Read Part One of DI’s conversation with Greg here.
The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist
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.
Green Hills of Earth
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.
The Mother Hips (1992)
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.
Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg
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.
Paul Hoaglin @ Las Tortugas V by John Margaretten
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.
Scott Thunes by Andrew Quist
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.
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 Mother Hips by Jay Blakesberg
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?
Tim Bluhm with The Rhythm Devils by Suzy Perler
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?
The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist
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.
John Hofer & Greg Loiacono by Andrew Quist
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].”
Not The Grateful Dead
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.
It’s a tricky business trying one’s hand at songwriting in the style of the Grateful Dead. Straight emulation just sounds flat-footed, and when one digs into the underlying structures of their songs it’s complicated and tangled like a piece of computer code not meant to be deciphered. To pair thoughtful, philosophical and even spiritual ideas to music that’s relevant to daily existence AND dance hall ready AND woven with curious intricacies isn’t easy. However, San Francisco’s Tracorum seem to have this crazed formula figured out based on their new studio effort Tricked, where moments feel like one’s wandered into a lost sunshine daydream from a night at the Mars Hotel. But this is no ghost dance, simply very talented dudes working with similar operating principles, a serious but not over serious approach to road ready hymns for life’s long highway.
While Garcia could have sung the living heart out of Tricked standouts like “City Lights” and “I Know A Place,” the Dead aren’t the only classic songwriters afoot in this set. “Working Man’s Groove” and several other cuts nod back to Chuck Berry and 50s foundational rock, and “Lady of the Night” and the title cut resonate with Piano Man-era Billy Joel shorn of the bombast and studio bolstering. In fact, this album is lean and clean, the quartet’s instruments and voices direct, nothing getting in the way of the tight arrangements and fundamentally great songwriting. The overall vibe bears some resemblance to Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, where high end players are serving timely, melodically graceful material that still needed to be tour ready springboards.
Tracorum – Company For Life’s Many Bridge Crossings
The envelopingly full feel of Fletcher Nielsen (keys, lead vocals), Ian Herman (drums), Mark Calderon (bass, vocals) and Derek Brooker (guitar, vocals) is a sure-fire characteristic of Tracorum’s winning live presence, and Tricked effectively translates the band’s connected energies and outreaching charm to the studio. Piano is the primary keyboard, linking this music to New Orleans in a tangible way, and Nielsen’s singing utilizes phrasing that recalls Garcia but delivered in a voice hanging somewhere between Randy Newman and Lowell George. Calderon and Herman are a song-serving rhythm team in the vein of The Section’s Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel – always tasty and tasteful but rarely interested in spotlight attention. Brooker’s lean, conversational guitar work is a far cry from Jerry (or Bobby for that matter), his compact solos recalling Robin Trower in his Procol Harum days or Journey’s Neal Schon’s 70s brilliance. It’s not overreach to drop these four in such company; there’s little question they’ve woodshedded and studied long hours, not to mention Tracorum’s many impressive marathon concerts, where they nicely inhabit a number of Dead classics that sound totally natural next to their originals.
At the bottom, Tricked is a yearning, melodic act of true bohemian patriotism, a love letter to America’s “potential for humanity to live as one” even as the tribalism and mud-slinging that denotes ‘conversation’ amongst divergent factions today reminds us – sometimes in stingingly painful, bloody ways – that “people always fight what they don’t understand.” The good news this album hints at is “where it stops no one knows,” and while the destination at the end of this puzzling journey remains uncertain there’s hope that love, connection and compassion might yet carry a few key battles.
We shot DI’s signature questionnaire to the band, and here’s what they had to say.
The Impound has been organizing its music archives, and we hit upon the idea of sharing tunes we dig in an alphabetical way. So, for the next few months we’ll be working our way from A-Z with a choice baker’s dozen or so installment each week that includes bands/artists from a single letter.
