Headlights “You know, get a job and all that stuff.”

Iowa City and Champaign-Urbana are something like sister cities in the Midwest – both Big Ten college schools with amazing pockets of local musicianship. Ever since Headlights first came to Iowa City in December 2007, they've been good friends. I've seen them play several times over the last two years – at least five times in Iowa City as well as in Champaign and Austin – so I've had the chance to see them grow as a band. It's not usually easy to interview bands that you also consider your friends, but I wanted to talk to them about their new album, Wildlife, as well as some of the changes they've undergone and the hardships they've faced in the last year. I sat down with singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tristan Wraight after a taped performance for Iowa Public Radio to talk about their evolving personnel, their mid-life crises, and almost throwing in the towel.

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There are fewer people in your band than when I've seen you in the past. What happened?

We started as a three piece, and we just couldn't do on stage what we wanted to. So we knew, for one, that we needed to stop using programming. We wanted real bass. We met Nick through Decibully, and they kind of stopped touring when we started touring, so it just made sense for us to work together. Our old friend John was in another Champaign band that kind of fell apart, and we just wanted another person to play percussion, keyboard, guitar, whatever. And it was great for a little while. He sort of went through a young mid-life crisis kind of thing. He had that moment where you decide, “Do I want to keep trying to do this? Or do I want to be a real person?” You know, get a job and all that stuff. He got married and moved to San Francisco. The commute was a little bit of an issue. So we went our separate ways, but we still love the dude. He comes to our shows and we hang out when we're in San Francisco. Was that the question?

Yeah, yeah that was good. Are you guys still trying to figure out how to do it as a quartet then? It seemed like last night you were working out some kinks.

Part of the problem is that Nick and Brett both live in different towns than we do. We have very little preparation time for tours, and most of what we played last night is from our new record, which we haven't played live before. I don't think we're still figuring it out. We know what to do, but it takes a few days and a few shows to get your rhythm together. Hopefully it wasn't too rusty. I always need at least a few shows to feel comfortable. We like to build sets that have transitions and dynamics, and that takes a few trials.

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"We were like, ‘John: in or out. And if you're in, fucking put a smile on your face.'"
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So with not all of you living in Champaign anymore, how has that forced you to adapt?

Well, it's been a pain in the ass. You can get a lot more done when you're together than when you're e-mailing and things like that. It takes a lot more communication. That can be good and bad, because when you do get together you're really excited to dig in and have some fun and work on music, write, try things out. But we could always use a few more days of prep time. Erin and I still write together and when they come to town we always have a lot of stuff to show them.

The new album seems like it's a little more melancholy than stuff that you've done in the past. Lots of stuff about distance and separation and loss. Can you talk about that?

It's a little weird to bitch and moan about the problems in your life, but really that's the fodder from which we draw inspiration, from what we're feeling and experiencing. We've actually all had personal friends or family, sort of tragic shit happen. It's weird to say like, “Oh, here are our problems,” but when you write a record about it and then in your bio they put that you've all had a rough time and you have to talk to journalists how, like, my dad's got cancer, or Erin's grandma died the day we left for tour, and all sorts of things. It's a little touchy-feely, but really the only way that we can deal with things like that is to do it musically.

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"He had that moment where you decide, “Do I want to keep trying to do this? Or do I want to be a real person?”"
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Between all that, and people moving, and people leaving the band, was there a point at which you thought maybe Headlights wasn't going to be a band anymore?

Absolutely. In fact, we were in Europe last fall with John, our fifth member, and he was having such a hard time being on tour, and being in a band, and panicking about what his life was meaning, that we all had a really horrible time. It was the worst thing that we've ever had to go through as a group. Trying to get along, very far from home, weird countries. We've had wonderful, really fun European tours, but this was not one of them. It was grueling, the routing was insane. We decided for some reason to save a little cash on a driver this time, and I was the only person who drove stick shift so I drove the whole tour and I broke a rib. We were all at each other's throats, and it was just like, “What the fuck. Something's gotta give.” We came home and had the meeting where we were like, “John: in or out. And if you're in, fucking put a smile on your face.” You know? Rightfully so, he decided to leave, and now he's in law school doing very well. [laughs] It was just one of those times where we got home and looked at each other and said, “I don't ever want to have to do that again. Ever.”

Do you guys feel better about things with the new album?

Yeah, yeah. We're charged up again. This summer, we took the longest break from touring that we've ever had. It was like four or five months without playing, or doing anything. We did like a video or something, played maybe two shows. So now we're all really excited to be back out on the road, and together we all get along really well and everyone's in a good place in their heads, and ready to be in a van for five weeks together.

[Photo: Megan Holmes]

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