Photo of Head North in Portland by Harper Lee
I talked to Head North at the end of November when they were in Portland on tour with Trophy Eyes, and we caught up on the past few years, and talked about the making of their recent album, The Last Living Man Alive Ever in the History of the World.
I first discovered Head North in the fall of 2014 when they played at Slabtown, a tiny Portland bar which heavily supported all-ages music, but is now a bulldozed lot awaiting the construction of a six story apartment building. Head North played last to a mostly empty room—even some of the local openers had gone home. I remember drummer Ben Lieber thanking my friends and I for staying for their set, and although it had always been a given that I’d always stay for the entirety of shows, that’s when I realized just how important it is to smaller touring bands. Their performance enthralled me that night, and I was lucky to see them again two days later in Eugene.
At the end of 2014, Head North signed to Bad Timing Records, and in the spring of 2015 they released their EP, Bloodlines, which really started turning heads, and they did a full US tour with Have Mercy around that time. Then they did a headliner in the summer, and opened for Knuckle Puck in the fall, and kept leaving great impressions on all of the people hearing them for the first time. We knew their debut album would be on its way soon enough…or so we thought.
Head North went quiet in 2016. “We got home from the Knuckle Puck tour and I had been writing for awhile, and then we wrote for another probably two months,” said vocalist/guitarist Brent Martone. They were ready to record their full-length, and decided to work with Brett Romnes. “Last minute some plans fell apart, some unforeseen circumstances happened, and we were let go from Bad Timing, and just decided, fuck it, we’re going to pay for the record ourselves and make it happen,” said Martone. By May 2016 the record was finished.
Since they paid for the record themselves, they really only had their own expectations to live up to. Martone went into it with the mindset of, “I don’t have to fucking make anyone happy, just gotta make some tunes that we like and hopefully people like them,” and the results of this are something special because it opened up their creative headspace even further.
“Pulse” is a song on TTLMA that really stands out from the rest of Head North’s discography, and is one that reminded them that their sound can be what they want it to be. Martone said, “All these preconceived notions of what the band is don’t have to fuckin’ be there, so let’s fuckin’ make the acoustic guitar sound like a bass, and then fuckin’ play hip-hop beats over it.” Then Lieber added that figuring out how to play the song live was another hurdle, but overall, creating this album pushed them to be better musicians. The way that Head North constructed TTLMA allowed them to experiment more, and take on the most organic state of their sound thus far.
Bassist Alex Matos adding in electronic elements live in Portland
In July of 2016, they released a music video for “God (Bring It Back),” the first single, and in the description it said that the new album was coming “this summer.” That’s when things got even quieter—almost too quiet. There was no album in 2016, and at times, especially after summer was long gone, myself and others questioned if Head North was still a band.
Head North had released “God (Bring It Back)” hoping that soon after they’d find the record a home on a label if they were persistent enough. Those efforts were happening behind the scenes as fans waited patiently for signs of the album.
During the time between finishing and releasing the record, Lieber started a project called Marigold, and released a wonderful album called Counterfeit Art, and Martone started a ‘one song per week’ solo endeavor. Lieber said, “It was just to be able to be happy as musicians. It was a very frustrating, trying time, and I think that I’m happy for it because it allowed both of us to explore ourselves in different ways.” Along with that, Martone pointed out that it was their first time since high school that they didn’t play 200 shows in a year, so they also got to use this downtime to remember how to be a person outside of a band.
They never found a home for the record, and self-released it. When it comes to the potential of signing to a label or keeping things DIY, Martone said, “I want to do whatever is best for the band. The second we go back to having the pressures of making people money for the sake of them making money instead of being able to express ourselves and hopefully make a living off of it, I’m out. But, I would absolutely not be opposed to someone coming in and helping back us that gets the vision.” Lieber agreed with this, and added that it would be nice to have the help of a label to lighten the workload, but, “The right thing needs to fall into our laps.”
Head North in Portland
Head North started touring a bunch again this year, and they added guitarist Eli Ritter to the band to fill the place of former member Ryan Harris who has been busy on the road with Have Mercy. TTLMA dropped in June which has fueled their setlists this year. They’ve played with bands like Heart Attack Man, Gates, and then rounded off the year opening for Trophy Eyes on an extensive US tour with a bunch of sold out shows. Head North’s performance in Portland made them one of the most talked about bands on the bill because most people hadn’t previously heard them before seeing them live, but were instantly captivated by what they brought to the stage. It was also really great to see the band so visibly happy when they played, and so obviously loving the music they’ve created.
As for the future of Head North, Martone said their plan is to, “Just keep making music. Keep playing shows. Hopefully people hear it, man. Just gotta do our best.”