The Head

The Head: They’ve Never Heard Of You, Either!

So I’m officially at the age where I’m meeting new, young local bands, kids in their teens and early twenties, and a few of them are astonishingly good, and stand out from the scene in so many ways, and when I ask them what their favorite bands are, it’s hardly ever anyone current, it’s all bands I listened to back in the ’80s. And I’m thinking, “How do they know about that stuff?” “Oh, our parents turned us on to all those bands!” And I ask how old their parents are, and they’re younger than I am! Oh, man…

Latest case in point: The Head. Three 19-year-olds, two of whom are twin brothers. They play the kind of pure, perfect, punchy power pop that at this point you’d expect to hear only on Rhino box sets or obscure, decades-old records found in the Bomp archives, all heart-on-sleeve, superbly written, enthusiastically performed. Jack Shaw, one of the twins, says The Beatles have been his favorite band since he was nine years old. He also digs the swing era (!). Mike, his brother, runs down a list of ’80s college radio stalwarts like XTC, The Feelies and R.E.M. Jacob Morell, the band’s guitarist, cites classic rock (in general), all of Jack White’s bands, Brendan Benson, Waxwings and Matthew Sweet as major influences. Don’t kids listen to Paramore and Thursday anymore?

“Our parents did a very good job on exposing us to all that stuff,” says Jack. “They have great taste. And I think that reflected on us.”

The three friends met as high school freshmen receiving their Catholic education at Holy Spirit Preparatory School near Sandy Springs, where they grew up (speaking of Catholic education, I wonder if they’ve ever heard Teenage Fanclub). Jack and Mike had been playing music since third grade, Jacob since sixth grade, all of them mostly self-taught.

“Originally what brought us all together was, we were all best friends, and that’s what the basis of this band is,” Jack emphasizes. “We all hung out together, and did stuff over the weekends. And then we discovered we all share the same type of music tastes and everything. And we knew Jacob played guitar, so we just decided to jam one day. And then from there it just grew. We turned each other on to our own influences.”

Originally a five-piece called Gonzo (in reference to Hunter S. Thompson, not the Nuge), they started out playing covers of R.E.M., Violent Femmes, Velvet Underground, Beatles, Stone Roses. “And then eventually we kicked one member out of the band, and another one quit, and then it was just left with us three,” Jack recounts. “And that’s when we decided to start from scratch, find a new name, switch around the arrangement a bit. Jacob was on drums for a while, I was on guitar. Then we switched over – I went to drums, he went to guitar.”

Why call the band The Head?

“Several different stories, but we all have our own bits,” laughs Mike, who shares lead vocals with his brother. “My story is, we’re huge fans of That ’70s Show, and there’s an episode where one of the characters inherits a record store, and they’re trying to find a name for it, and the character Fez suggests the name The Head. And I was just thinking, ‘That’s a great name!’ It’s simple, it’s evocative. And then rumors started up that The Head, is that a toilet? A sexual reference? Something gross?”

“We’ve gotten several complaints from parents at school,” says Jack. “Our very first t-shirts had a picture of a banana peel on them, and a couple of the parents complained. We also chose the name, too, because we wanted something very weird and chin-scratching, but also something traditional as well. We wanted something with ‘the’ in front of it, like those ’60s bands did. We wanted something different and disturbing.”

The members started writing their own material when they were fifteen and sixteen, says Mike. “We’ve always been writing riffs and ideas on our own. But we recorded our first EP together of all originals when we were 15 years old. Four songs on a CD-R. This was a very underground [release], like ten people know about it. It’s the type of thing you just give to friends.” Still, a pair of those songs, “Atom Bomb” and “It’s a Dollar,” were recycled as the opening two tracks on Puckered, The Head’s first official album in 2009 – and they’re fantastic! In fact, that whole album, the more I listen to it, is just so refreshing and impressive and invigorating. Such genuinely catchy, well-crafted songs, played with an exuberance that’s contagious. To consider that it was recorded by a trio of 17-year-olds, and written even earlier, well, it’s sorta mind-blowing. In many ways, it’s my favorite of their two albums.

