Sister Hazel Interview — ‘Heartland Highway’
I can’t remember where I was when I first heard Sister Hazel’s biggest hit, “All For You,” but I certainly remember singing it excessively. In fact, I’ve played . . . Somewhere More Familiar hundreds of times. So when my good friend – Rob Columbus – told me he was playing drums with the band for a few of their shows (because their regular drummer, Mark Trojanowski – had a baby), I immediately asked if he could land me an interview. He asked, and the band kindly agreed. I’ve never been more nervous. I spent the entire day immobile on the couch thinking of everything that could go wrong. Rob attempted to squash my panic by assuring me that the band members are “five of the nicest guys he’s ever met,” but nothing worked. Finally, I met the band. It became immediately clear that Rob wasn’t exaggerating. We did the interview in their dressing room at the Los Angeles House of Blues prior to their show. When we began, Ken Block (lead vocals, acoustic guitar) hilariously turned things around and started to interview me. Andrew Copeland (rhythm guitar, keys, vocals) laughed and said, “isn’t she supposed to ask the questions?” Thanks to Ken — I loosened up. It’s nice to meet a band with the perfect combination of success and humility. Enjoy!
I love that you still play the songs that made you famous. I know a lot of bands that get angry about playing their biggest hits. Is it difficult to sustain the energy playing those songs so many years later?
Ken: We’re fans of music, too. There are artists that we like to see, and we want them to play the songs that we love. People ask us if we get tired of playing “All For You.” It’s so fun to see how much it continues to resonate with people so long after that song came out. It’s more a feeling of gratitude that people still care and it can still make people sing every word no matter where we are in the world. And one of the things that’s so gratifying about our fan base is that they sing along to [our news songs, too].
Andrew: Even if they don’t know the words, they’ll just move their mouths as if they know the words. That’s even more fun to watch.
When you write a song about a tough personal experience in your life, does it reopen the wound every time you perform the song?
Andrew: There are certainly times when you fade back to something that reminds you of that time. It takes you back to what inspired the song.
Ken: There’s one song that I wrote that we had done for years, and after Andrew lost his dad he said he couldn’t do it anymore.
Andrew: He wrote it about losing his younger brother to cancer. I sang it with him forever, and I was always amazed that he could make it through without much of an issue. And when my dad passed away, I tried to sing it a couple of times and I couldn’t do it.
What song is that?
Ken: It’s called “Running Through the Fields.”
What about you Ryan? I know you wrote songs about your divorce. Is it difficult to keep singing those songs after you’ve healed?
Ryan Newell (lead and slide guitar, harmony vocals): The songs definitely helped me get through [my divorce] at the time and put my feelings into music. It’s like therapy. But I don’t go back to that place from where they came from. Once they went into the song they took on a life of their own. I don’t relive it every time we play the song. They don’t have that weight anymore.
Ken, I read that you wrote “All For You” very quickly. Did you have any idea it would become such a massive hit?
Ken: I wrote it in a couple of hours. I don’t think you ever know it’s going to be a massive thing. But I knew there was something special about it. I turned it in for a compilation CD that there were only 10 spots for. Who knows what’s a hit? But you do know when songs resonate quickly. But it was six years from the time I wrote it to when it got on the radio.
What was it like to hear it for the first time on the radio?
Ken: Our bus broke down and we had to rent a Ryder truck and we were sitting in the back with all these chairs and amps, and Casey Kasem came on the radio and said, “Breaking into the top forty, it’s this little band from Gainesville, Florida, with ‘All For You.” We were like, “Yeah! We’ve made it!”
You entered the music industry prior to the social media generation. Was it difficult to adjust?
Ken: We feel like we were on the leading edge of it. We asked Universal Records for money to work on a website and they said, “Websites are a fad. We’d rather put the money [elsewhere].” But we knew early on that we would connect with our fans any way we could. Free downloads impacted the industry, but you gotta roll with it.
What’s different now that you’re not on the label?
Ken: There are pros and cons. The pro is that we can work at our own pace. You know who to applaud if things go well and who to point your finger at if they don’t. The downside is that you don’t have as big a stick. Our whole deal is to control what we can control.
I read that on this most recent record, Heartland Highway, everyone participated by submitting songs. That’s a great idea in theory, but it can lend itself to fighting.
Ken: It used to be really tough. We’d come in with 70 or 80 songs. We would vote on it and people’s feelings would get hurt. But the last couple of records we tried to evolve and let everyone bring their A-game and contribute. We had a blast, and the record came out great. Even if we bring in songs, everyone gets their fingerprints on it. We defer to the writer on the bigger decisions.
Andrew: They always change shape by the time the five of us start to mess with it.
Tell me about the Rock Boat.
Andrew: This is our twelfth year. It’s a way for us to connect with our fans. We have about twenty five to thirty bands that go out with us.
Why did you start Lyrics for Life?
Ken: When I was fourteen, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He died four years later. You take that with you the rest of your life. There’s the research side of it and then there’s the side of it that supports organizations that supports the families and patients that are going through it. We’ve raised nearly a million dollars.
What music are you listening to?
Andrew: Need to Breathe was on last year’s Rock Boat. I love them. And I love The Band Perry.
Ken: I’m a huge fan of Blackberry Smoke. They are an authentic Southern Rock band that we’ve known for a long time. They are the Southern Rock real deal.
You’ve been together for a long time. Have you ever wanted to kill each other?
Ken: The first few years were tough. We went from playing little bars to touring a platinum record. Everyone was kind of finding their way. Egos get in the way. Plus, we were partying hard. When that’s coloring things, there’s a lot of misunderstandings. One thing that happened is that I got clean and sober nine years ago.
Andrew: It had a major effect on all of us. It made everyone look in the mirror.
Ken: It’s been a huge gift to all of us. But some things just take time and trust. In those next few years we stopped taking things personally. We try to check our egos at the door. There are things we’ll hear and think, “God there was a time when that would have been a big argument and then three weeks of the silent treatment.“ Now, it’s over in thirty seconds.