Anyone who's followed the Midwestern live music scene even casually over the last dozen years knows the rock/funk/reggae/pop band Johnny Socko, the band which sprang from their homebase of Bloomington 13 years ago. They've played a unique kind of heartland rock and roll with funk, reggae and rap elements at an estimated 2,000 shows, recording six albums along the way. But despite their near-ubiquity in the Midwest, there are still a lot of things people don't know about Johnny Socko.
Take their name, for example. Although none of the band"s current or former members is named Johnny Socko, to this day they get asked, "Who is Johnny Socko?"
"Sometimes it's, "Which one of you is Johnny Socko?"" says the band's trumpeter, Demian Hostetter, laughing. Those who persist in asking are patiently told that Johnny Socko was a character in a very bad, practically forgotten Japanese TV show called Giant Robot. Johnny was the kid who controlled the giant robot.
Or they're told that Johnny Socko, the band, is made up of Hostetter, drummer Dylan Wissing, saxophonist Joshua Silbert, guitarist Christopher Smail and bassist Matthew Wilson. That"s an easy question to answer. A slightly more vexing one is: What is Johnny Socko?
Sharp left turns
The answer is one that has been evolving throughout the 1990s and early millennium at sweaty basement parties in Bloomington and in the smoky barrooms of 40 states. The group"s music has changed and is continuing to change with the times, sometimes surprising even its most diehard fans.
"We love the bands who take sharp left turns in their careers," Hostetter says. "And we've taken quite a few."
"It seems like they reinvent their sound to a point every so often and keep it fresh without alienating the fans who liked what they did in the past," says Sam King of Push Down & Turn, which emerged on the scene around the same time as Socko. "It's a fine line, and they walked it pretty well."
Those countless hours spent playing in those basements and bars have beefed up their sound into a genre-spanning, not easily describable blend of grooves and beats and pop.
"We don't want to have hyphens in our description," Silbert says, "but right now we have about five or six hyphens. It"s cool, because it's hard to describe what we do, which is one of the fun and unique things about us, but it"s hard to tell people what kind of music we play."
"We've thrown so many curveballs at our fans in the past five years," Smail says. "We've gotten away with so much for so long, I can't complain if we get pigeonholed."
But the biggest question of all is this: Why, after 12 years, is Johnny Socko potentially Top 40 and TRL-bound? Their new, self-titled album has hit the Top 100 on CMJ, the Billboard of alternative music. Their new producer, Ken Lewis, has high hopes for the band"s chart potential and gives the band a good chance at scoring a record deal and placing songs on national TV and films.
Lewis, who has worked with Mariah Carey, George Clinton, Public Enemy and many other current and former Top 10 acts, has invested a lot of time, energy and belief in Socko. He wants to see them on a major label. "Getting a record deal for an artist is damn near the hardest thing you can imagine doing," he says. "You may as well start playing the lottery; the odds are similar. You have to prove you're major label quality before you have major label backing."
All New Jersey brashness and confidence, Lewis adds, "To get a record deal, you have to have the songs, No. 1. I think they have great songs. No. 2, you have to be a great live band. Check: They're a great live band. But today, I think you have to have proved yourself on your own before a label gets interested. And these guys have.
"How many bands have played 2,000 shows and toured 40 states in their own tour bus? They've sold 25,000 records on their own. That kind of stuff is what got me interested in them at the beginning."
An intensive campaign by Lewis and others to help expose Socko to a national audience begins in January. A first step was taken recently when a song of theirs was used in a trailer for Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights. Other steps are being planned. The right people are being contacted and being shown the CMJ chart, where they rank higher than many established acts. It"s a gamble, but not one without some calculation that success may be near.
To see where Socko is going, one must first look back to see where they've been. Johnny Socko's music comes from its roots in early 1990s Bloomington and Indiana University. The combination of a college town, people who love rock and roll and a great music school made for a vibrant scene.
Christopher Smail says, "One of the great things about Bloomington is that you could pretty easily put a band together and go play a couple of basement parties. Next thing you know, you've got a six-person following that comes to see you play in clubs."
Dylan Wissing and Joshua Silbert, who'd been friends since childhood, hooked up musically while attending IU. The first lineup of Socko solidified itself around 1991; their gigs were at the hard-drinking, hard-dancing basement house parties in Bloomington.
Silbert remembers, "At least the first keg was free, if not the second one. By the time they got to the third or fourth keg, they might pass the hat around. And the band would be in the basement, sweating its brains out. The cops would come at 3 in the morning. It was great."
