The Mother Hips: In This Bliss

Listen to tracks off The Mother Hips new album here

By Dennis Cook

The Mother Hips by ND Koster
Long before The Beatles met Sgt. Pepper, they were four boys who fell hard for rock ‘n’ roll. They loved it irrationally and gave themselves over to it with undisguised passion, mastering their instruments and exploring the genre’s roots night after night in front of beer swilling loudmouths. More than 40 years on, their early efforts like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” retain their charm because the fundamentals are in place – indestructible songwriting paired with skilled, enthusiastic playing and a good ear for tiny embellishments that etch a tune in someone’s mind. Knock a few years off, change the song titles and you could be talking about The Mother Hips.

Tim Bluhm by Josh Miller
It’s almost unfair to compare any band to The Beatles but in this instance the blue suede shoes fit. The power and potential of the basic rock quartet reaches fruition in this California institution. From their Chico State origins through their creative boom in SF today, The Mother Hips possess the same spirit that fuels McCartney and Harrison, Gene Clark and David Crosby, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith. Despite not being a household name, their work stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best that’s been. 1992’s Back To The Grotto holds its own against any debut in rock, and their new album, Kiss The Crystal Flake (available April 3), may be their strongest yet.

The first time I got up the gumption to speak to the group’s songwriter/guitarists, Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, I sputtered, “In the jukebox in my head so often it’s your music that’s playing.” That spontaneous outburst encapsulates a lot about their work. It isn’t coy or clumsy. It’s meant to be enjoyed in barrooms where folks sing along. It engages you with confidence and flair, taking your hand before you even realize you wanted to dance. Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Mother Hips.


The Mother Hips in 1991
Wofchuck, Parsons, Loicano, Bluhm
Like a painter who moves through his blue period then his yellow and red ones, the Hips have distinct phases but aren’t defined by any one part of the band’s history. For some, they’re the loose, jam happy space cowboys of their youth. To others, they’re the twangtastic, Haggard lovin’ men of Later Days. Still others see them as classical pop maestros carrying on the line of The Hollies and early Bee Gees. The reality is they’re all these things and more. Bluhm says, “It’s true but it makes it a little tricky to get across. Context is so important in our band. We’ve had different eras but you can’t really say we’re a jam band or a country rock band. To anyone who knows, it just sounds ignorant.”

Their early press repeatedly likened them to Buffalo Springfield. Bluhm snorts, “I wish we’d sounded like Buffalo Springfield! I wish we did but the fact remains that we just didn’t [laughs]. It’s so fun to try and sound like something you really like. Maybe we’ve indulged in that a little too much for some people’s liking but look at fiction. That kind of thing is happening constantly, quoting someone or using their style, like Frank Norris used Emile Zola. 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. We never pretended like we weren’t and always will be.”

Hoaglin & Bluhm by Josh Miller
Bassist Paul Hoaglin picks it up, “From day one, the songwriting has been the important part. Between Tim and Greg, the fount of inspiration has never run short. When they write a song they have an idea of where it’s gonna go. They may use guideposts or, as we call them, puppets, where you hear a song by the Bee Gees and you want to make ‘Singing Seems To Ease Me’ sound like ‘In My Own Time.’ The songs come with certain reference points that flavor things but always build from their own vision first.”

Try as one might, it’s impossible to tie their sound directly to any particular ancestor. Drummer John Hofer offers, “We don’t have a formula. We all have really eclectic taste in music. I love George Jones AND King Crimson. It’s tough [from a marketing angle] to be in a band that has all these different things going on. As weird as it sounds – and to some people this may sound awful – it’s all in there.”

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.”

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.

-Loicano on his relationship with Bluhm

Photo by Josh Miller

Got Rhythm

Paul Hoaglin by Josh Miller
The pairing of Hoaglin and Hofer ranks up there with Patrick Hallahan and Two Tone Tommy of My Morning Jacket, or dipping further back, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle of Derek and the Dominoes. Bluhm says a rhythm section like this pair is “like a weapon. It breaks down the door so the rest of it can come in.”

