Darius Rucker's toes are in the sand, and he's staring out the window at the Atlantic Ocean, as gray-green waves crash on the shores of Sullivan's Island. The sun is shining; a gentle breeze is blowing — not that the reclusive Rucker feels it. He's looking out the window of his seaside mansion. And then he picks up his guitar and begins to play.
"The notes come to me with the crashing waves, each one cleansing my mind, washing away the seaweed and the shells and the flotsam and jetsam of the modern-day consumerist-military-industrial megaplex sideshow circus we call the 21st century, the Thunderdome, the Terror Terrarium, the Dog Park, bow-wow, ruff-ruff, bow-wow, ruff-ruff," Rucker says, closing his eyes. He continues to bark in increasingly hushed tones as the barks become a mantra, soothing and surefooted. He never takes his hands off the neck of the guitar. "Life, man. Life. Feel it. Breathe it. Become it. Mikey likes it. He really likes it."
This is how Rucker — the legendary frontman for Hootie and Blowfish — spends much of his day. In fact, it's how he has spent much of the past decade. Eight years ago, the ground-breaking South Carolina band called it quits, and Rucker retreated to his Sullivan's Island abode. This is the first time he has spoken to the press in five years.
Over that time, the legend of Hootie and the Blowfish has grown, just as the strange tales about Rucker have found their way into the gossip pages and onto tabloid websites like TMZ and PerezHilton.com.
Depending on what you have read, Rucker eats only shrimp and grits, a Charleston area delicacy, and he drinks only purified water from Shem Creek, the very body in which the Hootie frontman was baptized in 2009 following a spiritual reawakening. For a while, Rucker lived at Mepkin Abbey in nearby Moncks Corner. Some say he had designs on becoming a monk. Others say he just wanted to get away from the sound of music — and the weight of his band's legacy.
Hootie and the Blowfish burst on the scene with Cracked Rear View, a debut record that went on to sell 13 million copies and generate three No. 1 hits — "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry," and " Only Wanna Be With You." At the time, Rucker and company were largely dismissed as an act appealing to drunken frat boys, superficial sorority sisters, and out-of-touch Baby Boomers longing for easy-listening rock 'n' roll. But with the Blowfish's next release, Recliner, Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bassist Dean Felber, and Jim "Soni" Sonefeld attempted to distance themselves from their brand of sunny, South Carolina roots rock — and they succeeded, critically and commercially.
Rucker recalls the making of the album wistfully. "Recliner, to me, was more than a record. It was a soundscape to the sounds of a generation of sleeping souls who had fallen asleep to the lullabies of their own snores. It was a wake-up call. It was a slap to the snooze button. It was a four-alarm fire to the cerebellum," he says. "It was mindcraft, pure and simple."
To this day, Recliner remains one of the most revolutionary LPs in pop music history, admired for both its sheer bravado and its lackadaisical LSD-powered wanderlust. A genre-exploding mash-up of vaudeville, Broadway show tunes, Christmas carols, and flushing toilets — yes, flushing toilets — Recliner never lost touch with the Blowfish's ability to craft ear-worm pop songs about drunken co-eds and the douchebag boyfriends who left them crying on the curb outside yet another Five Points bar.
After Recliner, Hootie and the Blowfish embarked on an even more elaborate endeavor — a multimedia effort combining all of their loves, psychedelic drugs, house-party sing-alongs, golf, Gamecock football, and laser tag. They called it Herman's Headtrip. It was a monumental undertaking that stretched the band members to their very limits. Recording sessions alone lasted three years.
During that time, Sonefeld quit the band several times, once for five months. He was tired of fighting with Rucker over the increasingly strange music the Hootie frontman was making. Soni traveled to Machu Picchu and Nepal before finally settling in Antarctica. He learned French. He practiced tai chi. He surfed the internet for cat videos.
"Those were dark days, dark days," Sonefeld says while he lines up a putt on the 16th hole of the Ocean Course at beautiful Kiawah Island Golf Resort. "Darius had really begun to lose it. The drugs, the gurus, the harajuku midgets — it was just too much."
He adds, "I mean, who hires a 60-piece orchestra to play selections from Mario Bros. 3 backwards? Backwards, man. Backwards." The putt hugs the rim of the hole and falls in. Sonefeld kisses his putter and points to the sky.
At the behest of Bryan, the cold war that had erupted between Sonefeld and Rucker had begun to thaw. Soni returned to the Blowfish, and for a brief time, it appeared as if Herman's Headtrip would finally be released.
But Rucker, ever the perfectionist, never quit tinkering with the project, much to his band's dismay. Eventually, Bryan left to start a supergroup with the surviving members of Cravin' Melon and Edwin McCain, the former lead singer of Guns 'n' Roses. Together they formed the world's first heavy metal beach music act, Black Shag, and launched a musical revolution.
"It was actually Ed's idea, this whole beach metal thing," Bryan says. "We were hanging out at the Viper Room in Hanahan — Ed owns half of the place with Johnny Depp — and one of the go-go dancers — this real Morticia Addams-looking goth chick in a Vampirella bathing suit — was dancing to 'Backfield in Motion,' but the speed was too fast. And just like that, he turned to me and said, 'Black Shag,' and then he dove into a pile of dandy-boy dandruff and snorted another line."
As Bryan, Felber, Sonefeld, and their Black Shag comrades collected Grammy Awards and mounds of filthy lucre, Rucker stayed inside his home and worked on Herman's Headtrip, toiling away for years with apparently nothing to show for it.
Months ago, Rucker mailed his former bandmates, letting each one of them know that the long-awaited album had finally been finished. He invited them to his house for a master cleanse, and they listened to Herman's Headtrip in its entirety for the first time. Rucker asked them not to speak while it played, and he ushered them out the door as soon as the music stopped.
Two days later, Bryan, Sonefeld, and Felber received customer comments cards from the now-closed Piggly Wiggly on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston. The cards were signed, "Darius." Each member of Hootie and the Blowfish filled one out, although they refuse to say what they wrote. Rucker, for one, seems pleased with the forthcoming album.
"The bio-digital jazz of the information age is a flashback to the counterculture shock waves in the seventh circle of Hello Kitty trading cards and midnight manifestos to the one, true lord of the dance, and Headtrip captures that better than any sigh, any laugh, any cry, any scream ever has. It's the art as the artifice, the façade as the promenade, the facsimile as the metaphor. Tawanda!" Rucker says.
The 52-track album is scheduled to be released in weekly installments beginning Christmas Day.