Having a conversation with members of the band Hood Smoke was like meeting up with friends at a favorite watering hole to grab a drink and catch up on things.

There was something especially Chicago-esque about the two out of five band members that spoke with me before their set at Schuba’s on the night of Dec. 18. It may have had something to do with band leader Bryan Doherty’s down to earth vibe, despite his reputation for being an immensely talented bass player in the Chicago music scene. Or it could have been the easy banter that passed between him and drummer Neal Wehman that made me feel as if I was having a beer with old buddies. Despite the funk/blues band’s steadily growing popularity since its inception in 2010, their approach to everything was comparable to a new band on the scene: no presumptions, no grandiose expectations, just a desire to play and move an audience with their music.


They didn’t disappoint. When Hood Smoke took the stage at Schuba’s, there seemed to be a general consensus among the audience that everyone came here fully expecting to shake their asses. It was hard not to once the band began to play their soulful hits, including “Thick as Thieves” from their debut album “Laid Up In Ordinary” and “Regular Neurotic” from the eponymous album that came out in early 2015. Sarah Marie Young, the dynamic vocalist, kept everyone moving with her powerful voice that blended effortlessly with the respective instruments played by the rest of the band. By the end of the night, I was almost kicking myself for never having watched them perform live. After an unforgettable rendition of my favorite Hood Smoke song, “Never Suffering,” and an instrumental cover of The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” that almost brought tears to my eyes (okay, I ugly cried), I understood why this band had gained so much popularity in so little time.
CUSP Magazine sat down with band leader Bryan Doherty and drummer Neal Wehman to talk about all things Hood Smoke, including their upcoming album “Rough Around The Hedges,” scheduled to be released in early 2016.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Hood Smoke

CUSP Magazine: When was Hood Smoke formed?

Bryan Doherty: We formed in 2010. It was late summer. I had met Sarah, the singer, and Neal that summer. I was sitting on some music that I had been writing, and I wanted to join up with a singer. I met Sarah and I [thought], “Okay, you’d be perfect.” I picked some of my favorite guys from around town, and that was it. We just started playing, and we’ve been together for five years now.

CM: I know you’ve been in the Chicago music scene for a while, solo and in different bands. What made you shift from doing your own thing to wanting to start a band?

Doherty: I was playing a lot of what one might consider serious music at the time, in terms of a lot of instrumental music. I was playing a lot of jazz, I had played in the orchestra in school. My whole life, what’s got me going throughout the majority of it is music that has grooves and has singing. I like to look at it in three elements: the mind, the heart and the booty. If all three are moving at the same pace and are equal, that, to me, is the best equation and outcome you can get. And I stand by it. Still, to this day, it’s my favorite kind of stuff.

CM: As an alum of the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA), do you consider yourself an expert on music in Chicago?

Doherty: I’ve been doing music my whole life. I went to the High School of the Arts in Milwaukee, where I’m from. I went to the CCPA, and I’m still here. Still doing it.

Neal Wehman: I’m the same. I started playing drums when I was 11 years old. I’m from Chicago, but I didn’t go to college around here. I went to the University of Miami and then moved back. [Playing drums] is all I’ve done professionally.


CM: What has the reception been like in Chicago since Hood Smoke formed?

Doherty: Well, we’re still here, which is always good. We’ve been getting very great feedback so far. It has it’s ups and downs as anything, but I think we’ve hit upon our strengths more than ever, in terms of the music that we’re playing and writing right now. We have an album coming out in March called “Rough Around The Hedges.” We actually just recorded again this month for the album after that, which is going to take some time.

CM: Can you talk about those strengths?

Doherty: I think what we’re doing right now, which is really cool, is that we’re all singing a lot. I think we’re getting to the point in our songs where a natural flow is very important. We want to invite you in as a listener. We don’t want to perform too much or too little. Our thing is songs that are true to ourselves, that come from a special and genuine place.


CM: Is there a big difference between “Laid Up In Ordinary” (2012) and “Regular Neurotic” (2014)?

Doherty: Sarah sings lead on every song, which is probably the biggest difference. We’re all singing more because we’ve gained more confidence. [Sarah’s] the power house, she’s amazing. But, it’s fun having as many people as possible singing. For everyone. When I see a band, I like it when some trombone player in the corner that I didn’t even know was onstage just starts singing. It’s like, “Oh yeah! Cool.”

Wehman: I think some of your music just lends itself better to a male voice.

Doherty: Yeah. A lot of it comes from a male perspective. Sarah’s probably helped us with that too. She’s really open with letting us experiment with this. It’s proven to be successful so far.

Bryan – “I like to look at it in three elements: the mind, the heart and the booty. If all three are moving at the same pace and are equal, that, to me, is the best equation and outcome you can get.”

CM: What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to Hood Smoke as a band?

Doherty: I think our favorite show we’ve ever done was Jazz In The Park in Milwaukee. It’s this big festival that we played in the summer of 2014. It started raining during the encore in the most epic, great way. Everyone was still there in front, loving it.

Wehman: That was definitely the biggest crowd. At least 1,000 people.

