Photos by John Shore
SOJA is one of the best reggae acts touring right now, not just here in the U.S., but across the globe. We recently spoke with lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of SOJA, Jacob Hemphill. We discuss the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia music scene, the band’s international fanbase, song-writing, live concerts, the current state of the music industry, Paul Simon, and much more.
LMD: What are your thoughts on playing the home-town show at the WolfTrap in June? Must have been great to return to the area.
The shows are great in D.C. We came up around here so there are people who are new fans who have just gotten into SOJA. There are a lot of people that have seen us in bars that hold 60 people. I grew up going to Wolf Trap with my father all the time. I never thought that one day I’d be throwing a show there. For multiple reasons it’s just badass.
LMD: The D.C./MD/VA music has changed a lot. Could you talk about how you guys started out in the area in general? What are your thoughts on the D.C. music scene as a whole?
It was great coming up here. We had Bad Brains, we had Go-Go and probably six other reggae bands. It was really kick ass growing up here because we were really into reggae, hardcore and Go-go. SOJA turned into a reggae band that dabbles in hardcore and Go-Go. Maybe not hardcore, but just distortions, harmony guitar and fast drums. It was the perfect place. We could never figure out if we were a product of our environment or if we just luckily were born into the environment that we really loved. D.C., Virginia and Maryland as a music scene have been amazing. We love the family that we’re apart of and we love the scene and the genre that we’re apart of. We’re proud of it. A lot of of us are still here.
LMD: As for your progression as a band, what’s it like going from these smaller to bigger venues? Many artists say there is always a value in playing in an intimate venue.
I don’t really subscribe to that. I think there’s value in every kind of show. When you walk out on a stage and there’s 10,000 people who just paid to watch you play for two hours it’s not intimate in the sense that I can see every single person’s face, but I love big shows. I think some bands kind of turn it on when there are a ton of people there. The more the merrier.
LMD: What’s it been like traveling and being able to play with an international band and not just a band that just plays within the United States or heavily in a specific region?
It’s kind of different everywhere. In Europe they really subscribe to Jamaican culture. In America reggae can be perceived as drug culture music that maybe involves teenagers more. In South America they see it as this larger than life hip-hop scale genre full of revolutionaries. We like all sides of it. We don’t really care where we are. We just want to do our brand of music and see how far we can take it. Reggae is different everywhere around the world. I think all reggae bands would relate to what I’m saying. It’s just kind of universal.
LMD: You’ve said you were a big fan of Paul Simon growing up. How has listening to his sound influenced you?
Paul Simon has been a huge influence just based on the way he relates to humans. That’s what I get into with every artist that I love. Whether it’s Bob Marley, Wu Tang Clan, The Fray or Avett Brothers, I’m into people that relate to the human condition. I get that I’m this white reggae band from Virginia, but what I like is people who do something that the human race relates to. When somebody hears Bob Marley they feel like he’s talking to them. Folk music has always been my favorite kind of thing. Passing oral history down through music and storytelling. I don’t really see folk music as sounding like something, I see folk music as saying something.
LMD: Can you talk about traveling and how valuable that’s been in your life?
I think it’s a coin and there’s two sides of it. You miss every wedding, every baby being born, every funeral, every birthday party and every graduation. You miss all the important milestones for all the people that you care about who aren’t specifically in this band which obviously sucks. On the other hand, you get to see things that you would never have seen before. Everybody makes a decision on the kind of life they want to lead. For me, this is the life that I always wanted and I still do. I go home for a couple weeks, I get antsy and I want to go. It’s just what kind of person you are and what kind of life you want.
LMD: Do you have any favorite moments that stand out to you over time that were just special to you personally? Any special moments in concerts that have really spoken to you?
I remember one time we were nominated for a Grammy. I remember the first time I saw my face on a billboard or in a newspaper. I remember the first I heard myself on the radio or saw our music on television. I remember the first time I was in the back of The Rolling Stone on the billboard top 40. I remember the first time I was on the front page of a section in the Washington Post. Headlining Wolf Trap, headlining Kennedy Center at a tribute to Bob Marley was special. That’s just the musical stuff, but there’s a lot more. Going to the Eifel tower and being like, “Holy crap this is the Eifel tower,” and then having people rush up to me to take a picture with me instead of a picture of the Eifel tower. I was on the Equator in Ecuador about a month ago and I was blown away just watching the water go left and right. It’s constant. The blessing that we get from doing this never stop. If you can learn to appreciate this stuff instead of counting the days until you go home then you’re in good shape.
