Call it the curse of the promo photo. Every time Heads Held High took a group picture, within weeks a member dropped out. So late last year, as the Cleveland hardcore group readied its fifth release, the guys took a new publicity shot that wasn't meant to last. They went to Wal-Mart and snapped a holiday photo, posing in a snowy winter scene, smiling and wearing bright scarves.
"Every time we see a picture of a Cleveland hardcore band, they're standing in front of a brick wall, looking [off to the side] that way," says singer Elliott Frank, imitating a hardcore dood's fake scowl. "We wanted to do something fun."
Sitting in the Middleburg Heights Panera, Frank doesn't look like the kind of guy who's worried about having a hardcore image. He's on lunch break from the nearby Berea Children's Home and Family Services, dressed in a navy V-neck sweater over a button-down shirt. In a T-shirt that reveals his arm tattoos, guitarist Kevin Summers looks closer to an archetypal punk.
Fun has always been more important to the group than following the punk-rock playbook. The centerpiece of the band's debut EP, 2005's Building Up to the Breakdown, was a cover of Dramarama's alt-rock nugget "Anything Anything." The titles of their last two albums were lifted from The Empire Strikes Back and Battlestar Galactica. The band proudly continues the self-described "geek references" on the new LP, with a title lifted from Ghostbusters: Dogs and Cats Living Together.
"It's so rewarding when kids come up to us and get it," says Frank. "When punknews.org posted the title, there were two pages of user comments about how awesome Ghostbusters is and lines from the movie. That is so much better than them talking about our record."
The record does deserve discussion, though. From gang vocals to final breakdowns, Dogs and Cats Living Together upholds the Cleveland tradition of combining circle-pit hardcore and metal riffage. The start-stop rager "Groundhog Day" analyzes Northeast Ohio's cycle of poverty. "Ex Machina" is an anthemic examination of gender roles in the boys'-club world of punk. "Van on Fire, Head Hurt (Bounty)" starts as a twangy country ballad, then goes nuclear as a barroom singalong. Produced by Ryan Foltz (a former Dropkick Murphys player and Rancid sound technician), the album is the first Heads Held High recording that hits on all cylinders.
The geek references are good for a giggle, but the band also makes serious statements. Frank, who has a degree in English literature and creative writing from Baldwin Wallace College, digs deeper than Battlestar DVDs for allusions. On the group's last album, he flipped off iconic conservative novelist Ayn Rand in "John Galt Can Bite Me." But he did it because he was pissed off at local bands.
"Without getting too much into how I hate Ayn Rand," says Frank, "if you were to take Cleveland music as a community, it fosters an unhealthy environment of competition. A lot of bands operate on the assumption that if one band makes it, then another was passed up. So there's a lot of shit talk and negativity."
But make no mistake: Pop culture is essential to Heads Held High. Frank and bassist Rob Schultz met at Strongsville's Ground Zero Comics in 2004. Conversation shifted from Final Crisis to Earth Crisis, and they decided to form a band.
Two EPs, three albums, countless movie quotes and dozens of viewings of Ghostbusters have ensued. But Frank considers the new album the band's first real effort. The group recently stopped selling its first EP. As a document of Heads Held High, it might as well be an old promo pic.
"We think we should have changed our name for the last record, but we didn't want to start all over," explains Frank. "That was a very different band."