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Published: 2012/04/05
by Glenn H Roth

SOJA’s Inner Strength

Back in first grade, Jacob Hemphill traded a Garfield Christmas book to classmate Bobby Lee Jefferson in exchange for a Garfield pencil topper. Oddly enough, the two childhood friends are now trading guitar licks as members of the reggae band SOJA.

“We’ve popped out a quick tear every once in a while,” Hemphill said. “Our parents see us and they’re like “Wow, there they are – there’s Jake and Bobby.’”

SOJA, who formed out of Washington D.C. in 1997, consists of Hemphill (lead and harmony vocals, guitar) Jefferson (bass), Ryan Berty (drums), Kenneth Brownell (percussion), Patrick O’Shea (keyboards), Rafael Rodriguez (trumpet), Hellman Escorcia (saxophone) and Trevor Young (lead guitar).

“It’s been easy because we’re all friends,” said the 31-year-old Hemphill. “If we weren’t friends, I have no idea. That’s been the easy part for us.”

The spring/summer tour features appearances at Bonnaroo, Wanee, Wakarusa, and All Good Music Festival. Hemphill said the band is pumped and hopes to attract a slew of new fans. Soja is coming off a 2011 where it played at Dave Matthews Band’s Caravan and released a new album, Strength to Survive, on ATO records, co-founded by Matthews.

“It’s a mix between a band going nuts on stage,” said Hemphill, when asked to describe the dynamic of the band. “One half is really powerful and the other is really pretty and a lot of vocals about social, economic, environmental and political issues.”

SOJA has played 360 shows in a year-and-a-half, how does the band manage to stay energized?

We really like to play, so we feel lucky. We see bands that hate being on the tour and that is unfortunate. I love being in a different city every day, I love being on the stage every night, I love singing and I love the people I’m on stage with, so that’s where I want to be.

What can fans expect to be different about this spring/summer tour?

We’ve got a new guitar player, Trevor Young. He used to be our guitar tech. We realized he was adding all this beautiful, extra stuff during the making of the record and we wanted to play it live. There was no way for me to do everything at once, so our guitar tech stepped up and he’s actually an incredible guitar player and singer. He’s the lead guitar now and he stands up in the front next to Bobby Lee.

We’re always changing things. We’re SOJA, so every show is different and every tour is different and all the arrangements are different. Obviously, we have a ton of new music from our album.

That’s pretty cool, moving from guitar tech to lead guitar.

Not a bad move. It’s kind of like how we’ve made the whole team. We don’t go out and find the guy who has the look. We want someone who is obviously good but we want somebody who is our brother too or our sister. This isn’t a job for us, this is like the rest of our lives, so it made sense and we knew all the right things about him. He was humble, he was a genuine good person and incredible at guitar.

Speaking of the new album, What’s the meaning behind the title Strength to Survive ?

The theme of the album is that the human race will learn to work together and come together to have the strength to survive or if we all make the earth so hot that the ice cap melts that we have an ice age and wipe out our entire history.

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