Our “G” assortment includes double shots from two underdogs that deserve your thorough investigation (Thea Gilmore and Goose Creek Symphony) along with classics from Grand Funk Railroad and the Grateful Dead swimming with fresh sweet meat from Great American Taxi and Ghosts of Jupiter. This one’s got a bit of swing to it, so don’t resist if you get the urge to shuffle in your stocking feet, kids.
Listen to this mix HERE (8tracks embeds still not working properly. Sigh). Track listing below.
You can listen to 8tracks mixes on your iPhone (pick up the app here) and Android (pick up the app here).
Like plays about the theatre life and films about moviemaking, rockers have a long tradition of naval gazing about their chosen profession. For the next three weeks DI will share some of our favorite ditties about touring, recording, and the other ins & outs of a rock ‘n’ roll existence. Some tunes will be familiar, some less so, and a few seemingly incongruous – Manilow? Yes, Manilow, who got WAY more ass in the 70s than you. Now, the house lights are dimming and a guitarist with a frightening Caucasian Afro steps up to usher us into our first selection…
There’s an aura of mad joy to this photo set capturing two nights at Terrapin Crossroads, the new restaurant and live music venue for Phil Lesh currently in a soft opening. Having his own clubhouse appears to be sitting well with Phil based on these two recent Phil Lesh & Friends performances featuring Lesh (bass, vocals), Warren Haynes (guitar, vocals), Larry Campbell (guitar, violin, vocals), Teresa Williams (vocals), Jeff Chimenti (keys, vocals), and Grahame Lesh (guitar, vocals). These cats were clearly AFTER IT in a big way at these gigs. Once again, Jay Blakesberg has shaped live mojo into music for our eyes.
While ticket prices have been bitch-inducing high for these intimate shows (some shows a whomping $150/ticket), it is a rare chance to see master class musicians let their hair down, and it comes with a grilled cheese sandwich at the end of the night, so that’s something. Tickets for upcoming Terrapin Crossroads shows are available here, including the reunion of “The Quintet” with Lesh, Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and John Molo.
1st Set: Here Comes Sunshine, How Sweet It Is, Uncle John’s Band, Millenium Jam, The Eleven, Blue Sky, Brown Eyed Women, Look at Miss Ohio, Sugaree
2nd Set: Passenger, The Wheel, Chest Fever, Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks), Dark Star, Wish You Were Here, Dark Star, Unbroken Chain, Stella Blue, In The Midnight Hour
Encore: Angel Band
1st Set: Althea, Ship of Fools, Big Railroad Blues, Into the Mystic, Scarlet Begonias, Mountain Song, Midnight Rider
2nd Set: Shakedown Street, Playin’ in the Band, Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, This Wheels On Fire, Little Sparrow, Bird Song, Layla, Fire on the Mountain, Morning Dew, Playin’ reprise
“Because narrow is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it.” –Matthew 7:14
“God is good and it’s understood, but he moves in mysterious ways.” – Hiss Golden Messenger
Hiss Golden Messenger
Like it or not, human beings must wrestle with their place in the scheme of things. While the questions can be kept at bay for a time – drowned out with distraction, drugs and drudgery – they linger, catching us in our beds when the din dies down and the spheres whisper to us in our solitude. Who am I? Who made all this if it was ‘made’ at all? How does it all fit together? How do I fit together with it all? Even the shallowest person comes up against these seemingly rhetorical conundrums and some answer is required, even if only to quiet these lonely late night murmurings.
While some turn to houses of worship and dogmatic religious practice to engage with these inescapable internal inquiries, others find the path into this fertile, frightening gray area through music. While a great deal of what’s on offer today is as deep as a paper cut, there are beautiful, thorny exceptions, music that pricks us and reminds us of our humanity and potential transcendence. North Carolina-based-former-S.F.-area ontologically charged roots rockers Hiss Golden Messenger till green, fragrant ground, the smell of overturned earth redolent of decay and life in all its tendril throwing glory rising from their work. HGM is M.C. Taylor and longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch – both former members of now-defunct but cultishly loved Bay Area band The Court & Spark – who’ve struck out into rock’s wilds in search of something more rewarding than party anthems and pretty ditties.
