Riding the groundswell: The Head and the Heart

Don’t dismiss the Seattle sextet as another scruffy Mumford & Sons cash-in. The hype behind The Head and the Heart is genuine and well-earned.

by Tony


WHO: The Head and the Heart

WHAT: Spring Jam 2012

WHERE: Coffman Union Front Plaza

WHEN: Noon, April 19

COST: Free for students

There shouldn’t be anything more populist than a buzz band. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. If a band really catches fire and breaks through after they’ve been shared on blogs and though social media, it can feel like the Internet is a force for turning the music industry into a democracy. But the truth is that even if Internet hype is free from corporate influence, it’s still an exercise in groupthink, driven by tastemakers and fads. The sheen wears off, and the artists crumble under the weight of artificially inflated expectations.

It’s rare for a band to attain that hype and sustain it, rising to expectations and earning the attention. There isn’t a perfect formula for this kind of success, but for Seattle’s The Head and the Heart, who will open up Spring Jam on Thursday, a panning from tastemaker Pitchfork was a big help.

“I wasn’t super surprised when they wrote a bad review,” said Josiah Johnson, co-frontman of The Head and the Heart. He said he was grateful that the influential site didn’t champion them.

“You blow up a band with that kind of power, and they’re not ready for it, then all of a sudden that’s a lot more pressure than they’re ready for.”

Johnson was working in web development in his native California when he decided to move up to Seattle in a quarterlife crisis. He didn’t intend to pursue music but found himself hanging around at open mics at the Conor Bryne pub, where he met recent Virginia transplant Jon Russel.

“A lot of times, the people you see are so-so but every once in a while someone incredible comes along,” Johnson said. “I was blown away.”

The two began writing music together and meeting other musicians. Eventually they formed the line-up that would become The Head and the Heart. They all began sharing a two-bedroom house and writing music, recording their self-titled debut and selling it themselves on CDBaby.

Their catchy pop-folk began tearing though social networks, selling more than 10,000 copies — unheard of for a self-released album.

“With the bands I had been in before, Facebook and Twitter didn’t really exist yet, so to see all of that sharing in action was really cool,” Johnson said. “It was just incredible to see it happening.”

Before they knew it, The Head and the Heart were opening for fellow Seattleite Dave Matthews and getting calls from labels. They eventually signed to Sub Pop, who rereleased their album last spring. These waves of exposure to many different audiences has kept the excitement surrounding the band from burning out.

After touring for 11 months in 2011, The Head and the Heart are taking things a little slower, playing at Coffman in between Coachella performances while beginning to assemble some acoustic demos for a new album. Johnson said the big gap between their releases has made him less worried about living up to the hype.

“If you magically come upon something and don’t know how you did it, and are asked to duplicate it in the second album, I can imagine that being scary,” he said. “But we didn’t have one big explosion. We write fast, but it was in little steps.”