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Sister Hazel

Interviewed by Gary Hill

Interview with Ken Block and Mark Trojanowski Of Sister Hazel From 2008

Audio of this Interview is available in our members' area.


This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 4 at

You guys have done both the major label situation and the independent one. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

Mark Trojanowski – I think they both have their unique advantages and disadvantages and unique experiences, but I think for us at this point in our career – I think if you were an established artist and have been out there touring and putting out records it definitely behooves the artist to kind of be doing things independently on their own because they can control their career, control the songs they’re releasing, when they’re putting out music. Obviously, money-wise, labels take a majority of the money. And I think if you’re a new act, you need all that publicity and everything else because you’re not going to be able to generate it on your own. But I think a lot of the artists that have been around for over ten years this model of working with independent labels and stuff like that is more advantageous to them at that point in their career.


Do you prefer one or the other?

Ken Block – For different reasons, you know. I think that the majors come with a big bat and that’s really good I think for young bands. But, again, if you look at it like a funnel there’s only a few bands that get that kind of attention at that moment in time. The way things are now there’s a ton of opportunities at any level to do things independently. You can record some great sounding records digitally really, really affordably. We’ve even recorded records that we put out where we’d be doing overdubs in hotel rooms around the country. So, the idea of controlling all these different things, it works really, really well. I think if a major is really going to be there and swing the bat for you, then it’s a pretty amazing thing, but you’ve got to look at any of them at any one given time there’s only about two or three bands - tops - that they’re pushing that hard.


Mark Trojanowski – The whole digital thing has really kind of changed the landscape of how people buy their music, get their music and how things are distributed. Even for us, when we put out a new record seventy five to eighty five percent of the initial part of the record is a hard physical product – CD.  But then as we get into our catalog sales, our catalog sales have flip-flopped now so that pretty much seventy five to eighty five percent of the sales of our catalog music is all digital via iTunes, Rhapsody, other formats.


Ken Block – Although, this time… he’s absolutely right… we put out our first live acoustic CD (see the review in this issue of MSJ – ed.) early in June and it wound up in the Billboard Top 200, but literally fifty percent of it was digital and fifty percent of it was hard copy. So, that’s a pretty interesting thing to kind of take a look at.


Have you guys thought about releasing it on vinyl? I’ve heard vinyl is making sort of a comeback.

Ken Block – Yeah, we’ve had this discussion and very recently. It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time but there’s really …they aren’t geared for that. It’s just kind of a cool little thing to say, but it’s actually becoming viable. 


Mark Trojanowski –When you have bands like Radiohead with the crazy promotion thing that they did where when they released the record via themselves on their website and then didn’t really charge people. Whatever people wanted to pay they could pay for the record. So, I think a lot of established artists are just looking at different ways of releasing their music to their fans because the other model is really not working much anymore. You can see the CD sales sliding and the scale going the opposite way.


That actually ties nicely into another question I had which is, how do you see the music industry as having changed since you got started?

Ken Block –Well, the internet has…it’s hugely different. Let me tell you a story. When we first got signed we were kind of a grass roots band and had developed a pretty large following primarily in the South East and we had already gotten our own website in the early ‘90’s when we got started and stuff. And when we got signed I remember going to the label and asking them for some money to help sort of fortify our website – and that’s Universal which is the like biggest record company in the world. And they were like, “you know, the website thing - it’s a little over-rated.” We wanted like fifteen hundred bucks or something. “We’d rather spend that money a little more wisely.” Now they want to own your website.

Mark Trojanowski – Now they want to own it and control it – so times have changed. Even the labels haven’t fully accepted the actual iTunes downloading thing because there’s so many labels that were still trying to copyright their music, with Sony and all that debacle, and not willing to put all of their catalog with iTunes and so, I think they’re kind of losing out. It’s not going away. It’s pretty much here to stay. They just need to sort of get involved with it.

Ken Block – I also think that (I know we’re going on an on about it),,,

MSJ: No, that’s fine…

Ken Block – …it’s interesting – the social networking sites have been huge. I think myspace in particularly really allowed bands virally to get heard by so many different people just by word of mouth or by clicking through a few different things. And there are bands on there with millions of plays that have absolutely no label support, but something resonated, something clicked. When I’m looking for new music, something kind of inspiring and something a little bit different I end up bouncing around on some of these different sites. I certainly don’t look in my Best Buy circular.

Mark Trojanowski – I think the industry now doesn’t really want to develop acts. They want to put an act out, have it be a smash and then if it’s not a smash anymore, they’re gone. Developing bands and multi-records isn’t there anymore. The other thing that’s sort of popped up, even way back to the Vonda Shepard thing with the Ally McBeal show is how television has sort of taken control of that, too with Grey’s Anatomy and a lot of shows like that now putting out physical discs of all the artists. Snow Patrol basically broke off of being on that show. So, that’s another vehicle, I think, for young up and coming acts to get out there and rate without having a radio hit at first by using the actual television situation that’s available these days.


