It’s hard – virtually impossible – not to be shocked and horrified by the number of horrific and tragic school shootings that have taken place in America this year. However, these tragedies have been on the increase since Columbine in 1999, and now students across the country, supported by millions around the world, are standing up and fighting for their right to attend school in safety, and calling for gun laws to be changed.
The tragedy that was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, which left 26 people dead, including 20 children, was a catalyst for New Haven, Connecticut duo Head with Wings, to want, and need, to say something about the issue of gun violence on a broad, far reaching scale. They’ve done so via the haunting, animated video to their new single Somewhere, Something Gives, which features on their album From Worry To Shame. The duo spoke to Stereo Stickman about the creative process behind the song and video and shared their thoughts on whether or not they see things changing for the better in the future.
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Firstly, for those unfamiliar with you and your music, please introduce yourselves.
Brandon: My name is Brandon Cousino and I write and play guitar in Head with Wings. I’ve been writing for the better part of two decades now and what has made Head with Wings the band that I call home is the seemingly limitless and unrestricted way I can express myself artistically; everyone involved has been eager to evolve and take on new challenges. The people I’ve been lucky enough to work with thus far – Frank Sacramone and Jamie van Dyck of Earthside, David Castillo, Forrester Savell – have been incredible and I’m grateful for their involvement in making this production possible; it all feels quite surreal to me.
Josh: My name is Joshua Corum and I write, sing and play guitar in Head with Wings. This band is meant to be an outlet that can satisfy all of our musical desires and artistic ambitions. Our sound has developed in the realm of alternative progressive rock and will likely stay that way for the longevity of the project. We have a good idea of where we want to go for the next album or so but anything can change. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been writing and recording music together diligently for the past 6 years.
Very few artists, aside from maybe Green Day, have, in recent times, been as outspoken on politically and publicly important issues as you are currently. Did seeing how they addressed their own concerns, which matched those of so many others, via their American Idiot album, inspire you in any way, and would you like to see more bands and artists today use their platforms and status to speak out about important issues?
B: The purpose of Somewhere, Something Gives in our story is to represent the turning point for our character, the father, of a young girl that was killed in a school shooting where he taught. We wanted an event that could, to some degree, justify the future actions of the parents. The intention of this song isn’t to take a stance against guns or religion, as it may seem at times, but to place you in a relatable world that we all understand. Everything we do is very subjective so each listener can interpret it in their own way. Josh and I even have different stances on the meaning of certain moments in the story. Touching on these sorts of issues – gun control, religion, suicide – without taking a firm stance on the issue leaves room for the listener to draw their own conclusions and to then decide if our characters were right, wrong, or at the very least, understood.
I tend to avoid art that is very forward when it comes to political, social, or religious opinions because music, for me, is an escape from reality. That’s not to say I don’t prefer an emotional experience while I’m there; I just like things left subjective or vague enough so I can make that art whatever I need it to be, for me, at the time.
J: I think it’s a good thing that we’re coming across as unapologetic with regard to the topics that we cover in our music. Anything is fair game to me. Interestingly enough, if we didn’t choose Somewhere, Something Gives as a single, we might never have been perceived that way, because it’s really the only song on the album that is somewhat overt in portraying a societal crisis. Most of the album dwells on the kind of life that you’re left with after an immense tragedy, so contextually, the shooting is the catalyst incident that changes the life of the family in the story. This single gave us the opportunity to focus on a few pertinent issues that we face in American society – mental health & gun violence – because we wanted a relevant, modern and realistic setting that was believable to us and suitable for the story that we wanted to tell. The album’s narrative wasn’t written in a linear fashion and we connected the dots over a few years. There was no eureka moment early on that set us on a complete path. We had to follow our intuition and carve it out of our experiences and that of those around us.
Regarding Green Day, American Idiot is an album that I got into for a period in high school but not one that I can point to as a direct inspiration on my own work. Somehow, it turned me off how mainstream they were at the time and they were almost too popular when I was a teenager. However, I don’t dislike them. I was interested in bands like Tool and Incubus, which I felt more emotionally connected to at the time. I know that Green Day were outspoken against the Bush Jr. administration and they’ve gone on the record saying that they wanted their album to help influence young people to get politically motivated and vote Bush Jr. out of office. This is a tough line for me to cross as an artist because I didn’t get into the arts or music to politically motivate people. I got into it to emotionally connect with people. That doesn’t mean that we won’t include relevant societal issues in our work that may affect us as well as the characters in our stories. If you think our songs are a call to action, then let it be. Just don’t be disappointed if that wasn’t my initial intention. I’m happy enough if someone can walk away from our songs with a melody stuck in their heads.
