The Hips play next on Friday, September 27 at The Belly Up in Solano Beach, CA, and on Saturday, September 28, at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA with select shows throughout the fall. See full schedule here. Greg Loiacono’s ace power trio Sensations, where he’s joined by ALO’s Dave Brogan (drums) and Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis (bass), plays a pair of rare shows at San Francisco’s The Chapel (Thur 10/17) and Santa Cruz’s Crepe Place (Fri 10/18).
The striking contrasts and strong personalities in The Mother Hips are key ingredients in their long-standing appeal. Press play and it’s abundantly obvious one is dealing with heavyweights. What’s occurred over their two decade evolution is a clearer delineation of the band’s two driving songwriting forces, Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, where their own individual strengths are easier to pick up on as well as the increasingly nuanced commingling that occurs when these two colorful, weirdly wise tunesmiths share a sandbox. 20 years of hindsight reveals some striking similarities to another SF Bay Area singer-songwriter-guitarist pair, namely the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.
It’s a comparison the Hips have dodged since their earliest days, and frankly, it didn’t fit them well until recent years. But Garcia/Weir’s blend of smoothness and sparks does seem a fairly apt touchstone for today’s Mother Hips, particularly as evidenced by their latest long-player, Behind Beyond, which continues their complex creative dance and doesn’t shrink from stepping into Dead territory. The Impound attempted to explain this dynamic in its rave review of the new record, but we know there’s no better source of real information and insight than speaking to the parties involved. Hence, this lengthy chat with Mr. Loiacono, where the band’s changing relationship to the Grateful Dead is discussed amongst other useful tidbits, offered in two segments (Part Two will hit in two weeks).
It seems like you guys came at this album actively seeking something new to do together as composers and as a band. Is that an accurate impression?
Yeah, but it’s a tricky situation. It’s been awhile. We started this album in 2011, and we even went in around November of 2010 to work on demos and show each other the bits and pieces we had. [Paul] Hoaglin was still in full band-age at that point, too. We definitely had this mindset of stretching out and not having too many instrumental parts, be it solos or spacey bridges. Hof [drummer John Hofer], in particular, was really excited. Tim had just done the Mickey Hart thing [The Rhythm Devils], and I’d had a profound experience with American Beauty. That was all happening around the beginning of 2010. So, by the time we were recording we thought, “Well, we’re this freaky, kind of psychedelic San Francisco band.” We didn’t want to make a live record but we wanted to capture some of that live vibe on a record.
Face it we’re not going to have a pop hit anytime soon. We’re certainly not going to be able to force one, and one coming out of us organically at this point would be an anomaly. It’s not even an idea, so it would be a coincidence. At this point, we’re really writing music we want to play and hear. We always have, but it makes even more sense now to do what we want artistically and musically. When we play live that’s what we do. There aren’t a whole lot of limitations going on. Anything goes, and we’ll do it the way we want to do it that night. I think that’s part of what makes the people who like us like us as vigorously as they do. So, it wasn’t super intentional but we decided to make this record just the way we wanted to.
Sometimes it’s best to do things yourself without the input or consideration of anyone else.
At the time we made this decision I remember hearing the song “Behind Beyond,” and I sort of stayed out of the way of it because I didn’t know what I could do. The modulations just kept coming – “Okay, let’s see how many times we can modulate the key!” Paul, Hof and Jim were working really closely on that one, and I told them, “Just let me know when you’re done.” It wasn’t until I sat down with DSB [co-producer David Simon-Baker] and really figured out how to fit my guitar part into what this was, not just mail it in but really lock into a ‘thing’. I didn’t want to be a hindrance to the basic recording process.
There’s wisdom to hanging back. A lot of musicians, particularly as they get older, realize that NOT saying something is exactly what the music needs.
I love working with DSB. I think a lot of musicians do, and I’m not saying something new. 90-percent of people would say the same thing when they’re being supported by him as a recordist. You feel very safe and creative. So, I remember sitting with him and going, “Ah! Now I know where I’m going to go with this!” And it had been almost a year since the other guys had done their stuff [laughs]. Now, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the record. I can listen to it over and over again on a loop.
It’s awesome, and part of that is how it accomplishes so much in such a succinct way. It doesn’t overstay its welcome even though there’s strong potential to do so. That’s a trait I picked up on all over this record – every song is just as long or short as it needs to be. You found the forms these songs wanted to have.
It’s interesting because there are some long fucking songs on there [laughs]. There are only two songs under four-minutes.
But they don’t feel like long songs. There’s an organic quality to their shapes. I’ve sometimes wondered how you balance the stretchiness of a tune’s live potential and the more compact, fixed requirements of the studio?
I guess I first approach this technically – the process of deciding how far we should take things or what direction we should take them in terms of length of songs or what songs stay and what don’t. You come in with an idea and what actually happens is far different. We were making Green Hills of Earth and we went in thinking it would be a ROCK record and it is but not in the hard rock way we thought it would be with songs like “Smoke” and “Singing Seems To Please Me.” Towards the end, Tim says, “You know how The Beach Boys’ Friends starts with an intro? We need one to invite people into the music.” That’s so un-rock!
I think Hof, in particular, wanted to make a San Francisco psychedelic rock sounds record [with Behind Beyond]. He kept saying, “The fans are gonna love this!” And it stayed truer to that intention than most of our attempts to make an experimental, hard rock, etc record in the past. We were even thinking the next record after Pacific Dust should be a Later Days partner. And there’s things on here that could – “Freed From A Prison” and “Song For J.B.” – but it’s just not that partner. You come up with these ideas beforehand and those are just jumping off points, a place to start, a doodle. You really have no idea how it’s going to come out.
