Interview: Emo Orchestra and Hawthorne Heights

Emo Orchestra

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom interview with the leader of Emo Orchestra, Ben Mench-Thurlow, as well as the bassist from Hawthorne Heights, Matt Ridenour, to discuss the on-going tour. I asked both of them about what challenges this unique concert experience brings to the table, how the setlist came together, as well as what they each love about Emo music. This tour of Emo Orchestra wraps up on November 12th in Anaheim, California.

Well, let’s go ahead and get started. Thank you both for your time today. First of all, Ben, can you tell me how the idea came from the Emo Orchestra putting these live shows together? And then how have the first few shows been going?

Ben: Yeah, so the idea sort of spawned from a pretty difficult time in my life, and I just sort of needed a little bit of a distraction. I had been wanting to create a show that really bridged the gap of contemporary and traditional music. One didn’t exist, so I was like, well, I was making it! I found our arranger and conductor Evan Rogers created the scores for these songs. 

Matt: I mean, when I hear my inner-ears, I basically just hear our band. So I will never actually see this show, which is kind of a bummer…because the orchestra is doing their thing, and we’re doing ours. And apparently according to people like Ben, it sounds awesome! So yeah, it’s been very interesting. We just wrapped up our festivals, and then we had about eight days to rehearse <for Emo Orchestra>. And we’d all been kind of practicing beforehand, because you can’t just show up blind and learn this stuff. But we got in a room, and it took about three days where I thought we would “be fine,” because we’re always fine. But it took about three or four days before I called Ben and said we’re going to be good. So now we are! We’re getting better every time we do it, too, so this is really cool. 

That’s great to hear! What goes into the production for this massive undertaking of playing these amphitheaters and venues like that? What kind of unique things did you want to bring into the fold for this?

Ben: …it’s been chaotic. From where I typically sit behind a computer, hitting buttons on a keyboard, to producing a show with a traveling crew of 20 more people…and lining up and finding our orchestral players. We have to carry all these people on buses at a time when getting buses is very difficult. I mean, it’s been a massive undertaking. But when we started, and when I approached Hawthorne Heights with this idea, we’ve always said that we have to be perfect,  and it has to be big. It has to be to a point where anybody who tries to replicate it is going to look like a lesser value show that we’ve, in the words of John Hammond, “spared no expense”.

Matt: When the fans show up, they’re essentially going to see our band play in a way they haven’t seen before. We’re going to be not in the club. We’ll have an orchestra behind us with LED walls that light up for each song. When somebody walks in there, there’s no way they can get what they were expecting. They’re definitely getting more than they were expecting. And if they’ve ever seen us before, they’re getting us like they’ve ever seen us. Just the look of it, the room they’re in, everything about it is just different and new, new and fresh for us, which we still wanted 20 years ago. A point that holds a lot of value for us is doing something new and fresh. And then when the fan walks in it’s new and fresh just like the  Is For Lovers <tour> was something new and fresh. 

Yeah, and I understand you’re also doing a few cover songs right from different bands that you’ve toured with over the years and things like that, right? 

Matt: Yep. We’re doing four of our songs, and it’s a 17-song setlist.


Matt: Yeah. So we’re doing 12, basically, because we let the orchestra take “The Black Parade.” It’s just the orchestra playing that song, which is my favorite part of the set. I mean, that ‘s the beginning of Act Two, I take my inner-ears off, and I listen to classical music, essentially for five minutes and then I go back to work. But that is my break. I enjoy that every night. That’s my favorite part of the set, just watching them play it. But yeah, covering our friends’ songs is really cool. And like we have toured with Story of the Year all these bands so much, and you hear “Until the Day I Die,” but you just don’t really think about it. You’re like, “Oh, I know that song.” But then when you try to learn it, and try to do it justice to what they’ve done, you actually have to say, “Oh, that’s really smart how they did that part.” Or, “I didn’t realize that <riff> ran the whole song…”So it’s been really cool to dive into our friends’ songs and kind of go into their brains and figure out what they’re thinking, and see the cool things they did. Taking Back Sunday is another one that’s cool because we know how our band is. It’s kind of JT singing. and then I harmonize on choruses, stuff like that. With Taking Back Sunday, have two vocal <parts> written kind of as two lead singers randomly here and there. So to learn that dynamic has been interesting. 

Yeah, it’s probably a nice and unique challenge for your band to have. 

Matt: It is definitely a challenge! Not that I needed more respect for those bands, because we’re friends with them. And we liked them. But it does make you respect them. I don’t know how any of us were making this kind of stuff in 2004! <Laughter> I’m impressed with all of us at this point. 