New HGM Album
Over the course of three very different yet psychologically and spiritually overlapping albums – starting with 2009’s Country Hai East Cotton and weaving through 2010’s stark, largely solo Taylor recording Bad Debt and arriving at the more electric and readily welcoming Poor Moon (released November 1) – HGM has handily disproven the notion that rock is a dumb artistic medium. This band shuffles with archetypes and grasps at the sky in the hopes some higher power high-fives them somewhere along their weary road. It is workingman’s music that melds elements of Merle Haggard with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Rev. Gary Davis, where songs pulled from usually hidden places serve as the listener’s companions into their own craggy, shadowy reaches.
By turns worshipful and wary, Hiss Golden Messenger is bread for incarnation and transubstantiation, feeding the body in the here and now while simultaneously nourishing less obvious appetites in one’s soul. It also happens to be great music sung in Taylor’s lovely, almost-too-honest voice, a dirt field relative to Sam Cooke and the Jerry Garcia who sang ballads that make one feel split open. The music is an evolving blur of folk, country, blues and the outside-the-mainstream work of pioneers like Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, a fascinating conversation between Taylor and Hirsch that’s been chattering away for nearly 20 years. While Taylor may be the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter in HGM, Hirsch’s empathetic grace shines through in the many fine touches he brings to this subtle music, playing on and co-producing, engineering and mixing all of HGM’s records. Each new chapter allows us to eavesdrop on the coded shorthand this pair shares, which has never been more together or sweetly rewarding than on Poor Moon, which also features contributions from Terry Lonergan, Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers; Pelt), Hans Chew (D. Charles Speer & the Helix), Matt Cunitz (Brightblack Morning Light), Tom Heyman (The Court & Spark), and others.
In plain terms, Hiss Golden Messenger are deep, solid stuff in a whipped cream time, offering up thoroughly wood-shedded tunes that take a spell to unravel (if they ever unknot at all), asking big questions with appropriate fear and trembling yet braving step after step into the Great Unknown that resides in our own breasts.
What follows is a rambling stroll with M.C. Taylor that finds its way to the Bible, the music biz, the Grateful Dead, and ultimately reasons for making art that have nothing to do with financial profit but perhaps everything to do with being a true pilgrim slouching towards understanding, compassion, and maybe – just maybe – a slice or two of truth.
HGM's M.C. Taylor
The name Hiss Golden Messenger is so evocative without being remotely specific. There’s mystery entwined in those seven syllables.
There’s a lot in the name. It’s a name that I arrived at in some way. I needed a name that I could use for anything I was involved in, whether it was just me at the kitchen table or a full ensemble record. I needed something that wasn’t my own name. The name works for me on a variety of levels. Obviously, there’s a kind of Biblical referential, but the ‘Hiss’ can be interpreted in a lot of ways. And I like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, so there you go [laughs].
It starts with a word that tintinnabulous, which always rocks.
The other thing is many people think the ‘Hiss’ is a misspelling, and somewhere along the way there’s been a mistransliteration of project and it’s actually His Golden Messenger, which I really appreciate. I like that and honestly get a kick out of that.
That’s great, that somehow we’ve all screwed it up and you’re stuck with ‘Hiss’ [laughs]. There is value in enjoying misinterpretation.
Yeah, yeah, I’m realizing that interpretation is THE beautiful thing about music – the subjective quality of music. The stuff that’s intensely personal for me in these songs I sing is also intensely personal for other people but in entirely different ways. The questions that I’m so often asked are about interpretation and I appreciate that you’re hesitant to pull the veil back, partially because I couldn’t really tell you what’s at the bottom of things. My own interpretation is so subjective from day-to-day, so what I’ll tell you will be vastly different each time.
