'So, just who is Hootie?' asks captivated audience

Now that they've had a No. 1 album with "Cracked Rear View," a Top-10 single with "Let Her Cry," and have become a staple of VH1 and MTV, life is different for the guys in Hootie & the Blowfish.

People recognize them, for one thing. "It's nothing too crazy, like where we don't go out in public or anything," says drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld, over the phone from the band's home base in Columbia, S.C. "But when we walk around as a foursome, I think we've been recognized almost everywhere in America.


"If people have seen your faces in enough places, magazines and videos, they kind of go: 'Hey, wait! I've seen these people before.' "

Sonefeld adds that it's particularly bad for singer Darius Rucker, since he's the most recognizable of the four. But none of them really minds being approached by fans; what bugs them is when those fans insist on asking The Question.


"It's like there's a little sign on our shirts that says, 'Please ask me this question,' " Sonefeld complains.

And the question is?

"Who's Hootie?"

You can almost hear Sonefeld grimace over the phone. "I feel sorry for Darius, because he's now Hootie," he says. "He's the lead singer, and if you have a band name like Hootie & the Blowfish, people think that there's one guy, Hootie, and then everybody else is the Blowfish. So people always ask him that, and he hates it. But we've got to deal with it. So we're trying to find someone that wants to actually be Hootie."

Funny thing is, the band never planned on sticking with the name. "Darius was jamming with Mark [Bryan] acoustically in, like, '86, and they were looking for a name," Sonefeld explains. "Darius had a few friends that he had nicknamed. One guy was nicknamed the Blowfish, and one guy was nicknamed Hootie. So he said to Mark, 'How about we just name it Hootie & the Blowfish for now?' And Mark couldn't come up with anything better, and so he said, 'OK, we'll name it that for now.'

"That was nine years ago."

Along the way, Sonefeld and bassist Dean Felber signed on, and the band began to build a large and loyal audience in the Southeast. "From the bottom of South Carolina and Georgia, up through North Carolina, Virginia and D.C., that was really solid for us," says Sonefeld. "But we also were starting to get up into New York and cover that in-between ground between D.C. and New York. The Baltimore-Pennsylvania-Delaware area. It was stretching out."

Although the band had released an EP, called "Kootchypop," before signing with Atlantic last year, most of the group's following was the result of relentless roadwork. And now that "Cracked Rear View" is selling at the rate of a million copies a month (it passed the 4 million mark at the beginning of June), the band is still touring -- though under slightly better circumstances.


"You've got to get used to that whole lifestyle, that whole mind-set of traveling around in this 45-foot piece of metal," says Sonefeld of life on the road. "It's a really fast pace -- you're in a new town every night. You've really got to watch yourself, as far as keeping your health in line. And your sanity, too.

"But we've grown pretty accustomed to it. We were pretty much a road band, anyway. We were using a van. Six people in a van. So going to a bus was an easy transition, because it's like moving from your little apartment to a mansion."

Speaking of mansions, will success change Hootie & the Blowfish? Not if they can help it, answers Sonefeld.

"I guess after spending so many years on the road with not a lot of people listening, we decided that if we ever did get somewhere, we shouldn't forget our roots," he says. "I hate to think that it happens to a lot of bands, but I know it does happen to some bands. They either get greedy at the top, or they get easily forgetful of how they got there.

"We know, somehow, that [sales are] a sign of that popularity," he adds. "But it's still a very modest thing. We don't think we're incredible songwriters; we still admire all the people that we've listened to for years. We realize, too, that sometimes the masses get ahold of something, and you really can't control the popularity. Whether you've sold 500,000 or 3 million isn't always a reflection of the quality of an album."

That's one reason the band is making a point of planning for the future.


"We could tour the world from here to the year 2000, without new product. Just playing the old music," says Sonefeld. But the group realizes that it needs to set time aside for writing and recording new material. "One of our pet peeves, as music listeners, is when a band puts out an album once every three years," he says. "I know how much people listen to music, and how the radio can run songs into the ground. I'm sure they're already itching for new stuff."


To hear excerpts from the Hootie & the Blowfish album "Cracked Rear View," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6127 after you hear the greeting.


When: At 8 tonight

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion


Tickets: Sold out

Call: (410) 730-2424 for information