Ohio rockers Hit The Lights are a band that learned to recognize trends and what works during their 10-plus years, positioning themselves as a potential trendsetter with a new album that highlights the punk rock quintet’s best qualities.
Hit The Lights’ new album, Summer Bones, which released on March 24, is a testament to the growing musicianship in the band, highlighted by guitarists Kevin Mahoney and Omar Zehery’s heavier, faster and more complex riffs, held together by bassist Dave Bermosk and drummer Nate Van Damme’s thunderous rhythm section.
Furthermore, the new album has been a public and critical success, earning comparisons to the band’s 2008 smash, Skip Schools, Start Fights, while starkly standing out as Hit the Lights’ most musically aggressive album yet.
Lyrically, Hit The Lights are known to weave and spellbind listeners with lyrics that flirt with wordplay and catch on like the common cold, usually focusing on heartbreaks and negatives, but their latest album is a refreshing blend of their staple writing style shedding things in a more positive light.
Supporting Cartel on their landmark album Chroma 10-year anniversary tour, Hit The Lights are performing this spring in support of their new album, and I spoke with lead vocalist Nick Thompson during his short hiatus between tours about the new record, the music business and his love for Taco Bell.
How was your just-finished UK tour with Four Year Strong, Forever Came Calling and Light You Up? Did crowds respond well to the new songs?
It’s been pretty awesome, actually. It’s kind of been positive all the way around. I don’t really know what people are into anymore, you know? With this record, we just thought, “We’ll just fucking make what we want to, and if people like it then they do, and if not, they don’t.”
The shows were awesome though. Four Year Strong is one of the tightest bands around so everyone had a good time, but the only problem was that as soon as we touched down in the UK, three of us came down with some kind of flu or bug or whatever. It ended up that I got a chest infection from that, so I had to take some time off because I just couldn’t sing. I had nothing going on.
That was the first time I ever had to do that. So that sucked, but thankfully we had a really good friend that helped us out named Ben Phillips, who used to sing with a band called Fastlane. He was pretty much the perfect stand-in for me, so he took over for two shows and I was able to recover enough to play the rest. It could have been a lot worse, for sure
What was it like for you to have to sit out shows and watch the band perform without you and how did you decide on Phillips to fill in?
It kind of came down to when we were in Nottingham and I had been on vocal rest all day. I was trying to do my warm-ups and we were all sitting back, tuning down guitars and what we needed to do to try and I just had nothing. Like literally, I would move my mouth and nothing came out. We never had to cancel or anything like that before.
We all agreed there was no point in playing the show, so right away the first thing we thought of was Ben because he had been an influence on us coming up. We hit him up and it happened to be off work that week and everything. Pretty weird how it worked out. Like I said, he’s pretty much the best fill-in for me ever. He had the same range as me and everything. Just like another bald singer, it was pretty great.
It’s hard for me to sit out obviously, but he absolutely saved our asses completely. I was able to rest and drink more water than I ever have in my life, and it ended up that was all I needed to get back up on my feet. Without him, we would have had to cancel more shows, and kids were also pretty stoked about him filling in too, so it was a very positive thing out of something that could have been disastrous.
Last year was extremely busy for you personally, writing songs for Hit The Lights and your own side project, Thief Club. When you’re writing with Hit The Lights, a band where each member writes and contributes, how does that dynamic enhance or create obstacles when recording new material?
I think you put it really well. It both enhances and creates obstacles. Obviously you’re trying to keep everyone happy—not everyone agrees on certain sounds—so it’s really like a fucking juggling display of trying to balance all those things out, which can be frustrating, but at the same time, I think some of the best songs I’ve ever written are because of other people’s hands in it or throwing in their ideas, coming up with things I would have never even thought of.
People’s brains work differently, and I think a lot of times, especially for us, it comes in handy because it can knock people out of the mentalities they are so locked into. Everyone has songs that tend to sound the same sometimes, things they do when they write, which can be cool, but it’s good to mix things up and think about them differently. You can get a really cool dynamic out of that.
I think we inspire each other as well. Like Kevin will hear a riff I’m working on and like the sound, go off and write something inspired by what I had. Those things just kind of bounce of each other and have worked really great for us.
