For years, he has gazed at the world from behind a drum kit. But lately Jim Sonefeld only has eyes for his baby daughter, Cameron.
"When you have a kid who's an hour old in your arms and you realize this is something I've created and this is my responsibility, it's an overwhelmingly good feeling," said the Hootie and the Blowfish drummer. "All the songs written about having a child may seem a little corny, but they're true. It's the most beautiful thing ever."
Fatherhood is not the only sign life is changing for Sonefeld, who'll turn 36 on Friday. He soon will begin work on his first solo album, a project that's been given an enthusiastic approval by Hootie's record label, Atlantic Records.
The only Hootie member to still live in Columbia (his mom, two brothers and their families live here), he's also become deeply involved in community affairs, such as accepting the job of president for the Animal Mission of the Midlands, a nonprofit organization that comes to the aid of homeless pets. He'll perform with Edwin McCain and other special guests at the Animal Mission's annual auction and concert Friday night at the Clarion Town House Hotel on Gervais Street.
"Life has changed, but he hasn't," said Sonefeld's wife, Debbie. "He's still humble and a huge family man. If all the Hootie and the Blowfish fame was to go away tomorrow, I think he would still be happy ... as long as music was still in his life."
Music is still a big part of what Sonefeld does, and so are his adventures with Hootie and the Blowfish. He'll be back on the road with Hootie starting Saturday, when the band embarks on a monthlong tour to support their fourth album, a B-sides collection called "Scattered, Smothered and Covered." That record arrives in record stores a week from today.
The tour will conclude Nov. 18 at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach.
Hitting the road with his bandmates is something Sonefeld always looks forward to, but this time it's different. He's not looking forward to being away from 3-month-old Cameron.
"After we got pregnant, I realized that whatever happened with the band, our lives were going to be a lot different," he said. "It makes you think about what's most important in your life.
"Not that I don't like making the music and traveling around, but after you do that for six years straight, it's almost like being hung over. I'm hung over from the whole Hootie and the Blowfish experience right now, so I don't mind segueing into a new style of life."
That new style of life means having to juggle new personal responsibilities with new musical endeavors. But Sonefeld is proving to be a pretty good juggler, maybe because of all the soccer he's played since his childhood days in Illinois.
Drums in the basement. Sonefeld was born in Lansing, Mich., but he grew in Naperville, Ill., a town just west of Chicago. He has three brothers and a sister, and his parents' house was an active place.
"We played sandlot baseball and street hockey," said Sonefeld's older brother Mike, the Irmo fire chief. "We lived in one of those perfect neighborhoods that lent itself to that."
The brothers played soccer in high school, but athletics had to compete with music for Sonefeld's free time when he turned 10 and got his first drum set.
"It was in the basement," Mike Sonefeld remembered. "Whenever Jim wasn't home, we'd go down there and play. We weren't allowed to touch it otherwise."
Sonefeld the future songwriter and author of Hootie's big hit "Hold My Hand," began developing his musical tastes back then, according to his older brother.
"I was listening to FM album-rock radio," Mike Sonefeld said, "but all Jim listened to was WLS, the big AM station that played bubblegum Top 40. We still kid him about it."
In 1982, Mike Sonefeld moved to Columbia to work in a cardiac lab, and it was around that time Jim graduated from high school. He was hoping to play collegiate soccer so he came to South Carolina to check out Clemson and the University of South Carolina.
"Since I was already down here, it might have pushed him a little to try USC," Mike said. "He made the team as a walk-on, which was great. I was glad to have the company down here, too."
But Sonefeld had trouble balancing the demands of school and soccer and dropped out of USC during his junior year. He started banging the drums again to clear his head, which led to a gig with his first band, a punk-and-metal-influenced group called Bachelors of Art.
But that gig was cut short when coaches and friends convinced Sonefeld to return to school and take advantage of his final year of soccer scholarship eligibility. He returned to USC and rejoined the soccer team, and, in a media arts class, he met a guitarist from Maryland named Mark Bryan, who played in a band called Hootie and the Blowfish.
Romance on the road. After graduation, Sonefeld began playing drums for one of South Carolina's most popular bands, Tootie and the Jones, a fun-loving bunch of guys who specialized in rock 'n' roll cover songs.
But when Hootie's original drummer left that band in 1989, Bryan contacted his old media arts classmate and asked him if he'd sit in at a few shows. So for a while Sonefeld played in two bands, and worked in production at "The Sparky Woods Show," the weekly broadcast of the former USC football coach." It was really crazy," he said.
