The Mother Hips: Breathing Differently

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By: Dennis Cook

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist
Hovering on the verge of their 20th anniversary, The Mother Hips have just released their seventh studio effort, Pacific Dust (out October 26 on Camera Records), and, to the surprise of no one who’s spent a little time with their work, it’s another end-to-end pop-rock jewel. The pleasurable consistency and solidity of the Hips suggests what might have occurred if the classic lineups of Badfinger or Big Star hadn’t lost the script, a music of nigh indestructible musicianship, songwriting, and unforced, organic production. Pacific Dust goes down so smoothly that it’s easy to miss what a quality thing they’ve created. Theirs is not a way prone to flash or spotlights, but instead a craftsmanship that’s rare and enduring.

A compelling, easy to like bunch from the start, The Mother Hips, as a unit, have fully gelled in recent years, where the music on Pacific Dust and 2007’s predecessor Kiss The Crystal Flake reflects the layers of weird understanding they share as people. “Sure, but definitely in a very weird way,” laughs singer-guitarist-composer Greg Loiacono knowingly. Together with Tim Bluhm (vocals, guitar, songwriting), John Hofer (drums), and Paul Hoaglin (bass, vocals), Loiacono has built up one of rock’s sturdiest catalogs and one of the most sterling live reputations in the industry. The Mother Hips are a band synonymous with quality, something brought sharply into focus by their new release.

“We went into the studio over a year ago, and there were ideas and a few songs. We put one mic up and just played. In fact, a lot of the songs that ended up on Pacific Dust were tried out and jammed on that first night,” says Loiacono. “What we did in these sessions is go over a piece three or four times and then press record so we had one take as a reference to take home so everyone could remember their parts and what they were doing. We typically don’t do that, however. Tim or I will often come in and say, ‘Here’s a song. Here’s how it goes,’ and then the other guys help fill it in. If there’s a bass part the hands you want to leave that in belong to Paul Hoaglin. But the song ‘Pacific Dust’ is a really good example of the whole band composing a piece.”

“‘Pacific Dust’ was actually created when we were out in Vail, Colorado two summers ago playing this weird, crappy little place. We were supposed to play this 200-year-old lodge but it burnt down a few weeks before. So, we ended up in the complete opposite – this underground sports bar with Schnapps girls. We got there for sound check early and were able to jam out. Tim had the little guitar figure for ‘Pacific Dust,’ then Hofer put in that totally unexpected drumbeat, and then we all started messing around,” explains Loiacono. “We forgot about it until we were in the studio this time and then Tim started doing that riff and we all tried to remember what we were doing in Vail. Originally it was an instrumental, but because Camera Records was gung-ho for it to have words Tim took a stab at it. It has such a cool feel, sort of spooky.”

The looser jam approach produced compelling results, like the smoky, dark edged swirl of the title tune.

“I loved it! It was delightful, and we hadn’t done that in many, many years, but not on purpose. We just hadn’t gotten around to it. It’s neat to come up with an instrumental song and then develop lyrics and a melody to put on top of it. It’s a great way to do it, except when you have to put it together onstage,” says Bluhm. “The guitar parts don’t go with singing parts very well because they weren’t executed at the same time. It’s kind of like learning to juggle for the first time. Your hands are doing one thing and your inner voice is doing another. It took a few days to figure out, but it’s sort of funny to not be able to play your own songs.”

Meet Paul Hoaglin

Paul Hoaglin by Andrew Quist
What is your favorite word? Rickenbacker.

What is your least favorite word? Compromise.

What turns you on? Jealousy and anger (my own.)

What turns you off? Feeling powerless.

What sound or noise do you love? The kids saying “Bad Robot” at the end of each episode of Lost.

What sound or noise do you hate? Fall Out Boy.

What is your favorite curse word? Bugger.

What is the craziest damn thing you ever saw? The movies on the insides of my eyelids before I would fall asleep as a child.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Any that would hire me. Something with absolutely no human contact would be nice, in an underground bunker with no natural light if possible.

What profession would you not like to do? Musician.

