Interview with Mark Bryan of
Hootie and The Blowfish
By Sean Koepenick

Mark Bryan knows a thing or two about being under the glare of a spotlight. After playing the club scene up and down the East Coast for over eight years, Hootie and The Blowfish struck gold in 1994 with Cracked Rear View, which was one of the biggest selling debuts (over 14 million) of all time. It even eclipsed Atlantic Records previous record holder-AC/DC’s Back In Black which sold only 12 million. Unless you were living underneath a volcano in 1994- you remember. The videos for “Hold My Hand” and “Let Her Cry” were played on VH1 nonstop. But the band- which in addition to Mark Bryan on lead guitar and vocals consists of Darius Rucker-lead vocals, Dean Felber on bass guitar and Jim “Soni” Sonefeld on drums did not slow down from there. Fairweather Johnson followed in 1996 and Musical Chairs in 1998 and both were very well received. 2000 did see the band take some well-deserved time off from basically touring relentlessly after every new record. Darius and Mark both released solo albums-(I was looking forward to all the band members releasing solo albums all on the same day- just like Kiss but Dean and Soni didn’t come up with the goods) and Hootie released an all “covers” CD. But 2003 will be the return of Hootie with a self-titled release in March. Hootie has always been about 4 members contributing equally to create a great song. In Mark Bryan’s case, he has succeeded in reaching this goal- instead of showing off with a “run the neck” guitar solo and disturbing the flow of a track. Mark has allowed his many musical influences-Paul Westerberg, R.E.M. and The Police to name a few to shape his input to Hootie’s overall sound.

The band has benefited from this collaborative effort immensely, judging from the many fans around the world. Recently I was able to talk to Mark about his music, songwriting and his work both in and out of Hootie. The results were what you would expect from a member of this honest band-open and upfront.

Right: Hootie and The Blowfish (Mark Bryan is on the far left)

E.C.: When did you start playing music? Was the guitar the first instrument you picked up?

Mark: I started playing guitar when I was 10. I'm left-handed so I naturally held it as such. The old dude who was teaching me made me flip it over because he "didn't know how to teach me left handed." Who knows I might have been a virtuoso. Anyway I put it down for a couple of years, then look a guitar class in junior high when I was 14. I quickly learned "TNT" by AC/DC and I've never looked back.

E.C.: What bands/artists had a big influence on you when you first started playing?

Mark: I heard "My Generation" on the radio when I was about 14 and remember being immediately taken by the energy. It was mostly classic rock until high school at which point I got into The Police, U2, and R.E.M. I always liked George Benson.

E.C.: Was Hootie and The Blowfish your first band or did you play with any other bands in your hometown before that?

Mark: I played with Dean, our bass player in a high school cover band called Missing In Action. I also had a band in Maryland that played in the summers during college. We were called The Norms, and that's where I first started doing original music.

E.C.: How did you meet the other members of the band?

Mark: When Dean and I both decided to go to school at the University Of South Carolina, Darius lived on our hall in the dorm. Darius and I started playing acoustic shows as The Wolf Brothers, then we got Dean on bass and started Hootie. By senior year, Soni and I had a class together, and we were looking for a drummer. Plus Soni played soccer for USC, and Darius' girlfriend had a crush on him, so we knew him.

E.C.: I recently spoke to another musician from D.C who says he remembers getting demos from you when Hootie was just starting out. Were there any DC based bands that you enjoyed while growing up?

Mark: I loved Tommy Keene. I would see him and like The Meatmen at the 9:30, or The Replacements at The Bayou and I would just be starstruck. He has some really great songs. In MIA we used to cover DC Star's "Is It You" and Face Dancers-"Red Shoes."

E.C.: Hootie and The Blowfish formed in 1986. You basically just played anywhere and everywhere to get noticed. Was is it hard to keep up this pace without some kind of record label support?

Mark: The hard part was traveling with 6 dudes in a van, but every time we went back to a market, more people would show up to see us than the last time. By 1993 we had sold 25,000 copies of our own stuff without any record label support.

E.C.: What do you miss about those early days? Is there anything you would like to forget?

Mark: I miss the innocence of being the underdog, the time when no one put un- realistic expectations on our success. I don't miss playing a shit club in say, Virginia Beach on a Tuesday to like 4 people.

