Zac Brown Band’s John Driskell Hopkins Talks New Single, Upcoming Album + Pre-Super Bowl Gig
It's an understatement to say that Zac Brown Band have a lot going on these days.
The group have just released a new single, 'Homegrown,' that blends their tried-and-true approach with some new elements -- the first teaser of a new album that they have promised will explore new musical terrain. They have also signed three new partnership deals with Universal’s John Varvatos Records, Big Machine Label Group and Republic Records for the forthcoming project.
ZBB will also tour extensively in 2015, but first up on their agenda is a huge DirecTV Super Fan Festival to kick off the Super Bowl on Wednesday (Jan. 28). Taste of Country caught up with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist John Driskell Hopkins to fill us in about all of the group's upcoming activities in this exclusive interview.
'Homegrown' has some new elements, with the banjo and drum samples. Does that point the way toward the sound of the upcoming album?
It's like we're going forward and backward at the same time, isn't it? [Laughs.]
Was that your intent?
I think the banjo really made sense. I'm a fledgling banjo player; I'm taking weekly lessons down here in Atlanta, and I really want to get good at it one day, but this one seemed like a good mid-tempo for me to get my feet wet, and as far as the other drum sound things, I think that's just kinda where it's lending itself on that tune. They're not all gonna sound that way, obviously, but there's a good meld, to me, of bluegrass and pop and rock and country, all things meshed into one. I think it's just a fantastic song.
It's kind of something we needed at country radio right now, to provide some relief from the sameness of some of the trends.
Sure. I feel like even the subject matter sometimes is similar to what's out there, but we like to go about it a different way and make it honest. We're just talking about our lives, and trying not to throw too much party atmosphere in there. A little more personal, I believe.
This track was the most-added song at country radio last week. Do you worry before releasing new work that it won't work this time, and does that give you any kind of relief when it does work?
Well, you're always excited to hear that people are enjoying it, and we've had lots of songs that I thought were really fantastic that have done really well, and some that have done pretty well, and some that we were surprised ... that didn't do as well as they should have, in our opinion. You kinda have to be ready for anything to happen, but what I will say about that is, we're prepared to go the distance with what we believe to be the best that we can provide to our fans and to the world, whether it charts really well or not. We're just hoping to continue to really provide the best quality that we can.
You've got some very different things going on not only musically, but also business-wise with these new partnerships. How is that going to position the band differently to move forward?
I think having been on our own for a while has been very good for us. We kind of have a better understanding of what we want to accomplish, and I think we're trying to reach a global market. Being partners with our current partners puts us in that position, because Universal have a fantastic grasp of being an international label, and the same can be said of Big Machine and John Varatos as a clothier and a new label. He's really reaching a more rock 'n' roll crowd that we really respect, and we'd like to embrace that, as well as the country that has been so near and dear to us for so many years.
I think a lot of the industry is going that way. It's sort of a pick-and-choose from what you like about different styles that you like, and then make your own. It's one thing to cater to a genre and it's another to help that genre develop, and I hope that we're part of a musical change and musical history, and not just a moment in time.
We're just talking about our lives, and trying not to throw too much party atmosphere in there. A little more personal, I believe.
We've read that there are 18 songs ready for a new album. Is there any kind of an ETA on that release?
We don't have an ETA yet. We recorded at least that many songs, if not more, in the preliminaries, and Zac has done some stuff on his own. So I'm not sure what all's going to be on the record, but we do have a lot to choose from, and I think that's a good place to be, just to have some options, in case one song might sound too much like another. We might put that into some other position. I can say that I think they're all good songs, and I'm excited that we've got such a wealth of material that we can be proud of.
We've got so many writers in the band, it helps to have a bunch of creative heads that can help throw ideas out there -- brand-new ideas. Some things just land on the spot. We may just decide, 'This one's the brand-new one that, you know what, let's go ahead and throw it on there. We haven't had any time to develop it, so let's develop it now.' And we're prepared for those moments.
