If you have not yet checked out Hobex North Carolina-based group has a timeless sound, which serves as the perfect contrast to those marathon instrumental jams that typically inhabit the improvisational world. Although Hobex is comprised of stellar musicians -guitarist/vocalist Greg Humphreys, bassist Andy Ware, drummer Dustin Clifford and keyboardist Kai Alexander the band understands the concept of dynamics, both in its songwriting and its song selection. While the live show typically features a rotating cast of additional players and extended improvisation, the group’s most recent album, "U Ready, Man?" boasts catchy, concise arrangements inspired by the likes of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Prince and Stevie Wonder.
Humphreys formed the band in May of 1996 after the breakup of Dillon Fence, a popular touring act in the Southeast during the late 80s and early 90s. Since then, Hobex has explored the various textures of funk and soul to rapidly increasing audience sizes. The band’s on stage line-up continues to grow as well, often including trombonist/vocalist April Howell (Jumpstarts, Mandorico) and the Bio Ritmo horn section of Chris Moody, Tim Lett, and Bob Miller. The band spent most of 2001 in the home studio of Robert Sledge, formerly of Ben Folds Five, who produced the CD. Released by Tone Cool Records earlier this fall, the album follows four independently released discs.
We recently caught up with Humphrey’s on the road, via a crackly cell phone, while he traveled home for the holidays.
JW: Talk about how the band came together in 1996.
GH: I had been playing in bands since high school and had been in kind of a pop band in North Carolina called Dillon Fence for a long time. I met Andy Ware, the bass player from Hobex, and he had also come up in bands around the North Carolina Triangle Area: Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. He joined Dillon Fence with me for about a year and it was kind of the tail end of that band, so he and I talked about starting a new band that would be more of a funk and soul kind of thing. We got a drummer named Steve Hill, who had been in a regional touring group called Johnny Quest and we just hit the ground running. We put a CD out.
JW: What was the vision for the band at that point?
GH: It was kind of stripping it down to a three-piece and also just changing tact on the way we were doing things. I’d been in the same band for like eight years. It was like your high school or college band that just kept going, you know what I mean? Hobex was kind of a conscious change of direction. I wanted to explore funk and soul music and jazz and just expand the scope of the kind of music.
JW: Were you exposed to those types of music, a white kid growing up in North Carolina?
GH: Well I grew up in Winston-Salem and funk and soul music was on the radio a lot. It’s always been one of my favorite types of music. I remember doing a book report on Stevie Wonder in like the fifth grade. I was a huge James Brown fan in high school when I first started getting into music.
JW: So I assume there was music in your family?
GH: Yeah actually my dad was a guitar player, so my background is more like bluegrass and folk music. Part of the journey for me is getting into new things and stuff that you haven’t done. For me, that was a funk band. It was something I had experimented with and something that was an influence in the music I had done up until that point, but I just focused on it more.
JW: Have you found it difficult to find an audience? Certainly funk and soul are not in heavy rotation on the radio these days.
GH: Right. Part of the reason I went down that road is because I got kind of burned out on the alternative rock scene, where I’d been. I had played a lot of gigs and I started out in more of a party band and I wanted to get back to making people dance and focus on making good music. Sometimes I feel like in the alternative rock world everything but the music is important and I wanted to get away from that and this has kind of been a left turn. When you play with different musicians and with different instrumentations you learn a lot. Horn players and keyboardists have different heroes and different favorite albums than singer/songwriter/guitar players, you know? So, that’s one of my favorite ways to learn, by playing with other people.
JW: Speaking of which, you’ve done some collaborating with the guys from North Mississippi Allstars.
GH: Yeah, that’s a good example. I met those guys through Jimbo Mathus, who started the Squirrel Nut Zippers with his wife, Katherine Whalen. I used to live in Chapel Hill, which is the area that they’re based out of. Jimbo put together a North Mississippi-style blues band called Knockdown Society. They did a couple of tours in ’98 and ’99 in the summer and Jimbo brought me and Stu Cole and Cody and Luther [Dickinson] and kind of put a band together. North Mississippi Allstars also played some dates with the Knockdown Society. We would just trade musicians and do some good jamming, you know? When North Mississippi Allstars started touring out more on their own, Hobex traded some shows with them and we did a bunch of gigging together right before they started putting CDs out. I got to know them well and I just got to soak up a lot of their influences and their background, the North Mississippi blues. I also got to hang out with their dad [producer Jim Dickinson], who’s like a walking library of music. So, meeting those guys was great. It’s a great method of learning a lot by being introduced to really good musicians along the way.
JW: Hobex does around 150 shows a year. Talk about the live performance. How much variance is there and how do you keep it fresh on a nightly basis?
GH: Well one thing is, we started out as a three-piece and about three years into the band, we started bringing friends in for recording sessions, like horn players, keyboardist, and percussionists. We ended up expanding the band in the live setting and that really has kept the music fresh. A trumpet player named Bob Miller, from Richmond, has been playing with us for about four years off and on. He also plays with a salsa band called Bio Bio Ritmo and through him we’ve met just a whole group of jazz horn players from Richmond. Two or three of them will come down for a week’s worth of shows. When you have these really great players coming in and doing time with the band, you get a completely different take on the material. We stretch the songs out more and have fun that way.
