Seattle indie rockers the Head and the Heart are one of the best-traveled bands in America at the moment: in 2017 alone, they’re playing Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and just about every other big-name festival in the country.
Those festivals might not even exist if the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival hadn’t been a massive success. That festival, a blueprint for Woodstock and all that followed, marked the first time promoters realized fans would pay to see a long list of bands over the course of one weekend. (It helped that the weekend in question included iconic performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, and others.)
“I think the gravity of what we’re about to do sunk in just now when we had a rehearsal with Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas,” the Head and the Heart’s singer-guitarist Jonathan Russell told Rolling Stone (inside the Levi’s Outpost lounge) on Sunday afternoon, shortly before the band’s set at the festival’s 50th anniversary. “You don’t get too many chances to sing with legends like that. It’s just an honor to be here.”
Your most recent studio album, Signs of Light, was the first you’ve recorded in the Bay Area – at the secluded Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach. How does the physical place where you’re writing and recording affect your records?
Chris Zasche (bass): I think this was about finding a place to match the songs – hearing the demos that Jon was sending initially, it felt like it was leaning toward a sunny record. The record before this was a blue record; this was yellow. And then the vibe of [the studio], on the beach – it became like a seventh band member.
Charity Rose Thielen (violin, guitar, vocals): It meant leaving Seattle to record for the first time, and I think we were all ready to do that – weather-wise, otherwise. We first heard about that studio from the My Morning Jacket crew: out in the middle of nowhere but also close enough to the city, sunny weather, and the road has all these hidden little turnoffs. It was perfect.
You’re one of several younger bands who’ve been asked to pay homage to some rock & roll elders. Are you thinking about how to do celebrate the spirit of 1967 without just slipping into straight nostalgia?
Jonathan Russell: I was thinking, walking around [the festival earlier], that the bar was set a little too high: who’s gonna be able to recreate Janis Joplin coming out here? Who even wants to try? But as I’ve been watching the music it’s like, no. That’s not the point. Other amazing things can happen, though. And if they’re laced with a little nostalgia, so be it.
Charity: It’s a tough balance to do tastefully. But on the other hand, that’s why we’re all here in the first place – that’s why we play music, at the heart of it. And celebrating counterculture, the love generation – it all feels so applicable now with what’s happening among young people, especially in our current political situation. We’re all becoming activists.
You’re not exactly a political band, though – as of yet.
Jonathan: No, but I think we seem to put people more in tune with themselves in a way that can help people go through phases of their lives that are struggles, whether political or not. Sometime you don’t even know what a song is about until you meet people who say “Oh, I was going through that too,” and you realize there are these common, universal struggles. And I think our music somehow gives people permission to talk about some of that out loud.
Chris: I’ve been listening to a lot of U2, and thinking about how that era was during hardcore Reaganism, and at a time when [music] was really about excess … and then there was this band that came out and spoke about things with actual meaning and depth, confronting the political turmoil in this country. I think we’re in similar times now as we maybe were during the original Monterey Pop, with the anti-war movement, and those are times when timeless art and music is created. There’s not a lot of fluff happening. You ever think about what was going on when Britney and the Backstreet Boys came out? Things were good! Everyone was happy, and that’s what you get. I think we’re entering another time where music is gonna get more meaningful.