‘‘It’s ‘A-mah-sah Hines.’”
By now, they’re fairly used to people not knowing how to pronounce the name of their band. Curious concert-goers will ask sometimes timidly, scared to offend, while others yell the question while the band is still on stage. They don’t seem to mind answering, though, because curiosity means they made an impression.
Amasa Hines comprises six members: Joshua Asante on vocals and guitar, Ryan Hitt on bass, Norman Williamson on saxophone, Matt Rice on keyboard, and brothers Josh and Judson Spillyards on drums and guitar, respectively. The confusing part is that some of them play in afro beat ensemble Funkanites and some of them also play in Velvet Kente, switching sounds and vibes with each project.
But the easy part, that’s what happens when Amasa Hines starts playing. With a self-proclaimed “psychedelic afro-futurism” sound, their music includes the soul, blues, indie rock and pop blend that has turned much of the Little Rock scene into followers.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Amasa Hines was born. There was no radioactive spider bite or botched laboratory experiment; instead their origin story took time and fortuity to fall into place.
Flash back to 2010. Judson, Josh, Ryan and Norman were playing a weekly instrumental funk gig at what used to be the restaurant Ferneau. After becoming friends with Velvet Kente vocalist Joshua, they invited him to jam with them.
“When I first started playing with them, it was like a buffet,” Joshua says. “I was coming from playing in a three piece [band]. We make a lot of noise together, but a lot of the things that were in my head, we just couldn’t do live.”
The band lines started to blur a bit along the way, and a lot of improvisation and pseudo-covers later, Amasa Hines emerged. As for the name, they were having trouble landing on anything until Judson and Josh came across their great-great-grandfather’s name: Amasa Hinds Spillyards. A quick spelling change later and the deal was sealed.
Their influences pull from all over the map, but the thing they rely on more than anything is intuition. Inspiration comes from everywhere, whether it’s how a performer bends a note, to a recent art gallery visit, but especially the “feel” of a sound.
“If I’m listening to Miles Davis play trumpet, I’m not going to be able to sound like that on the guitar,” Judson says, “but whatever he brings to it, I want to have that feeling come out of something I play.”
When the time came to begin working on their first album “All the World There Is,” the first three songs took no time to record. Due to a string of circumstances and, frankly, a general unpreparedness, it took close to three years to complete the album.
By that time, after a leaked song incident and a prolonged gestation, anticipation levels were high, and not just in central Arkansas. Paste Magazine listed Amasa Hines as one of the “12 Arkansas Bands You Should Listen to Right Now” before the album even released in January of last year.
Yes, Amasa Hines is one of those bands whose sound grabs you instantly, and it seems the feeling is mutual.
“There was a period in my life when even talking about spirituality felt false,” Joshua says. “Then I started playing with musicians who were evoking things that were otherworldly and it was my reconnection to spirituality. When I got pneumonia and could barely move, I’d just put on our album. That was my church.”
And that’s what gives them focus in the face of the dreaded “starving artist” trope. Working day jobs in order to be able to pursue music may not be on the guys’ list of favorite things, but that’s all part of the trials of expansion.
The growing pains of popularity come with a unique combination of pros, cons and sticky situations, not to mention the endeavor of juggling a never-ending list of social media accounts. The local fan base may be loyal, but Little Rock is still a relatively small city, and playing too many shows would wash out the scene.
The goal is to build pockets of fan support all over the country, but that’s a slow-going process when you don’t have a record label. Although often vilified in movies, record labels offer stability and alleviation. Currently the guys are footing the bills for studio time, making CDs and T-shirts, renting tour buses and everything else along the way.
When they do book shows out of state, they can never be quite sure what kind of response they’ll receive. On the last cycle in South Carolina, they played a sold-out show for 900 people one night, and the next night it was just the sound guy.
So what makes it worth it?
“Potential,” Judson says. “It’s not easy. It’s never easy. It’s definitely attainable, but you’re not going to get anything unless you put in the work for it. That’s what you keep telling yourself. We know it’s possible.”
Joshua and Judson both agree that it’s that potential of the next project that fuels the band, mostly because they admit — despite how much they love their first album — it was safe. The collective skill set of Amasa Hines expands far past the boundaries of “All the World There Is,” but it’s going to take a certain level of guts to reach that promise.
And by all accounts, they have it. Six guys working that closely and that creatively doesn’t always make for smooth sailing, but they only sharpen each other. Currently in the process of working on new music, time will tell if they can live up to their own expectations.
But there’s a sincerity and a confidence when they talk about their music that is anything but off-putting. The insecurities and worries about T-shirts and tour buses are gone. There’s a fresh zeal that seeps through only when there exists an acute belief that this is what one is meant for, a transcendence that defies any human-built barriers, self-imposed or otherwise.
“With music, you can go all the way over there to the edge, face first nose dive off the edge, and then come back to reality,” Joshua says. “That’s what it offers us: a permanent place. It feels like what having a home feels like. I haven’t always had that, but I know now that I have it for the rest of my life with music.”
Catch Amasa Hines at Jazz Lights in the Park on Saturday, May 16, on the Clinton Presidential Center lawn. The festival includes live music, food trucks, a beer garden and more, and it’s all to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Central Arkansas. For more information, visit JazzLights.com.