Have you guys been doing any of that?

Ken Block – Yeah, we just had a song on Scrubs a little while back, off the last record. Over the years we’ve had a bunch of placements in TV and a half dozen or so movie placements, and those things have been great. Especially, one of those was a movie called “10 Things I Hate About You,” that came out and the soundtrack to that went gold, but what it did for us was internationally. That movie got distributed internationally and then people discovered us in places that we never had any idea it would reach.


So, do you guys consciously pursue those kinds of deals?

Ken Block – Yeah, we do. We kind of put stuff out there and we have a couple different people that are working that. I think those are valuable opportunities.


You guys also do the Rock Boat and now the Rock Slope. What can you tell us about those things?

Ken Block – We founded Rock Boat about eight years ago and it was kind of our idea as a “thank you” to the fans.  We partnered up with our manager at the time, Andy Levine and we started out with half a boat and it went so well we chartered the entire boat the next year and sold it out. And it’s been selling out ever since. So, it’s been a remarkable festival scene around the community. It’s extraordinarily passionate music fans. The vibe on the boat is – between the artists – it’s not a “battle of the bands.” It’s a deep sense of camaraderie and jamming with each other and hanging out with your fans. It’s not some crazy stalker fest. It’s people who really “get it.” It’s so hard to put into words how much fun it is as an artist. The feedback we get from everybody that goes out there it’s the same thing for the fans.

The Rock Slope, which is kind of the same idea only we took it out to the mountains, out in Steamboat Springs and people would go snow boarding or  skiing or cocktailing or hot tubbing or whatever for all day. And we’d do shows at the top of the mountain and the top of the gondola or we’d do acoustic shows in the lodge or big rock shows at the base of the mountain. We bring a few other artists. You know, we learned early on that it’s not just about “us all.” For us, it’s been about creating opportunities for experiences – memories with people and things that are much bigger than about one particular track or one particular show – that community kind of takes on a life of its own. So, between Rock Boat, Rock Slope, Lyrics For Life (our charity), all the touring we do and trying to always put out new and fresh material as often as we can we try to please the fans.

Mark Trojanowski – I think one of the major reasons that we’ve had as long a career as we’ve had is because it’s not just been driven from touring or radio success. It’s just been doing events with these people and just kind of interacting with the fan base where a lot of other artists really don’t do that. We were doing that all the way back when we were an independent band years ago, just kind of going out there, grass roots stuff and that just sort of has become a way of life for us.


You mentioned the camaraderie with all the artists. Isn’t it kind of odd how so many artists seem to look at it as a “battle of the bands” rather than networking?

Ken Block – Yeah, we’ve been very, very fortunate. We don’t play that game. We try awfully hard to connect with artists in a friendly way and support each other. I’ll tell you, we came out of the scene in Gainesville, Florida and that South Eastern scene and at the time people asked me a lot, “how do scenes get started?” And, I think one of the things that happens is, they don’t just happen. People kind of work for it, but what we saw happen was, whether it was some acoustic artist or some punk band or some folkies and some funk band, they were all saying, “Let’s connect the dots.” And, any time someone would make some kind of connection, or connect with a promoter or a booking agent or a club out of town, there was this sharing of information and this real genuine support to see everybody succeed. And once everybody gets behind it and pushes that wagon, you create an energy. You create an atmosphere of growth, not of beating each other up. I think you see that kind of thing happening in Athens or in Seattle where all these people kind of knew each other and kind of got things rolling. We’ve kept that mentality. We’ve always tried to bring up bands that we’ve seen that we like.

Mark Trojanowski – They’ve had the same kind of experience and the same fan base. All of those bands, you’ve got Less Than Jake from Gainesville, you’ve got Edwin McCain (he’s still around), Seven Mary Three. So, all these bands kind of came up and did the same kind of thing around the same time and really kind of embraced each other and embraced the fan community thing and the tour scene and I think that’s why we’re all kind of still doing it.   


I know artists are not crazy about having their music pigeon-holed, but how would you describe your sound?

Ken Block – Man, I hate having our music pigeon-holed, so much so that…first off all, we’ve never sat down to say (except for making an acoustic record or something like that) “we’re going to make this kind of record.” In fact, what we did (we made our first holiday record), this is kind of an example of how we go into a project. We made a fourteen or fifteen song holiday record. All of us, the five of us, each got to pick three songs. It could be a classic old holiday song, you could write it, and then it was your vision that we were going to serve on those songs. So Mark, he went in and brought in huge choirs and string sections and really wanted to do these big productions. I did a sort of soul version, sort of funk version of “Little Drummer Boy” and a bluegrass version of “The Dreidel Song.” So, everyone feels like their voice gets to be heard. We’re not afraid to try anything. I love to be in a band that doesn’t mind cranking it up, getting big distorted guitars or stripping it down and just having mandolins and voice or something.