Hang On, their second album, to be released June 21st, is a more ambitious affair while still in the classic power pop mold. There’s more piano and keyboards (Mike’s realm, along with bass). The arrangements are fuller, a bit more elaborate. Yeah, they’ve matured, but not to the detriment of the music, and girls are still, naturally, the primary subject matter. “Sneeze” begins with a simple but irresistible guitar lick and builds into a harmonic rocker that lifts you off the floor. “Stockwood” (first heard, along with “Sneeze” and “The Ballad,” on a three-song pre-album teaser early this year) could’ve been one of Badfinger’s greatest hits. The aforementioned “Ballad” (a re-recording of “The Ballad to End All Ballads” from Puckered) could’ve been its equally popular B-side. Musically, “Separate Bodies” is basically R.E.M.’s “Letter Never Sent,” but that does little to diminish its effectiveness. And “Only One” provides another link to Puckered, opening Hang On with a rock ‘n’ roll song that encompasses so many of power pop’s greatest qualities in one spirited 3:45 sprint.

Hard to believe it’s an album that nearly didn’t get made. The boys were graduating high school, preparing to go away to separate colleges. “We thought it might’ve just been a little high school project that we were gonna look back on in fifteen years and say, ‘Oh, that was fun,'” says Mike. “But when we played the Five Spot last year, the producer who produced Puckered came and saw us, and he pulled us aside after the show and said, ‘Guys, we have to record those songs.'”

That would be Don McCollister, a longtime Atlanta musician and producer who owned the Nickel & Dime Studio in Avondale Estates. “We had a friend who knew him,” explains Mike. “The day we met with him, we found out he’s exactly like us. Same type of music, he loved the same bands we did, he was just genuinely a great guy.

“We did Puckered in our basement. He brought all this gear over, set it up,” says Jack. Hang On was recorded last summer at McCollister’s new studio in Kennesaw, The Quarry. “It’s all the same equipment from Nickel & Dime, practically just another incarnation of it,” notes Jacob.

Nice guys, these Head kids. Clean-cut. Polite. Not a bunch of dopes or hooligans or troublemakers like most of the bands I encounter. A well behaved bunch. “On the surface!” Mike laughs when I say as much. But it’s kind of refreshing. They’re so not a part of this city’s scene. When I mention some other local bands with twin brothers – Abby Go Go, The Selmanaires – they’ve heard of none of them. So I don’t even bring up Uncle Green, the late ’80s/early ’90s Atlanta-based power pop band of whom the Head remind several of my friends. The Head’s new CD came to me from New York-based PR firm Big Hassle along with a one-sheet bio with a quote from the AJC comparing the band to The Shoes, The Spongetones and The Raspberries.

“I mean, we’ve heard of them…” Mike mutters. It’s not until I mention Big Star, the godhead of classic power pop (aside from The Beatles, I suppose) that they all come to attention.

“We love Big Star,” Jacob testifies.

“Yeah, Big Star’s one of our favorites. We’ve covered Big Star before. We fucking love Big Star! We could not be bigger fans. We were all sad when Alex Chilton died last year.”

“That’s when we started covering them,” Jacob specifies.

I ask them what song they covered, but I already knew the answer before Jack told me: “‘In the Street.’ Yeah, That ’70s Show song. It’s a really fun song, familiar opening riff…”

So Jacob and the Shaw boys are back at home for the summer, practicing in their parents’ basement for a month-long tour they’re still planning. They have to fit it in when they can, being that they’re otherwise split in half right now. Jack and Jacob are both at Loyola University in New Orleans, while Mike’s studying English at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “The separation’s hard,” admits Jacob. “That’s one of the reasons why we haven’t played live in a while,” adds Mike.

The road time will be good for them – they’re still getting their footing as a live act. But they’re no longer looking at The Head as just a high school lark. Nor should they, with talent as pronounced as what they possess. And there are scant few others doing power pop as well as they are right now.

“We’ve always wanted to make music like the bands we’ve grown up listening to. We just like stuff that sounds pretty. We like playing stuff that makes you feel good,” says Mike. “So many people think you have to have a dark tone in your music, but why can’t you just have something that makes you feel happy and makes you smile?”

Photo by Valheria Rocha.