Snapshot of a Band on the Verge
Sister Hazel is Ready for Big Time
by Julia Mclaughlin & Scott Greene
Sister Hazel, from Gainesville, FL, recently released their third CD, "Fortress." Their diverse, multi-talented lineup includes drummer Mark Trojanowski, who took the time to talk to us recently. The band is true to their Florida roots, still playing in the bars where they first started (see the concert review from Floyd's Music Store in Tallahassee), but their hard work and determination is paying off. "Your Winter" is on a sound track and the singles released from "Fortress" continue to climb the charts. In this interview, Mark describes the evolution of the band from an acoustical duo into today's lyrical, five-man lineup. Each member of the group is involved in writing and performing their songs and the result is a snapshot of the feeling framed by the music.
How did the band all come together, become friends and start playing together?
Well, originally, Ken Block was in Gainesville and he was playing acoustically with Andrew Copeland and they were just doing, as an acoustic duo, doing cover songs and Ken really wanted to play in an original project together and this was back in '93, '94, and he put a flyer up in town, looking for musicians to be in an original band and basically, have no rules and come in and just write really good songs and not really try to write stuff for a particular genre' or anything.
At that point, Jeff, the bass player, had answered the flyer and Ken and Andrew were already playing together, so Andrew was thinking about, you know, he'd do this also with Ken and at that time, they got another guitar player, another drummer, and that was- pretty much in late ‘94, the original conception of the band. And then in the summer of ‘95, I came in. They were looking for another drummer at that point and I came in the summer and then that Christmas into the following '96, January, Ryan Newell came into the band. He was playing guitar in another band named Black Creek and he also had played on the original "white album." Played some guitar solos on that. All four guys, except for myself, had gone to Gainesville, to the University of Florida, so they knew each other in the music circle there.
When the band got together originally, how did they come up with the name?
When Ken was looking for a name for the band, he saw these commercials growing up on TV of this female minister in Gainesville who ran a rescue mission who would take in the homeless and help people who needed a meal and give them shelter. So when he was writing the early songs of the band, you know a lot of the songs like "One Nation" and "Sometimes" and "Feel It" are all really good, positive thoughts about unconditional love and regard for others, so that's where he decided to name the band after her.
So you came into the band after the "white album" was done.
Correct. Ryan and I- Ryan played a couple of solos on the "white album", but technically, Ryan and I weren't in the band during the "white album."
That was the album that hooked me and I don't know if it was intentional or not, but the very last song ... a cover song by somebody else ...
Oh, Sam Cooke, "Bring it On Home."
"Bring it On Home," yeah, that song is so upbeat and pumpy that when I'm ridin' down the road and it comes to that song, I can't take the CD out! It just makes it roll right over into the first track again. It's just such a great song that you have to let play through again and it's just amazing to me. I wonder how they chose to put that song on there? Was it something that they liked or ...?
Ken and Andrew were doing it as a duo and they both really like Sam Cooke, like I said, the band was at that point still being formed and it wasn't like they were full-blown and had tons of original songs, so there was still a lot of the acoustic duo element early in the band. Even the version of "All for You" that's on that album is an acoustic version.
Didn't you release the "Somewhere More Familiar" album as a . . . independent and then went back and signed it with Universal and re-released it?
Was the reason for re-releasing to get better exposure for it?
Basically, what happened was we had put it out there and we sold 10,000 copies really quick and some of the labels had come lookin' at us and Universal came and they wanted to plug in to what we were doing. We had a really big grass roots following and so basically at that point, they said, "We don't want to stop," because we already had a several stations playing "All for You" and had a big momentum going. They just wanted to put it quickly, so we didn't get the chance at that point to make the record we always wanted. You know, we had done it as an indie, recorded it in a week and mixed it in a week. So they let us go back in, remix some things and then put it back out. We got signed in November and it was put back out in February. So it was pretty much to build off the momentum that we had. That was the main reason for basically putting the record back out. We got to go in and got to remix the single and remix some things on the record, but you know, like I said, we really didn't get the chance to go in there for a couple months and make the record that we wanted.
