Guitar World Acoustic Interview: Kings Of Pop

Guitar World Acoutic's interview with Hootie & the Blowfish tarists Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan was conducted by their good end Radney Foster, a former member of the popular country band ter & Lloyd and presently a solo artist whose most recent album Labor of Love.

One night in November of '94, Foster was asleep in bed when a friecalled to say that Hootie & the Blowfish were performing on VH-1, aDarius Rucker was wearing a Radney Foster t-shirt. Foster and tHooties eventually played together a couple of times, establshingrapport based on their mutual interest in music - specifically tNashville-based singer-songwriter movement of which Foster is a leadeand which includes Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Hoot& the Blowfish used a live cover of Foster's "A Fine Line" as a B-sito "Let Her Cry," and regularly perform it as a part of their acThey plan on releasing the Foster & Lloyd tune "Before the HeartacRolls In" as a B-side to an upcoming single.

Radney: Mark and Darius - you bust your butts for years in the bars and then, all of a sudden, 12 million records soand you're the biggest thing since peanut butter and sliced breaDoes it ever get scary?

Darius: Yeah, it's scary. But I guess we haven't realfathomed the numbers that people put in front of us, because we'just so tired of Cracked Rear View. We're ready to put oanother record, and we just think about that fact more than abowhat Cracked Rear View did. Don't you agree, Mark?

Mark: Yeah. When you're just staring out, you're lik"Oh, my God, imagine if we were to sell a whole bunch of albumsThen, once you do, you're kind of like, "All right, cool. Now, whatnext?" And it doesn't seem anywhere near as big once you're thebecause you still feel like the same guy. We still feel like the saband; our relationship with each other and our fans is still the sameven though there's a hell of a lot more of 'em.

Darius: It's weird just going out to a bar or something and haviit be a big deal. It's also funny, because no matter how many timit happens, you still go in these places and are surprised to hato deal with it.

Radney: One of the things that sets you guys apart is that ywrite pop songs. It's so rare these days to see a rock batrying to write things that are really in that straight-ahead psong kind of vein. When was the first time that you guys consideryourselves songwriters?

Darius: I think the first time I considered us songwriters wafter we finished Fairweather Johnson, our new record, awriting 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 Viwas our crowning achievement. We wrote those songs when we were younover a period of years, when we were learning how to write songs. Ita good record and all, but I didn't think we were real songwriteuntil we went into the studio this time with what really amounted just shells of songs. I know I was worried we were going to have cut it off in the middle and say, "We gotta go write some songsBut to be put in that position and then to have written the albthat we wrote, that was the first time that I really felt, "Mawe really are songwriters."

Radney: So the majority of the new album was written in the studio?

Mark: Yeah. We mostly started writing the music individuallthroughout the tour, and then kinda put it all together rigafterwards. So what we had before entering the studio, basicallwere, like Darius said, "shells" of songs.

Radney: Getting back to Cracked Rear View: Darius, did ygenerally come up with half-finished ideas - "shells" - or did ytend to bring in more or less finished tunes with all the lyricand then work on the arrangements with the band?

Darius: Well, "Let Her Cry," for example, was one I brought intact, already written. Before we had the finished product tbridge was changed and more chords were added. I tend to writhree-chord songs, and for "Let Her Cry," Mark had to add stuff 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 start the song.

Mark: I think it's good to feature Darius' voice at the tsometimes, just because there is an emotion to some of the sonthat he's able to convey better with his voice than we could withe music. Then you let the music change the emotion of the soas it goes on. I've been listening to the song "When I'm Lonelyfrom the new record, and it struck me that Darius can really sa mood great. Once you have him doing the intro, the musician's jis easy. Just follow his mood.

Radney: It's really refreshing to see a band whose centerpiece the acoustic guitar. That happens a lot in country music, but really rare in rock and roll. Darius, who were your chief influencas a player?

Darius: I think really the people that influenced me the most guitar were (bassist) Dean (Felber) and Mark. They showed me sonthat I would play until I'd annoyed everybody else in our dorm. Thwere the guys who took the time to do that until I started figuristuff out my myself. I never really thought of myself as a playeso I would just always try to mimic what Mark and Dean were doinAnd then I just started to play really, really hard.

