Bumpin Uglies knows all about hustle. The Maryland reggae-rock band had spent more than a decade on the road, starting with local open mics and backyard parties and growing into road warriors, building an ever-expanding audience with sold-out shows in clubs and prime spots at festivals from coast to coast, on one national tour after another. Then the pandemic hit, and touring shut down.
After being in motion for so long, singer and lead guitarist Brandon Hardesty wasn’t about to sit still, even if he couldn’t be out on tour. In fact, Bumpin Uglies never really stopped working — they adapted. The group returned to playing backyard parties around Annapolis, where they’re based, and added socially distanced concerts and full-band livestreams. In the fall of 2020, they also started releasing a new song every month as part of a project called the Never Ending Drop.
“We felt like prospectors going out and trying to find gold — it was just uncharted territory,” Hardesty says. “We had to figure out a way to make a living. That’s kind of what being a musician during Covid has felt like to me. You can do it, but you have to be bold.”
Hardesty has been bold from the start. He was waiting tables when he started the band in his early 20s. With an ear for melodies and the determination to succeed, he poured his time and energy into making Bumpin Uglies a success. For years, the band did just about everything themselves, from booking shows to releasing their own albums, building a sense of momentum along the way that eventually became self-sustaining, and then Hardesty wasn’t waiting tables anymore.
No surprise, then, that a musician with his strong work ethic found a way to take maximum advantage of the sudden surplus of time at home. For one thing, he got to hang out with his toddler son, and he and his wife welcomed a new baby. He also wrote a ton of songs. For the first time, Hardesty approached songwriting as a discipline, dedicating time to working on new music rather than waiting for inspiration to strike and then jotting down ideas in the back of the Bumpin Uglies van on his way from one gig to the next.
“I just woke up every morning and I made a pot of coffee, and I had this running list of ideas in my phone for hooks and riffs and progressions,” he says. “I sat down every day and made myself write a song, and 85 percent of them were pretty good. And it was awesome. I really, really enjoyed the process.”
The result is the band’s seventh studio album, Mid-Atlantic Dub, which they recorded in 2021 and plan to release this fall. After showing the breadth of Bumpin Uglies’ influences on the Never Ending Drop, from folk to classic country to hip-hop, Mid-Atlantic Dub brings the group — also featuring Dave Wolf on bass and vocals, Ethan Lichtenberger on keyboards and TJ Haslett on drums — back to the core of what they do.
“It’s very groove-focused,” Hardesty says. “It’s very hooky, very vibey. It’s very accessible, but there was no compromise on the storytelling or the lyricism.”
In fact, Hardesty had a lot on his mind while working songs for Mid-Atlantic Dub. He had recently lost his own father while he was stepping into being a dad himself and letting go of the vestiges of childhood, all during the uncertainty of a global pandemic. It’s all there on “Slow Burn,” featuring Jacob Hemphill from SOJA. “Before the oak you got the sapling and the seed / Before you triumph you will swallow a defeat,” Hardesty sings over unhurried upstroke guitars and a beat laid back into a deep pocket.
“I was doing a lot of growing up during Covid,” he says. “It was very much like a survival thing, and when you’re in that kind of mode, it forces you to cut a lot of bullshit out of your life.”
What’s left, in Hardesty’s songwriting as in his daily life, is what’s real, and what’s real stands a solid chance of connecting with an audience that appreciates openhearted lyrics paired with a tight reggae-rock vibe.
“For me, it’s just all about honesty,” Hardesty says. “That’s what I listen for when I’m listening to music. I want to feel like whatever the author’s saying is honest.”
However, he’s primed to unite not only genres, but people as well through a series of 2023 releases and much more to come.
“No matter what walk of life you’re from, I’d love for you to hear the conviction in my music,” he notes. “I hope you think, ‘This dude meant it’. Maybe you relate to what I’m singing about or just cut loose for a little bit. I just write songs and try to connect with people.”
He recognized music’s inherent power to connect as a kid. Dad played bass in a local favorite funk band, while his two older brothers followed suit by picking up the same instrument. At barely seven-years-old, pops pulled Joe up on stage and he busted out a wild rendition of “I Feel Good” by James Brown, leaving the crowd speechless and, unassumingly, deciding his fate. As a teen, he even played at the Boston date of the Warped Tour in his metal band. Post-high school, he cut his teeth by performing in countless bars and watering holes solo. 2019 saw him make a major splash with The Wrong Impression. It bowed at #1 on the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart and clocked over 2 million streams.
At the onset of the Pandemic, he fell in love with Key West and relocated, gigging in bars around Duval Street and writing as much as possible.
“I moved because it’s absolutely beautiful,” he grins. “It felt like the end of the world, but I was in this amazing town. I found comfort in knowing if everything blew up in my face, I could drink a Corona in the Keys and keep jamming.”
On the other side of the Pandemic, he returned to New Hampshire with his fiancé and newborn son in tow, settling near his family once again. Signing to LAW Records, he continued to evolve with 2022’s Far From Forever highlighted by fan favorites such as “Create Something,” “Beef,” and “Got it All.” At the same time, he coped with depression, infusing darker experiences into his music in an effort to confront them.
“Before I was engaged and my son was born, I went through a really depressing path of life,” he admits. “If you have a past trauma you can’t get over, it will hold you back. However, I want to let people know everyone feels shitty from time to time. So much reggae is happy all the time, but I wanted to get into another vibe.”
That’s precisely what he does on the 2022 single “Boomer Economy.” On the track, a thrash-y guitar riff crashes right into a laidback reggae break as he alternates between galloping rapid delivery and a magnetic chantable chorus, attempting to bridge the generational gap.
“My dad is a boomer, and we butt heads sometimes,” he explains. “I love him to death. It’s scary how alike we are, but he’s from a different time. I was living at home in my twenties, and he was on me about getting out of there. I was feeling rebellious like, ‘Why do we need to argue about this bullshit when we’re trying to preach the same message?’ It doesn’t say, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. It’s about trying to find healthy common ground, but still having a ‘fuck you’ attitude,” he grins.
By building musical common ground on a foundation of honest emotion, Joe has the power to speak to any generation with more music on the horizon.
“It doesn’t matter who you are I hope you feel what I’m saying,” he leaves off. “Right now, I have everything I need. The universe dumped it all into my lap: ‘Here’s the family, here’s the career, here’s the team, and here’s the vision’. I’m just jumping on the train like, ‘Let’s do it’.”
Howi is the primary songwriter for Maryland Beach Rock band Ballyhoo!.