What is one album that you never tire of listening to? None – they all wear out their welcome for a while at some point, even the Beatles, believe it or not, although they last the longest for me on average.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? This was only a test. If this had been an actual life, you would have been given some small inkling of a clue what to do and where to go, and who to become. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Continue reading for more on The Mother Hips…

 
Live, we’re not afraid of playing a song for 22-minutes, but we only do it if it’s going somewhere. It’s actually something we want to do more in the studio, take that ‘Pacific Dust’ model and expand on it.

Greg Loiacono

 

Photo by: Andrew Quist

The California Thing

“That vein has been mined pretty heavily – by us and me in particular – and it’s still there, [with imagery] like being lost in a fog bank and the word ‘Pacific,’ of course,” says Bluhm, who seems at peace with the idea that the Hips will always be viewed as the quintessential California rock band. “The only thing that could get us out of it is if we had more widespread recognition, if the thing that got us beyond where we are was a song that didn’t really have any of that [California] flavor to it, like ‘Third Floor Story.’ If a song like that overshadowed everything else we did on a national level, then we might lose the tag. But if it was a song like ‘One Way Out’ it would reinforce it. Really, I don’t care.”

The Mother Hips
Trying to group The Mother Hips’ music under any one umbrella, even one as broad as ‘California Soul Rock,’ is foolish. They’ve explored the possibilities of psych-rock that’d cheer Blue Cheer, country of Haggard quality, and pure pop the Gibb Brothers would approve of. And that’s not all by a good stretch. The Hips never seem fully satisfied with where they’re at, one eye always locked on the horizon, impatient for what’s next.

“Maybe that’s just knowing that everything can always be better, being humble to the fact that someone’s going to write a better song than you’ll ever write or be a better band than you’ll ever be,” says Bluhm in almost complete contrast to the über-egos inside many rock acts that believe they’re golden gods. “I might believe it in moments, but I wouldn’t tell it to a writer during an interview!”

One pleasant surprise on Pacific Dust is the inclusion of beloved live staple “Third Floor Story,” a tune of ferocious strength that often finds the boys feeling their oats in concert. One hopes they feel at least somewhat golden when they pull this one out.

“That was our boys Joe [Raaen, Hips manager] and Jon [Salter, Camera Records] saying we had to record it. They were like, ‘Come on, do it. Just see how it feels!’ We were reluctant about doing it, but we’re always reluctant when anybody tells to do anything. That’s not new, hence, us not taking the good advice of Rick Rubin and Chris Robinson when we first got on American Records. If we’d been a little more open-minded and willing who knows if we might have held onto some friendships a little longer,” observes Loiacono. “Tim and I decided to switch things up and take some suggestions this time. And Paul and John were open to it, so we did it. And we really enjoyed it and were happy with [the take], even had Jackie [Greene] come in and play some keys on it [Greene guests on keys throughout Pacific Dust]. And then we give it to the label and they say, ‘It’s too slow!’ I was like, ‘Pardon me?’ Our immediate response was, ‘This is why we don’t take suggestions! This is the most grooving, heavy thing ever!'”

“They told us we play it faster live, and we didn’t believe them, but we listened to some live recordings and it was true,” continues Loiacono. “We were definitely bothered. Tim and I found ourselves saying, ‘Well, why don’t you come in and record it the way you want?’ and other stupid things like that. It’s real, and when you’re in it you take this stuff seriously. So, we re-recorded it and the ‘Third Floor’ on the record is a little different. Instead of having the two guitar solos it has one and we played it faster. We were pissed and it was good fuel and it came out well. In the end, we ended up with two slamming versions [the slower take is available with the seven-song bonus download EP for Pacific Dust]. Reluctantly, we were able to take someone’s advice and I’m glad we did.”

Meet Tim Bluhm

Tim Bluhm by Miller
What is your favorite word? Together.

What is your least favorite word? Sexy, when used in a business context.

What turns you on? Confidence.

What turns you off? Indecision.

What sound or noise do you love? Harmony.

What sound or noise do you hate? Car Alarm.

What is your favorite curse word? Goddamn.

What is the craziest damn thing you ever saw? My neighbor Mark surfing 30 foot waves one mile off the Mendocino coast, alone.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Movie actor.

What profession would you not like to do? Meter maid.

