Interview: Tim Skipper of House of Heroes

House of Heroes

Frontman Tim Skipper unpacks the story behind House of Heroes’ concept record Colors, including the difficulties and freedoms that come with tackling such a project, and the band’s early ties to Twenty One Pilots.

How has your summer been so far?

You know, it’s been OK. It’s been up and down. My wife and I are going through some tough stuff personally right now, but other than that it’s been really good.

You grew up in Ohio and had a big celebration last week with the Cavs championship. What was that like to see happen?

Oh man, I’ve been a Cavs fan since day one. When it happened we were over at a buddy’s house, and I just kind of stood there with my hands in the air in disbelief. Like, is this real? Down 3-1, to come back like that. Did this really just happen? It’s funny, even last night we went out and got some beers with some friends for a buddy’s birthday. I saw a beer called “The Champion” and was like, “I’m going to get that one in honor of the Cleveland Cavaliers.” So I’m still celebrating [laughs].

So about a month ago there was a little mishap with Amazon that led to the record getting out there early. What all happened with that?

Man, that was such a bummer. When we first decided that we were going to release the record through Bad Christian and partner with them, May 27 was the release date that we were looking at. Then it got pushed back to June 10 because the vinyl was taking a little longer than expected, and then it took even longer then expected, so it got pushed back again. The official release date ended up being July 1. Somehow some wires got crossed with Amazon and they never got the memo.

That’s the weird thing. The digital side got the memo that the release date moved but the physical side, and we sent them 55 physical CDs, they didn’t get the memo. So they mailed those out on May 27. I have no idea how that happened. They also got the pricing of the vinyl way wrong.

So we had a lot of fans who were really upset, and justifiably so. I don’t know how much of it is our fault, us with Bad Christian, or how much of it is their fault, but wires definitely got crossed and miscommunication definitely was happening.

Have you at least been able to hear anything back from those who have heard the record already?

Yeah, that kind of set something in motion for us where we were like this is completely unfair to our Indiegogo contributors. They were supposed to be the ones who heard this record first. So to rectify that situation, we said, “Let’s send it out as soon as we possibly can.”

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. We really made this record for the fans. It’s a tough record. It’s a concept record, so there’s not really singles on it. It takes a few listens to really wrap your head around some of the melodies. A lot of the people I’ve talked to have said, “Yeah, it’s like most of your records. I don’t really like it the first listen through. The second time I go, ‘Eh, it’s OK.’ Then by the fifth listen, I’m just like, ‘This is a masterpiece.’” That seems to be the path that our fans take when they digest our records.

Speaking of this record being a grower, you’ve been able to sit with it longer than anyone else. Are there different things you’ve noticed as more time has gone on?

Yeah, that’s interesting. Especially as we were writing the album, I had my songs picked out, like these are going to be my favorites. Then you go into record them and all of a sudden maybe you find a really inspiring sound, or you get this groove you didn’t really see happening when you were just jamming in the basement or whatever.

So by the time we were recording the record, my favorite songs were completely different from when I started. Even now today, my favorite songs are way different from when we finished mixing the record. At every stage, it’s like, “OK, it’s recorded now. These are my favorite songs.” Then it gets mixed, and something all of a sudden pops out and you go, “Oh man, that’s cool. Now that’s my favorite song.” It’s interesting how it kind of evolves like that.

What are your current favorites at right now?

My number one current favorite is a song called “Get Away” towards the end of the album. It’s just really chill and kind of has this vibe to it that we’ve tried to do for a long time, and I don’t know if we’ve ever done it well. I feel like we finally did it well this time around. So I love that song and then I really love “Pioneer,” which is the third track on the album.

The funny thing about that song is a year before we even started recording the album we went in with the producer that we used, J. Hall. We just wanted to try it out, so we went in with him and recorded that song. While we were recording it, we said, “Yeah, this is kind of a b-side throw-a-way. We’re never going to use this song.” But he was like, “Guys, this song is too good. You have to use this.” So we retooled it, reworked some of the lyrics, and now it’s one of my favorites.

The band is no stranger to doing a concept record, with The End Is Not the End and Suburba both playing around with that concept a little bit. How did this experience stack up with those previous ones?