Wissing says, "There were so many musicians who were either music school musicians or self-taught musicians and it was a really healthy scene. Musicians were getting together with each other. There were a number of venues that supported live, original music. It was right before Nirvana broke, and there was this fun vibe in the air. Audiences were open-minded, the press was being really cool and the musicians were talented on every level."
At first, Socko didn't plan on making a long haul out of the band. Silbert says, "In college, it was, "This is kind of fun, this is silly. Maybe we can get some free beer out of this." And [co-founding member] Joe Welch started bringing originals to the band. When he started doing that, I started taking things a little more seriously and I started bringing originals to the band. First thing we knew we had enough material for an album."
That disc, Bovaquarium, came out in 1993, around the time the band had achieved enough success to score as many gigs as they could play.
They found out they could play a lot. They toured with just about every act that would have them as company, including a lengthy East Coast swing with the notorious New York punk band Murphy's Law. ("We left for that tour as children and came back as men," Silbert says, laughing. "We didn't make a dime on that tour.")
They played with some equally unlikely acts: Dave Matthews, George Clinton, Rick Springfield and Kid Rock among them. Those days with the original lineup were pretty carefree.
"We were just making up everything as we went," Wissing says. "We had very little experience running a band and no experience running a business. It was hard trying to figure out how to be a rock band and A) stay alive and B) not go broke."
In the mid-1990s, the band suffered its first major crisis when Welch, who had written or co-written a good portion of the band's material, decided to leave the road behind after becoming a father. The rest of the band understood his reasons but nevertheless had to consider the future without him. Silbert says, "It was a big test for our morale. We were kind of these doe-eyed young kids and we had to ask ourselves, 'Can we really do this?'"
Demian Hostetter says, "That question has come up several times since then as well. With these hours and this pay, why would we quit? Whatever B.S. we had to go through in the past has been worth it."
Stranded in Rhode Island
Life on the road, the way Socko did it, wasn't always easy. In 1998, the band supported the release of their album Full Trucker Effect with a figure-8 shaped tour of the United States. From the Midwest through Colorado, things went smoothly. A few California gigs were OK.
But then they embarked on a hellish, 11-day, 10-show swing that was to have taken them from San Diego to Bar Harbor, Maine. Upon hitting the East Coast, nothing went right. In Rhode Island, their van broke a belt and Socko was stranded for four days, staying with strangers and fuming against the fact that the tiny state celebrates the anniversary of the U.S. victory over Japan in World War II, closing garages and auto supply stores. (The van, after acquiring 400,000 miles on the road with Socko, was finally retired in favor of a roomier, customized truck purchased from the Why Store.)
Other frustrations over the years came with the realization that maintaining constant group unity is impossible. Socko underwent another fairly major personnel shakeup in 1999.
The band's undergone a genesis every time it's changed members, Wissing says. "We've had a couple different lineups that have been magical where everything gelled. With some lineups there's been some head-butting, some guys getting along, but this lineup is great. Everyone knows his job. We're all on the same page musically."
Others in the band agree it's never been as harmonious within Socko as it is now. But even with a solid lineup in place, something had to give after so many years on the road. After a New Year"s Eve show last year, Socko deliberately scaled back its number of shows. They've gone from playing more than 200 shows in 2001 to just 50 this year.
"We took January through March off, and that's been the largest break in the history of the band," Silbert says. "From 1993 until last New Year's Eve, we'd have two or three weekends off a year. Every once in a while a gig would get cancelled and that would just feel weird." "I don't think we were strong enough to admit it, but we needed a break," Wilson says. It was an adjustment; they weren"t used to being home or having continuous access to things such as hot showers and good food.
But more than that, it was time for the band to once again decide where it was going to go and whether they wanted to reinvent themselves one more time.
Wissing says, "We'd been touring hard for seven years and we'd gotten ourselves to a nice and comfortable level in our careers. The only way we could get to the next level was to make the most kick-ass record we could possibly make. To do that, we had to take time off the road. We practiced for three or four months until we went to the studio, so we could just go in and nail it. It seems like the time off the road has been better almost than the last seven years had been. We didn't feel like we had that much to prove to ourselves anymore in our live show."
About that time, Lewis began flying from New Jersey to Indianapolis several times a month to work with the band. But the pre-production process, held over a period of six months, was pretty intensive.
"We would spend 14 hours at a time in my basement and go through our songs with Ken," Wissing recalls. "He suggested things we'd never tried, things we'd never considered. We thought, "This guy is out of his mind." But we tried it and sometimes it'd be amazing. Why in the hell hadn't we thought of it years ago."
