Today’s Feature, July 16th and 17th: Sister Hazel

January 18, 2008 at 6:28 pm (Today's Feature)


Recently I had a chance to sit down with Ryan Newell, lead guitarist for one of the most popular and original bands around; Sister Hazel. I first saw Sister Hazel live, in college at a downtown Baltimore (Maryland) outside venue. Going to the show, I knew a good amount of songs and of course the classic “All For You” was (and arguably still is) a college anthem. The one thing I didn’t know about a Sister Hazel concert, were the “Hazelnuts”, or die hard fans. I like to think I know a good amount about music and art, and I like to think that I can anticipate what usually goes on at a live show, but I just remember at that moment thinking I stepped into an entirely different world. EVERYONE knew the songs…ALL of them. Not just a few, not just the “classics” but if Sister Hazel left the stage and just played instrumental tracks, I am pretty sure the crowd would have covered the rest. Granted that wouldn’t have made for a great show since the five guys who started out in an abandon trailer, driving everywhere it would take them, put on one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen. They do this without the effects of your average over budget-pop performance, those of which have electronic instrumental as the only talent on the stage…if you get my drift. This is due to the fact that Sister Hazel is comprised of musicians, who if they weren’t selling millions of records would still be playing. One of the reasons why Sister Hazel has been able to remain so successful is because the band has one of the most on hands, interactive communities in music. They oversee every aspect of the Sister Hazel brand. From the cover art of CDs, to promotional photos, to the style of navigation bars on their website (which by the way, their site is state of the art). There must be five levels of “Yes” before anyone in the public lay eyes on it. Sister Hazel is also responsible for currently, four projects: The Rock Boat, The Rock Slope, The Hard Rock Park and Lyrics For Life. I was immediately blown away by the concept and goal of Lyrics For Life, which involves musicians and celebrities putting their lyrics and/or autograph down on everything from a pair of jeans to an airplane propeller. All proceeds going to benefit kids with cancer. All this hard work is for the fans, not because they have to…they want to. Where as other bands are content in their over the top celebrity status keeping them on the cover of various gossip magazines, Sister Hazel is only worried about making great music. The proof is in their recent release, BAM! Volume 1, which contains songs that were never released on previous recordings. Whether I’m working out to “What Kind Of Living” or lounging poolside, drinking a cold one to “Sail Away”, BAM! allows the listener to experience the bands growth through the many years. Is it too early to wish for a BAM! Volume 2? Read their XXQs to find out more…

XXQs: Sister Hazel – Ryan Newell (Lead Guitar)

PEV: How and when did Sister Hazel start?

RN: We formed in the early 90s in Gainesville, FL. The four of us, everyone except for Mark went to University of FL and we were all in a couple of different bands. There was a huge scene in the southeast back then and we would always see each other in the clubs. We had all talked about forming a band but we all had other commitments at the time and Ken was doing a gig with Andrew, acoustic gigs and decided he wanted to put a band together, so he put up a flyer and our bass player was the first one to answer the flyer. Then little by little we all came into the band. We did all on our own without a major label for a long time. We got an abandoned trailer and traveled the southeast, took out a loan, made a record. Then we actually got All For You on a couple stations; Tallahassee Orlando and it was reacted really well and then a major labels started coming around…then we signed with Universal. That’s basically how we got our kick start.

PEV: All For You was such a huge hit and everyone still loves that song, were you surprised about well it was received?

RN: The surprise came to us a lot earlier then when it was on the radio. We would play a whole set of songs before a crowd in a bar and everyone would react to that song even if they haven’t heard it before. So we new it was really special before it was even released. Then it became a real cult classic in the southeast. Before the major labels even got a hold of it so we new that we had lighting in a bottle and we new that as soon as hit the airwaves it would take off.

PEV: What were the earlier days like of Sister Hazel? How was the first performance?

RN: I don’t think there was a first performance that I can remember. I would jam with the guys in the band on and off again. For a while in the beginning there was a different drummer and he would play on and off. I want to say that we all played with this line up, around 1994 and it was great….we were all poor, riding around in this abandoned trailer…and we didn’t really have a worry in the world. We all graduated from college, so none of us had to bail on school, although our bass player bailed on graduate school. So we all were just saying this is what we want to do. A lot of people take time off after college to find themselves and we decided to seek out what music could do for us…I guess this is exactly what we’re still doing.

PEV: Speaking of that, was there a certain time that you thought, “it’s rough but this is what I want as a career”?

