Ken Block has been the lead guitarist for the alternative rock group Sister Hazel for over 10 years. With over a million records sold, the group's five distinct personalities came together in the Florida college town of Gainesville. At the time, the Southeast was a hotbed for homegrown talent. Sister Hazel worked out of the area in concentric circles, gaining popularity as they gained comfort leaving home. Sister Hazel is the only band who has gone platinum, whose entire roster are college graduates.
Chasing Daylight is the band’s first self-released album since 1996. Sister Hazel opted out of its deal with Universal Records to maintain control not only over the music, but its means and rate of delivery. For example, the CD was released a week early via the internet for fans. Even without the benefit of traditional retail sales, the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Internet chart, and #6 on Billboard’s Independent Label chart.
Tell me about the Rock Boat. It seems like a cool alternative to a tour bus.
It's great! It's an end of the tour party for us and a thank you for our fans. We made the cruise an annual event. We invite other artists that we know and we're friends with, we respect their music. I thought, "How could I make this cool and fun?" All the concerts are acoustic. The bands only have to play their half dozen strongest songs. It's truly a guilty pleasure. It's an intimate venue, like having your own private concert. When you play acoustic, there's more emphasis on color and lyrics. I always say, "It's Spring Break for people with jobs". We control the entire ship, over 2,000 people, music going on all the time in 11 rooms. We get to know our fans at deeper levels. There are a lot of bands it wouldn't work for, they have an image to keep up. It's like Woodstock on the water, without the bad acid. We are all for our fans. They allow our army to march. People spread the word, spread the love. We never take that for granted. Like all artists, we're eccentric at times. But we also have families.
What charities are you involved with?
We work with a lot of charities: Make a Wish, Muscular Dystrophy, leukemia, any charity. We also do things with the Humane Society, 9/11 Relief, the Red Cross. We have always had the mind set that if our vehicle can help, we should. Now, we are asked to do so much, so many organizations come to us, we have to cut some out. We started our own foundation, Lyrics for Life, to do charitable work. It does research for children with cancer and funding camps for them. We didn't want to just fund research, we want to treat the whole person. When I was 20, I lost my 18 year old brother after 4 1/2 years of cancer. I don't want to get over that battle. All the guys in the band have family members who are survivors. Both my parents are cancer survivors. We do an auction; artists hand-write lyrics on anything, like a cocktail napkin. Elton John sent a song book. All the information is at www.lyricsforlife.org.
Many people have to work in an office or on a team; how do you resolve arguments within the band?
We are much better at it than we once were. We have been together for ten years. With art, there's no right or wrong. We are so passionate. We have embraced our individual strengths and gifts. We defer to the person who brought the song in. We pick our battles. We used to argue intensely. Now we ask, "Is this gonna matter six months from now?" It's not easy, we're together 24 hours a day. We're more than friends, we're more like brothers. We have our intense moments, but we have a love I've never seen with other groups.
But what about the Beatles? John and Paul thought that they were the songwriters, they thought they were working things out. Meanwhile, George was simmering for years, thinking he had something to offer.
Ha, ha. It's not what you say, it's how you say it. It's difficult when people want to grow in new roles. We're more collaborative. Sometimes, I write something, and the rest of the band says, "I don't get it". Sometimes, it's painful. We are very democratic. On our latest CD, we had 70 songs that we narrowed down to 15. Of those, 10 were unanimous. Then, we were picking out the other few. We had to make sure that the songs had different colors, you can't have an album of the same sounds. You can't take it personally. You have to check your ego at the door.
When you first started out, how did you get gigs?
I did it all. I'd go to a little club owner and ask for the worst time. I'd say, "Give us this night, this day". I'd give demo CD's. So, we'd have bodies in there the first couple times. Then, I'd go to other owners, and say, "Call this club, he'll tell you we packed the place". It's a lot of work. We'd ask for half the door. Sometimes, we played for free. You have to eat it a lot of expenses. You have to be willing to go into debt, to play anywhere at any time.
What about your marketing?
Sure, we do our marketing. We pulled management together, they are all people we knew from different clubs. We're really a hands-on band. We all know what's going on with our promotion, marketing and web site. We have an understanding of it. Whether or not we are recording, we make a living. I remember our first paycheck -- we made $142 a week each. We had a van and a trailer. If we sold some T-shirts that night, we'd get a hotel room and a shower.
Have you held any other jobs?
I have been making money in the music business since I was a kid, with different bands. In high school, I was a tree surgeon. I have a Master's degree in counseling psychology; I was a case manager with Big Brothers/Big Sisters.