In the end, it's only rock 'n' roll. Big deal. How far can you go away from it and still have it be rock 'n' roll? If you go somewhere like Brian Eno it's cool but it's no longer rock. We're a rock 'n' roll band.
-Tim Bluhm
Photo by ND Koster

Melting Snowflakes

Save for the nifty Red Tandy EP last year, it's been six years since their last studio release, The Green Hills Of Earth, a swirling, artfully constructed pop slab. In the interim, the band took a break from playing together, got day jobs, embarked on multiple side projects (many of which just reshuffled their lineup), wandered back roads and, in Loiacono's case, had a couple kids. You can hear all that living on Kiss The Crystal Flake, released this week by NYC indie Camera Records. It's the kind of record that'll appeal to both Badfinger and Modest Mouse fans. Edgy, contemplative and oddly hopeful, Crystal Flake is the culmination of all the steps they've taken over the years.

"It's very now. It's the most caught-up record with where we are in time. The songs were being created while we were making the record instead of the usual road tested Mother Hips anthems we went into the studio to crank out. That helped to keep it really current," explains Loiacono. On the album's title, he says, "The concept behind the song 'Wicked Tree' is a place you can bring all your woes and dump them. The line about crystal flake just came out while I was recording it. I think it's about being able to see and embrace what's right in front of you. The only image I had in mind was a snowflake melting in your hand. You can't hold onto it. You can only appreciate it while it's here."

John Hofer by Josh Miller
Hofer continues, "There's lots of ways to make interesting records. It can be the Brian Wilson way, putting things together piece-by-piece. Pro-Tools is great. People can sit in their living room and make little masterpieces. With this one, we rolled some two-inch tape just like it was 1972, I clicked off the song and we played it. All the songs were cut live with a few overdubs afterwards."

This is Hoaglin's first album as a fully credited member even though he replaced original bassist Isaac Parsons after Green Hills in 2002. He says, "We weren't afraid to bring it forward about 10 years from what we used to do. I've got Utopia on my iPod. I've got XTC and Peter Gabriel. Though we didn't go for the Phil Collins drum reverb [laughs]. Since the hiatus in 2004 I've been clamoring for new material. Obviously, I love this band but, with all due respect, how many times can you play 'Rich Little Girl' or 'Later Days?' Sitting on an album's worth of new material has been hard. Everyone's itching to get at it. There's a lot of opportunities for us to reinvent the expectations of our audience. I can't wait to play these 11 new songs over and over again this summer."

Bluhm adds, "They weren't groomed as live songs. Now we're in the position of having to play them live and it's scary. We've never been in that position before. It's a whole album of material we're trying to ram into our bones."

"I've been in the band 10 years and we've rehearsed maybe 10 times, but we've played hundreds and hundreds of gigs," observes Hofer. "When [Tim or Greg] had a new tune they'd play it in the back room together. The next thing you know we're playing it live somewhere in Idaho. We're not spring chickens. We all know how to play, and how to make it interesting for us, to make it challenging actually helps the music."

The Core Dyad

Greg Loicano by Josh Miller
Regardless of the flavor they're exploring, the real meat underneath is Loiacono and Bluhm's songwriting bolstered by their endlessly impressive singing and guitar playing. Loiacono says, "Lyrically, Tim does a lot more work than I do. For me, it's more free form, especially with this [new] record. He has a good way of telling a story. I ask questions and use anecdotes to show what's going through someone's mind, show how they're processing a situation. Tim has some of that but he can also remove a character from himself quite well."

"We don't actually collaborate very much," says Bluhm. "We have these boundaries that respect each other. We can ask each other's opinion or supply a line here or there but we try to keep it separate for some reason. It works really well. It's what makes a Mother Hips record interesting." Crystal Flake showcases these two clearly defined voices, splitting the songwriting credit almost evenly where in the past Loiacono might pen just two or three songs. "Greg has really stepped out in the last five or six years. I couldn't be happier about it. This is always what we wanted it to be" smiles Bluhm.

"We've never talked about it but our roles are pretty well defined," Bluhm continues. "He's the lead guitarist and I'm the lead singer but we support each other in those roles enough so there's no insecurity about the other guy doing our thing. It's allowed us to do whatever we want. With both singing and guitar, we're extremely different. I could never play what he plays. My fingers are too big and not fast enough. I maybe try to go the other way with it. Some of it's really simple. If someone has a clean, dry tone, the other guy will have a big, sloppy, wet tone. Again, it's only rock 'n' roll."

Tim Bluhm by Josh Miller
"The anchor is singing together. That's the glue of it," says Loiacono. "There's an enjoyment and understanding of each other we get from singing together that's really unique. The good feeling is always there, unlike the first time you do a drug and that's the best time and then it fades. This gets better all the time because we're always bringing new things to the table. We're connected on an inexplicable level. We think differently but we understand each other really well. After we've been hanging out for while, we're not only finishing each other's sentences, we're saying whole sentences in the same way. It happens all the time. We'll get stuck in multiple sentences and it'll keep going."

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