SOJA Speaks For The People

SOJA frontman Jacob Hemphill talks with Pollstar about the power of music, songwriting and the state of pop music in the new millennium.

Formed in 1997, SOJA has built a reputation as a band that stands up for people, a characterization Hemphill firmly stands behind.

“I want to speak for people who don’t have microphones,” Hemphill said when announcing the band’s participation in this summer’s yoga-infused with Michael Franti & Spearhead, Brett Dennen and Trevor Hall.  “Our goal as a band is to stick up for the human race.  We see the world and we try to make it better in the limited time we have here.”

Hemphill has plenty of chances to get his message to the people this year.  After the Soulshine Tour concludes, SOJA will head to Europe for a series of headlining gigs.

The band has new music for its fans. SOJA’s new album, Amid The Noise And Haste, lands Aug. 12 on ATO Records.  Helmed by multiple Grammy-winning producer Supa Dups (Bruno Mars, Eminem, Rihanna, John Legend), the long player includes guest appearances by Franti, Damian Marley and Collie Buddz.  You can preorder the album via this link.

SOJA is on the Soulshine Tour which features yoga sessions before every show.  Do you practice yoga?

I’ve done it about ten times on this tour and those are my first and only 10.

Will you continue with yoga?

Definitely.  I’m going to keep doing it.  It’s crazy.  I know about exercise but in all the exercise I’ve ever done over the course of my life, breathing was never really a part of it.  When you drop the weight, you breathe in. When you push the weight up, you breathe out.  In yoga it’s like this long continuous breath and it keeps your core engaged and relaxed at the same time.  It’s awesome.  The results are completely different.  It’s less exercise and more like a total package deal.  I love it.

Do you see yoga as better preparing yourself for the evening’s show?

Absolutely.  You can see it in yourself and in the people who were at class with you.

Are you an active person?

We all try to be. … Some of us are bicycle guys, I’m one of those guys.  Some of us are running guys.  Some of us are P90X guys.  A lot of golfers.

How do you keep that up when touring?

I think when you see other people doing something you kind of say, “Hey.  If you’re doing it, I can do it.”… You bring bicycles, you bring games and you bring golf clubs.

SOJA’s new album, Amid The Noise And Haste, comes out in August.  Two single “Your Song” features Damian Marley and “I Believe”has Michael Franti and Nahko.  How did these collaborations come about?

We don’t really do it like, “We need a hit song so let’s get so-and-so.”  We do it like, “Who would understand this song?” 

What if all the answers were inside of us?  What if everything we’ve been looking for is here all around?  What if we’ve been lied to by the people who always told us that life is about competition and accumulation … who would understand that?  Well, Michael Franti would understand that. … Same with Damian who is like, “We’re on the road forever.  Fame and success aren’t really doing it for me.  Give me a reason to remember why we did this in the first place and why I’m gone 200 days a year away from home.”  And you look at the audience and you say, “Please, for me, just sing the words, put your hands up because I need to hear your song.”  Who would understand that?  Damian [would].

That’s how we formulated those [collaborations].  My manager, Elliott Harrington [Red Light Management], is very good with people, he’s very good with big ideas.  He helped to produce this record and one of the main ways he helped was to say, “I think that we can get this happening here …”

What came first – the idea to do the tour with Michael Franti or record with him?

I honestly don’t remember.  I know that me and Nahko … did the song.  It was just us two and it felt like it needed to be tied together. Me and my manager were talking one day and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if somebody got together all this stuff we’re talking about?” Elliott [suggested] Michael.  We sent him the song and he did exactly that.

You have a quote on your website – “What’s the alternative?  Pop music?” and it mentions “sleeping with models, living in mansions” and ends with, “It’s funny because everyone here is broke, we sing about different things.  Thinks that actually matter.  I think our fans appreciate that.” It sounds as if you’re not all that crazy about excessive wealth.

