Read Part One of DI’s conversation with Greg here.
Complexity and conscious, sculpted ambiguity aren’t the first things one thinks of when the subject of rock ‘n’ roll arises, where groin thunder and pummeling directness are the rule not the exception. There have always been some smart folks plying their craft in rock but really high-concept thinking often emerges bloated and self-serious [DI’s looking at you 90-percent of prog and metal]. It’s as if the genre’s earthy elements can’t easily coexist with the truly cerebral and/or spiritual. However, there are rare exceptions that meld these varied elements for something nourishing to body and soul, entertainment that gently enlightens even as it loosens up the dancer in us.
The Mother Hips are one of these rare exceptions, deep water in a time of shallows that still inspires the listener to skinny dip in the surf alongside the music makers even as they make no effort to disguise the undertow right below our feet. Ample evidence of the band’s depths abound on their newest offering Behind Beyond, (rave review), an album as growlingly direct AND filled with fluttering questions and pointed observations as they come.
We continue our chat with singer-songwriter-guitarist Greg Loiacono about the road that lead the Hips to their current state of being.
So, you put out Green Hills of Earth almost as a response to the Grateful Dead tag you picked up during the H.O.R.D.E. Tour era, right?
We wanted people to hear our songs and what we do in the studio versus what we do live, more indie music than pop garbage. It was good music and we wanted that recognized by people we thought would understand that.
Then the hiatus came, and it wasn’t that long. Tim had done some playing with the Tim Bluhm Involvement and we’d both done some solo stuff. The main thing was he became more social. We were very insular. We never hung out with other bands. We didn’t have almost any friends in other bands except Convoy, Jackpot and bands we liked and played with. Otherwise, we didn’t know what was in the San Francisco music scene. Once we met the ALO and Tea Leaf Green guys we thought, “These guys are really great and their fans really want to hear music!” By the time we got back together we were of the mindset that ANYONE who wants to hear and enjoy our music is welcome. We opened our minds up on that.
So, going back to popping in that cassette of American Beauty, I thought, “Why did I deny myself this music for so long? Why did I reject what was right in my backyard?” I’d heard all the songs but I was really moved by this beautiful, beautiful record. By the second time around I was in tears because of “Box of Rain” – just blown away. This is where the line [in ‘Freed From A Prison’] comes from: “The face of past appeared/ to stare me down/ until my eyes went wild/ The sound I feared to hear/ was never gone/ It was always just near enough to remind me/ that the music is the one thing I can’t live without.” That was just waiting there for me once I stopped being an idiot.
That jumping off point lead to the idea of, “Can you sit through the fire of a thought?” We all have thoughts that are really hard to deal with, and the pain of them makes us want to go under or around them. We want to snuff out the flame, cool the fire down, but when we do that the experience ends up muted or voided but still waiting to come back again. At some point you’ll have to experience it, and sitting through the fire of a thought is going right into it no matter how painful it is. When we come out the other side we’re transformed. If we can sit through it – if we don’t stuff it or avoid it – we are transformed. We don’t know what that will be like but we have to go through it to find out and achieve some growth, say, anger turned into wisdom or fear turned to bravery or compassion. [American Beauty] took me there immediately, right to the idea of being freed from the thoughts that live in the past and not right where we are now. It surrounds us and traps us from being right here in what’s really real.
There’s a fascination with The Mother Hips’ history that you see in the abiding nostalgia for early rarities and old photographs of the band. What I like about Behind Beyond is that it addresses this stream in your fan base, almost saying, “Yes, there’s a lot going on in the past but this is who we are now. This is the music we want to play.” The album title and the title tune place one right here instead of somewhere else. “I’m alive” is a present tense statement. The album acknowledges and appreciates your history but demands the focus be on today. This is likely the deepest psychological and spiritual ground the Hips have ever trod. Even a toe-tapper like “Toughie” is built around a hefty chorus that suggests you have to live a dichotomy to really live.
That kind of stuff Tim comes up with makes me go, “How did you do that?” The whole duality of living is right there in the chorus. It’s so awesome! It’s really fun to play. He’s telling a story but he’s kicking down some really universal concepts that are not only easy to sing along to but likely to resonate with a lot of people.