I knew it was re-released and I wasn't sure about the timing of the signing. So "Fortress" is really the first album that you wentin, wrote and did for Universal that wasn't already done before you went into the studio?
Yeah, "Fortress" was the first record that we had to go in there and spend a large budget and really take our time and do what we wanted to do.
Compare the 'white album' or the first mix of "Somewhere more Familiar" to "Fortress" - do you feel like you lose anything because you got to go in to the studio and spend more money and time?
You know, to me, I think there's definitely musical growth in the songwriting. The first record, Ken wrote pretty much all the songs except for "Don't Think it's Funny", Jeff wrote some of that. On the last record, Jeff wrote "Starfish" and Andrew had written "Cerilene" and so, now everyone has a song on the record and so I believe there's more writing within the band. I just think, musicianship and where we're going, from point A to point B, the band is growing. The first record, it's hard to really even count that in the mix for me because I didn't even play on it and wasn't around for that. The production on that record was obviously nothing compared to the second record, and so, definitely I think the band is growing forward. This time, it was good and bad to have all the time and money, I think the main problem we ran into was, with the last record, why it went so well on "Somewhere More Familiar" was we had all those songs just sittin' around for so long and we played them on the road for a year and just really knew them inside out and had played them in front of people. The big thing that was up with this record was, besides having all the pressure of the sophomore record, after selling a million records on the FIRST one, was that, none of the songs except for "Champagne High" and "Strange Cup" had ever been played in front of an audience before. So everything was kind of like writing in the studio or out of the studio and not really knowing what kind of response we were gonna get in the arrangements and stuff so it definitely was a lot easier to record on "Somewhere More Familiar" because we had the songs on our fingertips.
And that song, "Strange Cup of Tea", who wrote that? That's my favorite song.
Andrew wrote that song.
It's like just the message ... And that's the thing about your music. ... when people listen to it, there's just such a positive message in the music. Is that important to ya'll? Is that what you're trying to do?
Everyone has their own thoughts when they write their lyrics, you know, so each one, everyone in the band, has a different view on it, but . . . it's always a snapshot of what that person is thinking at that time and you know, we try to put positive spins on things but, you know, a lot of times it's positive spins on negative situations, but it just comes off that way.
How has it been to get to play with some of the people you've gotten to play with? I know you played a tour or did some shows with the Allman Brothers. I bought tickets for the Brothers show in Charlotte and then found out that it wasn't you opening, it was another band.
That was a killer situation for us because we did that two summers in a row. The first summer, we actually got to play the first two shows of the tour at Red Rocks in Colorado, which is probably the best outdoor venue in the United States. It's like an amphitheater built into the mountains outside of Denver. It's really, really amazing. So it was a great time for us. Like I said, we did it two summers in a row and it's really great to get to play with those guys because Ryan, definitely, with all that slide guitar that he has in his repertoire and growing up on that stuff, was really cool for him to do that and see Dickey Betts every night ... so it was a good situation and we've gotten to play a lot of different sets with a lot of the bands that are out there with us. We pretty much go out and headline most of the time ourselves but sometimes we go out there and do some of these bigger shows with some of these other artists, but it's a really good thing to go out there and network. We're doing a show before the Super Bowl with Lynyrd Skynyrd, down in Tampa, so that'll be kinda cool. Another Florida band, that's, you know, been around many years. So it's really good for us to get out there. A couple years ago, at the end of "Somewhere more Familiar" tour, we got an offer to go out with Aerosmith, but we were so burnt at that point because we'd been on the road for two and a half years, and we wanted to get the next record started so we just didn't go out with that tour. We were like, "You know, we can keep touring forever, but at some point, we have to get off the road and make a new record."
That's right. Who are some of your favorite people that you've gotten to tour with?
