Greg Humphreys takes music personally. He gets choked up when he talks about an under-appreciated Hank Williams driving to shows in an old beat-up station wagon. He gets excited when he talks about Marvin Gaye subtly sneaking doo-wop chord progressions into "Let's Get It On." And he gets downright evangelical when he talks about how his band Hobex aims to keep the world safe for live music.
"In my life, music has been something that's helped me to transcend my problems," says Humphreys, sitting in the shade of his back porch on a sticky summer afternoon. "Part of what I wanted to do with Hobex was to show that live musicians can still deliver that transcendent night of fun where you come and you just shake it all night."
He laments the current state of alternative rock and hip-hop ("a lot of it seems to be focused on the darker side of human nature") and delights in the fact that Hobex and its sunny-side-up soul music are completely out of step with the times. "When I look at the people in 20th-century music who made a difference or made music that lasts--Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or Hank Williams--they were communicating something about human nature. What Hobex is trying to do is not all dark and it's not all light--it's a little bit of both. It's human."
Humphreys grew up in Winston-Salem and later moved to Chapel Hill to attend UNC. His father, whom Humphreys describes as "an unfulfilled guitar player," died when he was 50. Greg was just 22, and it's clear from talking to him that he feels he's carrying out his father's legacy. "A lot of my good memories growing up were with him. He was a fan of music. He had a big record collection, and he always recognized really great songs."
His father's death tempered the joy he should have felt when his pop band Dillon Fence, "a weekend thing" he'd started with college pals Kent Alphin and Chris Goode, took off. The band would become one of the most popular Southeast club acts of the early '90s. "The only problem for me," recalls Humphreys, "was that it was almost like we had a sell-by date. I really wanted to be a professional musician, but Chris and Kent had other plans besides traveling around in a van for the rest of their lives. I can't blame them, because if you don't have that irrational love of playing music onstage, you probably won't be doing it for long."
He acknowledges that after an early creative blossoming, the band's sound became "a little formulaic. We were trying to do different things, but our record company and our fans wanted the old band and the old songs. Do you know how hard that can be when you're pushing 30, and you're playing songs you wrote when you were 18 years old?"
Despite being wildly popular with the college kids, the lush pop of Dillon Fence didn't really fit in with the Chapel Hill noise-rock renaissance. "I felt like an outcast," Humphreys says frankly. "The Island of Misfit Toys? Absolutely. But feeling that way kind of released me from peer pressure. I knew that no matter what I did it wouldn't be accepted, so I was free to do whatever the hell I wanted."
The two biggest breaks came to Dillon Fence near the end, after Alphin and Goode had quit. First, the group was asked to open for the Black Crowes on a 30-city European tour. They played a packed 10,000-seat stadium in Rotterdam and got to hobnob with Jimmy Page after a show in Paris. "He apologized for missing our set," Humphreys says with amazement. "We were like, 'OK, you're sorry you missed our set, Jimmy Page!'"
Soon after, some old pals from the Southeast college circuit--Hootie and the Blowfish--offered up the opening slot on their tour. (The two bands knew each other so well that guitarist Mark Bryan once admitted to Humphreys that the Hootie chart-topper "I Only Wanna Be With You" was lifted from the Dillon Fence song "Sad Inheritance.")
Hootie had just graduated to multi-platinum status, and Humphreys knew they were delighted to put their old friends in front of huge crowds every night. "I must say that getting up on stage with them and playing a song ('Hold My Hand') that I'd thought was kind of corny and hearing 20,000 people singing was a really good feeling."
To Humphrey's surprise, Dillon Fence fans didn't exactly flock to see Hobex when it debuted in spring 1996. "When a lot of them realized that it wasn't the old band--that it was something new--they were disappointed. So it really was starting from scratch. It was very humbling. But that's fine because it kind of focused me and reminded me that I'm doing this for music."
