If it weren’t for School of Rock Charlotte, it’s hard to see any other way timeline in which the group of friends who would later become Charlotte emo indie rock trio heckdang would have come together. With bassist Magda Criswell and guitarist Phillip Calhoun being home-schooled on separate sides of the Carolina border, and drummer Cole Brooks attending a high school in Fort Mill, South Carolina, it just wouldn’t have been in the cards for the three to get together and jam.
“There would have been no other way for us to meet,” Criswell says, laughing as she recalls the band’s trajectory.
The three did meet, however, as students at School of Rock during different stages in their high-school years. They eventually played together in their first band Pink Pots, a project fronted by School of Rock classmate Todd Jordan.
Graduating From School of Rock to the Stage
After graduating high school, Criswell launched heckdang then brought on Calhoun, now her partner, shortly thereafter. When Brooks graduated two years later, the two brought him on a “pizza date” and asked if he’d like to play with heckdang as a full-time drummer.
“It was very romantic,” Brooks says with a sarcastic grin. “How could I not say yes?” It’s now been eight years since Calhoun and Brooks first met in June 2012, three since heckdang got off the ground and two since Brooks came on board.
On Aug. 14, the band released its third EP, Fine, Just Thinking, their most polished work yet, and the trio is now in the writing process for its first full-length album. Despite now being seasoned performers who have toured and played countless shows around Charlotte, the bandmates still credit the after-school music program for teaching them all those things nobody else is willing to teach you at a young age.
“Tuning after every song; tuning before you get to the show, when you get to the show and when you’re about to play; don’t be a jerk to your sound guy; be there half an hour early,” Brooks says, recalling lessons he learned at School of Rock that stick with him today. “All these things that a lot of times when we are playing out live I see a lot of people not doing.”
Calhoun finishes Brooks’ thought. “If there’s something that School of Rock did for the three of us that really helped,” he says, “it kind of instilled a sense of professionalism and taught you all the little stuff that’s super fuckin’ annoying when somebody else does it but no one would tell you not to do.”
It’s no wonder that Criswell and Brooks have not cut their ties to School of Rock Charlotte; they both currently work there as instructors. For Criswell, it’s a chance to pass on the lessons she learned — especially those that go beyond bridges, choruses and solos.
“It was definitely life-changing for me, going from just playing by myself in my room on an acoustic guitar to understanding how I could be in a band, how that would all work together, and the confidence that comes with that,” she says.
Collaborating On the Creative Process
Over the last year, the band itself has built on the confidence that comes with a truly collaborative songwriting process. In May 2019, Queen City Nerve premiered “Mushrooms,” the first single from heckdang’s second EP Never Left Home. The song, which originated with some chords that Brooks recorded himself playing in a closet during a sketchy mushroom trip, was the first project the trio had all worked on together since bringing Brooks into the band.
“I think it was a really important time in our creative process together, because I think that was also the first time that we all got comfortable really sharing material with another person knowing that it was going to change — giving that part to our bandmates knowing that it’s not going to be the same whenever they’re done with it and trusting that it’s going to be better,” Criswell says “I think it was the really first collaborative thing that we’ve done, and since then it’s what we’ve kept doing.”
While Never Left Home was a project about loss — loss of self-identity, loss of relationships and loss of loved ones — Fine, Just Thinking builds on those ideas.
“At least from a lyrical perspective, it’s a real continuation of those themes, but I was trying to look at it less from the perspective of just cut-and-dry loss and kind of work in some of the nuances of all of those experiences,” Criswell says. “For this EP I think the themes have a lot more to do with wanting to care for people and wanting to be cared for. If the last EP was a stage of grief, it would be more just depression, and I feel like this one has a lot more anger and bargaining.”
The first two tracks of Fine, Just Thinking run together as Part 1 and Part 2 of a song titled “Fear of Moving On.” The episodic nature of the EP was inspired by bands like Arcade Fire, which features a four-part masterpiece called “Neighborhood” on its 2004 album Funeral.
Calhoun also cites the two opening tracks from The Dream Is Over, the second album from Canadian rockers PUP. He says he’s listened to the songs more than 100 times and still can’t identify a real transition.
“I always really love when albums just kind of flow through the songs, almost like a song ends and the next song picks up and you’re like wait, where was that change?” Calhoun explains, pointing back to the PUP tracks. “It’s so well produced and the songs are so well put together, and I’ve always been a big nerd for stuff like that. I love when albums have a sense of continuity.”
Fans might notice a similar well-produced quality to Fine, Just Thinking, thanks in part to producer Daniel Hodges at Old House Studio, where the band recorded the new project. Calhoun can be proud of the transition between “Fear of Moving On” parts 1 and 2, but the whole band should be proud of the finished EP, which The Alternative magazine recently called “aurally staggering.”
While each band member has recorded music in a professional studio, it was a first for heckdang as a group, and a big step up from Never Left Home, which they recorded in Brooks’ childhood bedroom. Criswell says the Old House recording process was “an absolutely amazing experience,” and a perfect stepping stone before getting to work on their debut full-length album.
“We were really conscious about wanting to do a few EPs before putting an album out, not just to help get our name out there a little bit more before committing to an entire album, but also to help solidify that writing process and figure out exactly where we want to go stylistically, which is still very hard for us to pin down,” Criswell says. “I know the album’s going to have a lot of different genre influences involved.”
The trio credits much of its growth, which is clearly perceptible from project to project, to their willingness to build on the process that began with “Mushrooms” and has continued to evolve over countless hours in Calhoun’s minivan together during tours.
The team wrapped its work on Fine, Just Thinking only a couple of weeks before COVID-19 clamped down on everyone’s ability to be together, but heckdang made the decision early that they would quarantine together. I ask if, while writing songs for the new album, Criswell will continue to move down the seven stages of grief, and if so, which way? Perhaps to shock? Hopefully to acceptance?
She says it’s more a matter of zooming in on the themes she’s already touched on.
“I don’t know if it’s exactly building upon those but rather expanding on them,” she says. “I think the album allows for me to go into some more detail of those themes … I think I’ve become a better songwriter over the years, so I think I have better tools to really pinpoint some things that I was trying to exactly get to in the album.”
Laying the Groundwork
Criswell has at least one song in the can, she says, and the bandmates agree that they’ve got more than half the songs for the new album laid out and ready for lyrics. Though the band does enjoy getting creative with live-stream events — as they did with the variety show they hosted for an EP release party on Aug. 14 — the lack of live shows allows them nothing but time to hone their craft for the album.
Add it to the list of grievances that run through the content of Criswell’s lyrics, a therapeutic process that, as with most emo bands, provides a release and allows the group to be as fun-loving and apt to crack a joke as anyone else in their everyday lives.
Now in the days of COVID-19, however, that outlet has become more narrow, and the trio needs to fill the void once satisfied by the cathartic feeling that comes with not only performing but attending shows.
“That’s the worst part for me about [the COVID-19 shutdown] is that kind of catharsis is one of the most important things to me about music, and not having that has definitely been really hard,” Criswell says. “Not just performing, not just hoping that whatever we’re making connects with someone else and that they can feel some kind of catharsis, but also, not having that personally from being in an audience … I don’t know how we would get through [COVID-19] without live streams, just mentally.”
Considering heckdang is a band that thrives in expressing the emotions around loss, there’s a good chance we’ll come out of this shitshow of a year with one hell of a debut album from the trio. In the emo world, that’s a win for everybody.