Mark: Radney, I'm gonna tell you now, nobody plays acoustguitar harder than Darius Rucker.

Darius: I break a lot of strings.

Mark: He breaks a lot of strings, and he has this Takamine thhe's had for only about two years, and right where the pickguawould normally be there's...

Radney: A hole?

Mark: Yeah, it just stops and goes through. It's already got soWillie Nelson goin' on there

Radney: Man, you play harder than I do, Darius. That's troublBut I think that gives the music an unmistakable energy. Does it evhappen that the four of you in the band sit in a room together, jubanging away at acoustics, coming up with song structures?

Mark: Yeah. I mean, that's basically how we write. It's nalways the four of us, but we'll sit down with two or three acousticwhoever's in the room, and work the songs out with just thoguitars. And that's where the shells of the ideas come up. I'll sthere while Soni plays the chord changes of his new song, and thI'll develop my parts over that. And then if it translates electric, which it does the majority of the time, that's great; if nowe'll try other things. Like, I've been playing a lot of mandolin;think I'm on mandolin on four songs on the new album, a couple of whiare acoustic. One's a ballad ("Tootie"), and the other one ("EarStopped Cold at Dawn") features Nanci Griffith singin' with Darion 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 the first place.

Radney: Your electric playing, Mark, is exceptionally melodicyou 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 wato 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 playiacoustics and sitting around and singing. He comes up with thegreat parts to go around my vocals. They sometimes sound like echo to my vocal, like somebody put reverb on my vocal, but itMark's guitar. I think it comes from us playing acoustic together...

Radney: I've always thought that George Harrison is sort of tunsung hero of the Beatles, 'cause he just came up with so maintricate parts for those Beatles songs, rather than being sort ofdesignated terrorist, like Eric Clapton was. Mark, I really thithat your forte is acting in that George Harrison mode, coming with really great parts that fit the vocal, the melody and the reof what's going on in the song. It's pretty brilliant.

Mark: Well, for 10 years now, Darius and I have been playitogether. It starts with just two acoustics and him singing, instead of just strummin' what he's strummin', I gotta something different, you know. When he was first learning to plaall I really knew was the stuff I was teachin' him, stuff like basD and C chords. Since he learned how to do the chords, it's been job to go ahead and learn how to do some other stuff. At this poinow, I feel real comfortable coming up with parts around tvocals and stuff. It's not something I need to think about so muas it is just feel - you just start playing until you get somethiyou like. I really enjoy it.

Radney: Darius, On "Only Wanna Be With You," you make reference several Bob Dylan songs. Obviously, he's a songwriting influence yours, and I was wondering to what extent other folkie and countsinger-songwriters...

Darius: Oh, definitely. I think that on this new record -- this gonna sound funny, but this is the honest-to-God truth -- and 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 hanI'll put on an old Bonnie Raitt record, an old Stevie Wonder recofrom between '70 and '74, and earlier folkie stuff, old hippie kiof stuff from back then. That's what is influencing my writing nmore than anything else.

Radney: When I first met you guys, I was really surprised to heyou talk about singer-songwriters like Hiatt. And I remember you hJim Lauderdale, a country singer-songwriter out of Nashville, openifor you. I thought that your openness to country, and how much yguys are both influenced by and just enjoy acoustic-based music, wway cool.

Mark: Well, you should just hear what the B-sides for the nalbum 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 theacoustics and write songs. That's our background.

Darius: Yeah, that's just what we like to do. I'd love to gtogether with people like you and Nanci, John Hiatt and Don Dixojust sit around some place and just play songs.

Radney: Darius, I know that right after your daughter was boryou asked me some questions about my four-year-old, and talked abohow fatherhood had changed your life. Has it affected yosongwriting? I know it's had a great impact on me.

Darius: It has just been huge. I think that was one of the lamaturation steps, as far as songwriting goes, for me. After my daughtwas born, there was like this big responsibility - you gotta grup. And when you grow up, you don't wanna write "Only Wanna Be WiYou" again -- not that "Only Wanna Be With You" is a bad song.

