Asked about the goals for Hootie & the Blowfish’s new album Looking for Lucky, singer Darius Rucker answers quickly, “I want to sell 16 million!” Then he cracks up, because … well, because this is Hootie & the Blowfish, the good-time party band from the 1990s, and a comeback of this magnitude would make even Cher blush.
But if it did happen, longtime fans could get the last laugh for staying true to a band that’s been pretty much invisible for the last few years. Meanwhile, some critics might snicker that Rucker would even consider the possibility, especially those who believe 1994′s Cracker Rear View was a 16-million-selling fluke.
“I’ve seen some of the reviews for this album already where people have immediately dissed it,” says lead guitarist-mandolin player Mark Bryan. “That’s the way they look at it: ‘They’re a band that sucks, but they got lucky with one album.’”
Between the loyalists and the haters lies a cross section of music fans who only think of Hootie when they catch themselves singing along to “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry” or “Time” on the soft rock station. When Looking for Lucky hit stores on Aug. 9, Bryan found that out firsthand.
“I was in New York City, and I said, ‘I’m going to buy my own damn record,’” he says. “I’m going to give it out to people, you know? So I put four copies on the counter, and the guy goes, ‘These guys are still making records?’ He didn’t know who I was or whatever. So there you go. He’s just your average American who has no idea we’re on our fifth album, but he knew who we were.”
Back in 1994, everybody knew Hootie. (The band name comes from the nicknames of two acquaintances at the University of South Carolina.) After playing the regional college circuit, they signed to Atlantic Records. Following a few months of decent sales, an on-air endorsement from David Letterman sent them over the moon. Today, Cracked Rear View stands as the 12th-best-selling album in history, with more than 25 million copies in circulation.
After a decade of diminishing returns on Atlantic, the band has moved to independent label Vanguard Records. They reunited with original producer Don Gehman, who is based out of Nashville, and recorded the album there. Although Looking for Lucky is not a country album, they did collaborate with established Music Row writers like Matraca Berg, Keith Burns (of Trick Pony), Radney Foster and Derek George.
“I love it,” Rucker says of the co-writing experience. “I’d do it again any time, and I’m sure we’ll do it for other records. It was awesome. We met cool people and got some really good songs out of it.”
Bryan has been co-writing in Nashville since 2000. He remembers the initial experience as “a little odd.”
“My first session was with Melba Montgomery in the EMI building,” he says. “She just had a little tape deck and said, ‘Whatcha wanna do?’ I go, ‘I’ve never done this before. I have no idea what to do.’ She said, ‘Do you have anything you’ve been working on?’ I was like, ‘Actually, there is a song,’ and it was a song I thought would be good for a country artist. All I had was a chorus. She whipped out the verses in about 20 minutes, and they were awesome! They were nothing like I would have written and 10 times better. I was like, ‘Wow, that is just superb.’”
Looking for Lucky kicks off with “State Your Peace,” which Bryan wrote in 2002, unhappy about Bush’s election and chiding himself for always being the last one to say how he feels. The frustration is evident in the lyrics. For example: “You can try to change the world by showing everyone a better way/But the world’s gonna do what the world’s gonna do at the end of the day.” The song “came flying out of me,” he says, after reading the newspaper in a hotel room in Hawaii.
“I’d always been someone, up until then, who kind of sees both sides,” he says. “I’m not a registered Democrat, although I am more liberal. I’ve never registered just because you never know. I don’t trust politicians enough to side like that.”
Though he admits to playing devil’s advocate with Rucker, Bryan is on the same page when it comes to the call of Hootie. (Bass guitarist Dean Felber and drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld round out the band.)
“I think if we have another hit record on whatever level, people will consider us less of a fluke or a flash in the pan,” Bryan says. “We have a huge group of fans who don’t think that way, and we’ll be fine forever, but it would be nice on the national and international level to have more respect than we’ve had in the last six years or so.”
Naturally, the younger generation is now getting into Hootie, because of 30-somethings bringing their children to festivals and in-store signings. Plus, what kid wouldn’t want to see the guy from the … um … colorful Burger King commercial? You know, the one where Rucker earnestly croons about the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich amid a swirl of flirtatious hotties.
“When [photographer] David LaChappelle got involved, I knew it was going to be over the top,” Rucker says. “And that was kind of also the appeal to me. I was going to make as big a fool of myself as I could. I just didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was. The funny thing is, I didn’t think anybody would really see it. I was having a party at my house for the Daytona 500, and the race starts, and it’s the first commercial.” He laughs heartily. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Honey, I’m in trouble.’”