What is one album that you never tire of listening to? Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [Neil Young].

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? You actually CAN take it with you.

Getting Dusty

The new album was co-produced by the band and Dave Simon-Baker (ALO, Eric Martin), who is Bluhm’s partner at Mission Bells Studio in S.F.

“I was very conscious of keeping it balanced so it wasn’t just me steering things but Greg, John and Paul, too. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t producing it because it didn’t seem appropriate. The way the Hips have always made records is not that way,” says Bluhm. “That being said it was done in my studio with a lot of my equipment, so it was like the band came over and made dinner in my kitchen. The things Dave and I have learned about that room and that equipment was useful in getting the record to sound the way it does. And having the studio as a resource makes it possible to record almost constantly.”

Hoaglin & Bluhm by Quist
“We keep getting better at playing our instruments, and having a good engineer in the studio means we can capture good tones happening in a reasonable amount of time so we can actually capture those valuable live moments,” continues Bluhm. “In the studio, it’s always a race between getting the best possible tone you can while the clock of patience is running down on the band. The longer it takes the bigger the chance the band will be past the peak for their potential that day. A lot of the time the band is ready hours before the engineer is, and then you get a lackluster performance, even if it’s correct. If you have the right formula between tone and band readiness then it’s genius. And we do now, and I’m not sure we ever did in the past.”

“Pacific Dust” and other sections of the new album suggest the band has found a way to tap into the earlier, free-form jamming, drug-fueled Hips and pour that vibe into more structured containers.

“I think ‘Cheer Up Champ’ [Pacific Dust‘s closer] is maybe our longest studio recording yet; I think it even beats ‘Turtle Bones’ [a bent fan favorite off their 1993 debut, Back To The Grotto] as the longest song on a Mother Hips album. Live, we’re not afraid of playing a song for 22-minutes, but we only do it if it’s going somewhere. It’s actually something we want to do more in the studio, take that ‘Pacific Dust’ model and expand on it,” says Loiacono. “Conversely though, Tim and I have some more rootsy songs coming up, and we were thinking, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do another Later Days style album?’ But there’s also the thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a whole Pac Dust type session where we just take songs from inside the jams, Queens of the Stone Age style?’ Guess what? Let’s do both.”

Pacific Dust captures a fair amount of the band member’s personalities, and this band overflows with personality, both individually and collectively. The result is an album that doesn’t scrimp on individual nuance and charm, so the collective feel is stronger than ever, creating a sound that’s both dense and fluid – very full rock ‘n’ roll made by the entire group.

“I do feel that’s true, absolutely, especially given that some of these songs were written from improvising, which makes it even more obvious this is a band playing not just a song, but bringing their personalities together,” observes Bluhm. “Paul, as a bass player, is just so involved with the melodic components of each song, just building these counter-melodies and complexities. So much is going on down there in his world you could never take it all in with a single listen.”

Continue reading for more on The Mother Hips…

Meet Greg Loiacono

Greg Loiacono by Quist
What is your favorite word? Telecaster.

What is your least favorite word? Fecal.

What turns you on? Sunlight.

What turns you off? Bad odors.

What sound or noise do you love? The long moan of a shark warning siren.

What sound or noise do you hate? Lip smacking.

What is your favorite curse word? Fuck.

What is the craziest damn thing you ever saw? When I was 17 I was driving down the Waldo Grade from S.F. to Marin County to watch Carlos Montoya play at the Marin Civic Center. Right at the bottom of the grade on the side of the road was a car on fire and the flames were shooting up about 15 feet into the air… and I was on mushrooms.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Assembly line worker. Preferably placing small parts into medium sized objects.

What profession would you not like to do? Outhouse serviceman.

What is one album that you never tire of listening to? Specialist in All Styles by Orchestra Baobab.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.

Roll Over, Charles Ives

When one thinks of rock & roll one name unlikely to pop up is modernist composer Charles Ives, yet one of the standouts on Pacific Dust – and really the whole Greg Loiacono songbook – is Side B marvel “Young Charles Ives.”

