When the five members of Headlights show up in the Louis Room on Friday, Northwestern students will be watching a band whose members admit they’re “unassuming,” “small” and a bit “wimpy.” But they’ll also be watching a band that has brawled with punk rockers in Ohio, lived out of a tour van for 20-month stretches and maintains part-time jobs as bartenders and bakers. You might not guess it, but this is a group that has seen a lot. Pretty melodies and sunset-lovely keyboard chiming fill Headlights’ two albums of catchy indie-pop, but stiff rhythms and bright-but-brooding lyrics make the songs more than ear-pleasing fluff.
The group hails from Champaign, three hours south of Evanston, where they got started in rock n’ roll while undergrads at the University of Illinois. At the band’s core is a trio of friends, living and recording music in a run-down farmhouse. Tristan Wraight and Erin Fein trade singing duties, giving them a boy/girl dynamic that’s landed them a spot on the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack and has been compared to Stars, Mates of State and Belle and Sebastian.
In a phone interview with North by Northwestern, Wraight talked about the group’s growing indie fame and pop-loving sound. His advice for attendees at the Niteskool show? “Bring a hip flask,” he says, politely adding, “but I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
NBN: So the three original band members get together, and what comes out is this really lovely indie-pop sound. Do you have any idea why your band sounds the way it does?
Wraight: Well, Erin and I have always had a real affection for good melody and good pop music. We always loved all the classics, all the golden oldies and a lot of chamber pop and classical music as well. But I think that just naturally we’re drawn to simple but appealing melodies.
On the new album, Some Racing, Some Stopping, there are a lot of lyrics about silence and quiet. Why that theme?
This record we kind of wrote spontaneously after touring for [2006's] Kill Them With Kindness for so long. We had all these ideas stored up, and just kind of locked ourselves into our farmhouse — which is really a pretty peaceful place, we’re in between fields and whatnot — and we really honed into the whole vibe of the place. It ended up being much mellower than we expected, because we had just played several hundred rock shows. We came home thinking we were going to record an energetic rock record, and it ended up being a lot more pastoral than we expected.
What do you say to charges that this kind of music is “wimpy”?
I’m certainly happy to be wimpy. I’m happy to have wimpy music. That really doesn’t bother me at all. We’re definitely unashamedly poppy and have lots of harmonies and we really enjoy beautiful music. We’re definitely not a muscle-car band. And that’s fine, because I think that a Prius is just fine.
Makes sense, but you guys got in a fight with a punk band, right?
Oh yeah! That doesn’t mean we can’t throw down, that’s for sure. Just because we make pretty music doesn’t mean we won’t kick somebody’s ass if we have to.
What happened there?
It was an awful night. Basically we were playing a show with another touring band and a local band in Akron, Ohio. And the local band was this young, early-20s bunch of dudes who had, I guess, just discovered the joys of drinking alcohol. A real shitty version of 1976 punk-rock. And they were simply awful. Probably the worst band we ever played with, not just because they sucked but because they were real assholes and they heckled the band we were playing with and they talked shit to the crowd and spit on people on stage and they just kept talking shit about everything and everyone. They had been loading-in in front of the stage really loudly while we had been playing, so we’re like, “fuck these guys, they’re assholes.” We loaded out in front of their band and our bass player flipped them off as we were passing the stage, and the singer grabbed the mic and started talking shit even more. And Brett, our drummer, had had enough, and he took the microphone stand and he just kind of bopped the dude in the face with it, which was pretty inappropriate, but… you know. You kind of had to be there. Basically, they all jumped off the stage and we all started brawling in the bar. We got paid and they didn’t. They were real assholes, man. It’s hard to describe, really, but they were real dicks.
Well at least you got a rock n’ roll story out of it.
Yeah yeah yeah. Everyone likes that story because we’re very unassuming people; we’re all pretty small and polite. But man, these guys just wouldn’t stop rubbing us the wrong way.
What sort of show should we expect on Friday? What kind of live band are you?
I think it will be definitely a lot of fun. With the five of us now, we have a lot of fun with our performance; it’s easy to tell. So people who like good pop music should come out and have a good time with us. Sometimes it ends up as a dance party, sometimes it ends up more of an attentive-spectator thing. We like both, as long as people are enjoying themselves.
Do you guys have any impressions of Evanston, growing up in Champaign?
I’ve been up there a couple times… I guess the only thing I remember from Evanston is Nevin’s pub. Man, they had really good fish and chips.
When did you ever go to Nevin’s?
Well, you know, being in Champaign, I’m 27, I’ve driven to Chicago thousands of times. I’ve had friends, girlfriends, all that stuff, so… you know. I’ve just been around, man.