MUSIC : Band Reaches Record Success : Hootie & the Blowfish, started at college, has shown a lot of musical and business savvy. It plays in Santa Barbara tonight.


While Hootie & the Blowfish and Toad the Wet Sprocket sound like the entertainment at the annual meeting of the Ugly Animal Society, it sounds like cash registers on warp drive to their record labels.

These two hot-selling acts will play tonight at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara.

It's a hometown gig for the Toadies. It's just another night on the road for the Blowfish, who average over 250 shows per year and have sold a million and a half copies of their big label debut disc, "Cracked Rear View." But the band, which got its funny name from their powerful singer, Darius Rucker, were a hit before they went gold, with two self-produced tapes and a CD. The CD, "Kootchypop" from 1993 sold enough to create the proverbial buzz, which led to the band signing with Atlantic.

The Blowfish were originally Gamecocks, students at the other USC--the University of South Carolina in Columbia. They began as a cover band for the usual reasons--Party 101, Co-eds 101 and Beer 101--but the Blowfish kept getting bigger.

Last year, they played a Democratic fund-raiser and got to meet President Bill. Then in September the Blowfish had a gig with David Letterman, another important guy in a suit, and the album took off.

Applying what they learned in college, the four band members--Rucker, guitarist Mark Bryan, bass player Dean Felber and drummer Soni Sonefeld--formed their own corporation, Fishco Management. A functioning democracy, with a better repertoire than your average republic, the members even take turns doing the inevitable interviews. Put upon this time was the guitarist Bryan who spoke from a noisy New Orleans restaurant.

Was it pretty cool meeting President Bill?

Yes, it was, very interesting. We performed for the National Democratic Committee in D.C. We went to school with some girls that worked at the White House and they got us the gig.


So did he get out and dance with Hillary?

No, man, he wasn't even there, but later when we did meet him, I slipped him a tape. Apparently, he gave it to Chelsea. Later, he sent us a "Thank You" letter for the tape and said that Chelsea liked it.


Would President Bill wear a Hootie T-shirt?

I dunno. He might--he does so much jogging. Maybe. We also have golf shirts, golf tees and golf towels.


How did all this get started?

The bass player and I are from Maryland, and we all went to USC where we met Darius who was living in our dorm hall. We started playing gigs with a different drummer in 1985 or 1986, just doing covers. At first, I thought South Carolina was all very strange, but I adapted, and I still live there. Columbia is just a small college town. There's lot of local bands, and national acts come through from time to time.


When did you know the music thing was working?

We decided to take the band seriously after we graduated because a bunch of people kept asking us to do other shows. After three years of just doing covers, we decided to give it a shot.


What do you think Hootie music is like?

I don't like to answer that question. We're just a rock band, to be very general. Whatever the listener hears, that's OK with us--we're real happy with our sound.


What's Southern Rock and where does your band fit into that genre, or does it?

I dunno, good question. I used to think it was all that stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. I guess we have a little bit of that, but that's not all the stuff we're into. People in Europe tell us we have a Southern Rock edge, but we don't really notice. It's tough when you're on the inside to make all these judgments.


You guys were a hit as an unsigned band--how'd you do it?

We had already sold 50,000 copies of our first CD, which had five songs on it. At first, we were approached by JRS, a label that had the Stray Cats and Jimmy Cliff. But they never came up with any money, and we basically wasted a year waiting on them. When we went with Atlantic we figured why not use a real producer, get a budget--why not take it to the next level?


Who writes?

Everybody. We give Darius first refusal rights because he has to sing them. We're all involved in the process; we all contribute to the music and the lyrics. It's a democracy.


Why did you become a guitar player?

I got a guitar when I was 13 after I saw Pete Townshend on television. When I first heard "My Generation," it blew me away. That dude was bad.


What's up with Fishco Management?

It's our own corporation--just the four of us and our manager--we decide how to spend the money and pay the taxes. It's getting really big. We also have control over our own merchandise. A lot of bands make merchandising deals, and just get a paycheck, but that way, they don't make as much. Our shirts are still 12-15 bucks. Not a lot of bands have strong management. We're all involved in every decision--five heads are better than one.


* WHAT: Hootie & the Blowfish, Toad the Wet Sprocket.

* WHERE: Arlington Theater, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Tonight, 8.

* COST: $16.

* CALL: 963-4408.

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