. Are you still planning on doing that at some point?
Definitely. We all kind of write a lot more than just House of Heroes stuff. A.J., he lives down here in Nashville as well, and he’s been writing a lot of country songs, just a lot more chill stuff. In my mind, what I’d like to do personally is my now fiancée and I want to start some sort of band together. It would be sort of a pop thing, this pop-rock, kind of quirky pop. Then also I’ve been writing a lot of more mellow, folky type stuff lately, so I’d love to do a solo record at some point as well. And then I’ve always wanted to do a legit metal band, like Iron Maiden meets Metallica type metal. The old school stuff. Maybe one of these days we’ll get around to that.
You kind of touched on this at the beginning, but you guys clearly have the ambition and make these massive-sounding albums, yet you still seem to be a relatively unheard of band and have remained more or less at the same popularity level. I know that’s got to be pretty difficult to see happen. Can you talk about that?
It’s an interesting thing, because we write as if we’re this really huge band. It’s funny because we write as if there’s an arena in front of us, and yet at this point in our career we’re lucky to draw maybe 100 people a night on average or something. I think that has a lot to do with. To be honest with you, I don’t know what it has a lot to do with. I’ve spent way too much time and energy trying to figure that out. You have no idea. It does get frustrating, but the one thing we always come back to is…
I saw the Arcade Fire once when there was 10 people at the show. They performed as if they were in front of a stadium full of people. We’ve always said, “Hey, you know what? Maybe one of these days. Maybe one of these days we’ll have a song that catches on and we’ll be playing for a couple thousand people every night.” We want everyone who saw us before this to be able to say, “I saw them when it was just 10 people, and they put on the same show then as they’re putting on now because it means something to them.”
I think at the end of the day that is also inspiring, because then it doesn’t become about the amount of success you gain or whatever, it becomes about your love for what you do. If more people can be inspired to do things for the love of what they do instead of monetary gain, or status or power, I think that is a good legacy to have.
It kind of reminds me of “If you build it, they will come.”
Right. Yeah, exactly. If you build it, they will come, but it might take awhile to build it.
Well, I thought we’d close out with one of the main quotes you said about this album, where you said, “It takes a lot of cold hard want to just persevere and keep believing in rock n’ roll. And if it is dead and we’re just fools on the sinking ship, that’s fine. We’re happy to go out that way.” Can you elaborate on that?
That quote is kind of saying, you know, this is who we are. If that’s not good enough, or if the mentality that was great 20 years ago but it’s not so great now, then that’s fine. At the end of the day, I think there’s more pride in doing things because you love to do them than in doing them to be more successful. That’s sort of us making our peace.
We’d love to do this full time. We’d love to be the most successful band in the world, I don’t think anybody wouldn’t love that, but if we have to do that at the expense of making compromise after compromise and not being true to who we are, then it’s not worth it to us. That’s us making peace with we gave it our best. If it works, awesome. If it doesn’t, awesome. We’ve got seriously a lifetime full of stories in the 10 years we’ve been House of Heroes, and that’s fine. I’ll take that any day.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk