All photos by Eva Michon
Back in 2005, any passionate music nerd with an appreciation for the oft-lambasted, more experimental side of hardcore and punk had likely already added Head Wound City’s self-titled debut EP to his or her clunky 64GB iPod.
HWC’s members’ main projects were then shining brightly in the limelight: Guitarist Nick Zinner’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a year removed from their breakout hit single, “Maps”; frontman Jordan Blilie and guitarist Cody Votolato were riding high off a pair of career-defining, immensely well-received albums with the Blood Brothers; and bassist Justin Pearson and drummer Gabe Serbian had firmly established themselves as boundary-pushing, theatrical antagonists as the rhythm section for The Locust.
Naturally, it was hard to visit your punk blog of choice without hearing about the “supergroup” and the ten-minute-long EP they wrote and recorded in the span of a week, released on Pearson’s Three One G Records. If you appreciated screamo greats Antioch Arrow as much as hardcore’s American Nightmare, chances are you were on board. But the internet barely knew what to make of the EP’s drive-by chaos, labeling it with nonsensical kitchen-blender compound genres like “thrashcore” and “noisegrind.” Just as quickly as Head Wound City came, it went: The band played a show in San Diego, released the EP, and that was that.
“I really don’t think we put any kind of thought into it,” Zinner recalls by phone on a late March afternoon, his voice weary from nursing a minor illness while working on an undisclosed soundtrack project at his LA home, where he divides his time with New York.
The idea came together among himself, Blilie, and Votolato during a night out drinking following a Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Blood Brothers double bill in London. “It was really just something that seemed like it would be fun to do. Originally, the plan was just to try to get together and try to write some stuff with a ‘see what happens’ kind of attitude.”
Zinner, 41, came up on thrash metal in his youth, leading to his discovery of punk during his early high school years in suburban Boston. “That type of aggression or urgency and immediacy stayed with me in everything I always did, but maybe just took different forms, musically,” he elaborates. “But I definitely really wanted to play something that was incredibly aggressive.”
Few better to explore that with, then, than Blilie and Votolato.
“We were just chatting about doing something really thrashy, really fun,” Blilie, 34, recalls of that night in London. He sounds better than Zinner the next night when reached by phone at the East LA home he shares with his wife and newborn son (it is Taco Tuesday, after all). “We figured out who we wanted to do it with, called everyone up, and everyone was down, so we got together later that year. And for a week in San Diego, just did that EP. It was just something fun we could all do that took us out of our more full-time, serious bands.”
Still, coordinating the schedules of five musicians based in four cities—LA, Seattle, New York, and San Diego—in order to write and play shows as Head Wound City proved too great an obstacle.
“The most difficult thing was just planning,” Zinner says. “And finding the time when everyone was free. It really became a major issue.”
Over the next decade, Zinner would make several attempts to ressurect Head Wound City. He’d run into members socially, and inevitably the subject would come up. “It became like a broken record,” he says. “It really was like an annual attempt for a while. And it would end up the same way, like, ‘Yeah, we gottta do something!’ and nothing happened.”
Finally, in 2014, Zinner was tapped to curate the second annual BEDROCKtoberfest in LA’s Echo Park, and the timing was right. “It kinda came as a lark,” he recalls. “Like, ‘Oh, maybe I can get my old hardcore band back together.’ Because I wanted a really eclectic mix, initially. As it turned out, everyone’s schedules was open.”
Zinner wasted little time setting the wheels in motion for further activity. The band booked a show for the day after the fest at storied LA DIY venue The Smell, and talk at early practices eventually turned toward writing new material. “We just wanted something new to play,” he explains, “so it didn’t seem like this revisitation.”
The band’s fest set was well-received. “It felt really thrilling,” Zinner says. “Mostly, there were two things that really stood out for me. One was how quickly it formed, how quickly the crowd erupted. The second thing was how many people in the crowd seemed to know words and were familiar with the music. That really took me by surprise.”
“It was a blast,” Blilie concurs. “It was super fun. It was a little weird playing songs you spent a week doing ten years prior. You don’t have the same connection to them as when we did those Blood Brothers [reunion] shows that year. Most importantly for me, it sparked a real interest in the band to write again, and try to do something that was a little bit more intentional and serious.”
Outside of the immediate rush of a warm crowd reaction, Zinner seems on board with the sentiment. “To me, it didn’t feel nostalgic,” he adds. “That was the most important thing.” With sparks flaring, the band set to writing their first proper full-length the following January. Musically, Zinner says the band tried not to deliberately adhere to the EP’s style. “There would be no point if we were just trying to pick up where the last one left off,” he explains. “We definitely wanted to do something different.”
