Sometimes it takes time to get back to the basics, get back to one's roots, and build up the important things. For Sister Hazel, it's always been about the music, but over the course of their decade-plus music making career, it has expanded beyond that to incorporate so much more. They've maintained their unerring focus and desire to help, to share, to include, and to grow -- be it through their music or through other means -- all the while stretching their musical umbrella to cover what has become a true community.
At the basis of that umbrella is the music, and their latest, and perhaps best-realized Sister Hazel record start to finish, is aptly named "Absolutely." The affirmative overtones of the title only serve to underscore the pride the band justly feels with the end result. "In the most non-egotistical way possible, I feel this is the best record we've ever made," says rhythm guitarist/vocalist Drew Copeland. Concurs bassist Jett Beres: "We're journeymen and we've focused on creating a cathartic experience for our fans. We want our fans to feel what we're feeling, so the lyrics are really important." Equally important is capturing that elusive live show magic, and Beres feels that they've succeeded in coming closer to doing that. "This record captures our live show vibe well."
They were able to get the live feel by shaking things up in the recording process this time around. They, according to lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist Ken Block, went back to their roots. "I did a lot of writing at the house I grew up in, and we went into a warehouse in Gainesville, just a few blocks from the first club we played, and demo'ed everything." With this pre-production process, the band was able to hone the songs and make them shine, even before they entered the studio. "Sometimes you have to go all the way back around the block to where you started," comments guitarist Ryan Newell, "Breathing the same air and seeing the same sights took us back to our roots. I don't think this was us settling back into old routines so much as it allowed us to be comfortable with ourselves while constantly still trying to push the boundaries."
The band recorded over 70 demos, then went into the studio with three producers to record the thirteen tracks that would become "Absolutely." To further mix things up, the band, who had always recorded in urban locales, opted to do the majority of the recording at Darkhorse Studios in Franklin, Tennessee, which drummer Mark Trojanowski likens to Bearsville Studios in New York â€" it's a farm of sorts and the band was out in the country, by themselves, which made for a highly creative scenario with minimal distractions. Joining the band for six tracks at the production helm was Don McCollister, who had worked with the band in the past. Album Executive Producer Scott Parker produced six tracks as well, with the remaining track seeing Richard Marx in the production seat. (He also co-wrote the track, "Meet Me In The Memory," with Block.)
From the blues-rock guitar underpinnings of the bouncy "Shame" to the simplicity of the piano-driven "This Kind of Love," the album is chock full of a variety of aural emotions and colors. "Mandolin Moon"'s sing-along chorus is instantly catchy and ebullient, but to classify Sister Hazel as purveyors of happy is to do them a serious disservice. Keep listening and the tear-your-heart-out lyrical turns of phrase in "Tear By Tear" will linger in the mind long after the music has stopped, commanding a resonance that is further augmented by "Where Do You Go," a song that skates a story line between Hurricane Katrina's wrath and a dissolving relationship.
For a band rooted in the rock music they make, Gainesville, Florida's Sister Hazel has managed to spread far beyond that. There's the ardent collection of fans they've built, the special events they co-created, the charity endeavors. "We love to do so many different things," says Block. "Between writing songs we believe in, the live shows, building a community, expanding our events, and the charity, there's this whole lifestyle that is what Sister Hazel is all about."
And a lifestyle it has become. The fivesome has never been far from the road, and their consistent, regular touring has only helped to grow their fan base, year in and year out. Even before they signed their first record deal, they were always very available and open with their fans, and they've continued to strive to provide those fans with a feeling of sharing along the way. The result has been a group of fans who are extraordinarily loyal, some of whom follow the band on the road from city to city. "We've created a community of like-minded people who enjoy the music as much as we do," says Newell. "We're still having fun and that translates. All of us try to be accessible to our fans, and we really are concerned with their journey as much as ours."
Fans have flocked to special fan-centric events the band helped to create: The Rock Boat and The Rock Slope. The Rock Boat, the world's largest floating music festival which first sailed in 2001, was the first of its kind â€" other bands have since mimicked the concept, but none as successfully as Sister Hazel. (The next Rock Boat, which sails in January of 2007, sold out in one day, with Better Than Ezra and Collective Soul joining Sister Hazel on the long list of performers.) With The Rock Boat being such an enormous hit, the band went on to create The Rock Slope in 2004, a ski and snowboarding music fest, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where the bands involved perform at the hotels, on the mountain, and on the ski decks. Both The Rock Boat and The Rock Slope are perfect extensions of the Sister Hazel mentality toward their fans â€" open the lines of communication, be available to spend time with them, and provide the fans with the best experiences possible. "I think my favorite thing about being part of Sister Hazel is watching our music connect with the fans and inspiring them," says Copeland. "Our music also connects and gaps generations. We see people of all ages in our audiences." Trojanowski likes to call the group: "a band of the people. We've never been a guarded type of band. Ken and Andrew especially have a natural way of making everyone feel comfortable with them immediately."
With fan interaction so important to all of the band members, it is certainly understandable that Sister Hazel is equally serious about the charity work that they do. The band has raised over half a million dollars through concerts and silent auctions of handwritten lyrics held to benefit the Lyrics for Life charity they founded: funds raised go to help children and adults battling cancer. The group hosts five to six events per year, where Sister Hazel and artists like Elton John, the Beastie Boys, Jessica Simpson, Tim McGraw, Stone Temple Pilots, Barenaked Ladies, Aerosmith, Kid Rock, R.E.M., and many more have assisted in the Lyrics for Life cause.
"We've been fortunate with our success," says Block. "As a band, we've always put writing songs that we believe in, putting on powerful live shows, and being passionate about our craft at the top." Trojanowski attributes their longevity to a simple concept: "When you set yourself up as a band, a democracy, it lasts longer. That equal partnership is key." Over time, the band has grown a lifestyle and fan community via touring, fan interaction, and charity work, yet the all-important music provides the soundtrack for it all. Whether you call it roots rock or American rock, the music Sister Hazel makes is definitely not alternative or modern rock; they are not emo, screamo, anything-core or flavor-of-the-moment. Their music is solid and satisfying, comfortable and easy, like old friends and family. Absolutely perfect and absolutely Sister Hazel.
--- from the official Sister Hazel website