We've played some shows with Cowboy Mouth, a band from New Orleans that's a really good live band. We played six weeks with them and with a band that's no longer together, called the Freddy Jones Band out of Chicago, was another kind of jam-oriented band. Everything else we've done is pretty much, you know, been as a headliner. It's mainly just doing festivals. The guys are on our label are real good friends with us, from Tonic; they're really a great live band to go see ... but most of the time you just hook up with people at festivals. I mean, in May, Midtown Music in Atlanta and then there's River Stages in Nashville and Mud Island in Memphis. In summertime there's a lot of festivals and you see the same people out all over the place. We're good friends with the guys in Matchbox and you know, we grew up with the guys in Creed in Tallahassee, so ... we know a lot of people in the Southeast and a lot of the bands that have been doing the same things we've been doing for years.
And when the band gets together to write songs, how does that come about? Does each person have their songs and they bring them in and then other people add parts to them?
There's some of that and there's also some of like, people will sit down together. Ryan writes a lot of guitar-oriented, like "Thank You", he wrote the guitar for that and for "Save Me" and then he'll give it to Ken and Ken will write lyrics to it. So there's a lot of group stuff going on now, also. Ken pretty much writes all his stuff from top to bottom and Andrew does that most of the time, too. But the rest of the three of us, there's a lot of collaboration going on and so, everyone is definitely writing stuff now which is really different from the first record.
I saw you on Penn and Teller. You did two songs and I sat through the whole show to hear ya'll play. How'd you get that gig?
It's a lot of promotion stuff and the label gets us stuff. We did Conan (O'Brien) and we did Keenan (Wayans) twice and (Live with) Regis and Kathie Lee twice and we did Penn and Teller and we did a Comedy Central show. So, we've done a lot of stuff like that. We haven't done Letterman or Leno yet and haven't done Rosie, but we've done all the other ones. Any exposure is great for us. I mean, I wish we could get the larger ones ëcause I think that would really help the band and take us to the next level. I mean, that's just great exposure for us to get on those television shows ëcause, you know, for our point of view we're kind of like the faceless band, people really don't know what we look like ëcause we've never really been exposed to much television or I should say "mainstream" television because our videos have never been played on MTV and the only video that ever got played was "All For You" and that was on VH1, so we haven't been really, like some of these other bands where you can't turn the television on without seeing them every second. So ... that helps them a lot. You know, our touring is what really keeps us in the public light and people knowing who we are. But for mainstream people who don't go to concerts, they really don't know what Sister Hazel looks like and what their music is all about and stuff.
How many dates a year do ya'll do a year?
Two hundred to two hundred and fifty.
Do y'all all still live in Gainesville?
No, I live in Nashville and Jeff and Ryan live in Atlanta and the other two guys live in Gainesville.
When it comes time to pick songs for the album, is that a group effort?
Yeah, it was kinda a group effort this time and management and also our producers, and of course there's some record label stuff also involved, but for the majority, the band has a large say and then we ask advice from outside sources, from our management and from the producers that we used. We had Paul Ebersold and Ritchie Zito finished the record with us and then our label, so it was kind of a joint kinda thing.
You can tell in your records that there's a flow and blend in the music.
That's the thing, we try to make a record that people are not gonna skip over tracks. Somethin' they can put in their disc player and listen from top to bottom.
Tell me what kind of music y'all listen to when you're on the road.
Ah, it's not really a "band" kind of ... you know, we all listen to music. I mean, there's music we all grew up on, but I wouldn't say there's one thing we listen to. But you know, speaking of Ken and Andrew, they kind of grew up on the Indigo Girls and Sam Cooke stuff and the James Taylor and then there's definitely the Allman Brothers influence on the band and people listening to that and people listening to the Police and Led Zeppelin and Queen and the Beatles. Jeff is a big Beatles fan. So that's why our songs sound really diverse, I think, because we all have different things we like and listen to.
I wrote a review for Fortress for Gritz and that's one thing I noticed, that "Surreal" just had that Beatles feel to it.
Yeah, "Starfish", too. It's Jeff's kind of niche, that's what he listens to.
So what do you do when you're not on the road.
I produced a record for a female artist here in Nashville a year ago, but we ... from being on the road to making the record, haven't had a lot of time off. So it's been hard for any of us to really get into other projects at this time, which is a good thing because it means that the band is doing well.
What do you do for fun?