Yeah, that’s cool. And I understand that the single, “The Storm” was also just released today with the Emo Orchestra. Are there any plans for other future recordings?

Matt: Well, what the goal was with “The Storm” was, we had it, and we knew we’re about to do this tour, so let’s do a classical <mix> on top of that. Because we are weirdly enough, debuting a song that we’ve never played before, with an orchestra. So it only makes sense to release it as well. I mean, we’re just doing a bunch of weird stuff that we’re just kind of deciding what’s cool. And if it’s weird, that sounds cool to us at this point. But it’s been fun, and I’m debuting a song with an orchestra. At this point, I think we’re kind of setting ourselves up to do whatever we want, which is the goal.

How did your team determine which songs would be included in the final setlist for this tour? 

We found out what was doable, knowing how JT’s voice is. I mean, you don’t write something out in his range, stuff like that. When you’re going into this, you can start detuning things to the point where your singers are comfortable. But if you detune too much to get them comfortable, then it kind of becomes a different song in a way. Yeah, like the intervals are correct, but it kind of just sounds weird. So we weeded some of those songs out. JT has such an impossible task. It’s tough. A bunch of songs, with different singers, different ranges and different capabilities…The perfect example is “Misery Business.” We play “Misery Business,” and to try to do Haley <Williams> justice is very difficult. She is insanely skilled, not to mention <sings> in a different register. But we can’t do this show without revisits like that…how do you not? So the idea was we’ll just open this up to the fans, and let’s just have them do it. And if they do it awesome, which so far everybody’s done awesome, really awesome, that’s cool. If somebody messes up, that’s also part of the fun, live. Part of the gig is messing up live and that’s why we like live music. So that’s the perfect example of where we want to go out there, and if we can’t do “Misery Business,” we can still figure out a way to do it because it must be there. And I mean, it is a time in the night where you could feel it. The entire room loosens up, stands up and claps, and they all love it. So we made the right move on that. And once that lined up, I think we had a really good setlist for that to be honest.

That’s a pretty dramatic leap of faith to kind of include the audience in part of the setlist to which it seems like it’s working out really well. So kudos to you guys. 

Matt: Yeah, it’s been very cool. It is a definite leap of faith. That’s the exact words.But before this tour, <Hawthorne Heights> had literally never played a cover song on stage ,ever. Not once. We’ve never played a Ramones song, not a Misfits song…mainly because all of us in the band have completely different musical tastes, so deciding on one is impossible! <Laughter> But for this one, we’re doing it nicely. It’s been fun. It’s been really cool to dive into the songs and try to do them as much justice as humanly possible. 

And Ben, to that point, how comfortable are you with the final setlist based on what you’ve seen so far?

Ben: I mean, I really wanted to give the band free rein on the setlist. I’m a fan of all these songs. I would have added another 20 songs to the setlist! But in my mind, with the work for this show, it really is up to the band as far as what they’re comfortable with and what they want to do with it. 

Matt: One of my one of my favorite things is we’re playing four of our own songs, and they’re all very intentional. They have reasons that they’re there. We start the set with “Niki FM,” and it’s a song that we really know well, and because we’re playing theaters, the second you walk out there, it’s a bunch of people seated in some locations. You’re like, “Okay, I need something comfortable to happen to get me going.” So that’s their first for that reason. We’re doing “Decembers,” which is a fan-favorite acoustic song of ours, but we never get to play it because we’re too busy trying to rock out. So for this, it’s like a perfect chance to give the “Decembers” fans that song for once in a crazier way than we’ve ever done. “Ohio (Is For Lovers)” was obvious. And I think “Decembers,” by the way, is probably my favorite arrangement that we’ve ever done. I mean, it is such a pretty song. It’s a nice moment. And then we do “The Storm,” which is like debuting a new song with an orchestra. Which is insane. So that’s been fun to do. Our four songs are completely intentional. And then the other ones are completely intentional. And it just feels good to do it. 

So did you learn anything about the process of re-recording If Only You Were Lonely: XV that went into the arrangements of “Decembers” on this setlist?

Matt: Yeah, I couldn’t tell you how because I don’t listen< to our music>. I just know it’s different. We just use that, and Evan actually uses that version , so he’s arranging to the re-recording, not the original, which is pretty cool. And then also I do some weird stuff on bass, and the one guy that’s playing a stand-up bass, a double bass or whatever it’s called an orchestra life…He told me the other day that he’s “miming” what I’m doing. So it’s kind of a work in progress, on the spot, with a bunch of people that are outside of their element, which is my favorite thing. I mean, that’s the essence of live music. It’s an orchestra out of their element playing with a rock band. It’s also us out of our element. Playing with an orchestra and then it just happens live and it’s just constantly changing the way live music probably should be over time. And it’s been really cool. Same thing with the re-recording. We changed a bunch of stuff. 

