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July 31, 2014

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Q+A: Zac Brown Band’s John Driskell Hopkins talks Dave Grohl, new music and playing Las Vegas

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Zac Brown Band at Mandalay Bay Events Center on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.

Zac Brown Band at The Joint

Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel on March 13, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Zac Brown Band at Mandalay Bay Events Center

Zac Brown Band at Mandalay Bay Events Center on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Zac Brown Band at The Chelsea

Zac Brown Band at The Chelsea in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Saturday, April 27, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas favorites Zac Brown Band return to town this weekend for two days of their acclaimed live jams tonight and Sunday at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel.

I spoke with bassist and vocalist John Driskell Hopkins about the band’s style, their Grammy Award wins and working with Dave Grohl on December’s “Grohl Sessions Vol. 1” EP.

You’ve played Las Vegas quite a few times in the past year. What does the band like to do here when they’re not onstage?

When we go there, we get excited about all the things everybody else gets excited about in terms of the accommodations and all the coolest stuff that’s going on. We like to play craps, we like to play blackjack. We also get a chance to play in front of a really good crowd. It always seems to be very energetic that way, too. It’s a pretty awesome trip all around. This time we don’t even have our buses. It’s just kind of flying in, flying out. It’s almost a vacation gig.

It’s been almost a year now since your Grammy win for Best Country Album. How has that kind of recognition affected the band?

I think the most impactful for us was the first one for Best New Artist (in 2010). I think it kind of put everybody on alert that we were gonna do something different than your normal country radio band. The next two have been kind of a wonderful support for that sentiment. But also this last one was big because we are so diverse, so to get Best Country Album was another statement, really.

I think we’re kind of poised to do other things in music that embrace our Southern country roots but also stretch out into new genres and new horizons. It’s something that we’ve always been interested in to begin with. (The win) kind of reinforces that. “Uncaged” was the least “country” album on the radio, and it still got Best Country Album. That means to me that the genre is ready to listen to something that’s fresh.

Why do you think that is?

I think country music is almost synonymous with Southern music these days. It’s not necessarily a certain twang or a certain instrument. It’s got a lot of rock, it’s got a lot of pop in it, and it’s what Southern people like. When I was working in New England in the ’90s, the guys I was working with would listen to country radio, and I asked them why because I didn’t see that as a New England thing, and they said it was the closest thing they could find on the radio to blues.

So I think people all over the place connect with what’s on country radio one way or another, whether it’s because they like the pop sensibility, the rock or the Southern country bluegrass themes that it has, as well. It’s a pretty broad brushstroke these days. People have many input systems in their brains, they have a lot of stuff to process, so if you can touch on a bunch of those at once, then you’re kind of winning.

Is that part of what drove the band to team up with Dave Grohl?

Yeah, that’s another example. My entire college experience and beyond was very aggressive rock and roll. Nirvana was a big part of that. Dave Grohl has obviously continued to be a driving force in music where a lot of his peers have not. He’s one of those guys where as soon as you meet him, he’s just a down to Earth, very accessible person, but as soon as you start talking to him, you realize there’s something special about him musically and artistically, and that’s why he’s done so well.

Tell me more about collaborating with him — what was that dynamic like?

We rehearsed the songs for two days. We hadn’t even written them yet. One of them was written, one was a cover, and the other two were just ideas we had messed around with on the bus. We played what we were working on for him, and he’s just like a kid, “That one sounds cool! Let’s do that!” And “that” ended up being “The Muse,” and we finished two days later and then started another one. We called it all pretty quickly and had a great time the rest of the week.

Are there any other artists right now who you’re planning to collaborate with or whom you dream of collaborating with in the future?

So many. At this point, Zac has talked about Springsteen and Sting. I think Garth Brooks is a tremendous influence on Zac. I know he is in a lot of the way that I view country music and the way that songwriting has evolved for me. He’s one of the guys who’s starting to get busy again, and we’d love to get involved with what he’s doing. There are so many people to draw from and play with, and that’s what we get excited about in this band — being able to stretch out and do all different kinds of stuff with different people.

What’s next for the band? I’ve heard you’re sitting on a lot of material right now, but with your tour schedule, it doesn’t seem like you’ll have much time to record any time soon ...

What’s next is putting together perhaps a full-length. We’re not sure if it’s going to be Volume 2 of the Grohl Sessions or branching out in some other direction. But definitely more recording and probably another release this year or the beginning of next year; just to keep it going. We do have a lot of material. But we never stop touring. We’re like The Grateful Dead. We just take pauses.

Like right now, next week we’ll take a pause for 10 days, and then we’re back at it. Zac and Shelly are pregnant and having a baby in April, and we’ll take a month then, but we don’t take 6 months off and go kick it in the Caribbean. We just keep working. That’s how we’ve always done it, and that’s how we like to do it.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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