Maybe money is really good for helping people that you love.  Maybe money is really good at making things happen that will make you happy.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bunch of rich guys [as] the happiest people I’ve ever seen.  I think in society that we look at this thing wrong. We think that the more we consume, the more we can accumulate and the more we can own, have, eat, drink and do – we have been told that equals happiness.  But I don’t really see any examples of that in real life. The happiest people I’ve seen are little kids, the ones who don’t know shit about money.

I’m not mad at pop music.  I don’t think all that stuff sucks. I just think that the people deserve somebody sitting at the table who is talking about things that actually exist in people’s lives, instead of all this make-believe stuff.

The band’s 17-years-old.  With all that experience under your belt, can you still see music as a vehicle for change?

I think it’s one of the main things.  I think as people get disillusioned with the way music is now, you’re going to see a lot of bands that feel like, “Screw this.  Let’s play real music.”

I was riding with a cab driver the other night and he said something that was so true. He figured out I was a musician and he was talking to me about stuff and he said, “When I was a kid I could understand the songs.”

And I thought back to when I was a kid listening to Paul Simon and Bob Marley and these storyteller people.  You could understand what they were talking about.  The “Let’s all be rich” mentality, [seeing] life as diamonds, money, women and stuff –  I think people are getting sick of that, and that’s good for bands like us.

How do you prefer to work in the studio?  Are tracks laid down individually or is it more of a live experience?

We all go off somewhere together.  Two records ago, I think it was Puerto Rico.  For the last record it was Costa Rica. This time I really hope we can go to Africa.  I lived there when I was a little kid.

We go write somewhere.  We get a house, a bunch of food, maybe bring a chef, and sit there for a few weeks  We come home, take a week off, go to the studio and everybody listens to what we did. Then we go to the studio [and] we kind of know exactly what we’re going to do before we get there.  So everything at first is basic tracking.  Then we start dropping artistic stuff.  When we’re done with that I go somewhere by myself, nowadays with [guitarist / backing vocalist] Trevor Young, and record vocals for a month, just until we get something we really love.  Then we reconvene with the producer and spend a couple of weeks with him.  It’s a process but it’s a process I really appreciate.  I’m lucky to be a part of it.  I really do try to take as much time as possible and it’s got to be frustrating for the people around me.

Is there an ideal creative environment for you?

There are three.  The least of which would be the beach but I love being on the water. Hearing the waves crash in the morning makes it really easy to get up to write.

My second would be a forest, with really big trees.  And my No. One would be somewhere where it rains all day, every day.  So I guess Hilo, Hawaii, would be my favorite place to write.  When you wake up the rain is coming down.  Then it stops, then it comes down, then it stops. … For me that is like the best part of life, when a storm is going full blast.  I like thunderstorms.

Do you like watching the weather chasers on television?

No, because I get jealous.  I sit there and go, “Man, that should be me.”  We were at our buddy’s place in Denver on a day off two weeks ago, the keyboard player’s sister’s house. … His townhouse is five stories tall and we were on the roof.  It was the biggest lightning storm … there’s a picture of it on my Instagram.  We were standing in the middle, eye-to-eye with everything.  Wrote two songs that night.

Considering the history of the genre and that it originated in the Caribbean, do you think that reggae and the seaside go hand-in-hand?

It might dependon the kind of reggae.  I think ours is more heartache style.  My love songs are always sad.  There’s always a lot of rain and storms type of imagery. 

Then my non-love songs have a lot of heavy stuff going on.  The new record, there’s a song about how I can’t fall asleep, called “Talking To Myself.”  There’s a song about how the road breaks you down called “You’re Song” with Damian. Then there’s a song about our soldiers that come back, and how the suicide rate in 2012 surpassed the casualty rate. … There’s a song about what does “one” really mean?  We all say “one” and “one love” in these things. But in each generation there is one that is excluded from that.  For my parents’ generation it was black people.  And it goes back, whether it’s Jews or women, people always find someone to blame and hate.  For my generation it’s homosexuals and bisexuals.  So our reggae is kind of more thunderstormy.  But we’re not from a beach, so maybe that’s why.  We’re from D.C.  We’re from a swamp.  There’s a lot of water but it’s dark as hell. You don’t bring a towel, you bring boots.