RN: Yeah…we’ve all been playing music our whole lives, so its not like one day we decide to one day play music. This was an aspiration for all of us since childhood, so we were definitely going to do it no matter what. But as far as would last…everyone’s got to pay the light bill, you know. We were just fortunate to have enough money to get by. Of course we had some success and sold a couple of million records and that bought us a couple of houses, so we felt worthy and now its just a blessing being able to play music and do something you love to do.

PEV: When you guys get together to write what kind of element do you prefer to be in? Is it outside, laid back, in the studio?

RN: You know we’ve done all the above. Typically the last couple writing sessions we’ve done the bass player Jett Beres and our lead singer Ken and I would meet at a hotel in either Gainesville, FL or Atlanta, GA, we would basically get together and see what happens. A lot of times things fall out or things work and that is where the best songs come out. But when that doesn’t happen you just have to drudge forward and make things happen. Sometimes when we’ve done that and tried to force a song, at the end of a day you are tired and frustrated and you say to yourself there has to be an easier way to do this. And believe it or not a lot of our songs come at the end of the day after we’ve been banging our heads on the ground for a song that wasn’t really working…someone will just pick up a guitar and start playing something and then a new song just shows up out of now where. Then you have to see it till the end.

The single on our last album, “Mandolin Moon” was that way. We’ve been working all day on a song that was going nowhere; it’s the end of the day, I picked up a guitar and started strumming something. We started singing along and put melodies to it…those are usually the best songs. But we write all kinds of ways. Sometimes we’ll each bring a song that we’ve written ourselves. Andrew goes to Nashville to write and we all collaborate with each other. It really just depends on the song.

PEV: How is the music on Bam Volume 1 different from any of your albums?

RN: Well BAM is interesting because it has a couple songs from the whole span of Sister Hazels’ career. We normally write 40-50 songs per record and we’ll put on a record 15 or 16 of those. So we have a lot left over. BAM is a group of songs that was left over from all the other records. Whether they were demos recorded or full blown studio tracks. The interesting thing about picking songs for a record is it doesn’t come down to which songs are better then the others, it comes down to which songs go together the best to make a cohesive body of work. You can’t have 12 ballads on an album. So over time we just had a collection of these great songs, then a couple of times one would leak out and our fans would eat it up. We just decided to put it all on one disk and put it out there. You can kind of see the growth of the band through the record.

PEV: Are we going to see a Bam Volume 2?

RN: Yes, I mean like I said earlier we overwrite and record for every record so I like to think that BAM will be a continued project for us. We’ll just have a home for a lot of songs that didn’t make the record.

PEV: Were do you find the creative force to make all these great songs? Is there a certain theme you tend to keep going back to?

RN: There are 5 writers in the band and that alleviates some of the weight to be distributed between us. Ken, our lead signer is the most prolific songwriter in the band. He writes songs that are very rapid pace. But as far as inspiration, we write all the time, so whenever the inspiration hits, you never know when its going to hit, sometimes it lands in your lap and sometimes you have to try harder. We constantly need songs so were constantly under pressure to always be writing.

PEV: I’m always fascinated by the creative forces. One thing I find interesting about the band, is the album covers; they are very unique and that is something that always catches my attention. How much input does the band have on the total package of the product?

RN: We’ve always been hands for anything and everything that has to do with Sister Hazel. I mean even when we were with a major label, when we shot “Somewhere More Familiar” which was a million selling record. We grabbed a buddy of ours who had a pretty decent camera and we were driving around and shot the cover of the album ourselves. We’ve always been hands on with our website we designed all our artwork we approve all the photos…we are very hands on from top to bottom. We are very much a democracy in the band, so everything for better or for worse, has to go through all 5 people before anything is ever seen.

PEV: One thing I the openness with your fans or shall I say the Hazelnuts. I actually saw a live show myself a few years back and the connection with the fans is overwhelming. How does it make you feel about the fan sing your songs back?

RN: I think that is one of the best feelings in this job. We all got into this to play music live and hopefully in front of a lot of people and when you look out there and see people singing your songs that got started in your bedroom, or started out in a hotel room, it is an amazing experience. To be for example in Deadwood, South Dakota where I am right now and have people come out of the woodwork, so to speak and hear them sing our songs and line up for our shows, it blows me away. The gratitude we have for that is that we are very accessible to our fans. We try to meet people, shake their hands, get to know them. We have an extremely busy online community that is always connecting the fans with the band. We also try to do events for our fans to try to create a lifestyle as well as people just coming to the show.

We have an event called The Rock Boat which is a four day cruise out in the Caribbean. We charter a Carnival Cruise ship, we do this every year. We’ve done 7 of them our 8th is this year. Basically it is us and 30 other bands. Collective Soul, Gavin DeGraw, Better Than Ezra have all done it (to name a few). People get to come on board and see the bands play, even free form jams. You can sign up through our site or Rock Boat.com and it usually sells out in a week.

