Zac Brown Band Interview: John Driskell Hopkins Says Band Will Always Break the Rules and Push the Limits
At a show this summer, Zac Brown Band‘s John Driskell Hopkins watched as one young and possibly inebriated shirtless male fan raced to the front row and quickly retreated. The music played on, the crowd continued to move around like a giant sea anemone, and the fan did it again. Then again, again, and again…
The kid (younger than Hopkins, but presumably of legal drinking age) did this repeatedly, playing an unintentional but infuriating game of cat and mouse with a bouncer eager to get his gnarled hands on him, but unable to leave his post in the moat that separates fans from band. Like a troll, he could only reach out when the kid got close. This sideshow had the ZBB bassist in stitches.
“Sometimes you see people get into a frenzy like that, they get so excited they can’t stay in their own seat,” Hopkins tells Taste of Country.
Remember: The band is always watching. Maybe not literally, like a vulture over the highway or some creepy neighbor — but they’re playing close attention. “One of my favorite things to watch is when somebody in the crowd is singing along to a song they’ve never heard,” Hopkins says. “I love that!”
Despite an arranged looseness on stage, Zac Brown Band keeps tight tabs on matters of business and music. The key to turning a jam band into a successful, innovative group of country hitmakers is organization, a little foolishness and a whole lot of competitive drive.
On ‘Uncaged,’ the group’s third major label release, they takes chances no other artists would consider for longer than a cup of coffee. Yet once again, they’ll find a gold album (platinum for one million copies sold is a safe bet) and chart-topping hits when it’s time to begin album number four.
Hopkins called Taste of Country on the way home from a weekend at the lake with his wife. He was able to leave his 3-month-old twins with family for the rare summer touring break and enjoy some rest and relaxation — much needed.
ToC: Do you think on ‘Uncaged’ you have pushed the limits further than you have on any previous album?
John Driskell Hopkins: Oh yeah. They’ve been pushed farther than they have been. I don’t think they’ve been pushed as far as they’ll go. I don’t know if we’re gonna come out with a Radiohead album next or not, but it’s certainly gonna be a growth process for as long as we play music. We’re gonna always try to do better and bigger things and break rules and make as good of music as we can while embracing our fanbase.
How closely do you follow your singles as they move up the charts?
When it gets close (to No. 1), everybody is following it all the time. I check it weekly. When it gets into the Top 10 or the Top 5 you start going, ‘OK, who is coming up with something strong? Who is around us?’ We still do pay attention and we do still get butterflies about it. It’s a very exciting to see your song get so many fans and so much attention all around the country.
That’s interesting, because if one were to form an image of the band based on your music and live shows, it’s that you’re a carefree, go-with-the flow jam band. But yet, you still have a very focused business side?
It’s seven dudes who were all athletes. ‘Let’s go!’ There’s a lot of testosterone up there. We’re accustomed to not winning a lot of awards at award shows and things like that and we’re able to shake off that we’re not considered in the middle of the political part of the industry and all of that. But yeah, when you get up to the Top 5 and all, you’re definitely gonna be interested.
We spoke with Scott from the Avett Brothers and he said they’re looking forward to playing with ZBB at the Southern Ground Festival. Who on that lineup are you most looking forward to playing with or watching perform?
Charleston is going to be unique for me because I get to do a set with Balsam Range, they’re a bluegrass band out of Canton, N.C. that’s working on my solo record with me and we hope to rope Jerry Douglass into playing with us.
As far as the ZBB… we’ll do everything we can to rope everybody that we can into our set on the main stage. The Avett Brothers are outstanding and we’re big fans of theirs. We got to hear them several months back and we’re really excited to get to play with them.
What is interesting about them is it looks like they’re trying to cross the bridge into mainstream country a little more — maybe not releasing a single, but certainly talking to publications like ours. No one really crossed that bridge better than Zac Brown Band.
That’s a big bridge!
What’s the key and how did you do it so successfully, and so quickly?
I don’t know man, I guess we just didn’t take time to put our life jackets on when we crossed the bridge. We went so full bore ahead that we could have fallen flat on our face and we didn’t. We pushed on through. And I don’t wanna beat the bridge analogy up, but we went from bar into radio, and country radio was so very embracing of our sound and of our songs that really made it a joy to cross over into the genre.