It’s important for me to note that as a band, we’re not just jumping on hot topic issues in our country strictly to be perceived as relevant. That’s not the case at all. The school shooting epidemic has been thriving for a long time and shows no signs of disappearing. You can call it a modern horror story and we’re all characters on scene. If bands find themselves motivated by what’s happening around them, it should find its way into their music. I once wrote a song about having sex in an airplane. How self-serving is that? It’s what I wanted to do at the time. The point is that artists can’t just pick and choose what the muse is. It has to be uncovered. Then it becomes intentional. If the light bulb doesn’t go off in your head, don’t do it. Don’t write it or cover it unless you’re sure that it moves you. Otherwise, it’s just a fleeting feeling.
Given that there have sadly and tragically been a growing number of school shootings, both prior to and after Sandy Hook in 2012, what was it about that tragedy in particular that made you want – and need – to say something about the issue of gun violence as you have via your new single and video Somewhere, Something Gives?
B: In my lifetime, the first school shooting I knew of was Columbine. The concept of it was very foreign to me; I was only 9 years old at the time so it was a tragedy my mind could not yet process the severity of. They were still a rarity in those days. Sandy Hook was the one that was close to home; children younger than me had been killed; I had a much deeper understanding of what life was at that age – these things made Sandy Hook the most memorable tragedy in recent years, at least for me as an individual. I can’t say that this event is any worse than those that have followed it. Your first true experience with something is always the one that hits you the hardest.
As time has passed since then, school shootings have become more and more common. So common, that some are overlooked. I recently read that 22 school shootings have happened this year. That number is staggering to me because I had only heard about 4 or 5. Yeah, 4 or 5 is still awful considering we are only halfway through the year, but it made me realize we, as a culture, are becoming desensitized to the concept. For me, personally, that’s what I hope the themes of this song can help us remember – we can’t let the rate this is happening at devalue the lives of the victims and families and turn it into ‘scroll-by NEWS’.
J: We started working on Somewhere, Something Gives sometime in mid to late 2012. I had these lyrics and some vocal melodies, ‘Somewhere, something gives. Someday, I’ll forgive. Somewhere, something gives. Someday, for you.’ But as is all too common with me, I usually have a hell of a hard time writing verse passages and the song hit a wall because the inspiration for the guts of the song wasn’t there. That all changed when the Sandy Hook shooting happened on December 14, 2012. As the story broke in the news and the family dynamic between the mother and son was revealed, combined with the bombardment of the faces of broken families, it just resonated with me on such a deep level that I actually wrote to my friend Paul Oneto and told him that I finally knew what the song had to be about. It had to be about questioning one’s ability to forgive.
This incident prompted me to try and deconstruct these emotions that I was only experiencing as a spectator here in Connecticut. It didn’t happen to me, but I felt like I knew that the teenage boy was neglected, misunderstood and had nobody in his corner truly looking out for him. This bit of empathy made me wonder if he could ever be forgiven by the families of the children he murdered and could his mother, had she lived, ever forgive herself?
The animated video in particular is rather haunting, and lingered with me – as I’m sure it has and will with many others – long after I watched it. How did you come up with the concept for the video, the animation, and what was it about Igor Dovgoteles’ work that made you think he’d be a perfect fit to collaborate on the creation with?
J: The moment that I finished my first viewing of Igor’s video for Jinjer’s A Plus Or A Minus, I wrote to his company The Black Soil, owned by Lina Volokhova, and asked if he would listen to our album. I was immediately captivated in a way that no other lyric video had done for me. I had it in mind that I wanted to do a lyric video but Brandon and our producers weren’t hot on the idea at all. Igor’s prior work ultimately assured everyone that this was a risk worth taking. The truth is that we’re so fortunate that Igor connected with the album and I left it up to him to choose the next single after Goodbye Sky. I trusted that he would pick the song that he was most inspired by and that would elicit the best result. After some weeks of getting to know each other and relating to each other’s personal struggles and our outlooks on living in America and Ukraine, we knew that Somewhere, Something Gives had to be the choice due to its narrative weight on the album and also the societal relevance for both parties.