We do a similar event in Colorado, called The Rock Slope, we do that once a year, which is the same principal, with a bunch of bands that get together, play for people. You can ski all day and watch music all night.

We are also involved in charities. Ken Block, our lead singer founded our charity which is called “Lyrics For Life”. Basically an acoustic show that we bring a bunch of our friends that we’ve made throughout the years. We auction off hand written lyrics, anyone from Elton John to Motly Crue and they write their lyrics on pretty much anything. You can write it on a napkin, a surfboard, paper plate, whatever, we frame it up, auction it off and all the money goes towards stopping children’s cancer.

We try to stay connected to our fans and give them lots of reasons for them to be a part of our lifestyle.

PEV: What’s one of the more interesting objects that an artist has written lyrics on?

RN: Edwin McCain is a pilot and he wrote lyrics on a propeller. And of course we had records with lyrics on them…a couple surfboards, always a pair of jeans, lots of guitars. A lot of sports celebrities sign balls, jerseys and those kinds of things.

PEV: When you were playing in the colleges, Sister Hazel is a college cult classic. Which college do you think has the best fans? (Out of all the ones you’ve played).

That’s kind of hard to answer. Each college is known for there own deal. I think just in general we love playing colleges because it is such an interesting time in somebody’s life. They are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, what kind of music they want to listen to, what kind of job they want to have and if your there while they are making those kinds of decisions, hopefully you can become one of their long term go-to- bands. They’re deciding who they want to marry in their personal life, and in a lot of ways they are deciding who they want to marry in their musical life too (laughs). You kind of settle into what kinds of music you want to listen to. Your parents aren’t buying JayZ records, you know (laughs). They kind of know what they want to listen to at this point. Not to say that people stop forward motion but I think that you form a strong bond when you are there as a soundtrack for them at such an important time in their lives.

PEV: On the same note, in all your travels, is there a certain city that offers the best music scene?

RN: I think Austin is great. You can walk up and down 6th street and see 30 bands. It’s an incredible music scene. The southeast in the 90s had an amazing music scene as well. And I think a lot of that had to do with the bars allowing for great music to come through and really put their trust in to the fans that they would fill these clubs up if they booked these bands. A lot of that has changed and a lot of these clubs have turned into rave and techno type clubs. So, as far as original bans and live music goes especially in the southeast scene for live music, it has been few and far between. It is pretty hard to do what we did then, which was just get in a trailer and go around and do it on our own. But you know, I think music comes together in cycles and I think that live music and people actually playing their own instruments will always be an appeal. It comes in and out of fashion and will always be there.

PEV: Just by watching Sister Hazel on stage, you can tell that you are all such good friends. But when you get some down time, alone what can we find you doing?

RN: First and foremost is to spend time with my family. The only downfall of this job is being away from home and being away from loved ones. So, there is a lot of catching up on quality time when you go home. You know, you have to remind your wife what you look like and sound like. As far as hobbies go, I am really into working out now, which is fairly new for me. Life as a musician, you are pretty much hanging out all night and that takes a real toll on your body, so am taking up exercising; biking and being active in the outdoors. Also, I like to paint. The problem is, the main thing…this may sound strange but I still love playing music. Even though I can be so burnt out from playing on the road but when I come home the first thing I want to do is grab a guitar and start playing. It’s just something I’ve always done that it’s really hard to stay away from. I have a studio in my basement, so I am always going down there mixing around and inventing new grooves, writing songs and experimenting with the equipment. That is my first passion, luckily I can make a living doing it.

PEV: Is there a certain band right now that we should all be looking out for?

You know, there are quite a few bands out there now who are really good. There is a band from Nashville called Flora. I’ve always run into people here and there, who may not have as much exposure, one of them being David Ryan Harris, he’s the guitar player for John Mayer. He’s got a long history of being in a band called “Fallen for Now”. He’s an amazing solo artist. I think everyone should check him out.

PEV: What is next for Sister Hazel?

RN: As we speak we are finalizing the mixes for a Christmas record for this year. And then probably early next year we are going to put out a live acoustic album from a tour we just did, promoting Hard Rock Park, which is a theme park being built right now in Myrtle Beach. We did a tour of the east coast promoting the Hard Rock CafŽ promoting the Hard Rock Park and we’re going to mix them and put those out. Besides that we are constantly writing and constantly touring and trying to put out as much music as we can.

For more information on Sister Hazel, check out http://www.SisterHazel.com

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