It was John Lee Hooker who sang, “It’s in him and it’s got to come out”. That memorable phrase has been uttered countless times – and certainly serves as an appropriate starting point when talking about singer, songwriter, musician and bandleader Josh Hoyer.
His self-titled debut recording with his band, the Shadowboxers, received critical acclaim in addition to a nomination for a 2014 Blues Blast Music Award nomination in the New Artist Debut Album category.
Hoyer’s story starts when at early age. At the ripe old of four, he participated in a talent show at the high school where his father was teaching, singing John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good”. That experience was the start of his musical journey that continued with singing in the church choir. During fifth grade, all of the students got to try out different instruments. The staff determined that Hoyer was best suited for the trombone but he only had eyes for the saxophone. His stubborn nature won out and he played sax and sang all the way through high school.
“I was in show choirs in junior high and planned to continue that in high school. But a teacher there, Tim Sharer, noticed that I had a really good ear, good pitch and the ability to improvise, so he put me in the Jazz choir. I wasn’t real happy about it at first but grew to love it. Up until then I was singing what everyone else was singing on the sheet music. It was a pivotal moment because it helped me cultivate my own voice and ideas through improvisation. It really broadened my horizons and I am thankful that he noticed that ability in me.”
After a short attempt at college, Hoyer began checking out shows at the Zoo Bar, the famous club that is a home for roots music in Lincoln, Nebraska. Not old enough to get in, he would hang out in the back alley listening to music through the vent. One of his favorite musicians was organ player Ron Levy. “He was the guy I always wanted to come & see. He was super funky – great songs and really original ideas. I was also a big fan of Medeski, Martin & Woods.”
At the same time, Hoyer started listening to a lot of jazz records, leading him to pick-up the sax again. “I started over from scratch without sheet music, playing by ear & trying to figure out what I was hearing.”
The urge to roam prompted Hoyer to leave Lincoln and travel the country, eventually settling in Oregon. Finding it hard to lead a band while playing his sax, he had begun teaching himself how to play keyboards on an old Roland synthesizer he purchased, figuring out to get the sounds he was searching for.
“I‘d write chords, melodies, and bass lines, then my buddies would play them. I was fortunate to know people that were willing to play my ideas and help me learn how to write songs.”
Next up was a stop in New Orleans, which was a breath of fresh air.
“That music scene really turned me on! Music is life and everything down there is based on music. I felt at home there, more than I ever did in Nebraska. I was very excited about my music.”
Always a hard worker, he would get up early in the morning and work all day in the heat at landscape maintenance – “a glorified lawnmower” – and then spend his evenings hitting club after club. But a falling-out with his roommates over a brawl in the middle of the night ended his stay.
“They broke my bed, and under the bed was my saxophone which got smashed. I said screw you, I’m going home. So I left & went back to Lincoln. Good things have happened since I came home but I’ve always wondered what might have happened if I had stayed in New Orleans. I sure loved it there.”
Back in Lincoln, Hoyer became a fixture at several weekly blues jams, playing regularly with Magic Slim and his bass-playing brother, Nick Holt. In 2003, he took his sax on the road with singer E.C. Scott.
“That was a learning experience. She is a phenomenal bandleader and ran a tight ship. She got the sound she wanted while treating the band members with respect. There was no messing with that. If she wanted you to play a certain lick, that is what you were going to play or else you can catch the bus home. As an independent artist, she managed herself. No record label, no booking agent – she inspired me and showed me what it took to be make a band successful.”
Hoyer also learned that he has a hard time taking orders and, when his head was filled with his own ideas, he returned yet again to Lincoln to form his own band. His first project was Electric Soul Method, a collection of some of the best local players. The band did one record, winning local awards for Best Artist and Best Album. But the highlights did not last very long.
“It was a fun project. But it fizzled out because it was filled with bandleaders who also didn’t want to be told what to do. The bass player left to form a band. The piano player moved to New York & is currently touring with Lenny Kravitz. The band had lots of talent but I learned that there can only be one cook in the kitchen. Otherwise nothing is going to happen.”
“Then I started the Sons of 76. That was a dark period in my life. I became introverted and wanted to tell more stories. It had an Americana sound with some New Orleans and rock flavors. I did three records for that band, which also won some local awards.
But we never made people very happy. They would come to hear us on a Friday night and would leave saying you guys sound great but, now I’m depressed! After a while I started to see that.
Magic Slim had always told me that the music business is not about you, it’s about the people that paid to see you. When you see them happy & dancing, that’s the kind of music you want to play.”
