+ By Theresa C. Sanchez
Take a moment. Look back and reflect on your youth. Were there any hasty decisions you might have made with your friends? Singer, songwriter, musician, and native son Brandon Hardesty is all too familiar with the repercussions of choosing a bawdy euphemism for his band’s name.
“I was about 20 or 21, and me and my buddies wanted something different, funny, and memorable,” says Hardesty, talking about his musical group Bumpin Uglies. “It’s the bane of my existence, now. It’s created some headaches over the years [in terms of bookings]. I didn’t realize I’d be doing this when I was in my 30s.”
Hardesty, now 32, has no problem being taken seriously. His talented quartet has logged thousands of hours on the road, played countless venues and festivals, and evolved into a creative powerhouse hard to ignore. Its critically acclaimed fourth studio album, Beast from the East, (Space Duck Records) debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Chart for Reggae Albums in April. Hardesty attributes the group’s successful trajectory to having a strong work ethic, setting specific goals, making strategic choices, and staying true to their brand.
“My whole philosophy on the band is that we stay true to our foundation in ska, punk rock, and reggae,” he says. “We don’t have anyone telling us what to do, so we don’t have to adhere to any formula. We can do stuff that is interesting and intriguing to us, and we can expand and add on to what we’ve always done, organically changing the sound over the years. What I try to do as a songwriter is tell a story.”
The most impressive raconteurs use words to transport listeners to another place and time, be it a long-since-filed-away memory or something never personally experienced but easy to identify with. While the group has credited Sublime, The Beach Boys, Bad Religion, and Reel Big Fish as musical inspirations, its main lyrical influence is a four-letter word: life. In an effort to reach the most fans possible, Hardesty ensures his lyrics are as broad as they are impassioned.
Take, for example, “City by the Bay,” the second track on the new recording. Hardesty’s contemplative lyrics bear witness to growing up in Maryland’s state capital and describe how both he and the historic city have changed over the years. While there is mention of the Chesapeake Bay by name, the chorus— “No matter where I go, I’ll always come back home. To my city by the bay, city by the bay”—could apply to any inlet from San Francisco to Biscay. By capitalizing on nostalgia and its wellspring of material à la singer-songwriting giants Bryan Adams and John Mellancamp, Hardesty achieves one of his main objectives to engage the audience. “I connect with words and want to bring that to other people,” he says.
Delivering a musical message to the masses requires more than just finding the right words. Sometimes tough decisions are made in order to realize a band’s full potential. “[Hardesty]has always got a vision and a good plan, and while it’s changed over the years, it’s always been attainable,” says bassist Dave “Wolfie” Wolf, who also drives the band’s touring van. “We had to see the big picture and had to do things that aren’t exactly fun.” TJ Haslett became the band’s fourth drummer in April 2015. Last year, in an effort to elevate the overall sound, Bumpin Uglies added a fourth member: multi-instrumentalist Chad Wright, joining Hardesty and Wolf.
Establishing a creative synergy is paramount to the group, and collaboration takes place along every step, from the studio to the stage. Bumpin Uglies’ biggest and most recent musical leap forward involved working for the first time with a producer, Howi Spangler, lead singer and guitarist of the Aberdeen-based band Ballyhoo!
“I’m a firm believer that, in order to grow, you have to try new things,” says Hardesty. “So we gave it a shot. It was such a good decision because [Spangler] really took what we were doing to another level. It was a perfect fit.”
Over the course of about a year, the band painstakingly worked to create a robust East Coast sound showcase—a new album featuring contributions by musicians from the East Coast, including Spangler, The Movement’s Gary Dread, Passafire’s Ted Bowne, Ballyhoo!’s Howi Spangler, and members from Oogee Wawa, Sun-Dried Vibes, and Tropidelic. Artist Nick Kubley designed the record’s cover, with a clever Maryland spin on the beloved Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are monsters. The resulting tracks and package are a testament to ambitious teamwork and Maryland pride.
“Brandon’s had a real long journey. I think he has always had this flame, and it sparked in him real hard from day one,” says Ryan Cullen, the band’s longtime sound engineer and owner of Annapolis Audio Lab. “So much has matured from their first record to what they have just achieved with this last one. They have just created this really cool symbiosis, and now have a solid drive, direction, and confidence. You can just hear and feel the difference. The flame is still there, but it’s brighter and burns harder.”
“I feel like our show and the songs are two entirely different things,” says Hardesty. “A live set these days is super energetic and very much a party.” █
The Bumpin Uglies perform aboard the Harbor Queen for a three-hour booze cruise around the Chesapeake Bay on August 17, 2018. The Harbor Queen leaves from Dock Street in Annapolis. For more information, visit www.reggaeonthebay.net.