E.C.: After many years of persistence, Hootie signed to Atlantic Records in 1993. Cracked Rear View came out the next year. Were you prepared for the huge sales that followed?

Mark: No, we thought we could maybe sell like 200,000, but we were fortunate in that our success was based on us being ourselves-musically and otherwise.

E.C.: At the same time that fans were going crazy, there also was a critical backlash against the band. How did you counter the critics who said your music was either bland or just too mainstream?

Mark: I actually didn't try to counter that. In some ways I agreed. I'm a big enough music fan to know that we weren't exactly knocking down doors of innovation. But we were real; our sound is a true representation of our 4 styles coming together, and people really like it. We were also young. I think that as time goes on and we become better, more rounded musicians, our styles will continue to develop. If you don't like it, don't listen. We know plenty of people who will.

E.C.: Your second album-(Fairweather Johnson) seemed to go to great lengths to explore new musical territories. Different textures and instrumentation was used and it may have surprised some of your hard-core fans. In retrospect were you happy with the results?

Mark: Yeah, we have no regrets. We had like 30 new songs at the time, and it was time to move on from Cracked Rear View. I don't think we tried to reinvent ourselves, we just wanted to evolve a little.

E.C.: 1998's Musical Chairs seems to be a mixture of some "signature" pop songs but again expanding your sound with some country and even blues-influenced songs. What are some of your favorite songs from that CD?

Mark: I really like "One By One", it's kind of an alt-country thing. I feel like "Wishing" is one of our best rockers and "Home Again" is a hit song that never got the chance.

E.C.: Can you go into more detail about how a new song is created? How is it a collaborative effort?

Mark: We literally even write lyrics together. Some songs come in further developed than others, but they all get the full Hootie treatment before they make it to a CD. We'll jam on a riff or chord progression until it feels good, and if someone already has a melody or a lyric, we'll start there, but everyone keeps an open mind.

E.C.: Obviously you've played so many shows that some may be a blur. Are there any shows that still stick in your head for some reason?

Mark: I loved playing our home football stadium at USC for Farm Aid '96. Our set felt great and Son Volt was unbelievable. I remember seeing them from out in the crowd, and I got choked up because it sounded so good. There are many others. Some of the overseas shows were special. There is something about having your music accepted by a different culture.

E.C.: What musicians outside of Hootie would you like to write songs and/or play with?

Mark: The Boss, Stewart Copeland, Paul Westerberg, Flea.

E.C.: What are some Hootie tracks that you never get tired of playing of and are there any that you would like to retire forever?

Mark: I love playing "Honeyscrew" from Fairweather and we sort of rework all the songs that get old, so we don't burn out on them.

E.C.: In 2000 Hootie released Scattered, Smothered, and Covered. Whose idea was it to do an "all-covers CD"? Some other bands have pretty poor track record with this-Guns and Roses The Spaghetti Incident immediately comes to mind.

Mark: We just had a bunch of tracks that we'd recorded and never released, and we knew we weren't going to put out an original CD anytime soon, so we did it for our fans.

E.C.: Did you get any feedback through any channels from some of the artists you covered?

Mark: Yeah, Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd were psyched. Walter Salas Humara showed up at The Bottom Line and did "I'm Over You" and "Commodore Peter" with us. 54-40 was always happy with "I Go Blind." John Croslin from The Reivers showed up at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

E.C.: 2000 also saw the release of your first solo CD-30 On The Rail. Were some of these songs recorded with Hootie that did not make the cut?

Mark: Yeah, we always seem to have a surplus. Songs don't get nixed because they are bad songs, we just keep the ones that are working the best within the combo at that particular time.

E.C.: The liner notes credited all the songs to you except one of the standout tracks "City By The River"-which was credited to all of Hootie. Is this the Hootie single that got away?

Mark: Actually that is my song. The reason we credited Hootie is because the band ended up recording it for the JESUS soundtrack based around the made for TV movie. Every song we record as Hootie, gets the publishing split four ways, regardless of who wrote it originally.

E.C.: It seems to be more guitar-oriented and harder rocking-was that a goal for you while recording these songs?

Mark: No, that's just what happened.

E.C.: This CD was also about going back to your roots. You went back to the studio where Hootie recorded your early EP-Kootchypop and worked with Don Dixon again-how was that experience?

