Mark Trojanowski – Sister Hazel – INTERVIEW

I got a chance to speak with Mark Trojanowski, drummer for Sister Hazel. I enjoyed learning about his jazz background and trajectory into music. He joined Sister Hazel for a year or two, but 25 years later is still with the group. As a matter of fact, all five of the band members have been with the band since just after the release of their first album, performing on a consistent basis. Trojanowski attributes that to the way the band has set up their schedule, allowing for life pursuits. He is able to dedicate time to his family including coaching his son’s baseball team, watching his daughter dance and cooking with his wife.

I’ll be seeing Sister Hazel at Fairfield Theatre Company, Fairfield, CT on September 13, 2019 and can’t wait! Click here for more information about that show.

Fredda Gordon: I read on your blog that you went to University of North Texas with a degree in jazz studies.

Mark Trojanowski: That’s correct. It’s an awesome school.

FG: Did you study under Ed Soph?

MT: Yeah, I did. Soph is probably one of the best teachers I’ve had.

It was a really awesome experience. If you go there you have life long connections and friends. Many of the kids that I went to school with I still keep in touch with, see what they’re doing. Especially for drummers it’s a really close-knit community. So many of us are out there playing in highly visible situations and really good gigs. It was really a fun time to be there.

FG: Do you still play jazz?

MT: Not as much as I would like. I actually did some stuff over here at Georgia State, I played in a combo about a year ago. I was thinking about goin’ back and getting my Master’s Degree. I was doing some of that and then my mom had gotten sick so [school] kind of got derailed, but I would like to. It’s definitely a juggling between the band, and I have two kids, so it gets into life and priorities and everything else.

FG: And you mentioned some of your favorite musicians including Bill Evans, which Bill Evans?

MT: The jazz pianist. I really got into him pretty heavily. When I was in high school there weren’t a lot of kids in my area that could play jazz and improv and I’d gone to Eastman School of Music in the summer. I was really into big band, Woody Herman, Count Basie, all of that kind of stuff and when I went to Eastman, for about 8 weeks, I discovered Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and really got into that, but didn’t have an option to do it.

It happened to turn out that my AP history teacher was an amazing jazz musician on the side and he took me under his wing and I started playing clubs with him and his buddies that were all in their 50’s, and I’m like this 16 year old kid. He really immersed himself in Bill Evans. That was his mentor so he knew every Bill Evans song and I ended up playing a lot of Bill Evans songs and got into that whole jazz trio thing.

FG: How did you go from jazz to what you’re doing now?

MT: In North Texas you get a really well-rounded education, especially for percussion and drumming. Even as a kid I was really into The Police and I also had listened to a lot of Steely Dan and Toto, Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro and Stewart Copeland. So, I did have a jazz degree and listening [to pop] growing up and when I got to North Texas there was a lot of really good R&B stuff around town that was very similar to Morris Day and The Time and Prince. So I really got into a lot of R & B and played in a couple of local bands that were just more about “pocket”, and playing “two and four”, and really enjoyed that. I diversified myself into the whole Minneapolis thing and Chucky Brown, the Go-Go thing, Chaka Khan and a lot of those kind of R&B groups of the 90’s. There were so many great musicians being played on those records. Also, I still stayed really connected, watched a bunch of Sting tours and was also into fusion Jazz like Michel Camilo, and Paquito d’Rivera. I’ve studied with Joel Rosenblatt, who played with him and also Spyro Gyra.

I was getting into the latin jazz fusion thing, which again was definitely back beat oriented and just started going down that path of still keeping diverse styles of music, and being able to play it. It was a different type of thing and a challenge. When I moved back to Florida after school I was doing cruise ships for a while and was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was playing jazz gigs on the side, saving money and working at the theme parks in Orlando. One of my buddies that went to North Florida, which was another big jazz school, told me about this band up in Gainesville that was looking for a new drummer. I was getting ready to move to New York or LA or Nashville at the time and saved up a bunch of money. Soph had said “you need to go there without having to worry about getting a day job so you can network and practice all day long.” So I had that box checked and auditioned for Hazel. At the time Ryan wasn’t even in the band. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give this thing 6 to 12 months, I’m not in a hurry’, and dove into the business side of the things. At that point it was just a local Gainesville thing with some shows in Tallahassee and maybe South Carolina. But I was going to really try to push it as much as I could from the business side.

FG: And then more than 25 years later… it was a little longer than a year.

