Interview with Ekoostik Hookah's Johnny Polansky
by Frank Poppe
February 25, 2004

How, where and when did Ekoostik Hookah get started?

Ekoostik Hookah actually started in 1991. One of the founders, Dave Katz, who is the piano player, songwriter and plays a little bit of guitar, doesn’t sing, started the band with a few other guys, a couple of them being Cliff Starbuck and Steve Sweney, who are the guitar player and the bass player. It kind of started out as a little jam session/get-together with some guys and you know, it kinda came to a point where everything sounded pretty fun and everything was going good, people were liking the music and they said “Hey, why don’t we put this all together with a couple of guys and why don’t we get a band together” and it just came together in kind of a natural and organic way and the band came together as Ekoostik Hookah in 1991.

So where did the name Ekoostik Hookah come from then?

Dave Katz had actually just gotten back from Egypt and he had a hookah on his mantle in his house, in his apartment. And the band had played as an acoustic act and they were kind of tossing some names around and Ekoostik Hookah was the one that kind of stuck but we don’t spell it with an E, we spell it with a Schwa because it is the phonetic spelling of Acoustic, because we are not an acoustic band with just acoustic instruments. So we wanted to sound a little bit different than just, you know, Eecoustic, so the Schwa is the symbol of our band.

How would you characterize your musical style?

I personally refer it to as Rock’n’Roll. I don’t know how the scene is in Germany, obviously you are familiar with the term jamband, I think it’s much too liberal, over termed. How can you possibly have a band like String Cheese Incident with Yonder Mountain String Band, who’s bluegrass, along with Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic along with the Grateful Dead, I mean it’s too broad.

So everything is linked together in your band?

Everything, everything, it’s like I get very disgusted with these bands that say “Oh we’re hippie-slam-grass-funk-box-jam-zydeco-blues.”

That’s it!

It drives me crazy! It drives me insane! (laughing) So personally I like to say we play Rock’n’Roll and in that Rock’n’Roll we bring our influences, each one of us, very distinct influences to this music. And when the music comes together, it’s Ekoostik Hookah. That’s how I feel the music is. Just because the fans that come to see a band in tie-dyes or free-spirited or with dreadlocks or whatever your life-style might be, immediately you say “Oh wow, they sound like the Grateful Dead”, well that’s not true. Or they say “Oh, you must sound like Phish”, and it’s not true. And I think a lot of times it’s because of the perception of the crowd and who comes to see you and the need for labelling. Especially, I find, in America, one of the things that makes me the most upset is the need for critics and American radio to label everything so they can put it in a box. And I like the fact that bands can have their own music but they don’t necessarily have to be in a labelled area and I think that labelling has been strictly for marketing purposes.

So do you accept the term jamband as a label then?

I think it’s just a label because for years you have to think about the nineteen-seventies you had album-oriented Rock, AOR. That was Rock’n’Roll. And then you got started with the other bands that had incredible popularity, but where could you put them? And you start out like the Grateful Dead, where do you put them when you’re trying to sell their records in the context of music stores. Or what radio station could you find them on? And therefore I think that over the years many of these bands, because they have improvisational sections to their music have been labelled jambands which to me any band that gets together, no matter what they’re playing and somebody plays a solo, that’s a jamband. It doesn’t matter if you are playing jazz-fusion, it doesn’t matter if you are playing bluegrass, it doesn’t matter if you are playing funk, zydeco, you know just because you are improvising I think a lot of times it gets stuck with the label jambands.

Nevertheless, jamband nation in the States is growing. What do you think sets you apart from the other bands out there?

Well I think what sets us apart from the other bands is the fact that we have six very distinct individuals that have very, very, very different taste in music. And I think when we all come together and we create this music of Ekoostik Hookah, that diversity is reflected. And you’re going to come to an Ekoostik Hookah show and you’re not gonna hear a band that’s gonna play the same set list, the same song, the same sound every night. You never know what you’re gonna get with Ekoostik Hookagh. And what sets us apart many times is the fact that when we go on stage we don’t have a set list, not one time and as the show develops and the crowd feeds the energy to us we try to reciprocate and feed them the energy and read what we feel is going to excite the crowd to a higher level. Or maybe the vibe in the crowd is not to take that higher level, maybe they’re feeling more in a melancholy mood. We try to read the crowd and take their energy and kind of give them what they’re asking for and I feel that a lot of times that separates Ekoostik Hookah from other bands.

That’s what I wanted to ask, too: how much of your set list is pre-planned and how much is improvisational?

100 % improvisation, zero pre-planning.

You have your own festival: Hookahville.


Yeah, so tell me about it.