Mother Hips by Andrew Quist
“When I think about music I don’t necessarily think about rock & roll all the time,” Loiacono quickly retorts. “A good friend of mine, Scott Thunes, who played with Zappa in the ’80s, tends to turn me onto amazing stuff. Early on in our friendship I told him I don’t know much about [music] theory. I’ve never studied music in the classical sense. That was his cue to cram all sorts of information into my head. He’s got a mind! He gave me Bartók’s String Quartets, Firebird Suite and Rite of Spring, and he’d not only give me music but he’d bring the scores to me. Then we’ll go for coffee after we drop off the kids and pull out the score for Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” and sit and listen together. He says, ‘Look at this!’ and I pretend to understand [laughs]. So, one night as I was leaving to play The Fillmore, Scott says, ‘You have to listen to Charles Ives and The Unanswered Question.’ So, I put it on, and that fall feeling was descending and I was driving in my car listening to it and was just blown away. It was just the pacing, not this big, dramatic classical piece. Then it moves into these sections where Ives seems to be pasting one orchestra on top of another. By the time I got to The Fillmore to play my little guitar amp my mind was just blown.”

“So, I started listening to Ives a lot, and when I told Scott how touched I was he gave me Ives’ autobiography. I was reading that and was just fascinated. His retelling of things his father did and said, and his father being the outstanding musician he was did things like tuning his piano to quarter tones because 12 tones just weren’t enough for him. He could hear that deeply,” continues Loiacono. “There’s an image in the book where he’s looking out the window and sees his dad standing in the pouring rain looking up at church bells. Then he’d race back into the house and try to tune the piano to find those same beautiful tones. In the book it doesn’t really show it in this light, but to me this moment seemed like a realization for young Charlie that his dad is doing his thing simply because he has to. There’s this and a lot of scenes where he seems to be telling young Charlie, ‘Learn. Do what you gotta do to pass the classes but don’t buy it. You can do whatever you want to do.'”

“So, I had the music to [‘Young Charles Ives’] but it was going to be called ‘Esoteric Dream’ or something. Then, I decided to do a topical song – I don’t do a lot of those – and this subject matter was moving me. It was also a chance to say, ‘Wow, here’s this composer who did what he wanted to do,’ and his father’s presence is so strongly felt. And in the book he speaks of that so earnestly, and I really enjoyed that,” says Loiacono. “In learning about and appreciating his music I wanted to make a tribute to that style of music. So, at the end there’s that outro that hangs on the C chord and I thought I could take an American classical folk song and graft it on. I’d already figured out I needed strings on that bump, and I ended up deciding to do it with [Ives’] music instead. And we had the strings just record their part and not play to the music, so it has a more sort of surreal feel, like it was just dropped in.”

Meet John Hofer

John Hofer by Quist
What is your favorite word? Pulchritude.

What is your least favorite word? Turpitude.

What turns you on? Some feet.

What turns you off? All the other feet.

What sound or noise do you love? A great song.

What sound or noise do you hate? A great band with talented musicians without equally great material who need a super talented songwriter/lyricist like Robert Hunter.

What is your favorite curse word? Fuck It.

What is the craziest damn thing you ever saw? G. W. Bush being elected to a 2nd term.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Philanthropist.

What profession would you not like to do? Proctologist.

What is one album that you never tire of listening to? Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Why didn’t anyone in the world ever listen to you? You told them you were sick.”

On The Road Again

As fine as what they’ve wrought on Pacific Dust, it’s on stages where the rest of these new stories will be told. Few bands have a more lively, active engagement with their catalog than the Hips, and if the glorious fire ‘n’ slash witnessed on the Dust tracks at their recent Las Tortugas sets is any indication (see review here), it’s going to be a lot of fun for audiences and band alike, starting this Friday and Saturday in Chicago when the Hips team up with another under-sung American treasure, Backyard Tire Fire.

“Of course, for any band playing the new songs onstage is just exciting, to see how they grow and change. It’s very enjoyable,” says Bluhm. “Some of the studio arrangements don’t work and you have to see if you can make them breath in a different way. That’s always the challenge… with a lot of things.”

The Mother Hips will be popping up all over the country in the coming months, including a two-night stand in Austin in early December and their first Jam Cruise in January. Find full tour dates here.

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