I know for The End Is Not the End for sure we didn’t expect that to be a concept record. We didn’t set out for that to be. We definitely had themes that we were writing about, but we kind of looked at it once we were done and went, “Oh, look at that. That’s kind of a concept record.” Suburba started out as a concept record, but then we sort of abandoned that idea because we wanted to try and eventually upstream it to a major label, and try to have some singles and all that fun stuff.

This was the first one where we really set out to make it a concept record, so there are several musical themes throughout the album. There are several lyrical themes. You’ll hear these different melodies coming in and out and back and forth. Sometimes they’re in a major key and sometimes they’re in a minor key.

Then lyrically we’ll say the same phrases, but they’ll be used in different ways at different times. In that sense, it’s more like a musical. It’s more like how composers of movie soundtracks write themes to alert the listener to what’s going on in the movie, whether it’s supposed to be sinister or whether it’s supposed to be positive.

The musical side of writing a concept record was a lot more fun for me personally. One thing we did was we made the album to the point where it has no silence in it. So from the second you press play to the second that it ends, every song bleeds together. By the time we got to do the vinyl that became difficult for us, because it was like where can we divide up the songs?

Yeah, this album definitely feels more like it has 13 movements rather than 13 individual songs, or singles or something like that. At the early stage when you’re first starting this and coming up with this concept, what does that look like? How much planning goes into that and making sure you have a good idea for shaping it like that?

Since we had done The End Is Not the End and Suburba previously, we kind of figured, “Well, this won’t be too hard. We’ll be able to figure this out in no time.” But when you set out and you know you’re going to make a concept record, it actually becomes a lot more difficult in the planning stages.

That was another thing our producer, J. Hall, really challenged us on. He said, “I’ve gone back and listened to all your records and I hear a lot of safe things, a lot of things that you guys were beginning to fall back on as this is our signature sound. Whenever we need to do something, we’ll just do this and we won’t explore new ground.” We had lost some of our adventure, so he really challenged us to write and rewrite the songs and try new things, and wrestle with each other a little bit to get different and new ideas heard.

It actually ended up being a lot more difficult. We had to write a lot more on the front end, and that’s kind of how we wrote. We’d lock ourselves in a basement for a week or two at a time and just come up with parts on whatever inspired us. Somebody would start playing a riff and we’d go, “Oh, that’s a cool riff. Let’s just jam on that for a little while,” until something came of it that we were like, “OK, that’s good enough to record it. Let’s record that.”

We probably had 40 or 50 of those ideas, and then we started whittling them down. The restrictions on a concept record are many things that you have to follow because the story leads the music. However, the freedom is that you get to make all these different kinds of music. We need a super aggressive song now. OK, let’s write that. But then you’re like, “We need a super chill song.” And you can do that. That’s one of my favorite things about The Alchemy Index by Thrice. They were able to freely explore, within certain boundaries, all these different types of music. That makes it really fun.

How did you arrive at the concept that you went with and then frame the record around that story?

The thing I don’t think we’ve communicated terribly well is the first song starts off with the protagonist character, Eric, driving his truck back home, getting out and shutting the door. He’s lamenting this idea of why should I think I could fly. This city is a cage.

What happens in the story is he’s 19, 20, 21 years old, becoming an adult. He grew up in this small town, blue collar. We were thinking Northeast Ohio or the Detroit, Michigan area. He went off to chase some dream that he had and he failed miserably. He failed so bad that he has to come back home and lick his wounds. That’s his philosophical crux, is that he’s like, “Man, I should have known I couldn’t do this. I’ll never amount to anything more than what everyone in this town that never gets out is.”

He has a best friend and cousin, named Axel, who is very fatalistic in that way and says, “Yeah, that’s right. You won’t get out of here. The best chance you have at a decent life is to lie, cheat and steal, rule with intimidation, and be the big fish in the small pond.” But then he’s also got this love interest, Joni, who believes that nothing is impossible. You can do anything you want.

So he’s philosophically stuck between those two ideas. He wants to believe that he can be more, that he can make his own stars, but everything in his life to this point is pointing to no, you can’t. You are destined to be stuck in this small town, doing exactly what everyone in this small town has done for years and years.

One of the big themes of the record is the song “Colors Run,” which is referenced a few times, both lyrically and melodically, throughout the record. Was that one of the main jumping off points for you?

For sure, absolutely. The idea of the colors is everything that combines to make up who we are. So, it’s our hometown. It’s our family of origin. It’s our friends. It’s our personality. It’s every external force that has combined to contribute to make a person who they are uniquely.