Doherty: It’s not like Bonnaroo or anything like that, but it was a lot of people and we were the only band. We had a great reception. I’ve always loved playing in Milwaukee, because that’s where I grew up and it means so much to me. It was an honor to play there. I used to go there as a kid. The band sounded really good. It was a lot of fun that night.

CM: What was the creative process like for “Regular Neurotic”?

Doherty: It was kind of . . . I call it the “this is me in my late 20s” album in terms of lyrical content. It’s kind of introspective. I’m at that age where I’m officially not a kid anymore . . . I was figuring out some stuff I was going through. I did some storytelling on top of it. Musically, I was concentrating on everybody in the group having a specific part and lending itself to the groove so that the layers of the cake all match up accordingly.


CM: What has the process been like for “Rough Around The Hedges”?

Doherty: There’s a lot of singing. A lot of group singing. There’s a string trio on a couple of tracks.

CM: Has there been anything released from “Rough Around The Hedges”?

Doherty: The song “Jade Lights” is out with a video. That’s on Soundcloud, and the music video is on Youtube. We’re coming out with a couple more videos. That album is pretty much on the heels of “Regular Neurotic” where it’s like, “Okay, it’s time to hang up your hang-ups.” It’s dealing with [finding] yourself and your inner peace. Letting go of the things that are bringing you down, and not doing the things that are bringing you down.

CM: You’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that you’re all doing a lot of singing now. Are you guys nervous about it?

Doherty: No, I love it. I used to sing all the time, and when you have Sarah in the band, it’s like you don’t really need to. We’ve been singing backup, but it’s kind of gotten to the point where if we are singing more, it makes it more of our thing than before. So no, I’m not nervous. I’m very excited about it.


CM: In trying to describe your music to others, I’ve had a hard time coming up with a precise answer. How would you classify yourselves as a band?

Doherty: I think the best way to describe it is funk rock. That’s the genre I’m gonna give you. Otherwise, it is hard to pinpoint everything. My dad actually told me, “You guys remind me of those bands from back in the day where your albums sound so different than when you play live.” Because when we play live, it’s looser coming at it from a live music perspective. Whereas the albums are heavily figured out and concise. With the stuff we just recorded in December, the goal was that we’re just going to capture what we do live. I think we did a good job. “Rough Around The Hedges”, unlike the name, is extremely produced. It’s over the top, and I think what we recorded was a reaction to that. There’s a lot of ballads that we’ve done on the albums, and we don’t really do those live. I’d like to do those eventually, if it’s the right situation and atmosphere. Where it’s like, “Okay, everybody. Shut the fuck up. Listen to this shit.” A lot of times you need to keep the momentum going.

CM: I agree that there are a lot of funk and blues influences in the music. Can you go into a little more detail about your inspirations and influences?

Doherty: When I think about the stuff that really gets me going . . . Sly And The Family Stone, Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock. My dad and my mom had all those records at home. That’s just what I came up on, and it was the best. I am also a fan of Maurice Ravel, and Bela Bartok.

Wehman: Drum-wise, I love R&B music. That’s always been what moved me on my instrument. Some people classify this as pop, but anything from Michael Jackson to Mint Condition and D’angelo. Not so much the new R&B that’s crazy produced with no live instruments, but live music R&B. I’m a little bit all over the place.


CM: How would you classify the Chicago music scene?

Wehman: There’s a long and a short answer to this. I’ve always viewed the music scene as there’s subsets of musicians and bands. There’s not a ton of crossover. You have your jazz artists and people who only want to play instrumental jazz music. You have bands like us who would fall into the indie scene a little bit. And then you have a whole slew of cover bands and bar bands. Luckily, Chicago does have a good indie scene, meaning there are a fair amount of venues that’ll have original rock, funk and R&B bands play, whereas other cities wouldn’t. It’s a city you can work in, but unfortunately nowadays not that much comes out of Chicago. If you think about bands like us, it’s tough because there’s not really a healthy label industry here. There’s no record companies here.

Doherty: But the whole label thing is funny these days anyway. Speaking of local people, Chance The Rapper was just on “Saturday Night Live”. Apparently, he’s the first unsigned artist to perform on “SNL. That’s a sign of the times. We don’t need the labels anymore, because the money is not right and people don’t buy music like they used to, especially without physical copies. They’re making cars and laptops without CD players now. It’s not what it was 10-20 years ago. So, who knows? Maybe 10 years from now more people will be coming out of Chicago.

Wehman: Not to say not much comes out of Chicago. There have been some major acts and awesome things to come out of Chicago. But in comparison to how big the scene is, not really that much comes out.


CM: Is there anyone you think we should reach out to?

Doherty: I would say Happy Village.

Wehman: Good call. That sums it up. That’s our spot. It’s a dive, but it’s awesome. It’s got so much character. They’re in Ukrainian Village. They’re awesome.

To stay up to date with Hood Smoke and their upcoming album “Rough Around The Hedges”, visit their website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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 Hood Smoke’s new single “Alluring Bedlamite” from their upcoming release “Rough around the Hedges”


Mooni Salam