LMD: What are your thoughts on the music industry in the present day and the way that artists are treated now? I definitely don’t think of you guys as like a super mainstream type band that follows some sort of formula.
I think everybody now knows what it’s like to make no money off a record because of Spotify. It started with Napster and then it moved into free downloads. Now it’s into Spotify where you can have the number one album in the country and you’ve sold like 40 copies. Records are now just a business card. You make a record because you love the music, but nobody is expecting to make a pile of money. You go on tour off the record and that’s where the money is. If it wasn’t for live shows, no bands would be able to survive. There wasn’t really a record label in the world that was going to say, “five white kids with dreadlocks doing reggae music, sign them up.” It was the people who made this band. The way the people heard this band was through the internet and free music. It’s like everything else, it’s the flip of a coin. You can see it however you want to see it.
LMD: What’s your songwriting process like? How has your songwriting changed since the band started?
I don’t sit down and write anything. If something comes to me and it happens naturally and organically, I rock with it.
LMD: You guys have a really full sound. What’s it been like getting know these guys on a personal level and creating chemistry as a band?
Personal relationships in SOJA are a very big deal. Our main thing we’re doing up there is trying to connect with each other. Secondly, we’re trying to connect with the audience, but primarily we’re up there to share something with each other. If one guy is off or having a bad day, we’re not really doing what we’re trying to do. Everybody is up there trying to take care of each other. That’s definitely where it starts. If we can’t do that it’s a failed show.
LMD: What are some of the obstacles that you and the band have had to overcome?
We’ve just remained friends throughout the process. I’ve seen bands that don’t stay friends and they look miserable. We just try to stay close to each other. It’s tough out there on the road. We just try to keep it like a family.
LMD: You guys have been playing some new songs. Is there anything that’s been interesting to you guys topic wise that you’ve been writing about?
We’re done writing the new record and we’re going to start recording it as soon as the Slightly Stoopid tour is done. The theme is kind of looking back. When we started this record we decided we wanted to do something that is very SOJA. When we did Born In Babylon, that was very SOJA. Strength To Survive was very SOJA, but it was also more acoustic stuff and some songwriter stuff. Amid the Noise and Haste was very SOJA, but it was very polished. The new one is kind of going back to what we used to do. A lot of the songs on the new record are about things that change you and roads you go down. That’s what the record is about, change.
LMD: Could you tell me a little about the production of the new album? Who did you guys end up going with and why?
We haven’t totally made all those decisions yet. We know that we’re going to do it differently than we’ve been doing it. We’re going to record everything as a band, with no producers and no outside influence. Once we get it about 95% there is when we’re going to start bringing in outside people. We just kind of want to do it the same way we used to do it. I’m pumped.
LMD: What are your thoughts on where reggae is heading as a genre?
I think that the genre is changing. When I started there was a hand full of bands and now there are hundreds. In any genre that is supposed to be taken seriously, there is supposed to be a bunch of different stuff. The problem with reggae since it began was Bob Marley and the Wailers were so good, it’s like Michael Jordan to the NBA. It was kind of hard for people to do reggae without copying him. Now you’re starting to see a lot of people going crazy diverse with it. Even Bob’s son, Damian, is doing his total own thing. I think the more that happens the farther this reggae thing is going to go. Reggae has worked because it never became mainstream. People say we’re pushing reggae to the mainstream, but we’re not. I don’t want corporate to get ahold of this. I don’t want to see it go the way that hip-hop did, the way that rock did and the way that country did. When the stuff starts it’s really incredible and reggae has kind of stayed in the start up, but because of that there was lack of innovation. You have to walk the line like everything else in life.
LMD: Are there any venues or cities that you’re looking forward to playing?
All of them dude. These venues are sick. I haven’t been to half of them so I’m pumped.
LMD: Who are some of the bands you’re listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to Leilani Wolfgramm’s new record that hasn’t been released yet. I’ve been listening to that a lot. I’m just kind of watching our genre and seeing what’s coming up next. I’m looking to see who’s doing something new and creative. That’s normally how I’d do it.
LMD: What would be your one big takeaway for any band that’s trying to what you guys do?
If you don’t have a vision, then you’re going to be a gimmick and if you’re going to be a gimmick then be the best gimmick that you can be. If you have a vision for something you want see over the course of your life or a change that you want to make in the world, then you’re just fine from the jump. Find your leader and put your trust in him if he truly does have a vision. If none of you guys have a vision, then pick an angle and work the hell out of it.
LMD: Are you working on any solo stuff for yourself?
I’ve got so many songs in the vault that I’ve often thought about it. I’m sure I will one day, but I’m just having too much fun with SOJA and it’s been that way for 15 years.