Guitar World Acoutic's interview with Hootie & the Blowfish guitarists Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan was conducted by their good friend Radney Foster, a former member of the popular country band Foster & Lloyd and presently a solo artist whose most recent album is Labor of Love.
One night in November of '94, Foster was asleep in bed when a friend called to say that Hootie & the Blowfish were performing on VH-1, and Darius Rucker was wearing a Radney Foster t-shirt. Foster and the Hooties eventually played together a couple of times, establshing a rapport based on their mutual interest in music - specifically the Nashville-based singer-songwriter movement of which Foster is a leader, and which includes Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Hootie & the Blowfish used a live cover of Foster's "A Fine Line" as a B-side to "Let Her Cry," and regularly perform it as a part of their act. They plan on releasing the Foster & Lloyd tune "Before the Heartache Rolls In" as a B-side to an upcoming single.
Radney: Mark and Darius - you bust your butts for 10 years in the bars and then, all of a sudden, 12 million records sold and you're the biggest thing since peanut butter and sliced bread. Does it ever get scary?
Darius: Yeah, it's scary. But I guess we haven't really fathomed the numbers that people put in front of us, because we're just so tired of Cracked Rear View. We're ready to put out another record, and we just think about that fact more than about what Cracked Rear View did. Don't you agree, Mark?
Mark: Yeah. When you're just staring out, you're like, "Oh, my God, imagine if we were to sell a whole bunch of albums!" Then, once you do, you're kind of like, "All right, cool. Now, what's next?" And it doesn't seem anywhere near as big once you're there because you still feel like the same guy. We still feel like the same band; our relationship with each other and our fans is still the same, even though there's a hell of a lot more of 'em.
Darius: It's weird just going out to a bar or something and having it be a big deal. It's also funny, because no matter how many times it happens, you still go in these places and are surprised to have to deal with it.
Radney: One of the things that sets you guys apart is that you write pop songs. It's so rare these days to see a rock band trying to write things that are really in that straight-ahead pop- song kind of vein. When was the first time that you guys considered yourselves songwriters?
Darius: I think the first time I considered us songwriters was after we finished Fairweather Johnson, our new record, and writing and listing to it as it went along.
Radney: Really? So it was just recently?
Darius: Oh, yeah. I mean, I just don't think Cracked Rear View was our crowning achievement. We wrote those songs when we were young, over a period of years, when we were learning how to write songs. It's a good record and all, but I didn't think we were real songwriters until we went into the studio this time with what really amounted to just shells of songs. I know I was worried we were going to have to cut it off in the middle and say, "We gotta go write some songs!" But to be put in that position and then to have written the album that we wrote, that was the first time that I really felt, "Man, we really are songwriters."
Radney: So the majority of the new album was written in the studio?
Mark: Yeah. We mostly started writing the music individually, throughout the tour, and then kinda put it all together right afterwards. So what we had before entering the studio, basically, were, like Darius said, "shells" of songs.
Radney: Getting back to Cracked Rear View: Darius, did you generally come up with half-finished ideas - "shells" - or did you tend to bring in more or less finished tunes with all the lyrics, and then work on the arrangements with the band?
Darius: Well, "Let Her Cry," for example, was one I brought in intact, already written. Before we had the finished product the bridge was changed and more chords were added. I tend to write three-chord songs, and for "Let Her Cry," Mark had to add stuff to make it more interesting. As for "Hold My Hand," that song was pretty much all Soni's (drummer Jim Sonefeld). He brought it in, I just changed some lyric ideas, and we worked on the structure. That guitar intro was actually an idea we all came up with, just sitting around trying to decide how to start the song.
Mark: I think it's good to feature Darius' voice at the top sometimes, just because there is an emotion to some of the songs that he's able to convey better with his voice than we could with the music. Then you let the music change the emotion of the song as it goes on. I've been listening to the song "When I'm Lonely," from the new record, and it struck me that Darius can really set a mood great. Once you have him doing the intro, the musician's job is easy. Just follow his mood.
Radney: It's really refreshing to see a band whose centerpiece is the acoustic guitar. That happens a lot in country music, but is really rare in rock and roll. Darius, who were your chief influences as a player?
Darius: I think really the people that influenced me the most on guitar were (bassist) Dean (Felber) and Mark. They showed me songs that I would play until I'd annoyed everybody else in our dorm. They were the guys who took the time to do that until I started figuring stuff out my myself. I never really thought of myself as a player, so I would just always try to mimic what Mark and Dean were doing. And then I just started to play really, really hard.
Mark: Radney, I'm gonna tell you now, nobody plays acoustic guitar harder than Darius Rucker.
