In a sense, there are two versions of Sister Hazel. For most people, the Gainesville, Florida, band is a one-hit wonder from the late ‘90s that landed launched an infectious jangle-rock hit called “All For You,” with its inescapable, “Hard to say what it is I see in you,” chorus and sold more than a million copies of its 1997 album …Somewhere More Familiar.
To a smaller, but far more fervent group, however, Sister Hazel is less a band than a collective experience, like The Grateful Dead or Widespread Panic. There are fans who will attend multiple dates on one Sister Hazel tour, and who own every one of the band’s 13 studio releases. The band continues to sell out shows and release albums — doing so independently since 2003 — because of these fans, who call themselves Hazelnuts. Sister Hazel has even created an annual fan-gathering called the Hazelnut Hang that’s been going strong for 14 years.
It’s one of the more fascinating survival stories in the famously fickle music industry.
“We see it as just people who have grown with us since 1996 when they first heard the band,” says Sister Hazel drummer Mark Trojanowski. “You have people who tell you that your music has been with them through good times and bad times. There are people who will come and see us 15 times on one tour; they’ll spend their summer vacations coming to shows.”
In terms of maintaining a fanbase, the band’s sound, a folky style of rock with hints of country, is a big part of the equation. But from the beginning, Sister Hazel had a multi-pronged strategy to sustain.
“A lot of people ask us how we’ve been able to do it for so long, and I think it’s centered around a couple of things,” Trojanowski offers. “First, it’s centered around constant touring. As an indie band prior to Universal picking up our record, we were essentially touring for two or three years playing 150 shows each year. And then when Universal put that record out, we were playing a crazy amount of shows through ‘97 and ‘98. For us it’s always been a thing of playing shows all the time, being able to get to different parts of the country and at the same time giving those core fans new music over the years.”
New music is another key factor in Sister Hazel’s longevity, both for the fans and the band. There are plenty of bands from Sister Hazel’s era who tour on the hits, playing the same old songs night after night. But this band constantly has new material out, currently releasing it at a quicker pace than ever. Sister Hazel is near the end of a four-EP series called Elements, with releases titled Fire, Water and Wind already out. The EPs are a result of the band trying to decipher how much music fans want and how often they want it, a level of control that would be largely impossible with a major label.
“We didn’t want to be stuck in an album-release cycle,” Trojanowski explains. “We wanted to put our records out when we wanted them out. But we were also trying to figure out where the industry was going and how to best serve our fans and get new music out there. We might go to putting out a song every quarter, if that appeals to our fans who want new stuff all the time.”
New music and touring are great, but only if you have fans who are still interested. That’s why the band concentrated on building such a tight relationship with its fanbase.
“We just felt like in order to get bigger and spread this music, we had to build a closer connection,” Trojanowski says. “That’s back before we were on a major label. We were playing colleges, and we’d go to fraternity houses and give away free samplers of our music. We’d try to get tied into those organizations, because we felt like if we could build a bond there that we could continue growing the band. We also started a message board back when the Internet was first coming around where we could connect with fans and ask them what they liked about the shows and the music, and all of that built a stronger connection that allowed us to build those lifelong fans that would bond with the band.”
Trojanowski says that once the band created that foundation, the rest took care of itself.
“Once you started getting pockets of those people around the country, then they start telling their friends and other people about the band, the music and how approachable we are,” he says. “They were like little soldiers out there spreading the word for us.”
What: Sister Hazel
Where: Icehouse Amphitheater, 107 W. Main St., Lexington
When: Friday, May 17, 6 p.m.
More: 803-358-7275, icehouseamphitheater.com