With the public's attention span lasting about as long as a Mike Tyson fight, the members of Hootie & the Blowfish know their new album coming out Tuesday had better be a knockout.
“It's a really important album for us because we haven't put out a new record in four, almost five, years,” guitarist Mark Bryan said. “We want to say, `This is who we are. This is what we do.'”
What Bryan and his pals do these days isn't much different than what they did in 1995, when they took over America's airwaves with such memorable folk-rock songs as “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry,” and “Only Wanna Be With You.”
Led by lead singer Darius Rucker's soulful baritone vocals, Bryan's jangly guitars, and the stoic rhythm section of Dean Felber on bass, Jim “Soni” Sonefeld on drums, the Carolina quartet soared to the top of the charts and made the quantum leap from playing the nightclub circuit to selling out basketball arenas and major amphitheaters.
Hootie's debut disc went on to sell 16 million copies in the United States, tying Boston and Alanis Morissette for the best-selling debut disc of all time.
The band's sophomore effort, 1996's “Fairweather Johnson,” sold 3 million copies, and its 1998 CD, “Musical Chairs” sold more than a million in the United States. While those numbers would be impressive for virtually any band, for Hootie they were overshadowed by the phenomenon of “Cracked Rear View.”
In 2000, the group collected some rarities and alternate takes for a disc titled “Scattered, Smothered, and Covered,” but it has not released any new material since “Musical Chairs.”
That long drought comes to an end Tuesday with the release of the band's fifth disc for Atlantic Records, simply titled “Hootie & the Blowfish.” Although the four musicians are anxious to see how the public and radio stations react, Bryan insisted that they never felt pressure to produce a hit album.
“I suppose you could put pressure on yourself, if you let it feel like pressure. But we didn't,” Bryan said. “We were making the record for all the right reasons, we were doing what we wanted to do. We kept it fun, kept it cool, kept it sounding good.”
From Hootie's perspective, 16 years after the band got its start playing fraternity parties at the University of South Carolina, the pressure was off because the musicians have already achieved their ultimate goal: longevity.
They see “Cracked Rear View” as something of a fluke, achieving more commercial success than they ever imagined. Their goal all along, Bryan said, was to be able to stay together as a band and make music on their own terms. With global album sales now totaling over 25 million, Hootie & the Blowfish have essentially earned their musical freedom.
Despite keeping a low profile over the last four years, spending time with their young families, the musicians continued to play two or three concerts a month. They have continued to work on their musicianship and hone their group chemistry, said Bryan, who has learned to play lap-steel guitar (on the new ballad “Tears Fall Down”) along with his guitar and mandolin work.
“It's about the music, and maintaining that level of quality, and even trying to better it,” Bryan said, “and I think we've been able to do that.”
Long before entering the studio, the band members' confidence level was sky high, he added, because they had written 30 tunes for the new disc. With the abundance of material, they felt they could be highly selective in choosing the 13 songs that would go on the new disc.
“Hootie & the Blowfish” was recorded at Beacon Street Studios in Venice, Calif., helmed by one of the music industry's premier producers, Don Was, whose star clients have included Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Bonnie Raitt.
“He's a legend, and there's a reason he's a legend,” Bryan said.
For starters, he said, Was helped maintain a positive atmosphere during the recording sessions.
“It was really fun. And it was really rock and roll,” Bryan said. “In a sense, he's kind of an eccentric, but in a really cool way - sort of a creative, in-the-moment way. You start working on a song, and wherever it goes, that's where Don will take us. We came up with a lot of new approaches to songs, we tried a lot of new stuff.”
As an example, the song “Little Brother” has more of a soulful R&B feel than anything else Hootie has done.
Against a steady backbeat, Bryan played rhythm guitar with a Bootsy Collins-style wah-wah pedal and Was added his touch on Fender Rhodes piano.
“That's the first time we actually achieved the funky R&B feel we've always gone for,” Bryan said.
Another major change initiated by Was was the recording process itself.
Like most musicians and studio engineers, the guys in Hootie have always believed that the best way to record an album is to tape their parts separately. With each voice and instrument on isolated tracks, the prevailing thought goes, the music can be perfectly adjusted during the studio mixing process.
Was had a different idea.
“Most of the record was recorded with all of us in the same room, including instruments,” Bryan said.
That meant that for the first time ever, Rucker, Bryan, Felber, and Sonefeld recorded their songs standing side by side in the studio, just as they have done on stage all these years.
It was an exhilarating experience, Bryan said.
“Not having to wear headphones, with everyone in the same room, all jamming to the music, it was just really cool,” he said. “Don would be dancing, and sometimes he'd come up with another idea. It was definitely the most spontaneous we've ever been in the studio.”
The disc was finished last spring but its release was held back for a variety of business reasons, including an effort to not conflict with Rucker's solo album released last year, Atlantic officials said. In the meantime, Hootie added a new song, “Innocence,” with a different producer, Pete Masitti, which the label chose as the album's first single.
A second Masitti-produced tune, “Alright,” also was added to the disc - as a hidden track because it “just didn't click with the rest of the album but it was too good to leave off,” Bryan said.
The band plans to go on tour in May but is being cautious, planning to co-headline with the band Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
“It's been three and a half years since we've been on tour, and we're not sure how big a draw we'd be on our own,” Bryan said. “We might go out on tour in the summer and obviously, if the album takes off, we'll play the size venues we want to play.”
What if “Hootie & the Blowfish,” the album, doesn't become another commercial sensation? Not to worry, Hootie & the Blowfish, the band, will still be together, making music their way.