Artist Interview: Jacob Hemphill of SOJA
So I found myself interviewing Jacob Hemphill the lead singer and guitarist of SOJA on Valentine’s Day. If you would have told me this a month ago, I would have said there is no way but yet there we were sharing a conversation.
Eric from Mind Inversion (E of MI): First off, I would just like to thank you for taking the time to sit down with Mind Inversion do this exclusive interview.
Jacob Hemphill from SOJA (JH of SOJA): Sure, sure.
E of MI: Secondly, I would like to congratulate you on the success of your new album, Strength to Survive. Did you guys expect this much instant success with this album?
JH of SOJA: We really didn’t know what to expect, it’s reggae you know? And it’s not even Jamaican Reggae, its American Reggae. We expected our fans would like it and we hoped people would feel like the things I was talking about were what was on their mind or if it wasn’t on their mind we hoped it would become one of the things they would be thinking about. Those were kind of our two goals and then it jumped to #3 on all of iTunes and we were all like, “Holy crap, what’s going on?”
E of MI: Yeah, I was going to congratulate you on that. I could believe that either when I first listened to the album I thought it was amazing but I didn’t expect you guys to jump up to #3 on iTunes behind the likes of Adele and people that are out there winning Grammys.
JH of SOJA: Nobody did, we wanted it to do well. The thing about our band is we have never been about sales, you know? We never have been about charts, we never been… You know, it just has not been something that we have took into consideration when we were writing our music, when we were writing arrangements, when we were designing the themes of the album. It was never to be popular and I think that formula is kind of what people wanted so as a bi-product it became popular as for people who were kind of going for not popular. Which is interesting and kind of cool.
E of MI: So this success that you have found as far as on the iTunes charts and stuff have you been seeing the same reception at your live shows with this new music?
JH of SOJA: Yeah, there’s a lot of people at the shows.
E of MI: Is it bigger crowds then you are used to playing for or not?
JH of SOJA: Yeah, no definitely, definitely a little bigger. I mean most of the stuff is sold out. We um, I think there has only been one on this tour that hasn’t sold out or didn’t feel sold to me and some of these rooms are huge.
E of MI: Well that’s got to feel pretty special then?
JH of SOJA: Yeah, we had over 2,000 people in Philly, 2 shows in New York back-to-back and we sold out in Richmond. The tour has only been about a week or so but everything coming up if it is not sold out it’s a hundred under capacity. Which is like 2,500 and a year ago we were playing in Philly for 500-600 people. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
E of MI: Very, very cool. Now your tour is coming up on the Midwest leg here, what is your favorite aspect about playing in the Midwest?
JH of SOJA: You know we are Reggae so for us the Midwest is the part of the not of America that we haven’t cracked yet. Reggae is more of like a coastal music, you know? Reggae is normally played in towns that are closer to the coast so East Coast, West Coast of the United States or Pacific Islands or South America or Central America. So yeah, the Midwest is something that is kind of new to us but we love playing everywhere we go so you know, we’re prepared to rock these shows in the Midwest.
E of MI: That sounds good. Do you have a favorite venue or a favorite memory from playing in the Midwest or not?
JH of SOJA: I mean we have got a couple good ones. We have a friend named Packy Malley who brought us out here for the first time. He is the guy who does the Midwest Reggae Fest and he was really cool with us when we were little kids when we were drawing about 20 people at a coffee shop. I guess he is probably my favorite character from the Midwest.
E of MI: Do you have any stories about this guy?
JH of SOJA: He is just this real cool guy. He was buddies with James Brown and he is familiar out here. He would bring people here and we could throw custom shows with them. Guys that were used to throwing big East Coast or West Coast shows Packy Malley would bring them to Ohio. Yeah, a very cool guy and a fun guy to hang out with.
E of MI: I think this new album is going to pick up for you a little more. Especially in the Midwest, I can definitely say that and you guys spend a lot of time out on the road and I know that from looking through all the tours that you guys have done. Do you guys have any guilty pleasures about being on the road?
JH of SOJA: I think for Pat the keyboard player it’s really hot chicken wings. I feel that is something he kind of turns to. No, the thing with us is we like playing, we like music. People think we are probably sick of touring but the thing for us is whenever we have a new album out we have all this new material that we can draw from and all of these songs that we have only played 50 times you know, not a 1,000 times.
E of MI: “Gone Today” the acoustic version on your new album is one of my favorite tracks. Are you guys doing any acoustic sets out on the road or performing any of your music acoustically?
JH of SOJA: We have been kind of honing our acoustic set and we have done a couple of interviews acoustic. It’s something that obviously for a singer/songwriter you are very used to acoustic guitar because that is what you write everything on but as a group we are still kind of getting our acoustic stuff together. But yeah, we have one coming and its pretty badass.
E of MI: Okay, that is something to look forward to then. On this new album you worked with John Alagia, did you find it more difficult to work with a more established producer or was it an easier flow to make this album?
JH of SOJA: No, it was super easy. That guy has got an ear for what he likes and me him kind of found out early on that we liked a lot of the same stuff and that is kind of how we put it together. No, he is the easiest to work with man, he was simple. He knows what he is about and he just gets you there and does it.
E of MI: So you guys will probably be working together again on future albums?