Tim has gotten more and more comfortable over the years with character-based storytelling with specific place names and nicknamed denizens. Steely Dan excels at this type of thing, telling tales in a succinct way where a single verse can be a short story. Actually, both you and Tim do this to some degree, where you acknowledge you have finite space to move in a song but you still insist on telling a story. There’s less “throw your fist in the air and yell something dumb” type songs in the arsenal these day.
Well, we should do more of that then [laughs].
I was thinking about “Best Friend In Town” and it reminded me of one of the things I love about “Del Mar Station,” which is the open-ended-ness of the lyrics where the listener is given places to attach to but without overmuch specificity.
I even asked Tim if it should be “Best Friend Around” or “Best Friend From Town.” The initial thing was a story about this person, and it was really asexual initially – not like the best girl I might go to in a given town. But I just kept singing, “Best friend in town,” and Tim said to just go for it. I like that it’s stream of conscious. It doesn’t really tell you anything other than what it’s feeling. As I unearthed the song it became obvious it was about Carolina [Greg’s wife] and being that person that never let me down. I arbitrarily picked a name [Patty] and then, like many times, I end up regretting it in the end, but once I pick a name I often can’t sing it any other way and it’s stuck. So, it’s a mixture of my lady and other things.
Well, that’s the natural flow of most songwriting. Tunes that feel like journal entries set to music are just creepy. The way things ring true in a song is when the threads that are truly autobiographical rub up against the stuff that’s craft. You weave rhymes and melodies you know are effective together with this gold thread of your life.
So, it has to be asked: What was it like making Behind Beyond with Paul Hoaglin? I love [Scott] Thunes in this band. He’s brought something really fantastic to the live incarnation of The Mother Hips experience. But Paul is missed by people myself very much included. He’s a ghost floating in the background.
For us, he’s always been that, even before he joined the band. Even with the early records, we always wanted him there. He was always part of it. We recorded the first tracking session for [Behind Beyond] and a month later Paul was no longer in the band. But we contacted him because we had rough sketches of these songs that he’d played on and helped arrange and we wanted to finish it out with him. At that point we didn’t know if Thunes would be playing with us for two months or two years. We got delayed on the new album working on the Days of Sun And Grass box set, so it was strange tracking with him when he was no longer in the band. He actually did some remote pedal steel from his house along with some acoustic guitar and clarinet on “Rose of Rainbows,” which he just came up with and said, “Use it if you like it,” and we were all blown away. It’s definitely bittersweet. I love listening to the music, and we all miss him dearly. I like to keep his privacy because he had a hard time being in music in general. His playing on [Behind Beyond] is completely awesome, as is everything he brought to the Hips musically.
We’re all also really knocked out by how Thunes, who’s completely digested what Paul did without missing any of the subtleties and important chunks but also turned it into his own thing and not just become a karaoke machine – note for note and do the parts, which he could do if we asked him.
I always loved your harmonies with Paul.
Me, too, and that was one of the biggest changes and reservations with going with Scott. He really knows a lot about music and he’s really bowed down in learning to sing harmony to other people. He’s come a long way, but that was definitely the scariest part of letting go of Paul in the band. We finally had the three-part harmonies we’d always wanted.
Lately, it seems like the band is just having a blast when you play. Like you said about making the record you wanted to make and not worrying about outside concerns, the live shows feel very present and engaged of late. There’s palpable joy at making music coming off the people onstage and an appreciation of the people gathered to listen and engage with the band one can feel. If you’re a Mother Hips fan you know this band is glad you’re around.
Playing live now is as fun as it’s ever been. Really the whole post-hiatus period has been about recognizing the “we have to do this” or “we have to do that” moments and backing off from them and going, “Wait, wait, wait, those moments made us all miserable. So, how can we do this differently?” It needs to be a lot more fun now. It can also not be fun at times, still, but ultimately it only takes a water splash to the face to realize we’re playing really loud, fun rock music and people are enjoying it. How excellent is that? There are lots of other thoughts around it but we’re more aware now that we’re lucky to be able to do this.