Colin Ross, the band’s original lead vocalist before his departure, is featured on “Old Friend” off the new record. What’s your relationship with Colin after all these years, and how did his guest vocal happen?
Basically, we’ve been friends with Colin since forever, so there’s never been a rift or something. Obviously we were bummed when he left the band in 2007, but you can’t fault someone for not wanting to be on the road all the time. It’s just something that you accept; everyone’s different, and being on the road is not easy and it’s not right for everyone, and it wasn’t right for Colin.
We love Colin and we’ll always be friends with him. With this new album, I thought it was a really cool idea that we had talked about before, about getting him on a track, and with “Old Friend,” it just seemed so fitting, because that track itself is an ode to all the friends we’ve made and still have directly from being in this band, traveling the world and stuff.
It just made a lot of sense, and we talked to Colin and he was like, “Yeah, sure! I’m down.” Omar recorded him doing his parts in a little studio he has in Lima, Ohio. It was just that easy.
I think “Old Friend” is a great song to end the record on too because it’s very optimistic, which is something new I think we’re trying. We’ve always drifted towards these darker lyrics in past songs, so this time around we really wanted to focus on more positive lyrics and a positive outlook on stuff.
How did the recording process for Summer Bones differ from 2012’s Invicta?
I think, with Invicta we had all the stuff going into it, with the mind state that is had been four years since a release, so we didn’t want to just release an album for the sake of doing it. I think we felt that we owed our fans and ourselves more than just trying to write a Hit The Lights album.
With that record, I think we pushed each other to really branch out and try new things. With this record, I think we didn’t worry about anything. We took some time off and decided we wanted to get back and write fun songs that we knew we could.
I think a lot of people compare this new album to Skip Schools, Start Fights, and I can understand that, but I still feel it’s a very different record. The riffs are heavier, we used some different aspects in it, and it’s one of the first records we’ve written in-studio as well.
A lot of it is off-the-cuff music that we put blood, sweat and tears into while we were under pressure. I’ve always thought that we’re a band that thrives under that. I think it turned out well and sounds different because it was different. It was a totally different process, for sure.
That aggressive instrumentation is something I caught onto listening to the new record right away.
Absolutely. We’re going to continue writing material I think that goes down a little more aggressive path. We’re going to explore that aspect of our band in the future.
Sonically, was the band trying to capture anything specific on Summer Bones?
With this one, our main thing was we wanted the heaviest riffs we’ve ever done, the poppiest vocals we’ve ever done and as far as the theme and stuff, a lot of us were going through some kind of heavy shit.
I was going through a break-up at the time and Kevin was doing the same thing. Omar was moving out of his house. There was a whole lot of strife and uncertainty in our lives and I think that transferred over lyrically into the record. I think there’s a lot of questioning where to go and what to do, but not in a way that’s so hopeless, you know?
We still have positivity there, and that was the main thing. You don’t know what’s going on sometimes or which way to go but if you feel something in your heart, a way you need to go, then it’s time to do that. That’s what the record symbolizes, at least to me: re-embracing who I am because I can forget sometimes.
The album works well in contrast that way, with heavy aggressive music and optimistic lyrics.
Thanks, man! That was a big challenge for me, because honestly, I am a cynical, cynical dude, and that was really what I wanted to change. I didn’t want to focus on negative lyrics and stuff; I wanted to turn into something positive because I don’t think we’ve properly encapsulated that feeling before.
This was your first record under contract with your new label, Pure Noise. How involved were they in the recording and production?
I think the most involvement was that Jake Round [owner, Pure Noise Records] wanted to agree on producers. That was really easy because Kyle Black, who we went with, had already worked with a couple Pure Noise bands, and we loved him. We loved how raw and heavy his records were already, so it was a really simple thing. We agreed and then they let us do our thing.
How does your relationship with Pure Noise differ from your experiences with other labels you signed with in the past?
Originally when we signed with a bigger indie, like Triple Crown Records, we had the owner Fred Feldman, who was like Jake is now. He was supportive, hands-off and he let you do what you wanted.
When it comes to bigger, major labels, you don’t just have one person to talk to. You have different people in different departments, and a lot of them don’t necessarily know you, or give a shit, or know what’s going on. That gets frustrating, but it’s just kind of the nature of the beast, and we dealt with that.