The thing about the kind of music we – meaning you and I and the other heads really into music – are drawn to is the mythography and mythology of it. This is part of what electronic culture has made a little harder and a little easier. We construct and deconstruct ways to reckon with music mythology in different ways now.
A big sea change in this area occurred with the rise of videos in the 1980s, where scripted visuals begins to replace the personal, subjective imagery that naturally occurs in an individual’s brain. You and I are talking about the lure of music pre-MTV and their ilk, where music had more personal ritual – the unwrapping of a vinyl record, the first listen, turning the album over to hear side two of the story. The only pictures you got were the cover art and what came into your head prompted by the music.
HGM's Bad Debt
I’m always hesitant to have black and white discussions about this or to suggest the musical myth we have now is a total transparency that’s done away with personal myth. It just comes to us in different ways than we might be used to. That said, what we have now is an overabundance of information as opposed to what you’re talking about, which is one photograph, one artifact that’s easily accessible and can work as our Rosetta Stone to decipher the music. There’s something very powerful about that.
It requires a higher level of engagement by the listener. I do worry about being a cranky old man going [voice shifting into Abe Simpson mode], “Music was so much better when we had our own imaginations!” You’re right about mythology being used in very different ways now, but often in a kind of sick way by people who’ve studied this stuff and use it for advertising, where we get clear soda because of ancient tales of purity and innocence tied up in clear liquids. Now the dude at Pepsi understands these cultural underpinnings and uses them to hawk soda.
Here’s the problem: this holy mystery of music has been co-opted by Pepsi [laughs]. It’s not to say it’s not at our disposal still, but it’s still important to music [to have mythology].
That’s abundantly clear to anyone who’s spent time with Hiss Golden Messenger. HGM is interested in engaging with big ideas, actively open to them even.
Yes, I am. The way I engage with music and incorporate music into my life is all about engaging with larger ideas – What is myth? What is the myth of music? What is the myth of the musician or artist? But, my point of entry into this is an intensely personal one. I came out of this other band, The Court & Spark, where people around us – and it was in their best interest for them to tell us this and maybe have it work out – led us to understand that The Court & Spark was going to be successful. Well, I just ended up paying off our Court & Spark bills last November. We were in debt until almost the end of 2010. I can count on one hand the number of accounting statements I got from our record label over 10 years. We were the epitome of a failure as a band, and that’s a hard thing. I’ll qualify that: we were a commercial failure but critically was another thing.
The issue of not putting bread on your table with your talents and drive is tough to stomach.
I’m still dealing with it. Anyone who’s an artist can’t do this shit for free. You can and will do it for free, but you have to possess some kind of personal boundaries, where you say, “Okay, I’ll do this for free because I love it,” or, “I’ll do this for free because the payment I’m getting – be it aesthetic or financial – makes it worthwhile, but I will not engage in the standard arena of commercial commerce because it’s bullshit.” So, what this means for me is I’ll continue to play – I’m sure of it – to empty rooms or five people because I want it to be in this place and that time what I chose aesthetically and I prefer to do it that way. I might bitch or moan about it in the moment, but ultimately it’s my choice. It’s important to me for some reason to be there artistically in the moment. I’m not gonna chase this brass ring anymore. No one even knows where the brass ring is hidden anymore – the thing isn’t even around anymore, at least for the likes of me because I’m not willing to do what it would take to find that tarnished thing. The people who work in corporate labels, the ones that are left, know nothing about music. They have their heads up their asses.
It’s not about music anymore. It’s about the synergy with the other industries owned by a record label – how a song fits into a TV ad for a cleaning product from one division, a video game for another, and so on. You’re not just dealing with the record industry anymore. In most instances you’re dealing with a faction within a mega-conglomerate that’s only interested in what the music can do to help sell cars or laptops. When you think of music first as a widget and not as one of the deepest forms of human expression it changes things dramatically. To play to that mentality diminishes music, and it speaks to the general acceptance of compromise and diminished ethics prevalent now. People accept that to get anything done you have to play the game as offered. Thankfully, there’s a growing faction that’s sick to death of it and starting to make changes.