MT: Yeah, exactly. So, it worked out all well and I still listen to all kinds of music. I love to listen to Jazz all the time. I see my friends, the drummers I went to school with, all doing different things. Keith Carlock went to school with me, he plays with Steely Dan, with Sting, with Toto. Then Jim Riley who plays with Rascal Flatts and Jim Burgess played with Cheryl Crow and Dixie Chicks, and now plays with the Counting Crows. There’s Blair Sinta that was playing with Alanis Morrisette and Jason Suttor was playing with Chris Cornell before that tragic situation. There’s a large number of guys I went to school with all playing in the pop rock genre and some doing jazz things, but if you really want to have a long career and being able to make enough money and support a family, there’s not a large demographic to [play straight ahead]. And even some of the best drummers, they’re just banging real hard. [Earl Harvin] moved to Europe. He played with Seal, he was an amazing pop drummer. Earl moved to Europe because that was the only place that he could really play jazz or play pop music.

Then there was another guy named Dan Wojciechowski who was in the 1:00 band [a difficult band to get into at North Texas-FG] for all 4 years and is a great studio drummer and he’s playing with Peter Frampton. It just is what it is. You have to tour to make money because no-one buys music anymore and you don’t get paid for streaming so it’s drastically changed. How many people are really passionate about going out and listening to jazz music? How many jazz clubs are in every city? We have like one club in Atlanta where I live. It’s a dying art form, unfortunately.

FG: But [your jazz training] must influence your playing.

MT: Well, for sure. I mean, improvisational-wise it does and Hazel has a wide, diverse background. Ryan was actually at North Texas when I was there, but we didn’t know each other, and then he went to Berklee. It’s the funniest story because we knew a lot of the same people and played with a lot of the same people, but we didn’t know each other at school. He’s really into blues guitarists and Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks. Our lead singers were really into Indigo Girls, James Taylor and a lot of that singer/songwriter stuff. Our bass player’s a huge Beatles fan, Styx, some of that 70s, 80s, opera rock stuff. When it all comes together it’s a pretty diverse kind of thing which gives us the sound that the five of us make.

If you listen to all the records, I think a lot of our stuff now is going back to more of what the Somewhere More Familiar record was, more organic, rootsy music which gets classified as country, but if you listen to a song like “One Nation” off of The White Album or songs like “Look to the Children” on the Somewhere More Familiar record, you could easily go put those on Water or Fire or Lighter In The Dark. I think there wasn’t this massive change in our music. We did different things and we just started writing songs with a lot of other people and one of our lead singers had a publishing deal in Nashville, so there’s a lot of co-write songs with writers from Nashville. You have to just write good songs.

We’ve developed a fan base fortunately enough when we had a lot of commercial exposure and stayed active. We’ve been one of these bands that makes our own paths and our own destiny and we never went away for a year or two years. After Somewhere More Familiar we took a 6 month break after that tour because we were burned out for three years on the road. Ever since then we tour every month. Basically, all of us have families now, and kids and so we pretty much play 6-10 shows a month all year long. We don’t really take any breaks and it allows everyone to sort of do what they want to do outside of the band and be able to be there for our families. That’s the model that’s worked for us and that’s why we’ve been able to be a band for as long as we have.

FG: You have loyal fans, “Hazlenuts,” is there anything that a fan has done that has blown you away?

MT: There have been a bunch of fans that have gotten tattoos with either lyrics or something designating the band, which is pretty crazy. If you would have asked me 25 years ago if someone would be putting a tattoo on them from something from Sister Hazel, I would have probably said no.

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

MT: I had played a lot in the steel band during my high school years and we got to play over at Orlando at what used to be a connection to Sea World and that was a pretty big thing. Playing in front of thousands of people when I was like 15 years old was a cool situation even though we were playing cover songs.

And then I’d say with a band, when things first started popping for us in Gainesville. We were playing shows in front of 1500 people 2 nights in a row. That was the sign of like ‘Whoa, this is really happening people are showing up for this band and crazy fans singing the lyrics to all the songs,’ even though it was our home town it was still a pretty memorable thing that I probably will remember the rest of my life. After that you have all these shows across the country. We got to play Red Rocks with the Allman Brothers and it was pretty awesome. We played Centennial Park after they reopened it after the bombing of the olympics and there was 100,000 people there. There was a big music festival here in Atlanta called Music Midtown, and we played right in front of Foo Fighters back in like ’98 which was pretty amazing too. So, we’ve had a lot of cool things but I think that the start in the home town with sold out shows gave you the feeling like ‘Wow! this is really happening!’ and if you can do it here you just need to get it out elsewhere.

FG: When you were a kid was there music around your house?

MT: Not really. My dad wanted me to play trumpet but my two uncles played drums and so that’s where it started. One Christmas I went down into one of their basements and was playing when I was 9. I was down there all day and they told my dad, “You can go take him for lessons, cause he’s got some natural talent and he should go do that.”

FG: It seems like you have a lot of other interests.