Coming to Pure Noise, it just very much reminded me of being at a label like Triple Crown, where I talk to the owner almost every day, I know who’s handling our record, we know everyone in the office and it’s just easier. Everything’s easier when you don’t have to go through bullshit to talk to anyone; it’s just there. It’s nice and refreshing, and better for a band like us as well.
How does working with a smaller record label benefit Hit The Lights, rather than signing with a major label?
I think that once a major label signed us on, we realized very quickly that they weren’t after us for what we sounded like. They knew that we sold records, and we had a fanbase, and that’s what they were going after.
The rub comes in when you want to get on the radio and they don’t just get thrown on the radio. You have to have a formula, you know? They want you to sound like a certain band, so they’ll throw a bunch of bands out there on radio that are doing great like Rise Against or Anberlin.
For us being a pop punk band, we sound nothing like the bands on the radio. Anberlin was probably the most similar sounding band to us on the radio at the time, and we sound nothing like them.
There was a struggle there, kind of like an identity crisis of not knowing what to do because you’re trying to get this record approved, but you can’t because you have no idea what they’re looking for and they have no idea. They just want you to make that one hit song that once, which is frustrating, but that’s how it works.
I think we learned our lesson, but obviously there’s a price to pay for that as well. Looking back on it now, we would have done things differently, but hindsight is 20/20, so all we can do is learn and move on.
Summer Bones features some of the most technical playing in the band’s discography. When you recorded the album, did the band intend to perform the songs live?
I think our mindset was to be able to do them live. We wanted to play stuff that sounded good live. For a while there we dealt with samples for a lot of our set, and after a bit we kind of got over it.
We’re like, “Fuck samples, they’re bullshit, let’s just do it live! Get up and rock!” So that was really the only point we had for this record: make nasty riffs for really fun songs to play live, and I can’t wait to play this stuff live. We’ve already played “Fucked Up Kids” and “The Real,” and those were some of my favorite songs to play from the UK tour. Now, we’re going to be adding a lot more into the new sets coming up on tour.
I’m really excited! This is like the first record where we’re going to let all of our back catalogue take more of a back seat, and focus on the new songs because I think they’re going to be so much bigger and better live than our old stuff did.
Were their songs that were left off the record?
There was one song that we started recording called “Fireworks” that we’ve actually had for a couple years now, but we were getting through it and my vocals weren’t sounding right. It just didn’t mix with the album.
It’s a really cool song that Kevin wrote that I hope we can get it to a place some day where it needs to be, because the idea for the song is awesome, but it just wasn’t coming together right in the studio. We decided to put that to the side and focus our attention on the other 10 tracks.
Are there any specific tracks off the new record that you’re particularly excited to debut live?
I would say “The Real” but now we played that one. I’d like to play “Revolutions And Executions.” I think that’ll be a lot of fun to play live. “Life On The Bottom” I think will be a lot of fun. Probably “Keep Your Head.” I don’t know, I think this might be an album where we actually go for trying to fit in all the songs, mixing them up in the set throughout the tour. I really do love every one of them off the record.
With only a short time between overseas and cross-country tours, what are you most looking forward to when you are back on the road, especially in the NJ/NY area?
We’ve always had the best bands and strongest support in that area, so obviously the shows is what I’m most looking forward to. What I don’t look forward to is paying all of the tolls and dealing with all of the traffic, trying to drive a van and trailer through New York City. That is my hell. If I died and went to hell today, I’d be in a van and trailer driving endlessly through New York City.
So what’s next? More touring? New music?
Listen, we’ve got shows with Cartel, which we’ll be doing until May, and then from there we’ll pick up with Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! and tour with them throughout May. Then, we’ll take some time off with some potential tours coming up in the beginning of fall.
Besides that, I’ll have my Thief Club EP coming out in between there and we’ll definitely be writing new music!
Hit The Lights will perform April 17 in Philadelphia at the Theatre Of The Living Arts, April 19 and 20 in NYC at the Gramercy Theatre, and April 21 in Freehold, NJ at GameChangerWorld. Their new album, Summer Bones, is available now through Pure Noise Records. For more information, go to hitthelightsmusic.com.