I agree. Hiss Golden Messenger is something that’s allowed me to reorient myself vis-à-vis music. At the end of The Court & Spark, I was brain dead, depressed, and tired. For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting from the music what I needed. I don’t need music to make me happy all the time -that’s not what the job of music is – but I need to be happy engaging with music. It makes me think and feel things, and I needed to find my way back to that. Finding my way back to that was my way back to this personal work on myself, which everybody does and I do mainly with music. Hiss Golden Messenger, in that sense, has been a very, very personal journey. The audience that I’m making it for is first and foremost me.
Your work operates in the same realm as clear influences like Terry Reid and John Martyn – guys who never gave two shits about what anybody thought about their work.
I don’t think my work can hold a candle to what those guys are doing, but certainly they were uncompromising in their work, especially John Martyn, who was apparently thuggish in this regard. Those guys allowed the art to lead. The music never became incidental to what they were doing, and this is a danger with contemporary musical culture, where somehow we still arrange our lives around music but it becomes incidental in a way. It’s an insane sort of paradox.
The culture of the music business has been taken over by the second part of that two-word phrase.
M.C. Taylor by Jams Kim
I understand what the music business does, and I don’t think it’s an oxymoron. I don’t think music and business are mutually exclusive BUT let’s remember what we need in order for the business to keep rolling along with integrity [laughs]. We need the music…
…and music that speaks to something deeper than having a good time. When one reaches no further than the next party, there’s a frivolousness that gets spread throughout music culture. Not everything needs to be “Long Black Veil” but it’s not as if we’re not still wrestling with huge ontological issues as a species.
My party line for a long time has been it is possible to make thoughtful music in a major key. Music is a complicated thing, and there’s a lot of complex emotion in a song. There are a lot of sad songs in a minor key that suck, and there are a lot of thoughtful, wonderful, powerful songs in major keys that work in the way I think music should. Music is very, very, very complicated. There are so many shades to it.
There’s a sense that one can’t create music with deeper psychological or cultural issues without it being leaden. What about a song like “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys?
Grateful Dead in 1972
I’ve been listening to a lot of the [Grateful] Dead stuff from the ’72 tour that was released this year, and, to me, it’s the Holy Grail of music. What they did, particularly in that era, was write music that was thoughtful. Robert Hunter’s writing is about as good as you can get in the idiom of music or any other [art] happening in the late 60s and early 70s. But they weren’t writing sad songs in minor keys. They wrote these songs that had SO much harmonic content that it was talking about LIFE, how happy and tragic it was, and all in the same song. They were in major keys and they tipped their hats to jazz and country, and they did it all so well.
I always say the Dead were practitioners of the Great American Songbook. Hunter’s lyrics feel like music that’s been carried around for hundreds of years, handed around and changed slowly like a river stone, until arriving to us now. Hunter was a relatively young man at that time and yet he penned “Wharf Rat,” “Black Peter” and other bardic killers. And fun stuff, too! How big a blast is “Casey Jones”?
For my money, he’s easily one of the best writers of that era. It’s hard to reckon what he did with how he was ‘in’ the band without fronting it. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around what he was doing in comparison with someone like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison. He had a different model he was using but goddamn! The key to his songs is how honest they are. There’s a certain transparency in how it touches you, and you’re right about how they feel like they’ve existed for a really long time and everything that absolutely doesn’t have to be in the song isn’t in there. It’s sort of like the Bible, where the stuff that needs to be there is there and the extraneous stuff has been worn away.
Are you ever astonished at people who haven’t read the Bible? Regardless of where one stands in terms of religious practice or belief, the Bible is a central stream in which we all swim culturally.