Darius: I break a lot of strings.
Mark: He breaks a lot of strings, and he has this Takamine that he's had for only about two years, and right where the pickguard would normally be there's...
Radney: A hole?
Mark: Yeah, it just stops and goes through. It's already got some Willie Nelson goin' on there
Radney: Man, you play harder than I do, Darius. That's trouble. But I think that gives the music an unmistakable energy. Does it ever happen that the four of you in the band sit in a room together, just banging away at acoustics, coming up with song structures?
Mark: Yeah. I mean, that's basically how we write. It's not always the four of us, but we'll sit down with two or three acoustics, whoever's in the room, and work the songs out with just those guitars. And that's where the shells of the ideas come up. I'll sit there while Soni plays the chord changes of his new song, and then I'll develop my parts over that. And then if it translates to electric, which it does the majority of the time, that's great; if not, we'll try other things. Like, I've been playing a lot of mandolin; I think I'm on mandolin on four songs on the new album, a couple of which are acoustic. One's a ballad ("Tootie"), and the other one ("Earth Stopped Cold at Dawn") features Nanci Griffith singin' with Darius on the choruses. Some songs sound better kept acoustic, you know. They never get too different from the way they were when we sat down and wrote 'em in the first place.
Radney: Your electric playing, Mark, is exceptionally melodic - you don't rely that much on the cookbood blues riffs used by guitarists in a lot of rock bands. Do you initially write your parts on an acoustic guitar?
Mark: That melodic thing comes from the fact that I really want to sing - but can't. What I do is, I hear melodies and put them on the guitar. I learned a few years ago about using octaves on guitar, how you can slide octaves around in whatever key you're in and make nice, fat melodies happen a lot more readily than by using one note at a time. And so I kind of adopted that style. A lot of jazz guys did that, and in rock, Paul Westerberg, from the Replacements, is one guy who played that way.
Darius: You know, Mark's playing just stems from his playing acoustics and sitting around and singing. He comes up with these great parts to go around my vocals. They sometimes sound like an echo to my vocal, like somebody put reverb on my vocal, but it's Mark's guitar. I think it comes from us playing acoustic together...
Radney: I've always thought that George Harrison is sort of the unsung hero of the Beatles, 'cause he just came up with so many intricate parts for those Beatles songs, rather than being sort of a designated terrorist, like Eric Clapton was. Mark, I really think that your forte is acting in that George Harrison mode, coming up with really great parts that fit the vocal, the melody and the rest of what's going on in the song. It's pretty brilliant.
Mark: Well, for 10 years now, Darius and I have been playing together. It starts with just two acoustics and him singing, so instead of just strummin' what he's strummin', I gotta do something different, you know. When he was first learning to play, all I really knew was the stuff I was teachin' him, stuff like basic D and C chords. Since he learned how to do the chords, it's been my job to go ahead and learn how to do some other stuff. At this point now, I feel real comfortable coming up with parts around the vocals and stuff. It's not something I need to think about so much as it is just feel - you just start playing until you get something you like. I really enjoy it.
Radney: Darius, On "Only Wanna Be With You," you make reference to several Bob Dylan songs. Obviously, he's a songwriting influence of yours, and I was wondering to what extent other folkie and country singer-songwriters...
Darius: Oh, definitely. I think that on this new record -- this is gonna sound funny, but this is the honest-to-God truth -- and on songs like "Let Her Cry," from Cracked Rear View, I'm a lot more influenced by John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, you...
Radney: ...bless your heart...
Darius: ...and Nanci. People like that. Songs like "Old Man and Me," off the new album, which I brought in, are straight country songs, 'cause that's what I listen to now. I listen to you guys. On the other hand, I'll put on an old Bonnie Raitt record, an old Stevie Wonder record from between '70 and '74, and earlier folkie stuff, old hippie kind of stuff from back then. That's what is influencing my writing now more than anything else.
Radney: When I first met you guys, I was really surprised to hear you talk about singer-songwriters like Hiatt. And I remember you had Jim Lauderdale, a country singer-songwriter out of Nashville, opening for you. I thought that your openness to country, and how much you guys are both influenced by and just enjoy acoustic-based music, was way cool.
Mark: Well, you should just hear what the B-sides for the new album are: "Before the Heartache Rolls In," by Foster & Lloyd, Don Dixon's "Renaissance Eyes," the Ravers' "Araby" and a Silos tune called "I'm Over You" -- all heavily acoustic songs. So you're right, our music is based on a lot of acoustic guys, songwriters who just sit around with their acoustics and write songs. That's our background.