JH of SOJA: I hope so. We all definitely love how this turned out and we want to do the next album with him. You know how we did this one we did it by ourselves and then we found a record deal. We kind of already had the tracks ready to go. On the next album we will probably sit down with him from day 1 and record with him so we can collaborate on ideas starting from the very first note type of deal. That is what we are hoping to do next time.
E of MI: Getting on Dave Mathews label, that was a pretty big step for you guys. Were there a lot of other record labels looking at you and you had to choose one or were they one of the actual labels that were really coming after you?
JH of SOJA: I do not know too many of the details about how that stuff works out. I know they were the ones who kind of said you know this stuff is pretty close to perfect. Then we had a few other people saying that there were some kind of major changes we need to make. It seemed like we didn’t really see any changes we need to make because we have this huge fan base at the shows that we play at so we kind of wanted to hear somebody say that this is great. Leave it alone type of deal and that was definitely them, that was their approach.
E of MI: Now, there has been a lot of positive feedback but I have read a few negative reviews and have heard a few fans of your older music being kind of critical of what direction you guys have went with your new album. What do you have to say to these critics and fans?
JH of SOJA: We actually have songs about critics. Well, the last album Born in Babylon the titled track was about people criticizing our music. You know everybody wants bands to kind of stay the same. They want them to be who they were when they were 19 or they want them to be who they were 10 years ago. Everybody kind of wants people to stay the same. I think SOJA as we have grown up we have kind of stopped telling people what to do? We stopped telling people who God was or what kind of hairstyle gets you into Heaven? Or what kind of shoes to where because it is meant to be? We started to realize kind of how stupid all that was so we ended up focusing on the questions instead of the answers. Which is what the last song “When We Were Younger” is about; the fact that we kind of realized that life is a journey and more important than getting up there and saying I know the answers to everything, come and ask me. We sort of say wait a minute maybe these questions are more important and maybe we should be focusing on the questions that tie us all together as a human race and what we can do to get closer to each other. That’s what the new album is about and you know a lot of people want the old SOJA or Soldiers of Jah Army to come out and do a record about what they want us to do a record about. But to us we wanted to come out and do a record about what really mattered. That’s all we wanted to do and we did it so that’s it for us.
E of MI: Has anyone ever hinted for you guys to disassociate with the name Soldiers of Jah Army or told you guys to try to shed that image?
JH of SOJA: Nah, nobody has ever told us that. Nobody has ever suggested that we change it up. The thing with us is that when we were little kids we thought we knew everything and you know, we would tell people who God was and we just told people all of these things. As we got older we realized we were kind of lying to ourselves and to the people. I have never met God and it is kind of disrespectful that I would sit around and pretend that I have. So you know, no one pushed us to change, we just changed.
E of MI: Yeah, I think it is a pretty amazing change too.
JH of SOJA: Thank you buddy. We wanted an open dialogue. We didn’t want a closed I told you so type of sound. We wanted open dialogue where we could actually see positive change through our music and I kind of feel like that is what we got. So we’re all pretty pumped.
E of MI: When you listen to that album you really can get that. The way I described it is as being a lot cheaper than going to see a therapist. When you listen to it you get so much out of it.
JH of SOJA: Yeah, that is awesome man. Thank you, that is what it is supposed to do.
E of MI: Yeah, and I really, really enjoyed it so it is a phenomenal album. So I see you guys are playing Bonaroo this year, congrats on that. Are there any other major festivals in the works for this year?
JH of Soja: Yeah, I think we are doing Wakarusa, were doing Wanee Festival in Florida, were doing All Good, were doing Bonnaroo and there are a lot more coming too. We’re definitely doing a lot more bigger stuff which to us is so exciting because we want this message that we have, this strength to survive message, to get as far as possible and it seems like that is really going to happen.
E of MI: I go to Lollapalooza every year and I was hoping you guys would be there too this year but they haven’t announced their lineup yet. I can’t get any inside information out of you, I guess?
JH of SOJA: Uh, I will tell you honestly we hope we are at Lollapalooza too and that is a guarantee.
E of MI: It is Valentine’s Day today is there anyone you want to ask to be your Valentine or a special someone you would like to send a message to?
JH of SOJA: Definitely my mom. She thinks it is a real pain in the ass to have a separate DVD player and TV because she finds it way to complicated so I found online a TV that has a DVD player in it. So that is showing up at mom’s house on Valentine’s Day. I was actually on the phone with her when you called. Yeah, mom for Valentine’s Day for sure.
E of MI: I just want to let you know that you are going to hold a special place in my heart because you are going to be my first on Valentine’s Day so this is my first major interview.
JH of SOJA: Nice, hell yeah, bad ass.
E of MI: That’s pretty much all I have for you. Thank you guys so much for taking the time and I thank you and your band mates’ too for all of you producing such an amazing album.
JH of SOJA: Dude, we love to do it.
E of MI: And I want to wish you guys continued success with your new album.
JH of SOJA: Very cool, very cool.
E of MI: I actually am going to be going to your show this Sunday at the Cabooze in Minneapolis and I am really looking forward to that. I have never seen you guys before and I am really looking forward to the performance.
JH of SOJA: Very cool, we will be there brother.
I hope that you will be there too or at one of their other upcoming shows on their current tour or at one of the many festivals they will be playing this year.
You can also check Mind Inversion’s review of Strength to Survive here.