Tell us about the John Varvatos partnership a little bit more. We were a little bit surprised to see the band start dressing differently. How does that play into your strategy to target a new demographic, and is it something that you were comfortable with at the outset?
I'm personally a comfort junkie, so I go through and I pick out the stuff that ... he's got such a wide rage of styles, and the quality is insane. Like the shirts, the t-shirts that they have are really fantastic, the stuff that we wore onstage for years. It hasn't made us uncomfortable or self-conscious or anything like that. It's all such great stuff.
I think when you look into really cool boots and stuff like that, he's got it nailed. The jackets are really awesome. Zac was probably tired of wearing the beanies a little bit, but he loves hats, so you've got other choices there. John has a really great style. Everything, you can pretty much put anything together with something the other guys are wearing, and it's all gonna work. I think it's fantastic.
It's one thing to cater to a genre and it's another to help that genre develop, and I hope that we're part of a musical change and musical history, and not just a moment in time.
You've got this DirecTV Super Fan Festival coming up before the Super Bowl. How do you prepare for a huge, high-profile gig like that?
Man, whenever you're playing something that's as big as the Super Bowl, you just have to kinda go in there with a big smile and wait and see what happens. You never know who you're gonna run into. Those moments, you can't really plan for. I'm going in with open eyes and I'm gonna have my phone in my pocket, in case I get a chance to meet some cool people, and just kind of savor the experience.
Do you rehearse musically in a different way for a gig like that, or is there no real way to do it other than just to go and do it?
I understand that this is a festival, and I imagine based on any time constraints we'll have that we'll prepare like a normal show. We'll have our normal back line, but we won't have the production that we would normally bring for one of our own headliners. So you take that into account, and you bring what you can to make it your own look, and to make it feel like a Zac Brown show. But you also have to be ready to throw and go, because there's a band right before you. So little things are taken into consideration, and some of this might come into play there. But it should feel, by all accounts, like one of our regular shows, maybe a little bit different decoration.
Things that are appealing to me, that I never had the time to explore, I now have more time and energy to put some effort into that. I can become a better musician on the whole.
You're such a multi-instrumentalist in the band. You were talking earlier about taking banjo lessons and such; do you look at instruments and think, 'If I learned to play that, I could work it in like this,' or do you learn new instruments in response to new songs being written?
I think it's both. Sometimes I'll hear something and think, 'Well, I really think the ukelele would be good here.' So I'll reach out to guys who have ukeleles and find one that I can depend on. I started playing ukelele on the beach stuff.
I played bass for eight years in the band, and getting out of that was admittedly a tough thing for me, because I had gotten so comfortable. But the beauty of it, after having gotten accustomed to my new position, is that I kinda have free reign. I can be more of a ham and run around stage and do fun things like that -- things that my theater background catered to -- and not have to be so concerned with holding down the low end, which is such an important musical part. So I get more freedom, and to me that's fun.
I always wanted to spend more time with things like the banjo, and I took some cello lessons last year. Things that are appealing to me, that I never had the time to explore, I now have more time and energy to put some effort into that. I can become a better musician on the whole.
It's very rare to be in a band that can afford you those opportunities.
It is, and I'm very blessed to be here. And I'm glad that my voice is such a big part of the sound. That's what helps me to stick around, aside from all of the brotherhood that I have in this band. I really feel that I'm connected to the sound, vocally. And put whatever you want in my hands, and I'll do my best to try to make it sound good! [Laughs.] I'll keep writing, and we'll keep working on new ideas together. It's just a great place to be.
Is there anything else you want to say about 'Homegrown,' the upcoming album or anything else that's coming up?
We've got a big year planned. We're going to a lot of new places and to some old places, and I hope that everybody gets a chance to come out and see us. We still stand by the fact that our live show is who we really are, so that's what I would tell the fans out there, is to come see us live -- we hope to see you over the summer.
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