Mark: It was phenomenal. Having Dixon producing and playing bass, Fred LeBlanc from Cowboy Mouth on drums and Peter Holsapple on various other instruments, in the studio where Murmur and Reckoning were recorded, felt legendary.

E.C.: Did you get to jam a lot with the musicians involved? Did you ever rock out to "Praying Mantis" for instance?

Mark: No, we did 15 songs in 10 days, so we stuck to the album material. We jammed on my stuff-if you listen to the end of the album, you can hear Fred throw his drumsticks down and scream-he was naked at the time. (No lie).

E.C.: Will there be a follow-up to 30 On The Rail?

Mark: Yes, I have another stack of songs. I'm trying to record these with The Occasional Milkshake, a three piece side project that I started with Hank Futch, the upright bass player for The Blue Dogs and Gary Greene Hootie's percussionist. Like the name says though, we only play when both bands are off, so it's been slow coming together.

E.C.: You also tried your hand at producing another artist recently? What was that like?

Mark: I've produced two full length albums since August of 2002. Five Way Friday and Patrick Davis, both South Carolina artists. Their CD's are available on the Hootie website. I enjoyed it. It's a lot of work, but its cool being on the other side of the board. Kind of like coaching as opposed to playing ball. When you get into an artist, you get a vision of how their CD can sound, and you try and focus the project in that direction, arranging songs and parts. It's challenging, but highly satisfying when it's complete.

E.C.: Can you tell us the story behind Handpicked Records and your involvement with it?

Mark: We had a label named Breaking Records to which Atlantic Records was the parent company. After little success, Atlantic decided not to pick up our option. I decided to go to the label and suggested putting a little money into a bunch of up and coming artists, as opposed to a bunch of cash into one. Kind of in the vein of Aware. They liked it, and our second Handpicked compilation will be be available in April. Also on our website.

E.C.: What bands/artists have made an impact on you lately?

Mark: The Old 97's have a great combination of rocking energy and clever songwriting. Their singer, Rhett Miller just released a solo CD that is as good as The 97's. The list goes on.

E.C.: The new self-titled CD from Hootie comes out in March 2003. One of the big changes I noticed was the change in producer. Why did you decide to work with someone other than Don Gehman this time around?

Mark: After taking four years off and changing management, we felt it was time to start over, try something different, a new approach.

E.C.: How has this influenced the recording sessions?

Mark: Well for one thing we recorded most of the album live with everyone and their instruments in the same room. We also used some drum loops for the first time. We built the loops with our own sounds. It was an overall looser approach. Don Was is a great producer/musician with great feel and a wonderful vibe.

E.C.: What new tracks are you most excited about?

Mark: I love "Go and Tell Him" because it just flat out rocks, and it has a unique arrangement. I also love "Little Brother", an outtake from Darius's album that marks the first time we really achieved the R&B direction we've always sought.

E.C.: How many guitars do you own and which ones are your favorite to play?

Mark: I have about 25 different stringed instruments. Gibson's have always been my favorites, but I really love this '59 Gretsch that I've been playing with The Milkshake, and recording with. I also have a Sam Bush model mandolin that I have fallen in love with.

E.C.: What do you see your future to be with both Hootie and your solo career?

Mark: I have no idea. That's the fun part isn't it, you just kind of go with the flow. I love to write, play and record and I will continue to do these things. I hope Hootie and The Blowfish lasts a long time. I mean if we stop sounding good, or stop enjoying it, then it's over. But it sure feels good right now.

E.C.: In 2003 will Hootie start up another world-wide tour for the new CD?

Mark: Yes, we plan on touring as much as possible. I guess it's somewhat dependent on how well the album does, and on what our overseas demand turns out to be. We haven't toured internationally in 4 years.

E.C.: Thanks for your time. I'm sure all your fans are eagerly awaiting what's next for you and Hootie and The Blowfish.

Mark: Cheers!

Hootie and The Blowfish-Selected Discography

Hootie and The Blowfish-Fishco Records (Demo)-1991


Kootcypop EP-1993-Fischo Records

Cracked Rear View-1994-Atlantic Records

Fairweather Johnson-1996-Atlantic Records

Musical Chairs-1998-Atlantic Records

Scattered, Smothered and Covered-2000-Atlantic Records

Hootie and The Blowfish-2003-Atlantic Records

Mark Bryan Solo:

30 On The Rail-2000-Atlantic Records

Click here to visit the official Hootie and The Blowfish website