Tristan Wraight and Erin Fein have been playing music together for over seven years. Seven years of disappointments and achievement. Seven years of tense and joyous practice sessions, nerve-racking live performances, recording and promoting. Seven years of hardships and breakthroughs, leading them to Headlights.
“We’ve had to struggle through a lot of roadblocks, even had to struggle just to find a group that was equally dedicated to the music as we are,” Wraight said. “I think this (new) record is a culmination of seven years of our frustrations.”
On Aug. 22, Kill Them With Kindness, the debut album from Headlights will finally be released by Polyvinyl. It’s a record that has been preceded by intense anticipation ever since the release of 2004’s four-song Enemies EP, and one that promises to shine the pristine indie-rock of Headlights on an even larger, national audience.
“We’re all really excited and proud of this record,” Wraight said. “But it’s a tough world we work in, and you don’t have many expectations beyond just keep playing and work hard. We have no idea what’s gonna happen, but I’d call it a hopeful optimism.”
But if any local band is going to make the jump to the big leagues this year, this is the one. Headlights initial EP received glowing reviews from everyone from PopMatters to NPR, and they have steadily built a huge following in the Champaign-Urbana and surrounding areas.
“I love the music scene here, we have grown up here and we really appreciate what’s going on with the bars and ‘PGU,” Wraight said. “They’ve been really supportive of the local scene. The whole community has come together really well.”
Wraight first started playing in his former band, Absinthe Blind, when he was barely just a teenager. Since that time he, Fein and drummer Brett Sanderson have changed quite a bit, but the process hasn’t always been easy.
“I started Absinthe when I was 14, inevitably we grew out of that,” Wraight said. “Luckily we where able to fall a few times then, and learn from it for the future.”
The history that the band members share translates into a very collaborative songwriting process. While Fein and Wraight usually share songwriting duties, they often enlist the help of Sanderson, who is described by Wraight as a very-skilled recording engineer. The democratic spirit of the band’s creative process has extended to include outside help on the new album as well, not to mention a split EP with former tour mates the Metal Hearts due in the spring.
“We had more time for songwriting this time, we worked with professional producers as opposed to just doing it in my living room,” Wraight said. “So we had more time to think about how we wanted to structure our songs.”
The many voices and extra time spent on writing breathed new life into Headlights’ sound, which is more varied and confident than in the past. Kill Them With Kindness moves effortlessly between genres, while still holding to a central melodic theme.
“The last two EP’s where sort of made just to support the band,” Wraight said. “But this record we wanted to make a statement artistically, and we focused on not pigeonholing ourselves, we wanted to explore different genres, ideas and textures.”
Headlights have always been drawn to layered sounds, often pushing their brand of indie-rock through a glittering wall of shoegaze. But the melodic core of the songs is what keeps them grounded and so addictive. The resulting sound is somewhere between Stars and My Bloody Valentine, but entirely unique.
“We like atmosphere, but we’ve always loved melodic and pop tunes,” Wraight said. “But we also like a lot of darker stuff. Live we try to incorporate all of this.”
Headlights have a reputation for a stellar live show around town, but that isn’t by accident. Wraight and crew approach the live experience with a very specific concept in mind, understanding the intricacies of performance versus recording.
“When we record, we fall in love with little parts or sounds that we can’t always play live,” Wraight said. “But live you can’t rewind, and you really have to embrace that. And what really separates it from recording is that immediacy, you have to make the most of it.”
On Aug. 23, the band begins a massive 72-date tour in support of Kill Them With Kindness that finds them at the Canopy Club on the 27th for a CD release party, and then back in Urbana a month later for the Pygmalion Music Festival. The band is dedicated to pushing this record as far as it can take them, planning to keep touring until they can’t anymore.
“For our last EP we did like 140 shows, and we definitely have a responsibility to tour in support of the new one,” Wraight said. “We’re focusing on playing really energetic shows, to get people excited.”
Headlights are hoping that the intensity and personality of their latest offering can be reproduced on stage through their passionate performances. But whether in the immediacy of that environment, or just listening to the album in your car, what is always apparent with the songs on Kill Them With Kindness is the amount of emotion behind them.
“We only really write about what we know, and all we really know is our own experiences,” Wraight said. “We aren’t an issue band, we don’t have a morality we try to spread. But we all live and breathe in the same world and we all struggle at things. That’s what this is about.”