MT: I always loved to cook. My mom kind of got me into that and going away to college and cooking my own Thanksgiving meals… I always had a cooking thing. In an alter-world I would love to own a food truck and travel around. I just love cooking and making stuff. My wife cooks too so it’s fun to try things out. And then I definitely love outdoor sports, scuba diving and snowboarding that’s kind of my thing, and now that my son plays baseball I’m pretty active in that whole arena. I was coaching it and doing developmental stuff with a bunch of kids and i’ve been coaching teams for a bunch of years now.

FG: Are your kids into music?

MT: I haven’t pushed it, y’know my parents never pushed me. My daughter took some piano lessons. I didn’t force them to do anything if they want to pick it up I’m 150% behind it. My daughter loves gymnastics and dancing and my son loves playing baseball so we support them in those adventures but I think anything in life there has to be passion behind it in order for a parent to get behind it. If the kid is not into it you can’t force them to do something and think that it’s going to have a good turnout in the end. Drums are in the basement, there’s a piano in the house and if they’re interested in doing it, they’ll do it and I’ll be right there. And, I’ll definitely take them to other people cause it’s like difficult enough teaching them and working with them doing sports and it was the same thing with my dad, so at a certain point you have to get outside help.

FG: How old are your kids?

MT: 11 [son] and 7 [daughter]. Great ages.

FG: Is there something you wish you could do musically?

MT: Even in college, pitch and sight singing and ear training was really difficult for me. I wish I had that ear and that gift so that I could actually sing backgrounds and do things like that but I was never able to get that skill and train myself.

FG: Your band was named after a local missionary who ran a homeless shelter and the band also does a lot of charity work. Can you talk a little about that?

MT: Whenever our vehicle was able to do great things for other people we wanted to be able to have that opportunity to do that. Our lead singer lost his brother at 13 to cancer and all of us have had some type of effect with a family member or a close friend with cancer so that became a huge thing for us. Ken developed the Lyrics for Life Foundation and that’s been a huge push for us with over 2 million dollars now raised.

We do a camp in the fall with kids in recovery, or still in treatment. We bring them up and give them a weekend of music and fun. When we can effect people in a positive way with our music and the people that we are we wanted to be able to do that so we do that for our charity and we get involved with other musicians and other artists’ charities when we can.

FG: Who does the writing for the band?

MT: Everyone writes in the band now. In the early days Ken wrote most of the songs. Then we started collaborative writing and other people were bringing songs in. Now everyone is writing, even with outside people. So, it’s a group effort at this point.

FG: What musician would make you nervous to play in front of?

MT: I didn’t have this opportunity, but I would say Sting, for sure, just because I’m a huge fan and think the world of him musically. At North Texas we were always put under the microscope. On Fridays they would have recitals and you would have to basically play in front of your peers. Just playing in front of a room of other drummers is always stressful because there’s so many talented musicians there and especially when it’s your instrument and people are watching you it’s always that kind of situation.

FG: How do you prepare for a performance?

MT: I don’t really get nervous anymore. I try to warm up before just because, getting older, it’s just muscles and tendons and stuff are a little bit tighter. But the amount of shows that we’ve done, and then all of my training at school… it’s always about just going out there and playing the songs and make good music.

Interview by Fredda Gordon. Image courtesy of Sister Hazel.

Here is a brief description about the band. Click here for more information and more tour stops.

About Sister Hazel

Originating from Gainesville, FL, Sister Hazel is comprised of five gifted, seasoned musicians whose well-spring of natural talent has been called “one of the Top 100 Most Influential Independent Performers of the last 15 years” by Performing Songwriter Magazine. Song “All for You,” topped the adult alternative charts during the summer of 1997 and the success propelled their album to platinum status. In their first showing on the country music charts they made a strong debut with “Lighter In The Dark” at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, #6 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart, #30 on Billboard’s Top Current Albums chart and #79 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

The band landed on Billboard’s Top Country Albums Chart again in 2016 with “Unplugged From Daryl’s House Club” at #75. In February 2018, “Water,” Volume I of a collectible compilation series titled, “Elements,” landed on the Billboard Country Albums chart at #9 and at #2 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart along with making their debut on the most revered stage in country music, the Grand Ole Opry. Elements Volume II “Wind” and Volume III “Fire” both debuted at #1 on iTunes and on top of the Billboard Independent Chart, Americana/Folk Chart, and Country Album Sales chart. Living up to their fan-centered reputation, the band was a pioneer in the themed cruise industry by co-founding “The Rock Boat” and annually hosts events like the “Hazelnut Hang,” and “Camp Hazelnut” that focuses on creating unique experiences and interacting with the fans. Sister Hazel has been equally attentive to connecting with their audience through social media having amassed over a million social followers. In addition to the events and touring, the band also gives back with “Lyrics For Life.” Founded by singer Ken Block, the charity unites musicians and celebrities for concerts and auctions to benefit cancer research and patient-care charities.