The idea of “Colors Run” is everyone runs together eventually. Their own unique color runs together with everyone else’s. That was sort of where we started, at least conceptually, for the record. OK, this is kind of a cool idea to have this flow of colors weave throughout the album.

You also have a song on the record that jumped out to me because it is called “God,” which certainly is an ambitious thing to name a song and tackle in that way. How does that fit into the story?

Yeah, that’s a pretty striking song title. The song takes place from the perspective of the antagonistic character, Axel. It follows a song called “Feel,” which is his anthem in a lot of ways, where he’s saying this is the way this town works. I run this thing. I’m going to rule in my power infrastructure. I’m going to gain all this power through intimidation. He’s explaining to Eric that I’m the guy. I am the judge, jury and executioner around here, and I do it because I like the way it makes me feel. I’m free.

At the end of the song, you see into his brain a little bit. He keeps on explaining that he’s free, but then he says, “Why don’t I feel free?” He takes that question to God but it’s his perception of God, which I think is something everyone does. If you have any sort of belief in God at all, you’ve wrapped Him in with any sort of authoritarian figure that exists in your life, whether it be a pastor, whether it be a father figure, whether it be a grandfather, or something like that. Somehow if you have some belief in God, it’s wrapped up in what you’ve seen in your life as an authoritarian, usually male figure. But, not always.

He’s resenting all these different types of people and these classes of people. In the first verse he’s talking about maybe God’s a rich man like all those people that I hate that move to the suburbs and put up walls to protect their possessions. Maybe He’s just one of them and He’s forgotten all of us because it’s just safer. Maybe He’s this conservative right-wing person that I see on Fox News or whatever.

Then he gets to the end and realizes that can’t be true. So the second verse he’s thinking maybe He’s a hardass, like I am. Maybe He’s a hard man who rules by intimidation and has this power infrastructure. But then he goes, “No, that can’t be true, because if He was, I’d be dead. He would have killed me by now.” And then the song ends with a lot of frustration for him, because he can’t seem to wrap his mind around this concept of God.

The record ends with the quiet one-two punch of “Shots Fired” and “Get Away,” and then it picks back up again for the last song, “Colors Die Out.” How did you come up with how you wanted to end things and what did you want to leave listeners with at the end there?

Honestly, we probably could have ended it with “Get Away,” but we just really loved “Colors Die Out,” the music we had written for it. It felt like it was a good opportunity to wrap things up without really wrapping them up. That’s one thing I personally like about the record. I know I’ve talked to a few fans that are a little bummed out about the uneasy feeling the record leaves you with. There’s no real resolve.

In “Colors Die Out,” Axel essentially gets arrested and he is just kind of thinking. It’s half apology to Joni and it’s half him going, “Oh, maybe my philosophy was all wrong.” For me, it was important to have that song and have him come to this place where he says, “I had to find out that there’s no fight to fight now that can make it right until the colors die out.”

In my opinion, that song’s really important to be there, however it’s not necessary to the story. We could have ended with “Get Away.” It’s not a neat bow, but I think we wanted to leave some sort of a bow to wrap it all up.

So over the last couple of years in addition to House of Heroes you’ve been doing Copperlily on the side with your wife. Do you have anything new in the works with that?

Yeah, we’re constantly writing tunes. We bought a house last year, so it’s been really fun to be home, just be homebodies and get involved in our local community here. We’ve got something going on every night that we’re here and a lot of good friends. We’ve been writing a lot of songs, but I have no idea when we’re going to release them.

We’ve been talking about doing a covers EP. We have a pretty rad acoustic cover of “Back in Black” that I’m really excited about, because my wife, man, she can sing. We’ll see what’s up next with that, but at least for the next few months we’re going to focus on this House of Heroes record.

How did you like being on House Hunters earlier this year?

Oh man, that was a blast [laughs]. That was really fun. It was kind of a trip that it even happened at all, but yeah, that was really fun. They don’t really pay you a whole lot, and there’s a lot of worked involved in it.

How long did they follow you around for?

Five days. Five 10-hour days. It was crazy, man. They sent us a DVD of the episode, so I think it’s going to be really fun for us to look back on in probably 10 or 20 years.

Especially if you still have that house and everything.

Yeah, exactly. Yep, that’s right.

