Alex Minard, the cofounder, chief songwriter, and lead vocalist for Knoxville's Hey OK Fantastic, is a bit of an eccentric character. On his band's self-titled debut full-length, released last year, Minard's quirky, spastic songwriting brushes on everything from old-school soul to modern indie rock to tongue-in-cheek country; and his distinctive head-scratcher of a voice—a mixture of glam-rock belt and subtle croon—sounds like absolutely no one else on the planet, let alone anybody in the local scene. It's a mostly joyful sound, but Minard's path with the band so far has been surprisingly dark.
Minard, a butcher by day, moved to Knoxville from New Jersey a few years ago to be near his children.
"I moved to Knoxville because the mother of my kids and I split up, and she moved down here to be closer to her parents, who had moved here two years previous," Minard writes in an e-mail interview. "I wanted to be close to my children, so I forgot my life in New Jersey and came down to Knoxville to be with my kids. She and I tried again. I bought a house, but we only made it another year and a half. I lost my house, lost my family, and found myself in Knoxville, 800 miles away from everything I knew, starting all over again."
At his lowest point, Minard turned to his first love: music. Minard formed Hey OK Fantastic with his friend (and current Hey OK Fantastic bassist) Ian Daniels in 2008 as an acoustic duo. The band expanded to a quartet in 2009 with the addition of lead guitarist/keyboardist Sam Burton and drummer Charlie Murphy, and subsequently shifted its sound toward Americana and bluegrass. It was an awkward transition, and the eventual addition of co-frontman Burton Knight led to Minard's departure in 2010.
"I just didn't know where I wanted to be at the time, in life," Minard says. "I mean, I was separated from the mother of my children, and falling in love with a new woman, and it confused me. And the band took up a lot of my time. I was having issues at work. Life just stepped in, and I needed a break from it."
During Minard's absence, Knight traveled to Argentina; the remaining members booked a few shows and asked Minard to come play them. The result was a more straightforward rock sound that they wanted to pursue further; Knight gave his blessing from afar. "So we went straight into the studio and started working on the first album," Minard says.
A lot of creative struggle, a lot of personal turmoil, a lot of overall darkness. But it's difficult to hear any of that when Minard and company hit the stage. These days, things are pretty good for the band.
"We are working on the new album, playing some shows around town, we were writing a lot for the songs that are to come on the third album," Minard says.
And, squeezed between all that, Minard managed to organize the upcoming Dementia Awareness Benefit at the Relix Theatre. Minard first started thinking about a benefit show when Pat Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia was announced publicly this summer. His plan was focused when he heard a radio report on Summitt one night after band practice.
"I sat bolt upright and woke up and began to listen to what they had to say, and surprisingly, it seemed to me that the people on the radio didn't even really know about dementia," Minard says. "I found that disturbing. Every member of Hey OK Fantastic has had a family member who has suffered from dementia; Charlie's father, for 20 years, did dementia research at UT. I mean, we all know what dementia is, and how it can affect those diagnosed and the people who love them, and I felt that maybe a lot of people needed to be more aware as well."
Minard had already picked the venue—"I knew Relix was the place I wanted to do it," he says—but ran into trouble when he approached local bands to take part.
"You would be surprised at how many musicians in this town just straight-up turned it down because they wouldn't be getting paid," he says. "It blew my mind. I knew we were going to do it for free, and I really wanted to donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the Dementia Care Foundation, and I wanted to find like-minded artists to work with, and I quickly found out who actually gives a shit, and who just wants the money."
There's a palpable passion in Minard's tone, even through e-mail, as he discusses the cause. It's that same passion he brings to his music. Even a year ago, he never would have expected he could be in position to raise awareness of a cause of this magnitude—and bringing his music to a community that cares so deeply.
"We have been playing out as Hey OK Fantastic since 2008, and it wasn't until our debut came out that anyone started to take notice," he says. "And now, people are responding really well. We get better shows; we seem to be held in a higher esteem than we had been previously. Venues treat us better. And it's really surreal for me, when I'm walking down the street and people stop me and recognize me. It's flattering, and I'm glad that our music has any kind of impact on the people in this town—that means we are doing our part. It's a good feeling to be a part of such a strong, eclectic music scene."