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Since their debut in 2004, The Heartless have gone through more members than Jay-Z goes through white sneakers, Girl Talk goes through samples, or Bret Michaels goes through groupies. They lost their singer and drummer and have used a steady rotation of bass players. Now with a solid lineup — finally! — Ryan Mott, the heart of The Heartless as the band's founding member and guitarist, says this is the lineup that's going to stick.
That lineup also includes singer Abe Schmidt, bassist Zack Robinson, guitarist Jeff Tretta, and drummer Johnny Lincoln, who joined New Times on a recent Tuesday night at Tempe's The Sets. The brightly tattooed and pierced pop-punk band, whose members are between the ages of 23 and 30, lounge in large chairs in the bar's billiards room, animatedly chatting over beer and nachos.
"Name any band, and they've all been through numerous changes," the Mott says. "And that was the way with our previous bands, too. Johnny and Jeff were in the music scene earlier, as well, here. Abe was in the music scene in Flagstaff. Zach was in the scene in Illinois, so we all went through changes with our (respective) bands.
"We started off originally with a pretty strong lineup, and you get to a point . . . You always have where you feel like this is the best lineup I've ever had, and you're happy with that. And then stuff starts progressing and things happen and personalities get in the way and the normal stuff happens. Someone leaves and you get someone else. The thing with us is that we've gotten stronger with every lineup, and I think that most bands can't say that."
Mott and former Heartless singer Chris Wagner formed the band five years ago when they parted ways with their respective pop-punk bands Sixth Year Senior and Girl Repellent and decided to work together. Charismatic drummer Johnny Lincoln, who played with the pop-punk act Oktober, later joined the band along with Tretta. Schmidt, who moved to the Valley from Flagstaff, took Wagner's place after he left, and Robinson, who came from Chicago and was the last to join the band in March, rounded out the lineup. Schmidt and Robinson answered the band's Craigslist ad seeking new members.
"Craigslist: Killing people and bringing bands together," Mott jokes. "This is the first time in this lineup where we've all been on the same page personality-wise."
Naturally, losing frontman Wagner was a big blow, and his leaving changed how the group works together. But, Tretta says, it's been a good change.
"When we had Chris, he would make a song and bring it to us and say, 'Here's a new song. Let's all learn it,'" Tretta says. "Now, with this new lineup, pretty much everybody writes their own little part and it becomes a song. So it's more like working together. Musically, it does make us stronger."
"Abe already had a book of poetry and lyrics, and we just kind of [put them to music] and it came together very fast," Mott says.
Though the band members agree The Heartless' sound hasn't changed, Mott says it's certainly "fresher" now.
And the main difference between the two singers? Wagner (now in LA band Every Kiss Like Hollywood) viewed the glass as half-empty, and Schmidt is more a half-full kind of dude.
"Chris had a lot of dark tones to his lyrics," Mott says. "What makes us stronger lyrically with Abe at the helm is the deepness of the lyrics. Chris . . . was a great lyric writer, but at the same time, Abe's words are a little bit deeper and they're more dynamic when he describes something. Abe is very, very good with lyrics."
They're now on the same page.
"I've always been . . . optimistic," Schmidt says. "A lot of people attribute that as one of my main characteristics — a lot of energy and always looking forward — and it really reflects in my lyrics."
Just listen to the song "Pins and Needles," off the band's first full-length album, One Night Stanza, for proof. In the song, Schmidt paints a vivid picture of a long-distance relationship and looking ahead to what's become of it.
The group, which performs at such local venues as Martini Ranch, Marquee Theatre, Club Red, and The Clubhouse Music Venue, has also played in California and Las Vegas.
"I think it's fun," says Lincoln of playing out-of-state gigs. "You have this jolt of anticipation and this rare sense of energy. Playing at home is always awesome. There's no doubt about that. You've got friends. You've got fans. But when you play somewhere else, you want to rope people in who have never seen you and probably never heard of you. And you're like, 'God, we really gotta give it our all.'"
Mott's not too concerned about touring right now, though. The guitarist says he'd love to see the energy come back to the AZ music scene. He becomes nostalgic as he name-checks venues such as The Real Bar, Mason Jar, Nile Theatre, and Buzz Funbar, which used to host a weekly ska-punk night.
"The scene, as we see it, is very scattered and it has been for a very long time," says Mott. "It's been a long time coming since we've seen a band where everyone goes to all the shows and gets excited about them. Authority Zero got that response. We really want to build an Arizona scene again. Of course, we still want to get out of state and spread our wings a little bit, but it's really important to us to see the scene build.
"Look at The Maine, who obviously made it big but they really didn't do anything locally," says Mott of the pop-punk group who rocketed to national stardom without much gigging. "We would really like to get that local scene going again, because it's really cool to go to shows and see the same people there and really just start building a word of mouth. And we're confident that we're going to be able to do that."