Eventually, the craziness became too much, and Sonefeld had to make a decision. He painfully decided to leave his friends in Tootie to join Bryan, bassist Dean Felber and singer Darius Rucker in Hootie full time.
"Something deep in my heart told me this was the right thing to do for the future," he said.
Sonefeld's intuition was right on the money. Four years later, Hootie and the Blowfish released their major-label debut, "Cracked Rear View" on Atlantic Records, and they were on their way to becoming one of pop music's most remarkable success stories of the 1990s.
As soon as "Cracked Rear View" was released in 1994, Hootie hit the road to support the record. At a tour stop in South Bend, Ind., a Warner Brothers radio promotions representative named Debbie Mason dropped by to see the show's headline act, Big head Todd & the Monsters." I saw her and she had that look," Sonefeld said. "Tall, long hair, wearing overalls, a Midwestern accent. When I met her, I could tell right away that she was this very mature person. Confident, beautiful, all those things. I thought, 'This is everything I want in a girl.'"
Mason wasn't sure what these Blowfish were all about, but she kind of liked that long-haired drummer.
"I had never heard of Hootie before but I watched them play a couple of songs," Debbie Sonefeld said. "I went up to Jim and told him I really enjoyed his set, and he followed me around like a puppy dog. I was living in Chicago then, and I gave him my phone number and told him to call me when he came to town and we could go record shopping."
Sonefeld couldn't wait that long.
"She was driving back to Chicago that night from South Bend, and it took about two and a half hours for her to get home," he said. "So I called to see if she got home safely. I thought, I'm going to make a good impression, and she was like, 'Yeah, I'm here,' and she was stunned that I had called. The minute I hung up the phone I thought that was the biggest mistake I've ever made. I didn't know if she lived with a guy or if she lived at home with her parents. But she knew, two hours after I'd met her, that I was really serious."
Two years later, the couple were married and living in Columbia.
"Who grows up thinking they're going to marry a musician?" Debbie Sonefeld said. "When I was a kid I would go to concerts at Cobo Hall (she grew up in a Detroit suburb) and think, 'Man, I wonder what it would be like to be married to a rock musician? I wonder if their wives get together, do they go on the road with the band?'"
Now she knows all about being a rock 'n' roll wife, and she's found out that drummers can be great daddies, too.
"He gets up and feeds Cameron every night," she said. "I could be looking for him around the house and he'll be in the nursery singing to her or changing her diaper."
Jim and Debbie have built their partnership on mutual trust and independence, and Debbie says that's what makes their marriage work.
"I'm independent," she said, "and I think that's one of the reasons we get along so well. When he goes on tour, I go on my own tour. He's going on the road with Hootie, and Cameron and I are going to Michigan to visit my family. We have a really good balance."
Diapers, drums and doggies. Before Sonefeld hits the road with Hootie, he'll help host the Animal Mission of the Midlands benefit Friday night. The Animal Mission works to find homes for abandoned pets and to reduce animal overpopulation with education about spaying and neutering. It's a cause Sonefeld has become passionate about.
"The Animal Mission is special to me because I do care a lot about saving more animals," he said.
He has two dogs at home, a golden retriever named Risa and a Lab mix named Maddie.
"I'm not this whacked-out extremist," he said. "This is a very realistic group of people who have families, 40-hour-a-week jobs and bills to pay, and yet they still work harder than any people I know, just to save cats and dogs around the Midlands."
Working with the Animal Mission, building Habitat for Humanity homes with his Hootie bandmates and cheering for the Gamecock football and soccer teams have planted Sonefeld's family roots deeper in the South Carolina capital city. Not that he'll always live here but, for now, it sure feels like home.
"I feel more a part of Columbia now than I ever have," he said. "I think the city has occasionally stumbled over the years, but now it seems to being doing something for itself.
"With the rebel flag off the State House, the Vista kicking in business and the university back on track, it feels better than ever to be a part of it."
SONEFELD SOUND BITES
On partying and parenthood: "Being on the road with the band and knowing I have a wife and child at home isn't going to make me party less, but it's going to make me feel a lot more guilty in the morning."
On community involvement: "It's easy to write a check and donate $10,000 to charity, and we (Hootie) are fortunate to be able to do that. But it's a lot more fulfilling for me to go out and work for a cause and get dirt under my nails."
On meeting famous people: "When he met Michael Jordan and shook his hand, Jim was stunned that Michael recognized him," Debbie said. "I wasn't allowed to hold his hand after the game because he said he wasn't going to wash it all weekend."
On making a solo album: "Having the chance to run the show and get my true feelings on a disc means everything to me. I now feel like I'm at the controls and have a great opportunity to do something."