Lewis says, "The plan was to pick the 10 best songs that Johnny Socko had to offer and look at every aspect of all of those songs and rework them into being the best they possibly could be. It took seven months before we were at a point where I felt like they were ready to record them."
Unity of purpose
Make no mistake, Johnny Socko is a stunning achievement. Comprised of five new songs and six of the group's best-known older numbers, originally recorded from 1995 to 1998, it's cram-packed with different sounds and moods. The band says it prided itself on its versatility in the kind of songs played, but found a new unity of purpose in how they played them. Lewis made it clear from the start that he wasn"t much impressed by the kitchen-sink attitude of some of the band's previous albums.
"My approach was, look you guys, you make terrible records. Nobody has figured out how to make a great record with you," he says. "You've figured out how to write great songs, and how to perform great songs, but nobody has been able to capture that lightning in a bottle of what you deliver live. And I"m going to do it."
He recalls, "I wasn't sold on them until I saw them live. I thought their records in the past were decent, but I didn't think it was anything a record company would get crazy over. Then I saw them live and all of those same songs, the ones that hadn't done very much for me when I'd heard them on record, came alive for me. I knew instantly that I had to make a record with these guys."
The band agrees that studiocraft was not their biggest strength in the past, although they defend the quality of their previous albums. Wissing says, "We felt pretty comfortable and confident about our live show. But we weren't really sure about making records until Ken came in the picture."
Lewis' direction is apparent in a new version of "Bitch Stole My Hat," Socko's best-known song. Rerecording a nu-metal party anthem that the band had written nine years ago wasn't originally in the band"s mind.
"It was kind of a shock at first," Wissing says about being asked to rerecord the band's older songs. "It caught us all completely off guard and it took us a while to wrap our heads around the idea."
They agreed to rearrange several of their old songs after realizing, Wissing says, "We always thought that those songs should have been hits in the first place. I mean, "Bitch Stole My Hat" has been requested more than any other song we"ve ever written or played, and that song was written in 1993. We always thought it was too bad that song wasn't a hit. But now the songs have been recorded at a level where if they don"t make it on the radio, it"s not a problem with the recording or the performance. It's a problem with the song.
"Something we'd never done as a band was to sit and dissect a song in the studio," Wissing adds. "For us, we'd write it, everyone figures out their part, then perform it a bunch of times onstage. Then we"d record it pretty much as we"d performed it. That definitely has its limitations."
There was still trepidation within the band as they proceeded with the pre-production process, but they soldiered on towards their recording sessions.
Wilson says, "We kind of had a fear that our sound would get a little watered down. But if anything, we're rocking even harder now. We're hitting our instruments harder now. We come offstage and we're gasping for breath." "It feels like a debut album to us, as strange as that sounds," Silbert says.
Another revamped Socko tune was its cover of the 1970s Charlie Daniels redneck hit, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which has been a live favorite for years. After Socko played it for Lewis in rehearsal, the producer decided he wanted to completely rework the way the song was played, according to Wissing.
"Ken came in and said, "OK. It's great, has a lot of energy. But you have to slow it down." Redoing that was probably our greatest challenge. We all had to go and seriously practice "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which we've probably played 1,500 times."
The end result, both Lewis and the band agree, is a more punchy, in-your-face sound - the first time the band"s raw energy has been successfully captured in the studio. Now that Socko has this great new album, and a national producer behind them, where do they go from here?
Much of the action will occur behind the scenes, at the A&R level, instead of Socko"s usual milieu for winning support, the road.
"The idea of us just booking another endless tour on our own is not a high priority for us," Wissing says. "We"ve done that for years. But an extended tour opening up for a band like Kiss? One that lasts for three years? Count us in."
Lewis has confidence in the band's ability to fend for itself and toil at their craft. "Whenever I hear a good band, my fear is, "How hard are they going to work?"" he says. "I've taken on bands who had a mindset that "Oh, we've got this big New York producer on our side now. We'll let him do all the work and we"ll let him get us a record deal. And we'll just sit back and wait for the royalty checks."
"All of the guys in Socko are willing to do whatever it takes to get where they want. You can just tell that they want this so badly. This is their shot. And nobody"s taking it for granted."
Johnny Socko will play a New Year's Eve show at the Patio with special guests The Fuglees. Tickets are $10 and available through Ticketmaster or at the Vogue"s box office. Johnny Socko is available at local music shops or through the group"s Web site, www.johnnysocko.com.