Elemental: A Conversation with Sister Hazel’s Mark Trojanowski

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Dave Schlenker

As grunge filled the airwaves in the ’90s, an antithetical and hopeful sound rang out that was both fresh and familiar. The band responsible for that sound was Florida’s Sister Hazel. More than 20 years later, the quintet – Ken Block, Jeff Beres, Andrew Copeland, Ryan Newell and Mark Trojanowski (aided by touring member Dave LaGrande) – is expanding its audience while retaining its loyal fan base. Two Sister Hazel EPs released earlier this year, Wind and Water (from a thematic series titled “Elements”), appeared on Billboard’s Country Charts. In addition to recording and touring, the group remains committed to its multiple charitable endeavors. On Thursday, November 29, Sister Hazel will perform at Iron City. J. R. Moore (from Ingram Hill) will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, drummer Trojanowski spoke with us by phone from his Atlanta home.

Birmingham Stages: Mark, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to Sister Hazel’s Birmingham show. As you know, our city has enthusiastically supported your band for many years.

Mark Trojanowski: It’s definitely been a city that was there for us with the first record and ever since then. We knew a lot of the radio programmers there from day one and Birmingham was also instrumental in breaking “Push” for Matchbox Twenty, too. That station there [WRAX FM] supported bands and our genre and helped develop a fan base for us. Between doing the Crawfish Boils and the other shows, we really have a great fan base there.

Birmingham Stages: Sister Hazel has maintained the same lineup for more than 20 years, a rarity in the music industry. How has your band maintained such consistency?

Trojanowski: I think a lot of it had to do with our philosophy. Bands that came out during our time period would put out a record and then disappear for a year and a half or two years and they’d try to start the machine up again and it was so difficult. We did that only on our first record because we needed a break. We did three years of 200-plus dates and we turned down an offer to tour with Aerosmith because we thought the band would break up if we went and did it [laughs]. Ever since that point, we never have gone away. For the last 10 to 15 years, we pretty much play every month and we play six to 10 shows per month. That has worked for our families, our home lives and meeting the needs of our fans. You just can’t disappear for months or years at a time and hope to have a consistent career, especially if you’re independent and doing everything on your own. Touring is the only way to keep yourself going.

Birmingham StagesWe are enjoying the Wind and Water EPs from the “Elements” series. If you will, tell us how the concept took flight.

Trojanowski: It came upon us out of nowhere. We got into the studio and recorded three songs and there was a push to record three more songs and put out an EP because we had all of this momentum. Why do we have to wait until we finish 12 songs? People are buying singles now anyway and don’t even care about full-length records. So, we had that concept of putting something out quick to get music out. From that point, Jeff – our bass player – came up with the concept of putting out four EPS in 24 months and trying to come up with a theme for it. But it was more than just getting out music quicker and it fit our touring life and home life. We didn’t have to stress about recording 12 songs and mixing and mastering and all of that  – you could do a little bit at a time and get it out. It worked better with our touring schedule.

Birmingham Stages: Expanding on your point of releasing music on your own terms, some artists applaud the current climate given the available avenues to reach listeners – Youtube, iTunes and other modern outlets – and the ease of do-it-yourself recording. Other artists say that today’s climate creates clutter and over-saturation for all of those same reasons. How do you view the current industry?

Trojanowski: I have mixed views. All of the technology and accessibility is great. When we first got signed to [record label] Universal, we didn’t want tour support but we wanted $10,000 to build a website because we knew where things were going digitally. They looked at us like we were crazy. I think what bothers me as a songwriter and an artist is that people that make movies and write books all got it right and the record companies and the Recording Academy blew it. There should be no reason why someone that writes or records a song is treated any differently than someone who puts out a book. People are still paying for books, whether they’re on kindles or in hardback or paperback. But ever since Napster, everyone expects music to be free. It’s frustrating because you just cut off an income stream to everyone who basically makes original music. There’s no money in streaming. [Technology] is great to get it out there, but I think that the people running the recording industry at the time didn’t have their act together and didn’t find a way to protect everyone. Now the train has left the station and there’s no going back. As soon as they went to single downloads, that was the end because it killed the record.

Birmingham Stages: Each night, there are certain songs that remain constant in your set list. How do those songs stay fresh after you’ve played them hundreds or even thousands of times?

Trojanowski: That’s a good question. There are two things with that. One, we try to do some different versions of songs over the years. “Champagne High” is a great example. We went through a time period where it was like the record and then we created an extended solo section and then it became an acoustic song and then it was a trio a cappella song. So that’s one way. We tried to make changes to “All For You” over the years, but some songs you just play them the way they are. Also, people sing back the lyrics and that makes it fresh because it’s fresh to them. You look at how people react to a song after 25 years. You always have 10 core songs you have to play and the rest is a mixture.

Sister Hazel will perform at Iron City on Thursday, November 29. J.R. Moore (from Ingram Hill) will open the 8 p.m. all-ages show. Advance tickets are $20 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.