Well, Hookahville started out at the manager Jeff Spencer’s and Dave Katz’s farm. They had bought a farm and they basically had wanted to play some music outside. So they threw a festival and basically with a big party/music festival where Ekoostik Hookah played. That was in 1994 and 800 people showed up. That was the weekend and they kind of looked around and they were like “Hey, that’s pretty cool, let’s do it again!”. So they did it in the fall and since then it’s been tradition: Memorial Day and Labour Day weekend, they have Hookahville in central Ohio somewhere and essentially it has much like everything in this organisation grown on an organic level where nothing is being really forced. We kind of try to essentially roll with the punches you might say and kind of go with the flow of what naturally happens. It got bigger and it got more popular and we seem to enjoy throwing the festival, you know, kind of like a little backyard October fest in September and May. We kind of enjoy throwing that and that’s basically where it came from. It started out as a very, very casual party-picnic-camping at a farm and like I said, when they saw that the people wanted to hear the music more in that setting it led to the question of doing this again and of course the answer was yes because it was very fun.

You released five studio albums but you’re not dependent on a record label. What are the steps to a studio album, where and how do you release them?

The studio albums: generally what happens is we go ahead and get together and make a decision based on what we want to put on the CD, what songs have been recorded in the live setting and what songs have been recorded at all, how old are the songs, how we wanna arrange the songs and we go through all this in pre-production. Then we go into the studio and we record the CD and go through the whole steps of recording a CD, mixing, mastering and printing, mind you all done by our own staff. Of course we don’t actually do the printing and all, but our staff takes care of finding out who’s going to print it. We don’t have a record company, it’s all done by Ekoostik Hookah. And I thing that’s another thing that sets us apart, we do everything by ourselves. If something gets done, it’s because Ekoostik Hookah did it. If something doesn’t gets done, it’s because Ekoostik Hookah didn’t do it. It’s all four square on our shoulders. As far as the picking of the songs we put on the CD’s, there is no strict criteria. We’ve picked songs that, in fact on “Ohio Grown” one of the songs that has made “Ohio Grown” was eleven years old when we recorded it. Just because it’s a new song and just because it’s a recent song, does not necessarily mean that it’s going to make the CD or that an old song isn’t going to make the CD. We really try to give a conscious thought to what our body of music is at that point and see what songs are feeling right, basically, and what songs we’d like to get out there in that capacity. And as far as releasing our CD we sell them online, we sell them independently through record stores but once again, it’s all up to Ekoostik Hookah.

Jambands are a Northern American phenomenon. This kind of music scene is not well known in Europe. So how would you explain it to unknowing Europeans and why might it be so hard for American jambands to have success in Europe?

Well, I’m not exactly sure why the success hasn’t translated just yet to Europe, however I will say that I believe that, you know I travelled to Europe a few times musically and the one thing that I do think about European listeners is that in a wider sense they listen more carefully. I think they listen more in depth and at times a little less superficial. And this is why I’m kind of surprised that the jamband phenomenon hasn’t taken off a little bit more because there is a very wide body of music to be experienced in that jamband label. You know I believe that if listeners enjoy improvisation in the music and they enjoy something different each time they hear that song, if they’re looking for a replication of music, jambands is not that, it’s not a replication of songs each time, it’s a concerted effort to do a new rendition of that song every single time. The melody is the same obviously, you know the structure for the most part, but each time you play that song it’s very important to put your heart into it and the feelings into it because that song is a brief snapshot of music, one brief moment, and the next time it’s not gonna be the same. I think that’s the one thing about jambands that I would hope that listeners in Europe and Germany would understand and kind of grasp on the idea that if they see a band or they listen to a band, say they hear the song “Lazy River” from Ekoostik Hookah, if they see that it was recorded on a studio album or it’s a concert it is that they can know, if they like that song, they can hear that song in so many different ways and they can experience the same song in so many different capacities. That’s the one thing that I would really hope that listeners in Europe and in Germany would grasp. The idea that if they listen to this kind of music they’re going to get something different every single time.

So you’ll have to come over a few more times then.

(laughing) Let’s hope so, let’s hope so, I think we won’t neglect the European continent any longer.

So you’re only doing your gigs this year in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam and the Hague, we’re just doing the small Netherlands jog this time, we’re kind of dipping our toes in. Like I said, we do everything by ourselves so when you take a gamble sometimes it’s tough to take the very big gamble for the first time. We’re hoping that we find some reception and some interest. We’re going to be playing some shows with, I believe, String Cheese Incident in the Netherlands, as well, and we’re hoping that people find our music palatable and enjoyable.

Do you have any special feelings about playing in Europe for the first time or any expectations?

No, I’m overwhelmed, I’m absolutely overwhelmed. I don’t really have any expectations. I think that sometimes when you’re going with certain expectations that you have a chance of being disappointed. I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world that I get to do what I get to do and that I get to experience the things that I get to experience, so I already feel like a winner. When I get to experience this tour and these shows I already feel like that it’s gone beyond my expectations. So anything above that is gonna be the icing on the cake, absolutely. One thing that I probably do have any expectations or kind of anticipation of is that I really hope that we see a blend of Ekoostik Hookah fans who have been loyal, you know some two or three hundred fans that are coming over for the concerts from the United States mixed in amongst Europeans, you know: new friends that we haven’t met yet.

Johnny, we’re really looking forward to the gigs over there in the Netherlands and I wish you a really nice stay over here.

Wonderful, we’re looking forward to it and we can’t wait, we can’t wait. Come on out to see Ekoostik Hookah! (laughing)