“That tied into what I experienced in New Orleans, when people got together and had a good time, the music was something really powerful. So I decided to go back to playing dance music, soul & funk music with some horns.
So we put the Shadowboxers together just two years ago and, man, things just took off for us! It is a very positive, uplifting experience at our shows. I have redefined my job description over the last couple years. There is enough sadness in the world. We can talk about it lyrically but it doesn’t have to sound depressing. I want to lift people up.
The leader plays keyboards, clarinet and baritone sax and uses his powerful voice to bring life to his lyrics. The Shadowboxers include Benny Kushner on guitar, Justin Jones on drums & percussion, Josh Dargar on bass, Mike Dee on sax, and Tommy Van Den Berg on trombone. Hanna Bendler, Kim Moser, and Megan Spain provide backing vocals on the band’s recordings and some live shows. Brian Morrow plays flute on the latest recording.
Hoyer’s influences include Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and the funky side of Etta James. Listening to their music, he would often be moved to dance, throwing his arms around like he was boxing,
“I would get ready for the day. I am going to conquer the day. Today is my day & I’m going to go out and get what I need to get. I love that feeling of empowerment that music can give you. It also relates to our need to box away at the shadows, the fears and doubts that prevent us from being the best person we can be.”
Despite learning many valuable lessons from the many blues players he encountered, Hoyer never really felt at home with the music, preferring the sounds of soul and jazz that inspired him. But no matter what music he is playing, the bandleader knows the importance of building strong relationships that can withstand the pull of egos, long stretches on the road, and the constant financial strain of playing music for a living.
“Everyone’s motivation has to be in the right place. I try to stay away from people that are all about themselves, people who have a need to show off. The music has a lot more strength when we are all together.
It’s important to me to take care of the guys in the band, especially now that we are getting out on the road more. When we play at a club, they want us back. But it is tough right now to get your foot in the door. I booked bands at the Zoo Bar so I have experience on that side. It is tough for a club struggling to make ends meet week to week to take a chance on a new band, to pay them enough money to make it worthwhile to drive 500 miles for the gig.”
“But we aren’t owed anything as musicians. You have to earn it. If your music is strong, you perform it well and you connect with the audience, then you are earning your money. Some bands have some unrealistic expectations. But it’s tough times whether you are working as a mechanic or a nurse or a musician.
You have to give someone a product they can sell at their club. I feel I owe the club something and need to do right by them.”
The reality of tour finances has been weighing on Hoyer as the Shadowboxers prepare to hit the road to support their new release, Living By The Minute, on Silver Streak Records. The various dates scheduled only offer enough guaranteed money to cover less than a third of the projected expenses for the trip. Only two clubs are covering hotel rooms for the band, which means Hoyer has to pick up the tab for housing for the other five members of the Shadowboxers the other nights.
“We do real well locally, so we save money. The corporate gigs help out. But we set money aside just like everyone else in any other business. We just hope we can open some more doors.
Charlie Hull is the primary force at Silver Streak records. He developed successful campaigns for Red Bull and Adidas that focused on youth marketing and branding. Also a music lover, Hull decided to get into the business and is a big supporter of the band. Hoyer appreciates being relieved of some responsibilities regarding promotion, registering music, and maintaining a strong web presence.
“I still do the booking, the management and songwriting. It has given me more free time but not enough yet. I am a stay-at-home Dad with a one year old and a five year old that I take to school every day I am home. I have a great support system here with my parents, my wife and her folks.
They try to give me time to write. I hope that when we get back from this tour I’ll be able to get the latest batch of ideas out. Booking & management can take thirty hours a week. I’d love to have that time to focus on the art form. So we are going out there to earn that time!”
Monterey International booked the upcoming tour dates. The company regards the band as an emerging artist and will be monitoring their progress carefully. Hoyer says that the Monterey staff was blown away by how far the band had come in two years. While Hoyer is booking the band now, if the progression continues this year, Monterey may step in and give Hoyer those extra hours for songwriting.
“My songs have strong grooves. Lyrically, I like writers like Bob Dylan that talk about real shit. I try not to be too heavy. One strength of music is the opportunity to address issues that you can’t address in any other social platform. I don’t want to be preacher – but I also don’t want my songs to be about nothing.
Blues has been a music where the honesty always comes out. I learned about the concept of space from listening to Miles Davis – that what you don’t play is almost more important than what you do play. And John Coltrane was constantly searching for that right note that would elevate the listener. I strive for that kind of tenacity.”
To see a video of Josh Hoyer’s performance at the 2014 Blues Blast Music Awards,CLICK HERE.
Visit Josh’s website at http://joshhoyerandtheshadowboxers.com/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!