My only initial reservation was that pretty much all of Igor’s past work was sci-fi or astral in nature and I didn’t quite see a place for that at first. After some back and forth working on treatments, Igor, Lina and Dima found a way to portray our protagonist’s nightmare in a way that visually worked for our album. Our entire team is proud of this video and I consider that a success. You might find it funny that some of the references that I provided Igor with for envisioning ‘moving through a nightmare’ were scenes from two films: the scene from Spawn, released in 1997, where Spawn is falling through hell and the scene from the 2005 film Constantine where he visits hell. It was important to The Black Soil that we avoid using violent imagery in the video and the fact that it lingered with you shows me that violence isn’t necessary to leave a haunting impression.
B: We decided to work with Igor based on his work with the Ukrainian metal band, Jinjer. We wanted to do a lyric video even though I was originally against the idea; I hadn’t ever been moved by a lyric video before so I was a bit skeptical. I found the overall vibe and geometry of Igor’s work fascinating and thought it’d be an interesting approach, one that was very different from videos we had done in the past. I actually had very little to do with the making of the video as I had other work to handle while Josh and Igor’s team produced it. It’s exciting in a way to feel removed from your own work and experience it as a first-time viewer would. The amount of symbolism and subtlety in it warrants repeated views just to grasp what it all means.
What do you want people to take from the song/video when they hear/watch it?
J: I’d love for the listener to walk away from the song with a melody or two that they cling on to, or maybe it latches on to them. If you want more than that in your music and you engage the lyrics and themes, then I hope that it makes you re-evaluate how you treat your loved ones and the people in your immediate life. Some people go out of their way to make someone else’s life a living hell and I’ll never understand that. How does one forgive? The reality is sometimes you can’t.
B: I don’t want people to get too wrapped up in this particular moment in the story and ignore the before and after. That would be like reading one chapter in a book; everything would feel out of context and possibly extreme. I think this particular moment will be an incredibly impactful plot point that contributes to the whole story, rather than just reminding us of a tragic event as the song does on its own. That’s, really, how all of the tracks on the album function – they each have their own individual identity and meaning that doesn’t need to be just one fraction of a concept album; they can stand on their own. When looked at as a group, the meaning of each song shifts, in a way, to cater to a much larger story.
The track is featured on your album From Worry To Shame. Does the rest of the track-list follow the raw, hard-hitting style with which SSG resonates – or should resonate – in today’s society, and if so, how hard was such an album to create? Do you have any regrets over addressing issues that so many tend to openly avoid?
J: The story gets much darker over the course of the album. There’s much heavier moments, sometimes isolated but poignant and I think if you combine Brandon and I, you get a pretty well rounded guitar presence throughout the whole run time. To give you a glimpse into some of the other songs on the album and how they interact with each other, track 5 From Worry To Shame covers a year or so of our protagonist’s isolation where he’s in sort of a purgatory state in his home, dwelling on his past and the loss of his family, and track 7 Stepping Stone covers his re-emergence into society, where after completely erasing the memory of his family he then heads to a bar and instantly falls in love with a woman that reminds him of his wife and daughter. The combination of tracks 7 and 8 combine for a climax that then resolves in track 9 Treading Lightly.
I do believe that we provide the proper musical backdrop for this drama and to me, the story is not so far-fetched or impractical because I’ve known people that have made some surprisingly unfortunate decisions that affected everyone in their immediate lives and then it ripples out and seeps into the next layer like work or school and soon enough, its working on a societal level. I have no regrets about the inclusion of any of the content on our album. We made the album that we wanted to make.
B: I think it becomes a problem when people are afraid or reluctant to discuss difficult issues. We touch on a lot of themes across the album that are very dark in nature but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how distant it may seem. That sense of optimism amidst the darkness – that reality can often be – is the only thing that’ll get us into the light. I definitely believe there’s a place in art for content to be graphic or unsettling, yet, in good taste. We never made musical or conceptual decisions arbitrarily or with the intention of going for any kind of ‘shock-factor’. We always did what we felt was exactly what the songs needed and nothing more.
How responsible do you personally feel the current administration, and notably Trump, are for the rising number of shootings in the country? Do you believe the issue would be as big if, for instance, Obama, taking into account how emotional and responsive he was to the tragedies that occurred during his Presidency, was still in office?