Mark Trojanowski – I think, too, just on a side note when you’re talking about trying to “pigeon-hole” the music, I think it’s hard to do that, too because where the popular music scene is trying to go at the time – you know we’ve been around since the mid ‘90’s – the music scene has changed so much. If you take like The Eagles right now, The Eagles wouldn’t be considered a rock band in today’s music, they’d probably be considered a country artist.

MSJ: They’re getting played on CMT.

Mark Trojanowski – Right, I think that’s kind of been one of our little things because we can fit into so many different things. We appeal to so different crowds – young kids, college kids, older people. You know, we can play for that NASCAR or country crowd. They kind of get into our music because of the Southern rock thing, but we can do the rock and the pop stuff. So, it’s always been hard for us, or even people writing about the band, to really describe what we are because it’s kind of very chameleon-like.


Ken Block – I’ll tell you what, we’ve toured with bands like The Allman Brothers and played with Skynyrd and the sort of Southern rock thing and then we’ve shared the stage with the Foo Fighters and the Matchbox Twentys of the world, and then we strip it down and play with the Indigo Girls. It’s been really fun for us to be able to do all that different kind of stuff. I’ll say that in general, I’m going back to the beginning of this question, I think that the sort of high energy rhythm section, slide guitar parts, really memorable hooky guitars, and the big harmony vocals - trying to attach that lyricism and melody to big harmonies with that sort of Southern thumbprint and tight rhythm section.


Who would you see as your musical influences?

Ken Block –That’s a tough question. I try not to listen to music when I’m writing. I try to just think about life. I try to think about subjects and emotion and story lines more than a sound, but that’s just me. I grew up listening to, when I was young, sort of singer songwriter Simon and Garfunkel meets Fleetwood Mac, harmonies and that stuff. Then I grew up covering Judas Priest songs. So, it’s really hard for me to say, but I know that everything from Frank Zappa to Van Morrison.  


Mark Trojanowski – I think everyone has a little different background of what they listen to, what they like to play and stuff. You know, when you put five people together, coming from all different backgrounds…


Ken Block – We are a five man democracy. We get in there and hammer ‘em out. The only time that really changes is if we’re trying to serve one guy’s vision on something. Most of the time we go in there and everyone gets their fingerprints on this because then everybody feels a little ownership. And it may not be what I had in my head at the very beginning and that used to be a tougher wiggle. Now, it’s cool, man. You know, we know we’re in the band for the long haul and the band’s going to keep on making records. Everything’s not so precious that you fight for every little thing. It’s, “no, that came out completely different than how I thought it might,” because everyone gets their fingerprints and their sort of little pieces in there.


You guys have had a very consistent lineup. Is that part of why that is – the fact that it’s a democracy?

Ken Block – Well, I think that’s caused a lot of different things, but I think in general, yeah, I think we’re very close and very much like brothers. We’re getting along better now probably than ever in the history of the band. Each year we get a little bit better, a little more seasoned and a little more checking your egos at the door. We all have a pretty good respect for each other and what each other brings to the party.


Your most recent album is an all acoustic live set. What went into that decision?

Ken Block – People had been asking for it for a long time and it gave an opportunity… You know, we put out a live record of shows and we have a DVD out of shows, but there’s a lot of times when you strip it down and play an acoustic set, it’s a different kind of connection with the crowd –different interpretations of the song and there’s a little bit more focus, I think, on some of the lyricism and some of the emotion of the raw song. You know, one of our bigger hits early on was a song called, “Happy.” It was kind of this uptempo song and it goes, (sings) “Happy, happy.” But that song wasn’t about being happy at all. So, when we stripped it down and we pulled the vibe back and we let the lyrics kind of follow a little bit more, and all of a sudden people were like, “Wow! I get it now.” So, that was kind of cool, too. I think it was something we had to put out – it was time.


What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Ken Block – Oh, man. Well, there’s been several Spinal Tap moments over the years. I fell off the front of the stage. I was coming down these stage steps that were about 18 inches off the front of the stage. I thought it was backed up because it was a shadow. And I was looking out and walking in front of the stage and I just dropped right down and got wedged under my arms. So, they had to come pull the speaker out and pull me out. It was kind of like getting caught in the pod. We’ve had a few.

Mark Trojanowski – Riding in the back of a Ryder truck hearing one of our songs on the radio.

Ken Block – Oh yeah, the first time we heard “All For You” on like Casey Kasem, our old bus had broken down. We left it in Biloxi or somewhere like that and we got in the back of a Ryder truck. We were all in the back of a Ryder truck with lawn chairs and Casey Kasem comes on, “here’s a little band from Gainesville, Florida with their hit song, ‘All For You.’” And we were like, (shouts) “We’ve done it! We’re there!” That was a good moment.


Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there for the fans?

Ken Block – Just our endless gratitude for them and that we hope to continue to try to do things and come up with new and clever ways to grow our community and get people out to come check out the band live because that gives you a much better sense of what it’s about. We encourage everyone to come out. The online world is a good place to dip in there, or – check it out.

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