One interesting side note about House of Heroes now, and I don’t know if people remember, but Josh Dun was in the band for a little bit back in 2010. Do you still keep in contact with him and what’s that been like to see him blow up like this with Twenty One Pilots?

Yeah, man. Twenty One Pilots, that local band that opened for us. Yeah, that’s right [laughs]. We definitely still keep in contact. That whole situation of him joining the band was so bizarre. We had an arena tour booked. We were opening for some big bands and two weeks before the tour Colin told us he couldn’t do it. He was freaking out a little about his family, I think, and about his provisional aspect of being a good husband and father. So he said he wasn’t going to come on the tour, but he said there’s this kid, Josh Dun, who works at Guitar Center. He seems like a really cool dude. He plays drums. You should talk to him.

So, I hit Josh up. Our first rehearsal was just him and I, and it was terrible. I think he was nervous. We didn’t have the full band, so it was hard to get the feel for how things were going. I said, “I’ll tell you what, let’s rehearse again tomorrow and we’ll see how it goes.” The next day it was flawless. I was like, OK, all right. This kid’s got something special. I think he was 20 or 21 at the time, so he was real young.

It was funny too because when Colin decided to come back in the band, I had been having that conversation with Josh that that was a possibility. When we finally had that talk, I said, “Sorry, we’re going to bring Colin back into the band, but you know what you should do? You should go play with your buddy Tyler in that band Twenty One Pilots. I think they’re going to be pretty good.” And he said, “Yeah, we’ll see. They already have a drummer.”

It’s so crazy to me how this has all worked out, and the fact that they’re in arenas is so bizarre. The last show we had in Columbus last month, he came out to it. He was a kid again, because he used to come see us play when he was 16 and 17 years old. He was just flipping out, having the time of his life. It’s like, you know who you are, right? You’re headlining Madison Square Garden two nights in a row here in a few months. But to me, he hasn’t changed. He hasn’t changed one bit. So whenever we get the chance to hang out, it’s always a blast. I love that kid so much.

Nice, that’s cool to hear. Are you going to be able to take this record out on the road at all? Do you have any touring plans for the near future?

Honestly, right now life has changed a ton for us. For us to tour, it’s a pretty big sacrifice. As of right now, we don’t have a whole lot of plans to tour this record. We all have other jobs, other commitments, that are hard to get away from. Even playing one-off shows I have to hit the guys up and say, “Hey, we got this show offer. What do you guys think?” A day later I hear back from them and they’re like, “Can I let you know in a week?”

It’s just kind of a pain, so it has to make sense for us financially to leave the comforts of our jobs and our homes and everything. This summer I think we’re only playing one show, and then in the fall I think we’re going to try and do a little bit of touring here and there. It’s the only thing that makes sense. So unfortunately, we’re probably not taking this show on the road too much. If you get a chance to see us, it will be rather rare, and you should come out.

Do you do anything else on the side besides music or is that still your main focal point these days?

Yeah, right now music is 100 percent the focal point. My wife and I have been writing some worship songs for our church. We got about 30 amazing writers in the church, so we just kind of pair up in different teams. That was something I’ve never done because I’ve always thought worship music was really trite.

It actually angered me, because it’s so simple and so appealing to the lowest common denominator, but it’s something our church has had a vision of. Yeah, there’s corporate worship that is like that, but then there’s also art that I think the Church needs to make. That’s sort of where we line up, writing bizarre songs in 5/4 time signatures and stuff. So that’s been really fun.

The other thing my wife and I do is we run an Airbnb out of the upstairs apartment in our new house. We thought we’d make a few hundred bucks every month and it’s turned out to be a lot more than that. It’s booked 25 days a month. So just running that has been kind of a job for us, that plus music.

Do you have anything else in the works for House of Heroes?

Yeah, we’re going to be doing an acoustic EP. We hit that goal on our Indiegogo campaign, so we promised to do an acoustic EP, and then we might have another EP in the works as well. I’m just going to kind of keep that a little silent for now, but we’ll definitely be pumping out some more music here in maybe about six months.

That’s one thing I’ve always loved about you guys. Even when you don’t necessarily release full-length records consistently anymore, you’re always putting out stuff like the Smoke EP, or Christmas songs or the Beatles covers. You always keep stuff fresh and active, which is cool.

Heck yeah, man! You know it.