Yeah, it seems like a pretty organic approach to putting it all together. You guys are kind of playing off each other, figuring things out. That’s a cool time for your band. 

Matt: Yes, exactly! It’s cool. 

So you recently released a new EP, called Lost Lights, which is arguably your heaviest work to date. Can you walk me through the writing and recording process of the latest record?

Matt: Yeah, for the writing of it, two of the songs are from The Rain Just Follows Me sessions for that. Those last two songs, that’s why they sound different. And then the other three, we just wanted to write a few songs, find a young producer and see what we can do in six days. So we were in a house in Nashville, he flew from Canada, that’s where he was from at the time, flew with some gear and a pelican. We just set up in this house studio, and made that. We had the songs demoed, and with “The Storm,” the demo sounds completely different. We use seven-string guitars for the heavy parts. There’s a bunch of stuff we’ve never done before. So the idea was, make it as heavy and as energetic as possible. And it’s three songs and whatever we do with them, we didn’t have an intent when we did them. We’re just like, let’s see if we can do work with somebody we’ve never worked with and try our best to be as energetic and heavy as possible . There wasn’t a deadline on it. There wasn’t a release date on it, which was a goal we had. Our fans love “Dandelions.”

That’s awesome. It turned out great. I really enjoyed the new EP. I listened to it again this morning. So kudos to your band on that! So Ben, what do you love most about emo music? And what is your vision for the longevity of the Emo Orchestra if there continues to be a market and an interest for it?

Ben: I often will reference my super emo photo with me and red hair and a Red Jumpsuit Apparatus t-shirt, which is an ongoing joke with my assistants over the years…<Laughter> I think that this genre definitely has a very unique community. One that preaches getting help if you’re down, caring for others…it is emotional music. And I think a lot of kids growing up need stuff like this that they can relate to. And I think there’s not a lot of other bands and genres out there that kids can really turn to and connect with. As far as the longevity <of Emo Orchestra> the idea to include some other bands in the future. Hawthorne is busy doing their thing,  and I think giving fans a different feature band every year is what we’d love to do. 

That’s cool. That’s a great answer too because the initial thought I had when this tour was announced was Hawthorne Heights would do a full set and then Emo Orchestra plus maybe a cover band would come in and do some songs with them…but you guys are really doing the professional way of doing it, which is having one band take creative control. It sounds like it’s really coming together. 

Ben: Yeah we’re so excited about just the response and how people have sort of gone on a roller coaster with us. 

Any last minute “sales pitches” for people that are still on the fence about getting their tickets as the tour rolls into their town? 

Matt: I think  with this show, you have an orchestra led by a conductor and that’s got its own push pool. And they’re coming from a whole other orchestra life that is very rigid and punctual. And then our band is playing where we’re following a drummer, essentially. And this show is like the essence of a live performance. A push-pull for constantly changing two worlds, completely colliding, that fit. But to also just come from such different worlds on the same stage, pushing and pulling each other constantly, I think it’s a cool thing to see live happen. At the end of the day. I think that’s really fun.

Ben: I would say for me, we created this show to be enjoyed by families, not just by mom and dad. There’s a reason why most shows end by 9:30 or 10 o’clock at the latest. We also really put a lot of thought into pricing these tickets and so that they’re affordable for families. We just want everybody to feel like they can go to their show and not have to worry about getting moshed into or stepping in old beer…you’re gonna get a comfy seat, and you’re gonna enjoy an insane ride. 

Matt: One more very cool thing. There are LED screens behind us, and they will queue up before we start the song. So the song title comes up about five seconds before we start. And so every time that song kind of pops up, the crowd cheers, then we start playing, and then they cheer again. And it really does feel like the crowd is unwrapping 17 Christmas gifts over the course of the set. I mean, it is just awesome. That aspect of it is like it just makes it interactive and cool.

Yeah, and it’s a cool community that you guys are building to with the fan-base and everything like that. It’s also a great opportunity for people to really re-learn these songs and fall in love with them all over again. I’m hoping to come to the one in DC. I think it’s at the Warner Theater. 

Matt/Ben: Awesome, thanks Adam!

No problem! Good luck on tour and stay healthy!