“There’s no rules in music but lots of times I’ll say to the bass player, ‘If I’m getting busy maybe you can stay simple, and if you’re getting busy I’ll hang back.’ Paul and I do that without having to talk about it,” offers Hofer. “Paul is one of the most incredible all-around musical talents ever. We’re just glad that we’ve got him. He produced the first two Mother Hips records and he was there when Isaac decided to quit the band. He was really already part of the band, and in that way I still sometimes feel like the new guy even though I’ve been in the band 10 years [laughs].”

Hoaglin says, “When I joined the band I went to [Hofer], physically went to him, and tried to pull him out of his high-hat staring shell. I was always watching his kick drum, his snare drum, paying attention. He’s really trying to be a bad ass on the level of Jim Keltner – to be the rock, the foundation. I don’t care where he goes. I’m going with him, and I think he knows that now.”

“Hofer’s somewhere between Bill Kreutzman [Grateful Dead] and Alan White [Yes],” adds Hoaglin. “To me, [original drummer] Mike Wofchuck was Bill Bruford, down to his snare drum sound. He has the same kind of brilliance and limitations. Hofer is the Alan White to Mike’s Bill Bruford, total stylistic opposites.”

Goodness Abounds

Vintage Greg Loicano
Things are looking rosy for the Hips, who in the past have struggled with substance abuse, frustrating big record labels and the other flotsam and jetsam facing any hard working American band. They’re about to embark on their first national tour in years in celebration of an album they’re intensely proud of. According to the band, being on the road less since 2004 has been nothing but good for them.

“We don’t have to play all the time. I’d venture to say, for almost anyone, if you play too much you’re going to burn out – on the material, on the lifestyle, on performing itself. That’s definitely not happening to us because it’s exciting,” says Bluhm. “We’re at the point where we don’t need to play every night to stay well oiled. Sometimes we play better when we haven’t even seen each other for two weeks. It’s a lot of fun now.”

“In hindsight, the hiatus we took was the best thing for us,” adds Hofer. “Greg and Tim had never done anything else since they met in the dorm rooms. We never stopped appreciating it. We just took a break. I really noticed how fresh and new it all felt when we came back.”

Tim Bluhm by Josh Miller
Bluhm has just opened a recording studio in San Francisco with Jackie Greene. “I’ve had this longstanding dream of having my own studio so I can really make the record I want to make because there’s no limitations whatsoever,” says Bluhm. “I finally got a great space and some nice equipment. It’s called Mission Bells. When it was in my home it was called Pacific Dust.” The other thing he shares with Greene is a new side project called Skinny Singers currently recording their debut. When I suggest they could add other skinny vocalists later, Bluhm retorts, “Or they’d have to lose weight! It could be like Menudo, where you quit when you turn 18. If either one of us started to put on weight we’ll get kicked out!”

Right now, they’re loading the tour van preparing for the bohemian lifestyle of itinerant musicians once again. “For a long time, we had a problem coming to grips with the fact that we’re hippies,” laughs Hofer. “People used to say I killed the hippy feel of the band when I joined because of Later Days [which Hofer actually likens to the Dead’s Workingman/American Beauty period]. I laugh because I love the Grateful Dead and I’m more of a hippy than the rest of those guys. There’s a lot of misinterpretations about this band and we’ve probably not helped that.”

The Mother Hips by Josh Miller
Loiacono enthuses, “I’m feeling more hippy than ever! I like to go on psychedelic journeys [laughs].” When he says ‘psychedelic’ the word seems to have more to do with opening one’s third eye and less with lysergic experimentation. “For certain fans it’ll be a rough ride. They want to hear the old stuff and they aren’t going to. The new songs make up half a set, so they’ll get half of what they already know.”

The only definitions they seem cool with are the ones they bring in themselves, and even those hold no special attachment. The group’s identity is ever shifting, true only to immediate inspiration, and this embrace of changeability extends even to the name Mother Hips.

“I love it. The literal meaning of the words is lost. It’s just an entity in my life,” says Bluhm. “I don’t think about its origins or what it really means. It defines itself now.”

JamBase | California
Go See Live Music!

The Mother Hips kick-off their National Tour this weekend (4/6 and 4/7) at SF’s Independent.

Full tour dates available here.

Check out The Mother Hips at HSMF 2006: