Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Soul Stirrers

North Carolina's Hobex commute between Hitsville and Soulsville.

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Optimally, in an interview setting, neither of the two parties is hungover. If they are, then it’s going to be rough sailing. If, as with a recent phone interview with the lead singer of the North Carolina soul band Hobex, both parties are hurting after a night at, on, and under the bar … well, you can do the math. But like two men stumbling in the dark, you fumble around and find each other and eventually get the job done.

That, however, is just the beginning. Once the interview is over, you still have to sit down and write the story. But even after a medically ill-advised dosage of aspirin, several splashes of cold water on the face, and an Indian buffet lunch, the words still can't fight their way through the dull throbbing in your head.

So you stick in the CD, and that turns out to be all it takes. The funky soul/pop begins to wash over you and, like the best gospel music from which it is partially derived, begins to buoy your spirits upward, dragging your body not far behind.

You almost never hear of soul bands anymore. Hobex are among a handful of artists — Jamiroqui and Lenny Kravitz are others — who are keeping it real as modern "soul" music slides toward being nothing more than bland, overproduced, underwritten pop whose primary use is as a showcase for self-absorbed divas. In their loping bass lines, chicken-scratch guitar lines, and high-soaring harmonies you can hear the hit-making instincts of Motown, the loose, raw energy of Stax, and the grab bag of influences — gospel, pop, blues, rock — of Sly Stone and P-Funk. Not bad for three white guys from North Carolina.

Greg Humphreys formed this rock-and-soul band in 1996 with the goal of making the kind of music that had always moved him, whether it was fashionable or not.

"I had this idea to start a band with that classic soul/funk feel," Humphreys says. "For a long time [soul] has been the music that I listened to for inspiration. I mean I'm a fan of a lot of different kinds of music, but that's the kind that speaks to me most. … I wanted to be in a band that could create that effect I felt in other people. I wanted to make music that inspired and uplifted people and made them want to dance at the same time."

To fill out his core trio Humphreys recruited a couple of Chapel Hill music scene veterans, singer/bassist Andy Ware and drummer Steve "the Doctor" Hill, whose talents he thought essential to the project.

"One of the reasons I called Steve was that he has always been one of those drummers who get people on their feet," Humphreys says.

After cutting two EPs for tiny Phrex Records, the band released its first full-length CD, Back in the '90s, last year. The disc enjoyed regional airplay and excellent word of mouth and sold about 5,000 copies in its initial release, which is very good for an indie project. By the end of the year, the band was being courted by London Records, which also wrangled the band's song "Windows" onto the soundtrack of the Matt Damon film Rounders. After some re-mixing and the addition of some bonus tracks, London re-released Back in the '90s in October.

Despite the soundtrack spot and the nationwide release, most Memphians know Hobex through their opening spots for such groups as Big Ass Truck and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Besides both being based in North Carolina, Hobex's relationship to SNZ goes on to include lead Zipper Jas. Mathus' bluesy side project the Knockdown Society, in which Humphreys plays.

That band also introduced Humphreys to North Mississippi All-Stars Cody and Luther Dickinson. The two groups have since become good friends, and why not? The All-Stars are to the blues what Hobex is to soul.

"We'd talked about doing a Hobex and North Mississippi All-Stars tour forever, and we finally got to do it last month," Humphreys says. "It was great because they had [R.L. Burnside's sons] Cedric and Gary Burnside with them, so there was a lot of cross-band jamming."

More recently, Hobex has been back on tour with SNZ in support of Back in the '90s, playing with an expanded lineup that is more reflective of the sound on the CD.

"We're getting more of a full-on soul revue thing going," Humphreys says. "To me it's challenging and exciting. When you're a three-piece you arrange songs a certain way, and as you add pieces you have to adjust. The main change for me is that I'm not playing as many guitar leads. You have to spread the wealth around — give the keyboardist some."

Besides Kye Alexander on keys and Herb Kendrick on percussion, the current Hobex features a must for any soul band, — a horn section courtesy of Bob Miller and Chris Meady from the band Bio Ritmo.

"I've been really lucky with them because they've played together so long," says Humphreys. "They know what they're doing and how to put it together themselves so I can just tell them I'm looking for a Memphis horns-type thing here and they'll deliver."

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