I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Block from the Multi-Platinum Indie band, Sister Hazel. Sister Hazel is comprised of five gifted, seasoned musicians whose well-spring of natural talent has been called “one of the Top 100 Most Influential Independent Performers of the last 15 years” by Performing Songwriter Magazine. Song “All for You” topped the adult alternative charts during the summer of 1997 and the success propelled their album to platinum status. Most recently, the band made their debut on the Billboard Magazine “Top Country Albums” chart and performed on the revered Grand Ole Opry stage. The band pioneered the themed cruise industry by co-founding “The Rock Boat” and annually hosts events like the “Hazelnut Hang,” and “Camp Hazelnut” that focuses on creating unique experiences and interacting with the fans. Sister Hazel has been equally attentive to connecting with their audience through social media having amassed over a million social followers. In addition to the events and touring, the band also gives back with “Lyrics For Life.” Founded by singer Ken Block, the charity unites musicians and celebrities for concerts and auctions to benefit cancer research and patient-care charities.
What is your “backstory”?
Started Sister Hazel in 1994. I’ve been playing with the same five guys since college down in Gainesville at the University of Florida. We’ve managed to have a few hits, sell a few million records, tour relentlessly and continue to create new music and host events. We founded the largest and longest running festival at sea called “The Rock Boat” 19 years ago and the “Hazelnut Hang,” which both pioneered the artist and fan-driven immersive experiences and events that are more prevalent now. I’ve been playing music out in public since I was 12 years old. I’ve been married for 22 years and we have three amazing kids. I’ve been clean and sober for 15 years. And I lost my younger brother Jeffrey to Cancer after a four-year battle when we were just teenagers.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
- There are a bunch. But here’s one. One time quite a few years back we had a night off in Iowa. We stopped in our guitar tech’s hometown and he invited a few of his friends to meet us in this little local dive bar. At some point in the evening after we were all fairly socially lubricated, one of the girls he had invited pulled off her prosthetic leg and she sets it in the middle of the table. We all just looked at it like WTF?! None of us even knew she was wearing it. So, we did what any respectable bunch of idiots would do. We all did Jaeger shots out of it.
What would you advise to someone who wants to emulate your career?
Control all the things that you can control. That means keep striving to get better at your craft by working on it constantly. Write songs that you are proud of, put on powerful live shows where people feel like it was time and money well spent, take care of the people that come out and support you, and use your platform to support causes bigger and more important than just playing music. Don’t talk about writing. Write. Don’t talk about touring. Tour. And if there are only 10 people in a place the first time you play somewhere, do your best to make sure the next time you come through you turn it into 20. Stay true to yourself because people can sense if you’re faking it — it would be exhausting and unsatisfying to have to fake it all the time. Fans (people) want honesty and accessibility. Make it about more than just a song. Create your own unique fingerprint in the world of music.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
· My father. He was kind of a Renaissance man. He was a war veteran, a highly respected and innovative educator, an entrepreneur, and a phenomenal musician and piano player. He would have these weekly jam sessions at a little beach place we had when I was growing up. People would bring over great food and if anyone played an instrument (guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, etc,) they brought it along and turned the evenings into long musical jam parties. THAT’S where I caught the music bug. I was mesmerized by him and all these other great musicians and storytellers. Those nights were magic!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful or exciting non profit projects? (feel free to talk about your cause)
· When I was 16 years old and my little brother was only 14, he was diagnosed with cancer — A T-Cell Lymphoma. We were beyond best friends. He passed away years later at only 18 years old. So when we were teenagers instead of dealing with just the usual things like school, chasing girls, sports, surfing, music, and the regular old shenanigans, we were also dealing with chemotherapy, radiation, hospitals and mortality. That left me changed forever and always motivated to help others going through whatever their personal challenges might be.·
· It also led us to create Sister Hazel’s “Lyrics For Life” ( www.lyricsforlife.org ) Childhood Cancer Charity. We have raised over two million dollars for both research and programs that support children and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Most of us have been touched by cancer — a loved one, a friend, a co-worker — dealing with this disease. Our desire to help comes from a real place, from real loss. It gives us the energy and ambition to fight back. It’s a personal mission of ours to create concert events and unique handwritten lyric auctions that are fun, cool, exciting, and, ultimately, meaningful to this cause.
· We also founded “Camp Hazelnut” a few years ago. It’s a three-day summer camp experience where we host kids and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis every Fall. All families attend free of charge. The Camp Hazelnut goal is simple: create a playful, safe, uplifting experience for kids and families navigating the overwhelming challenges of a cancer diagnosis — a place to simply get away and come together. The campers discover (or rediscover!) the magic that can only be created at summer camp, and the band is right there alongside them every step of the way, leading activities, playing acoustic campfire sing-alongs, sharing, giggling, and having a blast. http://www.lyricsforlife.org/camp-hazelnut
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
· Write songs ALL THE TIME. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Many of your songs won’t stick or see the light of day, but that’s the exercise that needs to happen to get those couple of gems. All you need is one that can change your life and the lives of countless others!
· Take care of yourself — Body, mind, and spirit. As a band, we came out of the shoot like crazy people. We never missed a party and ran ourselves ragged. Touring is hard enough without drugs, substances, shitty food and no sleep. If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ve got to pace yourself and adjust accordingly. You have to find balance or you will fall.
· Carve your OWN path sonically and creatively, but, don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to with other aspects of your world. Learn from the people who have gone before you about how to do things the right way, i.e. the way you treat people, tour effectively, collaborate and how to take care of your financial business.
· Never sit back and get complacent. You have to keep moving forward. If you don’t continue to evolve and grow as writers, performers, and even as a business/brand, even YOU will get bored and things in your world will wither. The ‘Now” and the “What’s’ Next” is where the fun is. Change things up!!
· Check your ego at the door, and work as a team. We made it through the times where most bands implode or explode. We learned how to pick our battles carefully, how to communicate respectfully, how to defer to others, and how to create win-wins along the way where everyone involved has ownership in everything being the best that it can be. It’s about the sum of the parts! That’s how co-workers and co-creators become family and stay invested in each other’s success.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
· Judd Apatow. I’d love to sit down with him because I love his work, and because I have a pitch package and a full script for the pilot episode for a new TV series I wrote with my best childhood buddy, Dave. I think he’d love it. And he’d know exactly what to do with it. And, why not, right?!