B: Until recently, I believed the rising number of shootings was because of notoriety through the media. As sickening as it is, it just doesn’t seem like shootings get the attention they used to unless it strengthens someone’s side of the gun-control debate. At this point, it’s hard to say what’s causing the increase in these tragedies. I will say, though this mostly applies to the internet, I’ve noticed a societal shift where people are taking extreme stances on things that don’t even matter; little things that we don’t need to argue about but we choose to. You can see those conversations snowball on almost any opinionated thread. It feels like we are dividing further and further and it’s felt that way for at least the past five years to me. With any sort of unquestioning, extreme stance you always get people willing to do extreme things just to prove a point. I think it’s our separation as a society that’s responsible. I don’t believe any government or law will change that. That’s up to us, as individuals, to be more understanding of each other.
J: I see the value in having a President that maintains an empathetic image and is emotionally responsive to tragedy but there seems to be a lot of people in the US that don’t need that type of emotional reinforcement from their President. I don’t think the core issue is access to guns, I think it has more to do with a cultural obsession with guns compounded with the lack of positive emotional reinforcement in people’s lives. Picture how many kids are neglected by their parents, medicated, lonely and controlled. Now give that kid access to any idea on the web and now they think they have it all figured out because they were searching for an answer. Guns are an easy way out and they make a spectacle; something a would-be shooter is longing for.
As much as it pains me to say, I think that shootings may continue to happen, not because of Trump, but because just like any popular idea, once its circulated enough in the media with a high frequency, people will continue to adopt it. I think the only way to fight it is to pay closer attention to the people we encounter in life and try to stay in tune with what they’re going through. It’s daunting, but necessary.
How much does it please you to see the youth of America starting to rally against the seemingly unmovable stance of most Americans that there isn’t a gun problem in their country? How proud were you to see students participate in the recent classroom walkouts and protests?
J: I just hope that it amounts to some sort of positive result. It’s not fair to exploit the deaths of children and let it be in vain. I think students are the first people that should be allowed to express themselves. Activism is a rewarding pathway for a lot of people and there are those who live for a cause. It can be anything if it gives them purpose.
B: I can’t imagine what it must feel like as child these days, worried that your school might be next. When I was 12 years old, my school went into lock-down because there was a reported sniper in the area. I remember being afraid, in a classroom with no windows, thinking that there was nowhere to go if he got in. It happened again in high school when another student brought in a gun, threatening to kill other students. I was lucky enough to be part of false alarms and threats; I never had to deal with the horror of the real thing. Imagine how that fear may affect you if you were continually exposed to it on a day-to-day basis as some children are these days. I applaud the youth that stood against that feeling. Schools shouldn’t be a place anyone is afraid to go.
Finally then, do you honestly think America will change its response to guns and gun violence, and if not what can we all, American or not, as individuals, do, to speak up for those who are silenced or affected by such weaponry and horror? What do you think it will take before things change for the better, and are you going to continue speaking out in the form of your music and videos until they do?
B: My goal has always been to make someone feel something they never have before whether that’s through art, music, writing, or even a conversation. I hope that by diving into our world with an open mind, when you leave you will feel empathy towards the situations our characters encountered even if you never have; I hope you can ask someone very different from yourself, ‘why do you feel that way?’ with no goal other than to understand the way they think. I truly believe the source of hatred and violence that’s become so common in our society is division and separation without willingness to find compromise or common ground.
J: My gut tells me that bad things will continue to happen to good and honest people, but I don’t want to help will that into existence. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the most optimistic outlook on American society. I fear that we have very little to do with a madman’s plan, other than playing a pawn in it. Someone on an iconic level or with enough influence would have to take a massive fall to prompt a real interest in change. Our society tends to view people as expendable and the trend right now seems to be in public schools where you typically find lower to middle class children. The people with money, influence and power are likely less concerned with a slow rate of change regarding gun violence because they’re not fearing for the lives of their children every morning.
I’m not going to disclose what topics will be covered in future songs just yet, but please know that they won’t always be this steeped in societal conflict. I’m sure it will come up again in various capacities over time and if it does and we’re inspired enough, we won’t back down.
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Check out the video for Head with Wings’ new track Somewhere, Something Gives below and for more information on the band, give their page a like on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Their album, From Worry To Shame, is available now. Featured photo by Meghan Alexander.