JW: So there are a lot of extended solo sections in the live setting?
GH: Yeah, it’s a little more improvisational. Bringing in different players will bring out a complete different aspect of the group, you know? That’s been fun. We’ve been cataloguing some of our live shows. It’s really interesting. Sometimes we go out as a four or five piece and sometimes we’re an eight or nine piece. It can really change and sometimes you can’t plan.
JW: Have there been any unexpected amazing shows that you can recall in the last few months?
GH: A couple weeks ago we went up north [Harper’s Ferry, Allston, MA] and we had Al Kooper sit in on organ, which was pretty heavy. We had heard that he was a fan of the music and I had met him when he was down in North Carolina a couple years ago. So we just called him and invited him to come out and it worked out great. We did "Green Onion." Stuff like that happens all the time, through people like Jimbo and Luther.
JW: Talk about your songwriting process.
GH: I came from a full singer/songwriter background. When we were growing up, my dad always had an acoustic guitar out, singing songs and he was a big fan of great songwriting. He was just very encouraging. My mom was a visual artist and an art teacher, so she was always encouraging me to be creative, so I guess becoming a songwriter was just being a product of those two. As I got older, I just got a lot of satisfaction and pleasure out of writing music. Once I started playing out in clubs and realizing I could actually get people to come out and see me play these songs, I was totally hooked. I love being in a band, but part of the reason I do a band is that I can get to play my songs and sing. That’s something that I love to do. Sometimes songwriting is cathartic and sometimes it’s just commenting on the world around you.
JW: Do you find that you are generally inspired to write the music first or the lyrics?
GH: Sometimes I’ll come to the band with a finished song with a groove and an arrangement and other times I’ll just come in with like a basic lyric and melody and chord progression and we’ll arrange it together and it will grow and change. Sometimes we’ll do other songs from other writers in the band. That’s fun too.
JW: How did [former Ben Folds Five bassist] Robert Sledge come to produce the album?
GH: Robert and I had known each other just through being in bands around North Carolina and I really didn’t see him or hear from him that much when he was touring with Ben Folds Five. They were pretty much going for a long time. They were very busy. I guess Ben Folds broke up the band and Robert ended up back in Chapel Hill and was kind of working on getting his own studio going and needed a band to get everything going. We had done a really short session with him the year before and it was fun. He’s a really great engineer and a great musician so he’s definitely a good person to work with. So we acted as his guinea pig for his studio. We would do a couple of weeks and then maybe take some time off for him to fix any glitches or problems he might have had with his equipment. He was in the process of getting a studio up and running. It was a lot of fun. We took our time. It was kind of nice to do a few songs at a time and take a few weeks off and then come back and listen and see what we thought, as opposed to doing it all in five days, which I’ve done too. You can also come up with a great record like that too. This was an interesting process.
JW: There are so many different styles represented on the album. I was hoping you could give us some background on a few of the songs. Let’s start with the first track, "Maybe it’s Me."
GH: That lyric is kind of introspective. It’s like describing that moment of self-revelation when you realize that ultimately, you are responsible for your own life and the decisions you make, good or bad.
JW: "So Far Away."
GH: It’s a pretty simple lyric just about getting away from it all and getting out into the country and having a good time. I guess the arrangement is kind of a metaphor for the lyric. The back half of the arrangement just kind of takes you somewhere completely different from the first part of the song.
JW: "Playing Games."
GH: "Playing Games" is kind of a protest song where it’s kind of expressing that feeling of living on the edge of the cliff and wanting to hold on and not fall. It’s kind of a song about having your back against the wall I guess.
JW: "The Quiet One," which I think has sort of a Beatles interlude vibe to it.
GH: That’s kind of a tribute to George Harrison. It’s a little bit of an Eastern sound and a lot of his songs on the Beatles albums had that flavor. It kind of served as a break from the rest of the music and that’s what that song does on this CD.
JW: "Ken’s Burn." Is that a reference to the documentary filmmaker?
GH: Yeah. The drummer, Dustin Clifford, and I and Kai rented a house in Durham with the idea that we’d come up with the music for a new CD. "Ken’s Burn" is just one of those songs that came from those days. One night we were watching the Ken Burns Jazz documentary on PBS and just hanging around. We were just inspired and Justin and Kai went into the practice room and started jamming on this up-tempo, jazzy song, you know? So I jumped in and we wound up cutting a version for the CD later. It was just capturing that moment of inspiration.
JW: The title track, "U Ready, Man?" That sounds like a live take.
GH: Yeah, that’s another cool track that came from living in that house. Dustin was playing some hand drums and I have a charango, so I just started playing some charango. It’s a Bolivian stringed instrument. It’s small. It’s somewhere between a nylon string classical guitar and a Ukulele.
JW: The name of the band is a North Carolina slang term for "enjoying the moment." Picture yourself back in the day, hanging out in Raleigh and use the term "hobex" in a sentence.
GH: Oh man, I’m gonna drink this beer hobex style! [laughs]