Do you think the world is getting better?

I think a lot of things have gotten better.  Religion had us going pretty good for a while. … Then people started figuring out that maybe there was more so they got science going [and learned about] the birds in the sky and the forces on the ground. … We got our food supply down, the water supply down, but the thing we’re not looking at is the future.  I think there is a component in our mix of religion and science that is missing.  I have nothing against religion or science but – what about energy?  Put the book down and put the numbers down.  What about when I throw negative stuff at somebody and their whole day is negative?  And then if I throw positive stuff at somebody, it turns their whole day positive.

I think the human race is coming under the time when we’re forced to make a decision. Are we going to actually believe that what we do comes back to us, everything we do has a repercussion, good or bad?  Or are we going to say, “Our science is awesome, we have our religion which makes us feel good.  We really don’t give a shit about what happens because we figured out how to make our lives really comfortable right now.”  To me that’s the big battle. … We have the knowledge, are we going to use it?  It’s not like we’re doing good or bad right now. It’s just that we’re in that time period where we’ve got to make a decision.

And if you could make that decision?

The first thing would be to start pulling carbon and methane out of the air.  We tell 500 of our best scientists, “Here’s $5 billion dollars and we want you to reduce the carbon in the air, and the methane in the air in China and India in your first two years.”  And they’d build scrubbers to suck it out of the sky, they’d pump it deep into the earth where there’s a shitload of carbon and methane, anyway.  Then we’d do it again.

There’s a guy at Harvard who is working on a scrubber that transforms methane and carbon into oxygen one thousand times faster than a tree.  Trees are awesome.  This band, we green our tours and we plant trees to offset our own bus emissions and that stuff is great.  But those trees, if they’re not properly disposed of, they release all that carbon when they die.  Trees are kind of tricky and they work slow.  I’d say the first thing to do is get real and say, “We’re humans.  We suck in oxygen and we poop out carbon and methane.  And trees do the opposite.  So we should really work on that ratio.” That should be part of your taxes – be honest with yourself.  And, I think the government should say, “All wars in the Middle East are over.  We’re leaving, you’ll never hear from us again and we’re going to take that money and dump it into carbon-scrubbing technology. And, of course, education, hospitals, teachers and nurses, instead of pharmaceutical companies and the like.” Typical hippy shit.

Shifting gears, when touring do you have any special routines or exercises to prepare you for the evening’s show?

I try to keep a real positive attitude throughout the day.  It’s easy on the road to get grumpy and want to be somewhere else so I try to interact with people a lot, talk to people, smile at people.  Food before the show, maybe something to drink, and a few vocal warm ups.  It’s easy to play with SOJA.  The music is rehearsed but as far as the performance goes, everybody moves differently every night.  All you got to do is feel the other people on stage. If you can do that you’ll have a great show.  If you shut yourself out and focus only on you, then you’ll have a bad show.

When performing are you hearing the same mix the audience is hearing?

It’s pretty much the same. … we hear as it is on the record.  When I play my guitar it sounds like the guitar from that song on that record. … I [also] hear a little bit more of me and Trevor.

What do you hope the audience takes with them once the show is over?

[At our shows] I see people in the audience who look like something happened tonight that makes them feel like they can do something, make a difference somehow.  I see it in the comments on social media, I see it in the pictures, and I’m just hoping that feeling lasts as long as possible and that people make a conscious decision to think back on those moments in their lives when they felt they could change the worlds.  Those are the biggest moments in my life and I hope people can find some of those moments and hold on to them.

What is the most difficult part about being the frontman for SOJA that fans may not be aware of?

It depends on how you look at it.  If you look at it like, “Oh, my God.  What are people going to say about my next record?  What are people going to say about my next performance?  What are people going to say about anything?” Your life starts to suck, your career starts to suck and maybe your music starts to suck, and who knows what will happen?

