The hardest-working band in Gainesville, Fla., isn’t the University of Florida’s marching band, fresh from its national championship gig at the Sugar Bowl. It’s the entrepreneurial pop quintet Sister Hazel.
These guys are busy: They have a huge merchandise inventory, including 15 different band T-shirts and 11 hats, with logos designed by band members. They have a Sister Hazel hotline and run their own Web site. And they have a mailing list of 5,000 fans throughout the Southeast.
Oh, yeah, and they make music, too.
The group makes its major-label debut (on Universal) on Feb. 25 with the rerelease of its independent album ” … somewhere more familiar.” The LP has been remixed and remastered, but it retains the band’s unabashedly pop-rock sound.
“One of the things we realized from the onset,” singer-guitarist Ken Block said recently, “you can’t control everything, but the things you can control, you should. There are so many bands out there, so you really have to work hard at separating yourself. That’s why we’re into everything.”
Like any fledgling band, Block and band mates guitarist Andrew Copeland, bassist Jeff Beres, drummer Mark Trojanowski and guitarist Ryan Newell had a tough early going, playing to sparse crowds. But as they became more visible in Gainesville and in other southern big-college towns, their following grew.
Their self-titled debut disc was a pleasant surprise, even to them, selling more than 9,000 copies.
“We made a demo tape simply to get gigs,” Block said. “As we made these tapes, people would say, ‘Hey, I’d like to have a copy.’ Within two weeks, we had sold about a thousand tapes, so we decided to go ahead and press it up on CD.”
Similar sales of “… somewhere more familiar,” originally released on Autonomous Records, wasn’t lost on Universal, which signed them to a deal.
“We knew the first record was literally a demo,” Block said. “Our musicianship has come a long way since then. We did preproduction for a few weeks. We went in and broke down every song and said, ‘Hey, what can we do to make this better?’ We smoothed out the parts that may have been rough. We went in really prepared.
“On the remastered version, the songs haven’t changed a lot structurally, but it’s definitely sonically bigger and some of the parts have changed, only in a more tasteful, vintage way.”
The band’s name pays homage to Gainesville legend Sister Hazel, who runs a rescue mission for the homeless.
“When I was a kid, these commercials used to come on TV and they’d say Sister Hazel’s Rescue Mission is having this or doing that,” Block said, “and I remember one time I turned to my mom and said, ‘That lady’s helping out people she doesn’t even know?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
When Block and the others formed the band, their songs of positivity and acceptance meshed with Sister Hazel’s philosophy of “unconditional regard for all beings.” Block tried for months to contact Sister Hazel to seek permission to use her name.
“When we had a release party for our first recording, it was in the paper,” Block said, “and the next morning at 7, my roommate says, ‘Ken, I think you’re going to want to pick up the phone. It’s Sister Hazel.’ Immediately, I wanted to say, ‘I thought you were dead,’ but I stopped myself.
“I told her, ‘I tried to find you.’ She said she had been in Haiti and Belize running rescue missions and that she left Belize because there were too many snakes, so she had started a new mission in town.”
Block agreed to meet Sister Hazel at a Shoney’s restaurant the next day. She wanted to check him out.
“We met for about two hours and had a great time,” he said. “She has a very powerful presence. Of course, some members of her congregation were like, ‘They play rock ‘n’ roll and they play in bars.’ But she told them she can take care of herself and was a good judge of character. She’s been super-supportive from the beginning.”
BWF (before we forget): “All For You” debuted at No. 26 on Billboard’s pop chart in July 1997, peaked at No. 11 in October, while “… somewhere more familiar” cracked the Top 50 on the album chart and was certified gold. … Check out Sister Hazel on the Web @ www.sisterhazel.com.