“The last record, it was fun for fun’s sake,” Blilie adds. “But to me, that doesn’t have a whole lot of staying power.”
Their debut LP, A New Wave Of Violence, is thus built to last. The ten-track album, due out May 13 on Vice Music, retains the band’s core intensity while dialing down the overall abrasion in favor of more varied paces, straightforwardly corrosive energy, and more accessible moments.
Lead single “Scraper,” for example, plays like a juggernaut of rhythm and feedback, goading Blilie’s renewed growl forward into a mounting calamity that he jokingly describes as “a cross between PiL and Pantera.”
Follow-up “Born to Burn,” meanwhile, is more to the point, kicking off at 11 before plunging into more ruminative riffs and remerging for Blilie’s post-apocalyptic verses.
“Lyrically, I was just kind of thinking about the arrogance of mankind, and what we do to this planet, what we do to each other,” he says. "’Born to Burn’ just seemed like a very apt way to express it.”
With scheduling issues out of the way, the band's next challenge would be a return to technical and creative form. It's one thing to make a hardcore record amidst the vitriol and momentum of your youth; it's another to do so after years spent getting married, having kids, and making decidedly different music with post-punk and experimental projects like Blilie's Past Lives and Votolato's Jaguar Love.
"I told myself if I was gonna do a project again, I wanted to make it somethign I would be really proud of ten years from now, and really put the time and care and intention behind it...I really wanted something that the 15-year-old me would love and the 34-year-old me would love," Blilie says. "All through my 20s, I was in bands where the writing process for a record would be a couple months, and you get bogged down in all the details. I really loved the immediacy of spending just a week writing. There’s something freeing about that kind of limitation. You can’t second guess things, you have to go with gut instinct and what’s working."
Head Wound City recorded the album’s ten tracks over a week in LA with producer Ross Robinson, who knows a thing or two about harnessing creatively chaotic bands. His resume includes the likes of Glassjaw, At The Drive-In, and Blood Brothers’ 2003 standout ...Burn, Piano Island, Burn. Blilie, who at the time was between semesters in college earning a long-delayed English degree, spent six weeks on vocal work alone with Robinson.
“He wanted my voice to be in shape, like I’d been on tour a month. So I’d go over to his house every day and sing until my voice blew out,” says Blilie, who at the time hadn’t dabbled in hardcore in about eight years. “I must’ve sang the album through at least ten times. It was like one of those movie training scenes, where you’re getting back into shape. It was super hardcore.”
Back in fighting form, Blilie was then on track to deliver the appropriately pessimistic themes he’d devised for the LP. “The lyrics I write tend to be dark and critical of human nature,” he says. “There’s a lot of that on this record, certainly. The [social and political climate of the] past two years have been especially volatile. It’s hard for that not to permeate the lyrics when I sit down and write.”
When Blilie first Googled the phrase that would become the album’s title, originally suggested by Zinner from a Raymond Pettibon zine of the same name, he encountered page after page of news headlines fitting the description.
“You’re just constantly surrounded by, in my mind, very volatile, violent energy. And it’s hard for that not to seep into any creative endeavor you do. You just see so much violence on, whenever you’re kind of surfing the internet or if you have the TV on in the background—it’s all violence, a lot of it racially motivated. And then that coupled with just this insane rhetoric,” he adds with a mystified laugh. “It seemed very fitting as a statement of where we’re at as a society.”
The band’s first proper tour looms on the horizon with Savages in May, and this time around, they’re banking on doing more than dipping in and out of the scene. Even headlining is a possibility, especially with Zinner admitting “there’s few bands we’d want to open for.”
“We want to tour as much as we can without it being a strain on our families and our relationships,” Blilie says diplomatically, pointing out that there are now two fathers in the band. “But we’re just super excited and proud of the record, so we want to play as much as we can.”
Pre-order A New Wave of Violence here.
HEAD WOUND CITY ON TOUR:
5/14 – Nashville, TN; Exit/In*
5/15 – Columbus, OH; Ace of Cups*
5/17 – Pittsburgh, PA; Mr. Smalls Theatre*
5/18 – Cleveland, OH; Grog Shop*
5/19 – Chicago, IL; 1st Ward at Chop Shop
5/20 – Madison, WI; High Noon Saloon*
5/21 – Minneapolis, MN; Fine Line Music Cafe*
5/22 – Winnipeg, MB; WECC*
5/24 – Calgary, AB; Commonwealth Bar & Stage*
5/25 – Edmonton, AB; Starlite Room*
5/27 – Vancouver, BC; Imperial Vancouver*
5/28 – Portland, OR; Wonder Ballroom*