In bassist and long-time friend Andy Ware, Humphreys found a perfect sidekick. "He's a very melodic bass player and a great singer," Humphreys says of Ware, whose style effortlessly mixes British Invasion with funk and soul influences. Drummer Steve Hill filled out the original lineup but had to retire due to recurrent back troubles.
As part of Humphreys' grand vision, Hobex has evolved from power trio to full-on soul revue with new drummer Dustin Clifford, keyboardist Kai Alexander, percussionist Herb Kendrick and a rotating cast of horn players. And Humphreys' true voice--both as a songwriter and a genuine soul-singer--has emerged. "I was trying to get to that musical place with Hobex. I was just kind of rocked out. I love rock 'n' roll but it's just not the only music out there. I just had to break out and open the windows."
"I think Greg is a real soul singer," says Jimbo Mathus, founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Humphreys' bandmate in the Jas. Mathus Knock Down Society. The two met during a tubing trip on the Yadkin River several years ago, and spent a couple evenings playing old gospel and bluegrass songs together. "He's a great white soul singer, and I say that because it's mostly a black man's field. It's a sympathetic, intuitive thing. Greg doesn't have to try to be a soul singer, he just is. He has a great gift, and a style that's unique--poppy but real soulful. His songs have that timeless feel to them."
While Humphreys' songs may be timeless, so too are many of the challenges he's had to face. "Being a musician is like the second-oldest profession in the world," he says knowingly. Getting screwed may be part of the job description in the oldest profession, but in the second-oldest, history has shown it's often a sad inevitability. If the musician is the hooker with the heart of gold, his record label can seem like both pimp and john.
Humphreys called the Hobex debut the Payback EP, a reference to coming up against "the real, exploitative face of the music industry." In his mind, that face looks a lot like Jay Faires, the former head of Mammoth Records who years ago persuaded Dillon Fence to lend its name-recognition and credibility to his startup record label. Later, after Mammoth had become successful, Humphreys says Faires was quick to put the bottom line before friendship and trust. "I told him I thought we were in this together. Jay Faires is a jackass, and you can quote me on that."
Hobex self-released its first two albums, then cautiously began fielding overtures from labels. The winning suitor was London Records, which bypassed any honeymoon period and quickly made Hobex, in Humphrey's words, "a pawn in a corporate game." The game began with a Canadian whisky company playing Ms. Pac-Man with a massive media conglomerate. That this should have any impact on a North Carolina soul combo is obviously somewhat Fellini-esque. In short, the soul combo "parted ways" (that's lawyer talk) with the massive media conglomerate and is in legal proceedings to pry its Back in the '90s record from the clutches of the whisky people.
As major-label bad dreams recede on the horizon, Hobex is getting back to basics. It will self-release its new record, Wisteria, in late October and hand it off to the trusted locals at Redeye Distribution, which has quickly built a reputation for possessing a rare understanding of both art and commerce.
Wisteria was not made in an expensive studio but in the homes and attics of friends. Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge recorded three songs with the full Hobex lineup and Mathus recorded six "back-porch" acoustic numbers, including an aching cover of Sam Cooke's "That's Where It's At."
Before August sweats to a close, the recently renovated Hobex Web site (www.hobex.com) will make available MP3 versions of some of the new songs, as well as tracks from some recent live shows. And Humphreys is promising yet another new record next spring. Why? Because he can. "We're just gonna try to make it about writing and playing music. All this new technology is opening up doors for people to follow their musical urges and not tailor what they do to a system that's built around one album every two years."
Despite all his travails, Humphreys won't waver from his desire to make music his living as well as his life. "I haven't made a whole lot of money as a professional musician, but I have made a whole lot of music. I haven't just played the same 10 songs over and over, I've written dozens of them. I've jammed with so many different players and been to so many different places, and that's what it's all about to me. I feel like music is its own reward."
And then he drops a little hard-won science, the kind worthy of a 100-year-old bluesman. "The difference between being content and being miserable is the difference between what you expect and what you get. And if you can just be comfortable with what you get and not expect anything, you'll be fine."