Radney: Sure. It's like the Beatles - there's something magicand wonderful about "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Help," but thcertainly progressed from there as songwriters.

Mark: Darius may not know this, but I think there's a lot references to fatherhood on the new album. He might not see it,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 ILonely" - all kinds of little lines like that throughout the albuYou might not have been always referring to your daughter, but, at tsame time, I think it's definitely become a central theme in yowriting.

Radney: When I write songs, there's always a challenge to try 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 arouthe time of your mother's death, and it seems obvious that a big paof the song is wrapped up in that. Is it difficult to open up thway to the millions?

Darius: It's odd. I'm the kind of person that doesn't talk a labout his feelings. And then we put out an album like Cracked ReView, 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 wwrite 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. Mawill corroborate this: I'll think I'm writing a song about one thinand then I'll listen to it a couple of weeks later and realize it wabout something totally different.

Mark: That's because even if you try to write about somethielse - and this has happened to me - you can only end up writiabout what you really know.

Radney: I wrote all of these pop love songs and countlove songs on Labor of Love, my last album, and I didn't thiit had anything to do with the fact that my marriage was falliapart. 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 nrecord for four months, and I just figured out what the first soon 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. Nthat the first one didn't have some depth, but on this new one you'gotta dig a little deeper to find out what exactly we're talkin' abouIt's just not as literal. And it's in a good way. I don't think it'turn anyone away, I just think it'll make people think a little morand I'm kind of excited about that.

Radney: Okay, I want to take a moment to ask a silly question.know that when you were in college, you both wanted to sportscasters. When you guys were in the third grade, what did ywant 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'ended up in a band...

Mark: Because we weren't any good, man...

Radney: In other words, if you could be (Dallas Cowboys quarterbacTroy 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 hion 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 countinfluence 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 AudUltravox of something. I wanted a guitar so bad - it was an electrguitar 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 stihave it, though. Anyway, I never learned to play until I got to collegI 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 TakamiSanta Fe. The Takamine is my stage guitar, and I love it. I beat it death.

Radney: How long have you had that 00-18?

Darius: I just bought it about four months ago. I think it's jusuper. I bought it because of Nanci Griffith, who plays one. She saabout 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 writiand recording on that. I don't bring it out on the road, for obvioreasons.

Radney: I've got a 25- or 30-year-old Martin D-28. I believe ththe souls of a lot of past and future songs are rolling around in tsoundhole 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 troad 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 playDarius' rig. But this summer I'm gonna play a J-100 Gibson, and Flatiron mandolin.

Radney: Any particular rig?

Mark: No, I'm probably just gonna go direct with them. The J-1has an Accutron built into it. It's really sweet -- it's got an right on the guitar there.

Radney: Hey, less is more.

Mark: Yeah. Basically, our soundman and I will just get it where we like the settings and just go with that. And then the mandoljust sound great the way it is, so that's direct, too.

Radney: What are the best and worst things about being Hootiethe 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 see my family, especially my daughter, as much as I'd like to, 'cauI'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 realthought about saying let's break up, no one ever sat down and sai"I'm leaving" or anything. And there's a lot to be said about finalhaving something to show for 10 years of playing clubs, being callbad names and being broke - to finally getting to enjoy some of tother side of the music business.

Mark: Right. Now we get to ride on the tour bus; we don't have drive ourselves.

Radney: During the course of this past year I read two articles aboyou 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 thiwe thought anyone was going to make a big deal out of it (the bandracial makeup). It really knocked us off our feet when it became issue, because we never thought about it, and we didn't think anyoelse would either.

Darius: As far as we were concerned, you had Living Color and LenKravitz, black guys playing rock and roll -- and we just figured we wejust another rock and roll band. For us it was just four guys playitogether. And it was just wild for them to make it something that definitely didn't intend it to be. We just wanted to put out our recowith four-minute pop songs.

Radney: The point was, you guys lived together in college abecame 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 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 chanhearts 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.

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© 2002 Jonathan Sammy • hootie & the blowfish • an Opticism production • all rights reserved