Introducing a band who wear their rockin’ blues influences proudly on their sleeves and Big Sandy claims “throb with excitement”. By Craig Brackenridge
Guitarist Austin John and vocalist Dawna Zahn moved to Nashville from New York City back in 2014 with only one goal in mind: to form a band inspired by their favourite rhythm & blues and rock’n’roll artists of the 1950s and 60s.
Since then, they’ve worked hard to establish their brand of raw, rockin’ blues in Music City, a place not known for its shortage of bands. Their first full-length album Something’s Gotta Shake, for Wild Records, showcased their unique sound while laying bare their love of American roots icons such as Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Richard. 2020 looked to be a pivotal year for the band until recent global events brought live music grinding to a halt. However, John is still positive and with their first vinyl output and a new album under construction for a 2021 release, the band’s next chapter is about to unfold.
Was your move to Nashville a real leap of faith as a band?
Absolutely! Prior to moving to Nashville, Dawna and I both had our own bands in New York. We knew that finding a new rhythm section in Nashville would be a challenge considering how competitive the music scene is here, but we were excited for a fresh start. We recognised that the move was risky, but had faith in ourselves – we were prepared to work for it. We literally didn’t know anyone when we got to town, but by the next Spring we had met Hank Miles and Aaron Mlasko, our founding bass player and drummer, and formed The Hi-Jivers. We’re so glad we took the leap. We love this city and truly feel like the rewards have outweighed the risks.
Nashville must be heaving with bands, did that make it easier or harder for you to get established there?
It was very intimidating at first. There is so much talent in Nashville, but there aren’t many bands playing early rhythm & blues and rock’n’roll, which we think has allowed us to stand out a bit. It’s never been easy, but the opportunity to play in this amazing city and all the great musicians we get to call our friends make it worthwhile. We’re constantly inspired and encouraged by the community here.
You managed to fit in a US tour in January 2020, followed by an appearance at the Rockin’ Race in Spain soon afterwards, but how badly has the coronavirus affected your plans for further live dates?
We’re so grateful we had the chance to do that tour and perform at the Rockin’ Race, because shortly after we realised we would likely be cancelling an entire summer’s worth of touring. We had spent countless hours planning and booking three major tours, including our first ever West Coast tour. This was going to be our busiest year yet, it was devastating to have to cancel. Like many other bands, we spent the summer broadcasting livestream shows from home, something that had never even crossed our minds before. It allowed us to continue to connect with our fans from a distance. The support we’ve received from them over the past six months has been incredible!
How important do you feel it is to have a presence on Spotify? Do you feel it has been a useful way to get The Hi-Jivers established?
This one is tricky. Online streaming is a love/hate relationship for us. While we want our music to be heard by as many people as possible, it’s tough to just give away our art. We recognise that streaming is the new normal for younger generations, so we’ve recently accepted that it’s a worthwhile platform for us to pursue.
The blues runs deep all the way through your sound – was it always an element that you wanted to feature in your songs from the start?
We’ve been blues fans since we were in our late teens. We played blues in our previous bands and knew that influence would continue with our new band since before our move to Nashville. We love the rawness of the sound – it’s always felt very natural to us. We pull a lot of inspiration from Delta, jump, Chicago and Texas blues – from guitar tones and riffs to basslines and drum patterns. The unapologetic honesty in the lyrics has always been very moving to us as well, and we approach our own songwriting in the same unforgiving way.
Which other musical genres do you feel have been important influences on your own songwriting?
While blues is always the tops in our book, we’re also huge fans of early rock’n’roll, country & western and folk. The storytelling in these genres has always been very inspiring to us. We pull bits and pieces from all these styles while songwriting, but early rock’n’roll has always been our greatest influence outside of blues. It’s fascinating to see how early rock’n’roll artists reinterpreted the instrumentation of early blues music.
How does it feel to have your Knee High & Risin’ single out on vinyl? Is it an important format for you personally?
It’s a dream come true! We love the sound and aesthetic of vinyl, and plan to release more in future. We’re obviously very influenced by the sounds of the 50s & 60s, and it just feels right to release our music in the same format that it would have been released on during that time. We’ve had the pleasure of performing at numerous festivals and events where vinyl is still prevalent, and that’s allowed us to tap into a fanbase of folks who are passionate about vinyl. We’re looking forward to getting back to those events, but in the meantime you can grab a copy of our 45 on our website.
Big Sandy claims that The Hi-Jivers “throb with excitement”. It’s a great quote, but do you think it’s an accurate description of your sound?
What a treat it is to call Big Sandy a friend! He’s been so supportive and encouraging. We adore him and his music. When we perform, we leave everything we’ve got on stage. We love what we do and we think it shows. We’re flattered by Big Sandy’s quote and hope others feel the same way when they see us perform live!
How does the future look for the band in these uncertain times?
Like all the other musicians who’ve been affected by the pandemic, our career is currently a bit of a waiting game. We’re grateful to be starting to play some local gigs again, but we really miss touring and festivals. We’re keeping our heads up and looking forward to better times. ς
Knee High & Risin’ is out now on Wild Records. For details, visit thehijivers.com