If I go out of town and go South, I like to go scuba diving. I got myself back in shape while we were making this record, so I really enjoy working out and running. And playing tennis when I get a chance to. Andrew, Jeff and Ken have been really big golfers, so I've kinda taken that up this year. But I'm still learning that game. That's a very hard game to get (laughs).
So what are the plans now? I know you're playing that Super Bowl show.
Well, we're going out with Vertical Horizons for five weeks and we're going out and touring the northeast down to Winston-Salem over to Nashville and then we're taking a week and a half off and then we're going out west with them for another three weeks. We're seeing what's going on with "Champagne High" here, trying to get the video added to VH1. Nancy Bardwell, who did all the Goo Goo Dolls videos and a couple of Hole videos, did it and we did that in LA at Universal in a two day shoot and we're really proud of the video and we just hope that it gets added. And at some point we're lookin' at the third single.
Do you know what the single is gonna be?
No, we haven't decided yet.
There are so many good ones it would be hard for me to choose. Have you started writing songs for the next album yet?
We've got a lot of songs that didn't make it on this last record, that are just sitting there, so I don't know when we'll see another record yet. A lot depends on how long we tour on this record, but we have like twenty songs probably, just sittin', that didn't get used on the last record.
And when somebody goes to see a live show, what kind of mix can they expect to see from the different albums?
Well, obviously we're promoting this record, so I would say maybe 50 to 60 percent "Fortress" and 20 to 30 percent from "Somewhere more Familiar" and then one or two songs off the first record. We usually play "All for You", "Happy", "Concede", "Just Remember", "So Long" off the last record and then this record, we're playing pretty much probably eight songs off of it. We've been playing close to two hours every night, so you get enough of everything, I think, in that much time.
Yeah, that's great. That's part of the problem nowadays with bands and shows. They don't play very long and too often, it's the same show every time. Do ya'll do the same set list every night or do you mix it up?
No, actually, each one of them, we alternate the set list. Each night it's a different show.
So you're playing the show with Skynyrd. How did that come about?
I think they approached our management about doing that. We also know someone that works in their management office now, too, a good friend of the band, so I think he probably put a good word in for us.
That should be a good show, especially right there before the Super Bowl.
Yeah, it should be a good show. It'll be fun to play with those guys.
How long do you play when you play an opening set like that?
It depends. It varies from forty-five minutes to an hour. It's not our decision, it's usually whatever the other band wants. If the other band's gonna play like two and a half hours, like the Allmans, they played long, so we only got forty-five minutes.
What do you see for the future of the band? What are your hopes and dreams for Sister Hazel?
Well, hopefully, we'll continue on with this record and maybe get a sound track or a happenin' off one of these songs and then leading us into another record, hopefully it'll come out next summer or something.
You did a sound track for a movie, did you not?
Yeah, we did one for "Ten Things I Hate About You" that has "Your Winter" on it and "Your Winter" got put on this record ("Fortress"), also.
Did you have the song before?
Yeah, we already had it and they picked it up to use in the sound track which is cool. Another thing, too, the new Jennifer Lopez movie, "The Wedding Planner", they're using "Somewhere in the Mood", I don't even know where. We're hoping that someone picks up "Champagne High" to use for a movie, too.
That would really be a good song. Your music touches people and it's music with a message. There's so much junk out there now and from my perspective in my late thirties with my kids, I keep pushing the good stuff on my kids. Do any of the band members have kids?
How does that change his outlook on life? Could you tell a difference in him after his child was born?
Yeah, and it also changes our touring big time. You know, no more six to eight week tours, you know. We're pretty much out three or four weeks and then home for a week and go back out. But, it really hasn't affected him as much on the road in songwriting capacity or anything like that. With his brother dying and stuff, that definitely plays heavy on him in thinking of all that, now he has his own son. But you know, eventually, we're all gonna be in that position. We're fortunate that what we do is tour and that's what we hope to be doing for the next five or ten years so it's just part of the getting older stage.
So anything you want to tell the fans in closing?
Just thanks for the support and keep calling in and asking for our music to get played and we will see you on the road.
Special Thanks to the Management of Sister Hazel, as well as to sisterhazel.com for use of the photos.