Blowed Up Real Good

Over the past several months, few bands in America have enjoyed the momentum of Hootie and the Blowfish, whose "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry" have spent weeks at a time in the top five on the singles chart, as their major label debut, Cracked Rear View, steamed its way to sales of more than five million.

But talking to Hootie guitarist Mark Bryan, one would be hard-pressed to know he's in a band that's been leading a revival in rootsy country-tinged rock on today's radio play lists.

"Well I guess we've been so busy that we haven't changed our lifestyle at all really, because on the way to get to this level we stayed busy," Bryan says. "And now we're still busy, doing pretty much a lot of the same stuff. Of course, there's more people involved in the shows now. But you know, because of that we haven't had to change or anything. It's just still been a lot of hard work, and so it hasn't been too much of an adjustment."

To Bryan and his bandmates -- singer Darius Rucker, bassist Dean Felber and drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld -- it's all part of a process that began with their first gigs nearly five years ago.

With three self-released records and a steady diet of tours booked by their own management company, the quartet slowly but steadily built a strong word-of-mouth following from Georgia and the Carolinas up the East Coast to Maryland. By the time they landed a deal with Atlantic Records about a year ago, the band had a fully self-sufficient, profitable operation.

Until recently, the Atlantic deal was only paying slow but steady dividends, as sales of Cracked Rear View inched upward. But once the band crossed over to Top 40 with "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry," the major jump in popularity became inevitable.

"I didn't want it [success] to happen too quick where it was like an overnight thing, just because I didn't think we would feel ready for it or whatever," Bryan says of the initial steady build behind Cracked Rear View. "It's just happened at a perfect speed, too, where each week we'd sell a few more copies than the week before, so it was kind of just building, and I think that's so perfect."

The song that triggered the band's rise to prominence, "Hold My Hand," is a representative sample of the kind of heartfelt, meat-and-potatoes rock and roll found throughout Cracked Rear View. Rucker's gritty, soul-influenced vocal is nicely supported by a deceptively simple, highly appealing rhythm guitar line and some fine vocal harmonies. Other songs are equally successful in blending memorable melodies and touching lyrics -- most notably "I'm Going Home," a song Rucker wrote in the wake of his mother's death, and "Let Her Cry," an unvarnished self-examination of one's role in a romantic meltdown.

The Hootie sound at times evokes the sturdy, timeless quality of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, R.E.M. and Tom Petty, although the songs on Cracked Rear View have a markedly different tone that betrays the South Carolina-based band's Southern roots and classic rock and '60s soul influences.

"We really do listen to everything, and we have for a long time," Bryan says. "Growing up, Dean and I, we all did, we all listened to a lot of classic rock. But I got really heavy into like the Who and the Police and Zeppelin and those bands, whereas Darius, after his Kiss phase, he was living in the South, a black family, and he was listening to a lot of like Otis Redding and Al Green, that sort of stuff. So each of our focuses, they're all different. Soni listens to a lot of country. And you can't get Miles Davis away from Dean. So it just depends on the individual. We're all listening to a lot of stuff all the time."

"But I think that our sound is unique because one person will bring in a part to a song and we won't tell the other three what to play," Bryan elaborates. "So we just each put our little signature on each song, and I think that is what has kept our sound very unique. You can't really tell who's the songwriter on any particular song, like you can with a lot of bands. I've always felt that was a pretty cool thing about our band."

Hootie and the Blowfish began to settle into this sound about four years ago when the current band members finished school at the University of South Carolina and began to concentrate on writing and playing original music. Soon afterward, the band hired Rusty Harmon to head up Fishco, a management company the band members themselves had formed. It was a move that showed a business acumen rare for a young band. The structure of the company and its success in arranging bookings enabled Hootie to build a reliable network of clubs in which to play, and provide financial perks such as regular paychecks and health insurance benefits.

At the same time Hootie and the Blowfish concentrated on recording its growing catalog of original tunes, releasing a self-titled debut in 1990, followed by Time in 1992 and Kootchypop a year later.

"I like to call them demo tapes just because we did them in like a week, and we released them just to make money and to spread our name and songs as much as we could," Bryan says of the early records. "I wouldn't say they were fully released albums. They were just five-song demos."

Kootchypop was the first of the three records to be distributed in a large portion of the country, and it put the band's career on a fast track. It sold 40,000 copies and helped attract the attention of two record companies, Capricorn and Atlantic. The group eventually chose Atlantic's offer, selecting Don Gehman, who is well-known for his work with Mellencamp and R.E.M., to produce.

"We've always been a fan of his work, through Mellencamp and R.E.M. and God, it turns out he did a Bruce Hornsby album, which we really liked, and some other stuff," Bryan said of Gehman. "So when Tim [Summer], our A and R person from Atlantic, suggested Gehman, we were like, good lord, do you know him? And he said, yeah, as a matter of fact, I've talked to him about the band and he likes Kootchypop. So we said, well yeah, let's talk to him. So he flew up to Baltimore and saw a show, and we had dinner with him and hung out with him. He was really cool and he seemed interested in the project. So we went ahead and went with him. And I was very happy, but I was disappointed for one reason. I really wanted to use Don Dixon [as producer]; that's who we've been working with for awhile. We had talked pretty majorly about using him. And for whatever reason, we just decided not to. I guess the main reason was if we used Dixon, we were going to work in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we really wanted to go way away from Columbia, [South Carolina] so we wouldn't be disturbed."

In recording Cracked Rear View, Bryan says the band had a straightforward goal.

"The only thing we wanted to do as far as that goes is get our best songs down that we've written in the last, say, four years, since we've had Soni in the band," he says. "We wanted to make sure we had our best work within that time, and I think we achieved that. I mean, there's a whole other album worth of material that we could have picked. So that would mean the second album; it's not going to take long to decide what songs we're going to play. But we're also writing a lot of new stuff, too. I don't know how the second album is going to go. I just know that the first album is what we felt was our best music to that point."

Hootie and the Blowfish play at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 31 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Don Dixon opens. Tickets are $18. For info, call 629-3700.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Sculley