Famed Dayton emo export Hawthorne Heights has started a music festival. Ohio Is For Lovers Festival — named after the band’s breakout single and regional emo anthem — brings together well-known emo and emo-adjacent acts.
The festival takes place Sept. 10 at Riverbend Music Center, and showcases local music acts as well as local vendors.
According to lead singer and rhythm guitarist JT Woodruff, the idea for a festival like this had been percolating for a while. Woodruff explains that while being based out of Ohio has its perks, it can also keep a band out of the loop when it comes to festivals in bigger cities.
“Sometimes we kind of feel like we’re on our own little island — albeit an oasis in the middle of the Midwest,” Woodruff says. “We were like, ‘Hey, we’re tired of not getting offers from our favorite festivals. Why don’t we just do one of our own?’”
At first, actually running with the idea was an inside joke that Woodruff likens to a Christopher Guest film. But when the opportunity presented itself, the band started to take the proposition more seriously.
“The more and more we thought about it, we realized that it could be bigger than we ever thought,” Woodruff says. “We’re not like the biggest band in the world, but we’re a known band, so why not us?”
Once the band began developing a plan for Ohio, other cities wanted in on the action. The band’s “Is for Lovers” festival series kicked off with events in Wichita and Denver in August.
Those cities might seem random, but in the Hawthorne Heights universe they make perfect sense. Wichita was the first city to play “Ohio Is for Lovers” on the radio.
“Our heart has always been close to Wichita,” Woodruff says.
Denver was an obvious choice thanks to the band’s solid fan base there.
“Denver never lets us down no matter what tour we’ve ever been on,” Woodruff says.
The cities were also ideal because of their distance from other upcoming punk and emo festivals, like Riot Fest in Chicago and When We Were Young in Las Vegas. But more than anything, Hawthorne Heights wanted to show their appreciation for the regions that have been with them since the beginning.
The band has maintained the hands-on, DIY spirit that animated them 20 years ago, when Hawthorne Heights began playing rental halls in Dayton — specifically a now-defunct Knights of Columbus hall, where some DIY knowhow was a must.
While the band has a label, a booking agent and a manager these days, Woodruff says they still print their own shirts and run their own online store. They’ve been taking on plenty of the tasks involved in organizing the festivals, too, from reaching out to bands like New Found Glory and Silverstein to booking dunk tanks — or, in the festival’s parlance, “Dunk a Punk.”
“I asked all my friends in all these bands to donate a half hour of their time,” Woodruff explains. “Their fans come up and they pay some sort of price to throw a ball to try to dunk their favorite member of their favorite band.”
All proceeds from the Dunk a Punk station at the Ohio Is For Lovers Festival will be donated to charities.
“We’re really strong supporters of mental health awareness and LGBTQ,” Woodruff says. “Anything revolving around that has always had a special place in our heart, because a lot of our fans are in that space. [...] Anytime we can figure out a way to help that cause, we’re always 100% down.”
At first it might seem like emo music — named for its emotional (and often dark) lyrics — is not conducive to maintaining mental health. But artists like Woodruff argue that the music portrays an honesty and relatability that engages fans who are looking for something a little deeper. It brings mental health into the conversation, raising awareness in the process.
“I think it’s music rooted in insecurity and rooted in unsurety [sic] and just trying to carve your place in the world,” Woodruff says. “As a young adult, I think that that’s where everybody is [...]. For a lot of people, it’s really hard to listen to people sing about dancing in the club when you can’t really relate to that.
“Life is dark, life is challenging,” Woodruff continues. “I think that any time you can hear somebody emotionally and metaphorically walking with you, walking alongside you on that journey, I just think that that relationship is special.”
The music released by bands like Senses Fail, Story of the Year and Bayside — all of which will play at Ohio Is for Lovers Festival — may be emotive, but it often contains elements of pop music, too. Emo and its adjacent genres frequently feature catchy melodies and hooks you can’t get out of your head. For Woodruff, that’s the ideal balance.
“I think that darkness is healthy, just as I think that pop sensibility is healthy too,” he says. “There are times when it seems like things are pretty dark and depressing for the Beatles, and then there are times when we’re [sic] just singing about ‘Good Day Sunshine.’ [...] I think balancing the bad times with the good times is kind of what our music is.”
Balance was also a goal for the festivals’ lineup. Woodruff says he looked for local up-and-comers who would bring sonic and cultural diversity to the lineup.
“The best thing about it is we got to hear a bunch of local talent that is excited about this style of music,” Woodruff says. “We just want a lot of different types of bands and a lot of different types of people. We get tired of seeing the same type of bands [at] every festival.”
Ohio’s music scene will be represented with Cincinnati locals Leggy, Tweens and Vacation; other regional acts include Dayton punk band the Raging Nathans and Better Anyway of Springfield, Ohio. Woodruff says these bands will get the same treatment as bigger-name bands set to perform at the festival, which features Descendents, New Found Glory, Motion City Soundtrack and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.
"We just really think that forming this ecosystem that everybody lives and survives and breathes is important,” he says. “It should not be every band for themselves or every person for themselves, and it should not be a competition. Everybody should be at the party.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from the creation of the Ohio Is For Lovers Festival, it’s that no city is too small for big ambitions and good times. As soon as the Hawthorne Heights record The Silence In Black And White went platinum, Woodruff realized “anything’s on the table now.”
Hawthorne Heights tries to communicate that sense of possibility at every opportunity, he says.
“We always wanted everybody to feel that,” Woodruff says. “We wanted the 14-year-old kids sitting in their bedroom playing guitar for the first time to feel like you have a place out here. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. Do it yourself, and get the right people involved, and it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Ohio Is For Lovers Festival begins at noon on Sept. 10 at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave., California. Info: isforloversfestival.com/ohio.