The NAMM Show 2017 Interviews – Mark McMillon of Hawthorne Heights and The Story Changes
2017 is turning out to be a banner year for the hard working musicians of Hawthorne Heights. In addition to a massive amount of time being spent on the road, Hawthorne Heights has been writing a brand new album! And just recently, it was announced that Hawthorne Heights would spend their summer travelling across the country on this year’s edition of the Vans Warped Tour!
Prior to the Warped announcement, we caught up with Hawthorne Height’s lead guitarist/screamer Mark McMillon at The NAMM Show to find on about the band’s plans of 2017, news on the next album, Mark’s other long running project The Story Changes, musical instruments of choice, and a whole lot more! Read on…
Introduce yourself and tell me what you do in Hawthorne Heights
My name is Mark McMillon and I play guitar and do a lot of the screamy kinda unclean vocals in Hawthorne Heights.
What are you looking forward to the most about this year’s NAMM?
I’ve never been so I was just excited to come. It seems like for whatever reason we’re always on tour this time of year or like just winding down after a tour. We still live in Ohio, so the thought of coming out right after tour, right after the holidays, is always hard, but we’re home this year writing a record, and I’ve never been. It just seemed like a fun thing to come out some gear. A lot of sponsors and stuff are out here this year, so it just seemed like a good time. I’m having a lot of fun.
What is your weapon of choice and why when you tour?
I grew up playing a lot of Gibson Guitars. The Gibson SG is my all time favorite guitar just from always playing that. We were with a company called Framus for a long time when they had a distro out in New York and we played their guitars for a while and they make great stuff. I fell in love with their guitars. There’s a company called Dream Studio Guitars that we’ve been playing lately that’s out of Apple Valley. Both our singer and I have been playing their stuff. They make some cool, neat offset guitars and stuff. So, we’ve been doing that.
What advice would you give a young musician seeking an endorsement deal?
It’s tough. I think everyone gets that mindset when you start touring like “I wanna get free stuff.” We’ve tried a lot of gear. Being a band for 13 years, you start realizing you play a lot of different stuff and you always go back to your favorites. I’ve learned getting an endorsement just to get an endorsement isn’t cool. It’s easier said than done. When you don’t have a lot of gear, saying no to free gear is impossible. These companies are looking for partners that love the gear. You’ve got to really like it. You can’t just like it because it’s free. you’ve got to like it because you really love the product and believe in it. It takes a lot of work to really rep the company. Work hard. Tour hard. Don’t be afraid to try to get sponsors and meet companies and meet reps. Just be mindful that, just because it’s free, it’s not necessarily what you want.
What has it been like to play these ten year anniversary tours of your various albums?
It’s been awesome. The last year we did a long year. We were on the road close to 200 dates last year for the 10 year anniversary of “If Only You Were Lonely” and it was cool. For the fans and the band, it’s a blast from the past to play the old record. We always joke that it makes it real easy to pick the setlist. We don’t argue a lot as a band, but that’s one thing we debate. Some people in the band are like, “We should just play the fan favorite hits”, then other times, we’re like, “We should mix in these songs that we never play”. A lot of the hardcore fans that come to everything will be excited to hear some rare songs. At this point in our career, we have so many songs from putting out a lot of records that it’s really hard to pick the setlist. It was kind of fun to just take that mystery of it away. We knew exactly what we were playing. If anything, there were 5 or 6 songs that, after for the encore, they was fun to throw in some different rare cuts.
As far as the touring aspect, it’s cool because we feel very fortunate this far in our career to still be able to go all over the world and do this for a living. Our fans have continued to support us, but to see their reaction, even online when we announced the tours, ” They’re doing a 10-year tour for that”, that’s awesome. There’s a lot of songs in that record that the band had never played live. That was kind of a challenge for us too. A lot of it was structured in a way with acoustic guitars, during the verse it’s quiet, then things come in kind of loud, so it’s just not an easy way to do it live, so the band just never played those songs live. They weren’t singles or anything. We had to recreate those live. It was a little bit of a challenge, but it was fun.
How close is Hawthorne Heights to write and recording new material?
We are about, I’d say, 3/4 of the way done with the writing process. We could probably narrow it down now, but we have a little bit of time, so we’re writing more. We’re actually home doing that now for the next month and then narrowing down the songs. I’ve built a production studio in my basement for the sole purpose of demoing this record and we’ve been cranking at it in between tours.