Darius: Yeah, that's just what we like to do. I'd love to get together with people like you and Nanci, John Hiatt and Don Dixon, just sit around some place and just play songs.
Radney: Darius, I know that right after your daughter was born, you asked me some questions about my four-year-old, and talked about how fatherhood had changed your life. Has it affected your songwriting? I know it's had a great impact on me.
Darius: It has just been huge. I think that was one of the last maturation steps, as far as songwriting goes, for me. After my daughter was born, there was like this big responsibility - you gotta grow up. And when you grow up, you don't wanna write "Only Wanna Be With You" again -- not that "Only Wanna Be With You" is a bad song.
Radney: Sure. It's like the Beatles - there's something magical and wonderful about "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Help," but they certainly progressed from there as songwriters.
Mark: Darius may not know this, but I think there's a lot of references to fatherhood on the new album. He might not see it, I don't know...
Darius: Oh, I don't see it, but if you say so...
Mark: It's phrases like "Eyes like an infant," from "When I'm Lonely" - all kinds of little lines like that throughout the album. You might not have been always referring to your daughter, but, at the same time, I think it's definitely become a central theme in your writing.
Radney: When I write songs, there's always a challenge to try to take whatever personal event I'm writing about and make it accessible. Darius, you have a great deal of not only your own personality but your personal experience in your songs, and, considering their success, they're obviously very accessible. Does that every make you feel too vulnerable? Do you ever think about just where to draw the line with personal information in your songs? I know that "Let Her Cry," for example, was written around the time of your mother's death, and it seems obvious that a big part of the song is wrapped up in that. Is it difficult to open up that way to the millions?
Darius: It's odd. I'm the kind of person that doesn't talk a lot about his feelings. And then we put out an album like Cracked Rear View, and every song is a personal experience. I have wished that I didn't do that, but I realized one the new record that I have no choice. And you do feel real vulnerable, 'cause if people would really listen to what you were saying in a lot of songs, they would know you a lot better. There'd be a lot of strangers knowing you. And that's a wild thought. But I can't help but write about what I know, and the only thing I know is my life experience.
Radney: I've always felt that the only thing that I could do was write about my personal experiences. For me, it was sort of for sanity's sake. It's cheaper than therapy, so... but at the same time, there is that scary part that asks, how do I convey this in such a manner that people don't really know the exact circumstances?
Darius: When I write, a lot of things happen subconsciously. Mark will corroborate this: I'll think I'm writing a song about one thing, and then I'll listen to it a couple of weeks later and realize it was about something totally different.
Mark: That's because even if you try to write about something else - and this has happened to me - you can only end up writing about what you really know.
Radney: I wrote all of these pop love songs and country love songs on Labor of Love, my last album, and I didn't think it had anything to do with the fact that my marriage was falling apart. Now I listen to the thing and I'm like, "Good God! You let the whole world know your marriage was falling apart!"
Darius: I'll be honest with you, we've been living with this new record for four months, and I just figured out what the first song on the record's about...
Mark: I still haven't figured that one out...
Darius: It was so wild. It just came to me. I think that was cool.
Mark: I tell you, this new album goes a little deeper, Rad. Not that the first one didn't have some depth, but on this new one you've gotta dig a little deeper to find out what exactly we're talkin' about. It's just not as literal. And it's in a good way. I don't think it'll turn anyone away, I just think it'll make people think a little more, and I'm kind of excited about that.
Radney: Okay, I want to take a moment to ask a silly question. I know that when you were in college, you both wanted to be sportscasters. When you guys were in the third grade, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Darius: Pro basketball player.
Mark: I probably said pro football player.
Radney: So you both basically wanted to be jocks, and yet you've ended up in a band...
Mark: Because we weren't any good, man...
Radney: In other words, if you could be (Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Troy Aikman, you would.
Darius: Oh, yeah, exactly.
Radney: That's okay. If he could be you guys, he would, too. Darius, what was the first album you bought?
Darius: The first record I bought was Barry White's greatest hits on eight-track.
Radney: Nooo. Way cool. All right, Mark?
Mark: Remember Convoy, that country trucker compliation that was sold on television?
Radney: No! You didn't! Man, I love it. So you had a country influence from way back.
Mark: I'm pretty sure Convoy was the first album I bought with my own money, but I think that the first album I really got into was the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. My mom used to play it all the time.
Radney: What was your first guitar? Darius?
Darius: My first guitar was an old Sears; I think it was an Audio Ultravox of something. I wanted a guitar so bad - it was an electric guitar and I had an amp to go with it...
Radney: Was it a Silvertone?