[Behind Beyond] is a broader, wider record. There’s way more guitar on this record than our earlier records in terms of solos and guitar parts. There’s always riffs and lots of guitar. “The Isle Not Of Man” probably has the longest Mother Hips guitar solo ever AND there’s two guitar solos on that song – the spacey one at the beginning between the first chorus and the second verse and there’s the stretched out one.
There’s also a lot of open space on this album. I swear to you Phil Lesh is going to latch onto some of this before too long, especially “Isle Not Of Man” where the tail section seems almost like a baited hook for Phil [Loiacono laughs]. It’s not a bad thing to be associated with the Dead.
Not at all!
To my thinking, an association with the Grateful Dead amongst musicians usually speaks to players who want to explore depth, variety, technically challenging but still audience stimulating music. When you really look at the songwriting, the musicianship, and the many achievements of that band it’s hard to impeach them despite the somewhat unappealing traveling circus that’s surrounded them for decades.
I absolutely love the Grateful Dead. So, I made a demo of “Freed From a Prison” and Tim and Hof loved it. We went in to record it and I was having a hard time singing it without going into a melody that was reminding us of some other music. There was something going on, and in a moment of frustration, knowing those guys really liked the song and wanted me to get it, I said, “Tim, why don’t you take this home and come back and try to sing it.” It was really hard to hear that at first because it was so stuck in my head in a certain way. But when the other guys heard it they really liked it. Hof said, “This is cool because Tim is singing the melody and you can just sing your harmony all the way through and you’ll have the classic Tim & Greg sound.” It was a great team effort, and obviously the sentiment of setting yourself free from traps and old patterns of your own mind and thoughts is expressed in the way it came together in a really neat way.
It generates the truths in the song in the creative process. That’s just proof that the universe has a wry sense of humor.
That song started right after we got back from Jam Cruise in 2010, and I went down to Watts Music in Novato, CA. I was in my car that still has a cassette player, and I saw a copy of American Beauty. I grew up in Marin so there was a lot of Grateful Dead happening around me all the time. A friend of my dad would play me Europe ‘72 so I knew all the songs. In high school, he took us to see the Dead at Cal Expo in ’84 or ’85. I was doing a lot of skateboarding, listening to punk, and I’d just been to my first Mabuhay Gardens show right around that time. It was Christ on Parade and Agent Orange headlined. I was starting to play a lot of loud guitar, and [Jimmy] Page was starting to show up as I began to be able to digest his guitar genius. By the time I saw that Grateful Dead show I thought it was a pretty bad show. I think if I saw it now I wouldn’t think it was that bad. I remember Bob Weir giggling through some lyrics he forgot and Jerry was super mellow.
I saw a lot of Grateful Dead shows between 1984-1990 and I always tell folks that about 25-percent were really fantastic, 25-percent were okay, and the other 50-percent they should have given the audience their money back. I have no nostalgia about them at all. Respect sure but not the whitewash afterglow that’s so prevalent amongst Deadheads.
I wanted to go see ROCK! I needed that energy. I had a lot of energy! I hadn’t dove into a lot of music yet. It was just freshman year and I was just barely getting into, uh, varied mind states. To me, it was just like this joke. Being a freshman and impressionable, I was hanging out with the more hardcore kids and they hated the Grateful Dead. Around the same time there’s a bunch of BMW’s with Grateful Dead stickers with these trying-to-be-hippies. So, there was a lot of annoying stigma around the Dead for me at that time.
Later in high school, I dated a girl and she and her mom were into the Grateful Dead and took me to see them at Frost Amphitheatre in 1989, where we saw two shows. I was super out, super high, and this time I really liked them. I found the Jer-Bear and thought, “This guy is pretty cool,” but I kept it secret. My girlfriend said, “See! See! You watched that whole show and liked it, right?” And I was like, “It was alright [laughs].”
Then, I went off to college, and the Hips start doing their thing but we’re not listening to any Grateful Dead. Tim has a shirt when I first meet him with dancing bears on it. I asked him, “So, you’re a Deadhead?” And he said, “No, I don’t ride motorcycles.” He thought Deadheads were a motorcycle gang like the Hells Angels. He’d never heard of the Grateful Dead. I told him they were a hippy band from where I grew up and that the shirt he was wearing was one of their key symbols. He said, “No it isn’t. I got this at a rock climbing event.” We eventually gave up, and I decided I liked this guy because he didn’t know who the Dead were. We went back to his room and he had Grand Funk [Railroad], Deep Purple, and was into frontman old heavy 70s rock.
So, we’re in college and start doing shows and Tim, Mike and Isaac had still never listened to the Grateful Dead but Deadheads are showing up at our shows. When we started putting out records, got management, and really when we played the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, people started saying, “You’re like the Dead. You’re from San Francisco and there’s two guitar players and you both sing. You even sound like the Dead!” And we were like, “No, we don’t!” Then it became a point of contention because people were trying to trap us into something we didn’t know and wasn’t true.
You guys ran from the whole jamband label, too, at that time. My thought during that H.O.R.D.E. tour period was, “Thank God there’s some honest rock ‘n’ roll on that stage.”
We were so defiant. Then, when Jerry Garcia died and he was on the cover of Newsweek, inside they had a section about who’s going to be the next Grateful Dead. It was Phish, Santana, maybe Widespread and Blues Traveler, and we were listed with as many stars as Phish. Being the idiots that we were we rejected that. We were trying to carve out our own identity, but there was a moment we could have said, “Oh yeah, come on in. We’re down. We want to be the next Grateful Dead.”
That’s a mature thing to understand. I’m not sure young men are wired for those sort of long horizon judgment calls.
We spent a lot of time being assholes about it and not accepting what could have been a boon to our band.
DI will share Part Two of this interview in two weeks.