How do you think this new record will compare to the older releases?
We always tell people that we just write and we’re never mindful. A record like Skeletons came out that’s drastically different than anything, just because that’s where the band’s mindset was. But we did the last thing – was an EP called Hurt and we didn’t realize at the time. But a lot of the fan reaction online was, oh my gosh, this sounds like the second or first record. Looking back, I was like, I think it did and I think some of this stuff we did is in that same vein. I don’t think it was a conscious effort to do a throwback vibe. But I think doing these anniversary tours it was a lot of fun and it kind of influenced what we’re doing and brought back a lot of memories and kind of put us back in that mindset of how the band wrote back then. I think a lot of the new songs have a vibe that reminds me of the first two records.
Did you know Casey Calvert?
I did. He was a good dude. Same hometown. I came into the band after Casey passed away. Really tough thing obviously for everyone and the band had said early on that they were not going to get another dude. I play in a band (with HH’s current drummer) called The Story Changes. We’ve actually played the album release party for The Silence in Black and White, the first Hawthorne record. We just grew up in the same hometown. We played shows together and they took us on tour, so we were always good friends. So after Casey passed, they toured for another record for a couple of years they did without the other guitar. They were doing some touring for Skeletons and The Story Changes was on that tour. We just kind of hit it off. We had been friends through the whole thing, but The Story Changes was touring 200 days a year – they were touring, so they didn’t hang out as much as we did back in the day. We kind of reconnected and then it just felt right to start playing guitar with them and it’s been awesome.
The fans have been cool. It’s been almost 8 years now. It doesn’t feel like that but it’s been a while. The fans have been accepting. Our original drummer Aaron left, about a year and a half/two years ago and it was like a no brainer. Our buddy Chris Popadak, we call him Poppy, he plays drums in The Story Changes. I don’t even think we even asked him, I think he just started playing drums. He was always with us anyway. It’s cool. It’s very cool that a band like Hawthorne Heights that’s been around that long – when Casey passed and then Aaron left, they didn’t have to go outside the immediate family to keep it. It doesn’t feel weird because we’ve been with these dudes for so long. It stayed within our tight group. Our hometown, we live in Dayton, OH which is a hour north of Cincinnati and an hour west of Columbus. It’s got a really cool underground music scene, but it’s not very big. So all of the bands are really tight knit and everyone knows everyone really well.
How would you compare The Story Changes with Hawthorne Heights?
Soundwise? Definitely there’s no screaming in Story Changes which is weird because I scream in Hawthorne and sing in Story. Less screaming. Definitely with the new material I hear similarities because we all grew up listening to the same stuff and then with me writing with Hawthorne now that’s gonna be obvious. I’d say that the Story stuff is more similar to like, if you took Hawthorne Heights and took out the screaming and went more towards a Jimmy Eat World or a Foo Fighters vibe, just more straight rock. It’s more along the lines of that. it does get tough with me and Chris playing in both bands now when we write, but at this point because Story Changes has been a band for a decade too – when we write, Hawthorne Heights songs feel like Hawthorne Heights songs. Story Changes songs feel like Story Changes songs. It should be way more confusing than it actually is, but I think if we were both new bands and trying to figure it out it would be really hard. Everything is kind of set in stone, so it’s not that hard to make it work.
The Story Changes single entitled Photograph, is there any story or concept behind the lyrics?
Not anything too crazy. I was cleaning out – I have what we call a man cave at home and it’s before we built the studio, it’s where all the equipment was to write and work on music. I have a finished attic. I was cleaning out that area and prep to move a lot of that stuff down into where we built the studio and I went through like, four large boxes of old journals and old tour photos, things like that. Things that before me and my wife moved into the place we’re into now – things that I have moved so many times over the years from traveling and touring and putting them in storage. So I went through and cleaned a lot of the stuff out and that kind of inspired the lyrics. Looking through the pictures, old journals and things like that. One of those things as an older man looking back and being like, what was I thinking? [laughs]
You don’t feel like that older man yet, do you?
Not quite yet but I definitely feel a lot older than when I started the band.
Do you have any messages for Hawthorne Heights fans who are reading this now?
We’re playing a lot of shows this year and hope to see you there. Come say hello!
(Interview and NAMM Photo by Ken Morton)