Darius: It could've been a Silvertone, I'm not sure. I think I still have it, though. Anyway, I never learned to play until I got to college. I used to put rubber bands on it for strings and pretend I was Kiss.
Radney: Makeup and everything?
Darius: Oh yeah, mom used to love me.
Radney: How about you, Mark? What was your first guitar?
Mark: I went to the Harmony Hut up at the mall right by my house, and my mom bought me this Ibanez. It had a dark stain on it, and it was real pretty.
Radney: What are you guys playing these days?
Darius: My favorite guitars are my 00-18 Martin guitar and my Takamine Santa Fe. The Takamine is my stage guitar, and I love it. I beat it to death.
Radney: How long have you had that 00-18?
Darius: I just bought it about four months ago. I think it's just super. I bought it because of Nanci Griffith, who plays one. She sang about it in "Listen to the Radio."
Radney: That's right. What about you, Mark?
Mark: I have a '63 Gibson J-45.
Radney: Well, that oughta be anyone's favorite guitar!
Mark: Yeah, that's my workhorse. I pretty much do all my writing and recording on that. I don't bring it out on the road, for obvious reasons.
Radney: I've got a 25- or 30-year-old Martin D-28. I believe that the souls of a lot of past and future songs are rolling around in the soundhole of that guitar.
Mark: Yeah, man.
Darius: Man, you make things so vivid.
Mark: That shit is flowery. It's awesome.
Radney: All right. Darius, what rig do you use on stage?
Darius: I play with two Takamine Santa Fes. I have three I take on the road with me, and I just play them straight, no equalizers or anything.
Mark: I didn't use an acoustic on the last tour, but I played Darius' rig. But this summer I'm gonna play a J-100 Gibson, and my Flatiron mandolin.
Randney: Any particular rig?
Mark: No, I'm probably just gonna go direct with them. The J-100 has an Accutron built into it. It's really sweet -- it's got an eq right on the guitar there.
Radney: Hey, less is more.
Mark: Yeah. Basically, our soundman and I will just get it to where we like the settings and just go with that. And then the mandolin just sound great the way it is, so that's direct, too.
Radney: What are the best and worst things about being Hootie & the Blowfish?
Mark: Best part: we got to make a second record. I just love makin' albums, and I'm really proud of the new record. A lot of bands don't get that chance, and we did, so that made me really happy. I guess the worst part is never getting to see home - my girlfriend, my dog... I'm just busy as all hell. That'll all come later, but right now I just get real homesick.
Darius: Yeah, I think the worst part, definitely, is not getting to see my family, especially my daughter, as much as I'd like to, 'cause I'm so busy, although I do get there as much as I can. I guess the best part is the fact that, in 10 years, no one in the band ever really thought about saying let's break up, no one ever sat down and said, "I'm leaving" or anything. And there's a lot to be said about finally having something to show for 10 years of playing clubs, being called bad names and being broke - to finally getting to enjoy some of the other side of the music business.
Mark: Right. Now we get to ride on the tour bus; we don't have to drive ourselves.
Radney: During the course of this past year I read two articles about you guys - one was in Time magazine and the other was in Harper's - both of which used the experience of Hootie & the Blowfish as a launching pad to talk about racial relations in America. Do y'all find that disturbing? It struck me that both articles were talking very seriously about you without knowing what you are or without ever really dealing with your music. It sort of reminded me of Ronald Reagan quoting "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen and not even realizing what the hell the song was about.
Mark: Yeah, it's amazing. When we first got started, I don't think we thought anyone was going to make a big deal out of it (the band's racial makeup). It really knocked us off our feet when it became an issue, because we never thought about it, and we didn't think anyone else would either.
Darius: As far as we were concerned, you had Living Color and Lenny Kravitz, black guys playing rock and roll -- and we just figured we were just another rock and roll band. For us it was just four guys playing together. And it was just wild for them to make it something that we definitely didn't intend it to be. We just wanted to put out our record with four-minute pop songs.
Radney: The point was, you guys lived together in college and became friends...
Darius: We didn't want to be, we didn't try to be...
Mark: ...inter-racial poster boys.
Darius: No, we're just a band playing music. On the other hand, if it all leads to some kids looking at us and going, "Maybe my parents were wrong..."
Radney: I hope so. I really believe that it's possible to change hearts and minds by who we are and how we act together, on a racial level. I also think that music can help change people's hearts and minds about a lot of things. And I hope that your music does that for a new generation.
Darius: Or just one person.
Hootie & the Blowfish: Yet Another Worship Temple|
Maintained by: Jonathan R. Sammy|