But if you look at it as, “Hey, I believe in what we’re doing here. I’ve always believed in this and I’m not going to stop now because I think it’s gotten further than it has gotten before.  I’m lucky to be here and I love these people.”  Then life gets super-rewarding, fulfilling and relaxing.  You’re not really thinking about tomorrow.  You’re just having this moment in time that you’re enjoying.

That was something that was always told to me as a kid.  You really have to go placidly amidst the noise and haste and understand what beauty and perfection there is in silence.  And you can’t spend your life comparing yourself to other people. … You go through this journey and you wrap yourself up with people you love and you try to communicate as much as you can while you’re here.  You speak your truth quietly and confidently and you stay away from loud and aggressive people because they’re going to throw you off … and you try to be on good terms with everybody.  Even the people you feel are not as this as you or not as that as you because they have their purpose and place in this world … and that the universe is probably unfolding as it should and what you should do is trust that you love what is going on, believe in it and enjoy it.

That’s what my father told me my whole life and that is what the new record is called – Amidst The Noise And Haste (quoting Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”).  And it’s written on my bracelet on my wrist. I’ll never forget it. I always thought that might be the key to life.

Photo: James P. Hendershot
"DC101 Kerfuffle," Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Md.

SOJA’s upcoming shows:

July 25 – Wilmington, N.C., Battleship Amphitheatre
July 26 – Portsmouth, Va., Ntelos Wireless Pavilion
July 27 – Charlotte, N.C., Uptown Amphitheatre At The NC Music Factory
July 29 – Boca Raton, Fla., Sunset Cove Amphitheater
July 30 – Saint Augustine, Fla., St. Augustine Amphitheatre
Aug. 1 – Atlanta, Ga., Masquerade Music Park
Aug. 2 – Whites Creek, Tenn., The Woods At Fontanel
Aug. 3 – Lawrence, Ohio, Clay’s Park (Mid West Reggae Festival)
Aug. 12 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton Live
Aug. 14 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Brooklyn Bowl
Aug. 19 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour
Aug. 22 – Whites Creek, Tenn., The Woods At Fontanel
Aug. 24 – Lihue, Hawaii, Kilohana Plantation
Aug. 29 – Kahului, Hawaii, Maui Arts & Cultural Center
Aug. 30 – Honolulu, Hawaii, Waikiki Shell 
Sept. 7 – Arrington, Va., Oak Ridge Farm (Lockn’ – Interlocking Music Festival)
Sept. 24 – London, England, Electric Ballroom
Sept. 26 – Paris, France, Le Bataclan
Sept. 27 – Amsterdam, Netherlands, Melkweg
Sept. 28 – Cologne, Germany, Live Music Hall
Sept. 30 – Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Den Atelier
Oct. 2 – Hamburg, Germany, Mojo Club
Oct. 3 – Berlin, Germany, Yaam
Oct. 4 – Warsaw, Poland, Proxima
Oct. 5 – Prague, Czech Republic, Lucerna Music Bar
Oct. 7 – Milan, Italy, Tunnel
Oct. 8 – Zurich, Switzerland, Komplex 457
Oct. 10 – Montpellier, France, Victoire 2
Oct. 11 – Villeurbanne, France, Le Transbordeur
Oct. 12 – Bordeaux, France, Rock School Barbey
Oct. 14 – Barcelona, Spain, Razzmatazz
Oct. 16 – Lisbon, Portugal, Meo Arena
Oct. 17 – Oporto, Portugal, Coliseu Do Porto
Oct. 18 – Madrid, Spain, Club But
Oct. 19 – Toulouse, France, Le Bikini
Oct. 21 – Dublin, Ireland, The Academy

Appearing on the “Soulshine Tour” with Michael Franti & Spearhead, Brett Dennen and Trevor Hall July 25-Aug. 2.  Also appearing with Michael Franti & Spearhead Aug. 29-30.  For more information, please visit SOJA’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel and Instagram home.