By Larry May
After fifteen years of playing live and making stellar records, Sister Hazel have settled into the role of not quite elder statesmen, but something more like middle management. The band still plays tons of dates every year and has turned their cruise, The Rockboat, with other bands into a huge event every summer. Sister Hazel is playing in Gadsden on June 13 at 9:30 PM at the city’s annual Riverfest, and the Southeastern town couldn’t be more pleased.
Jett Beres, the band’s bass player, talked with me recently while he was sightseeing in Columbia, South Carolina.
Is the band’s namesake, Sister Hazel, still alive?
She is. She just turned eighty. She still does her charity work with shelters and missions in our hometown of Gainesville, Florida. We do some charity work for her and we’re still amazed at her philanthropic nature.
Can you give our readers a glimpse of Gainesville?
Gainesville is your typical Southern college town, with a huge music scene. There were hundreds of bands, and I played in three bands while I was in Sister Hazel, in fact, we all did. It really set the stage for Sister Hazel, because the scene was based more on camaraderie than competition. Of course, when we performed, your band better be good, because half the audience knew how to play. That sense of brotherhood was really the impetus for The Rockboat. This is the ninth year of cruise, and for four days we usually bring 20 bands and 2500 hardcore fans out on a huge boat. We all sit in on each other’s sets, and play until the sun comes up.
The new record is coming out on June 17th , can you tell us something about it?
The title is “Before the Amplifiers”, and we recorded it in January. The record is all acoustic, and we made it because our fans have been asking for one for so long. There are songs from every album on there, and some have been really stripped down, and others have been totally rearranged. This is a piece for the fans, and it sounds great. We’ve always paid close attention to our lyrics and harmonies, and this record really brings that to light.
Does the band have someone who writes the majority of the songs? Most singers tend to fill that role.
Early on, Ken Block, the lead singer, was the most prolific writer in the band. But the rest of the band has been developing their skills, and the last four records have been very collaborative in nature. We find that we like that approach better, and as the songs get fleshed out, they become stronger Sister Hazel songs. In fact, we like that approach so much, we used it on our Christmas record. We each brought in three songs that we chose and produced by ourselves, and then brought the songs to the band and put the record together. We’re going into the studio this fall, and plan to record our next studio album like that.
The most intriguing thing about your fan base is that you guys always have a nice college following. But the fans aren’t always the thirty year old college junior, it seems to always turn over and the base stays young. How do you accomplish this?
We pay close attention to that. We come from a college town, and we love that connection. Although we are a little older, we try to stay in tune with what college kids are doing. In fact, we just finished a slew of spring college tours. We do that every spring and fall, and it is very important to us. Over the years, we have figured out that each college kid is starting to form a musical identity. You’re no longer a high school kid, you’re much more of a free thinker, and form tastes that stay with you for decades.
I noticed you said that over the years, you have learned a lot. With your experience and also bringing bands on your cruise, has that sparked an interest to sign bands and maybe start your own label?
We haven’t officially started a label, but helping baby bands is our M.O. We always hear back from bands that they appreciate how much we help them. We love to take young artists on the road, and help to show them the ropes. For instance, we took Gavin DeGraw on his first tour. We talked with him about his stage show, and helped him to deal with his first press releases.
How does it work getting booked for a festival? Does the festival call your people?
They called us and said, “We want Sister Hazel”! We’re really excited about the diverse lineup that we’ll be playing with, and really like the different people that will be there.
Sister Hazel used to play 250 shows a year. They are down to about 100 nights a year, mainly because of their desire to spend more time with their families. One would think that many bands would get tired or just stop drawing crowds, but don’t lump them in with that crowd. Sister Hazel doesn’t play as much, but play just as well as any band touring today. As long as the crowd keeps drawing loyal fans as well as younger converts, they really don’t see any reason to quit.