Hootie & the Blowfish have sold more than 25 million records worldwide, making them one of the most popular rock acts ever to emerge from the South. But their superstar status hasn’t made them forget their influences – especially R.E.M., the seminal alternative rock band from Athens, Georgia. On April 17, Hootie & the Blowfish made their appreciation clear when they released a cover of R.E.M.’s 1991 hit, “Losing My Religion,” available to stream and purchase only on Amazon Music.
Calling from his home in Charleston, South Carolina, Hootie guitarist Mark Bryan explains why covering an R.E.M. song was so important. “We came up at a time in the late ‘80s where R.E.M. was the band that was crossing alternative music over from college radio to rock radio,” he says. “There was a scene that was emerging, and R.E.M. was at the forefront of it.
“We were in college in the Southeast, and they were from Georgia. Everywhere you turned, people were listening to R.E.M. at that point. So it was while we were getting our chops, and we were huge fans. We were covering other people, too, but R.E.M. was one of the most important bands for us.”
Even after Hootie & the Blowfish started writing more and more original material, Bryan says “Losing My Religion” remained the in their repertoire. “In an effort to make our set list all killer and no filler, that was the cover that we felt could make our own, but people would also know it.”
So, after Hootie finished touring to support their latest album, 2019’s Imperfect Circle, and the opportunity arose this spring to release a song via Amazon Music, Bryan says that it was clear that it was time for them to finally record their version of “Losing My Religion.” “That was the one that we’ve been playing on tour and had it well-rehearsed, so it just became the obvious choice.”
Playing that song is also special for Bryan, he says, because R.E.M.’s guitarist, Peter Buck, has had a big influence on his playing. “One thing is the way he arpeggiates – an arpeggio is when you take a chord and you play the individual notes in the chord. He did a lot of that early on,” Bryan says. “That was a style that I sort of adopted, because instead of just strumming the chord, you could pick out a lot of notes and do cool stuff. He opened my eyes to that style. You can really hear it on “Let Her Cry” – my guitar part on the chorus is very Peter Buck! It just is; I can’t deny it.:
And, Bryan says, when his bandmates began using acoustic guitars during writing sessions, and he was casting about for something different to add to the mix, “Peter Buck gave me the idea of [playing] a mandolin. It’s a very nice accompany instrument for an acoustic guitar. So I got really good at mandolin over the years, and I would say that was inspired by Peter Buck – but also Sam Bush who’s the world’s greatest mandolin player. But the way that Peter Buck was able to work mandolin into rock songs, that was definitely inspirational for me.”
While he has never gotten direct feedback on his R.E.M.-inspired work from Buck himself, Bryan has had memorable times with two other R.E.M. members: “[Bassist] Mike Mills and I have done a few shows together where we will cover some of [R.E.M.’s] songs, and I’ll play and sing along with them.” That experience, Bryan says, “is a dream come true!” Now, he adds, “Mills and I are pretty good friends.”
Bryan and his bandmates also had a good encounter with R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. “We were on the MTV Video Awards back in 1996 – we did “Only Want to Be With You,” and we stopped in the middle of the song and Darius [Rucker, singer] raised a shot in a toast to R.E.M. Later that night, we were in the hotel lobby of the same bar [R.E.M.] were, and Stipe invited us to his table, and we all sat and talked and got to know him. He was really cool and very thankful for what we had done. That was a really good experience.”
While R.E.M., and Peter Buck in particular, have obviously had a major impact on him, Bryan also cites Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin as guitarists who have been particularly inspirational. “Every time I go to play a part, there’s a little bit of everybody in there that I’ve listened to – and there’s also whatever I have turned that into over the years that’s never going to sound like anybody but me. So while I might have been inspired by these different styles, when I actually pick up the guitar and play, it’s going to sound like me. You have to stretch yourself as an artist to not sound just like your inspirations. I think that’s really important.”
Now Bryan himself is one of the more popular guitarists in the rock realm, even though he says that becoming a professional musician “was never really a conscious choice. It was always what I loved the most. It’s not like I sat down one day and said, ‘I’m going to be a musician’ – I just loved it, and then it ended up being all I ever did. That’s still the case.”
Bryan’s bandmates – Rucker, bassist Dean Felber, and drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld – have also been completely committed to their music since they first met and formed Hootie & the Blowfish while attending the University of South Carolina. “We all loved doing it, so we would do it all the time, and our sound formed out of that. There’s only one way for that to happen, to be that authentic and that original.”
It’s unusual for a band to retain the same lineup, as Hootie has done for three decades, and Bryan believes it’s because of their bond right from the beginning. “We started off as friends before we ever got good as a band – that was the basis of our relationship. Now, 35 years later, it still is. When we’re not touring, we’re golfing and doing things that friends do.”
All four members still live in South Carolina, which Bryan believes is another reason why Hootie have survived and thrived. “If we all moved to LA or New York or something, I think our paths would have splintered. But when you all live in South Carolina, it’s like we’re holding down the fort – four bros who stayed together here. That builds up a strength, I think.”
Fortunately for the band, they didn’t have touring plans this spring, so they haven’t suffered any COVID-19 pandemic-related cancellations. Beyond releasing “Losing My Religion,” Bryan says that he’s trying to use this time off the road wisely: “I just made my first solo album. Over the last two months, I finished tracking 12 new songs.” He says he doesn’t have a title for that album yet, but promises he’s working hard on figuring out his plans for it.
As he says goodbye so he can get back to work, Bryan takes a moment to express gratitude for his life: “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a great career – but I’ve also put in the 10,000 hours that it takes to get to that place. So it’s a trade-off. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Purchase Hootie & the Blowfish covering “Losing My Religion” on Amazon Music.