The South Carolina quartet started writing and recording Imperfect Circle, a 13-song set due out Nov. 1, about a year ago, according to Rucker, working on the album simultaneously while preparing for this year's Group Therapy Tour with Barenaked Ladies. The trek runs through Sept. 13 before Hootie goes to the U.K. during October. The album brings in elements of Rucker's country music career, working with his longtime producer Frank Rogers as well as Jeff Trott, who co-wrote three of the songs. "Those worlds are intertwining," Rucker says of his band and solo careers. "I think if you listen to a lot of our old records there's so many songs on there with a country flavor, or just country songs. And when we were making the record in Nashville, so many friends who are songwriters hear you're doing a record and everybody's calling me up -- 'Hey man, can I get with you guys and write?' You never say no to those great songwriters."
Nevertheless, drummer Jim "Soni" Sonefeld says "I think Hootie fans are gonna feel like we're still living in that sweet spot of where (1994's multi-platinum) Cracked Rear View was born, and I think there's some fresh stuff in there, too. It's diverse. We just decided we're gonna make this the best one yet, and I think we put the greatest effort into making a record that we're very proud of." And Rucker adds that, "When we play, no matter what, it sounds like us. We start playing and it sounds like Hootie & the Blowfish."
Besides Trott, Imperfect Circle features songwriting collaborations with Rogers, Eric Paslay, David Ryan Harris, Andrew DeRoberts, James Slater, Chris August and others, as well as "Hold On," a contribution from Chris Stapleton. "Rollin'" is the instant gratification track for pre-orders, and Rucker says that "when we started getting that one going I was like, 'Man, we're a Southern rock band when we play this.' I loved it. It's like us trying to play a Black Crowes or Allman Brothers cover. I love the feel of that 'cause we don't do that a lot." Sure to raise eyebrows, meanwhile, is "Wild Fire Love," a co-write with Ed Sheeran along with Joel Crouse and Kyle Rife that features a duet with Lucie Silvas.
"Ed and I have been talking about writing for a while and just never got to do it," says Rucker. "Finally, I flew over to England and we're sitting around writing a couple of songs and we get this really great melody and I'm freaking out. So we get to the chorus and Ed and I go 'We can't sing about love.' So we sit there for maybe 30 seconds and that little ginger dude looks up at me and goes, 'Hey man -- 'What is love/Wild fire love,' and it was sounding so amazing. I'm like, 'Man, now we HAVE to sing that. It's so perfect!'"
Hootie has been slipping some of the new songs into its sets on the Group Therapy Tour, along with a couple of Rucker's country hits. The band is planning to film and record the first two of its three Columbia, S.C. shows on Sept. 11-12. But even with a new album, nobody is predicting that Hootie will be a full-time going concern again; Rucker, in fact, is already eyeballing a return to his solo career and a follow-up to 2017's When Was the Last Time and even has his next single identified, though not scheduled for release yet.
It's the Hootie way, again, but the tour's sold-out success has certainly demonstrated there's an appetite for the band that may make going away again harder.
"That would be something we'd have to discuss long and hard," Rucker says. "This tour was so great; I was a skeptic, but I was wrong. But I've got more country records to make, some other stuff to do. I'm sure some time down the road we'll get together and do it again, but we don't know when yet." Sonefeld is equally coy, noting that, "We sort of said 2019 would be the year we dedicated to Hootie, but if we have a hit single that might give us an opportunity to go somewhere else, some higher level. But in general I think the plan was for Darius to get back to making another country record; He's worked so hard to create that brand I think it would be dumb to not go back and nurture it. And we've all got kids in school, still at home, so I look forward to getting back in there and bringing more of my own (spiritual) music around as well and just see what happens from there."
Imperfect Circle track list:
1. NEW YEARS DAY (Hootie & the Blow?sh, Eric Paslay, Tofer Brown and Je? Trott)
2. MISS CALIFORNIA (Hootie & the Blow?sh, David Ryan Harris and Andrew DeRoberts)
3. WILD FIRE LOVE (Darius Rucker, Ed Sheeran, Joel Crouse and Kyle Rife)
4. HOLD ON (Chris Stapleton and Jim Beavers)
5. TURN IT UP (Hootie & the Blow?sh and Je? Trott)
6. NOT TONIGHT (Hootie & the Blow?sh, David Ryan Harris and Andrew DeRoberts)
7. WE ARE ONE (Hootie & the Blow?sh)
8. EVERYBODY BUT YOU* (Hootie & the Blow?sh and Frank Rogers)
9. LONELY ON A SATURDAY NIGHT (Hootie & the Blow?sh, Eric Paslay and Je? Trott)
10. WHY (Hootie & the Blow?sh, James Slater and Chris August)
11. ROLLIN’ (Hootie and the Blow?sh, Adam Doleac, John King and Zach Kale)
12. HALF A DAY AHEAD (Hootie & the Blow?sh)
13. CHANGE (Hootie & the Blow?sh)