Frankly, I think there are a lot of hardcore Christians who haven’t read the Bible. This is where so much strife and bloodshed has come from for hundreds of years. People think they understand what’s in the Bible, that they have a clear interpretation of what the Bible is saying. The Bible is a fallible book, a fallible document, and to really understand what the Bible is saying takes some work. You do have to crack that book open [laughs]. If you haven’t read the Bible then you can’t understand the Bible. You can’t talk about the Bible if you haven’t read the Bible.
If one’s understanding of it comes from a few lines drawn out of context then they’re really removed from the actual content and spirit of the Bible.
There should be some sort of ticket you can give if you hear someone talking about the Bible but you know for certain they haven’t actually read it.
I like that idea more than is Christian [laughs]. Circling back to your music, I love that you don’t shy away from big ideas like the ones in the Bible. You have a way of making this stuff resonate in a modern sense. “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” is one of the best song titles of the last 20 years. Whether you hear the song or not, once you see that title it’s in your head and gets you wondering, “What the fuck is that all about?”
[Laughs] Like I was saying earlier, my relationship with Hiss Golden Messenger is deeply personal. So, my grappling with spirituality is…I’m not a church going person. Any first year divinity student could debate circles around me with religion. But I’m not talking about religion, I’m talking about spirituality. It’s important to me to try and understand what my perspective is on a higher power, and to understand what role that sort of belief might play in my life. It’s critical to me to think about this stuff – a lot. I don’t know where I stand on it and I need to get a better handle on what I’m thinking about spirituality. I’m generally a pretty private person and yet my forum for this is very public. So, it’s a little funny that I do it this way but I have to.
There’s an illusion that we choose how we practice our spiritual life, but it’s generally propelled more by happenstance and such intensely personal drives that we can’t name them. While many people think they’re getting the job done going to services once a week, the true work of spiritual engagement occurs during the week.
I think that’s right, and part of “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” – which is obviously an allegorical work – is how deeply cynical it is. For all of its mention of Jesus Christ in the title it’s sort of a black-hearted, cynical look at people who are using their spirituality for some other purpose. There’s an awful lot of bet-hedging that goes on in belief. One of the last lines of that song goes, “He loves us all but the ones who fall hold a special place in his ranks/ At least I hope this is how it goes ‘cause I’m just ‘bought outta bread.” This is sort of a disciple character but he’s clearly not totally sold on Jesus as the Son of God. He just hopes he is so he’ll have a spot in Heaven.
There’s a huge faction of professed Christians that are ALL about what one gets from God. One of the arguments I have with virulently Pentecostal born again folks is how my God isn’t the God of parking spaces or other mundane handouts. Prayer isn’t a gumball machine one tosses a coin into because they want something in return. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
I don’t believe it works that way, though sometimes I wish it would [laughs].
There’s always a temptation to get up on one’s high horse about this topic, and it’s an impulse worth resisting [laughs].
My music is deeply spiritual, and it’s critical to me to work this stuff out in my music, but I’m not a believer, not in the usual Christian sense of the word and certainly not in terms of proselytizing.
I think there’s a built-in hunger to engage with these ideas that we’re born with, but it’s hard to say where one can land with any certainty about God and the huge ideas connected to the notion of God.
I think you’re right about how people attend church but the real work happens the rest of the time. I don’t discount church. I think there’s a lot of positivity that comes from gathering as a spiritual community, but at the end of the day only we know what the truth is in our heart. We can talk about it with everybody all we want but the hard part, the heavy lifting is the personal stuff that we do alone in the dark of night.
This spiritual journey is reflected over the course of the three Hiss Golden Messenger albums thus far.
M.C. Taylor with son Lijah
I think I’ve been on a life journey where I’ve gotten older and become a father and a person that has to set aside, in some ways, selfish desire. It’s a kind of working class mysticism I’m involved in. I’m not putting on tie-dye and spangles and going off to meditate and eventually find my Lord. [laughs]. I’m getting up every day and going to work like everyone else in this small town. And I’m trying to understand my place in the universe like every other person in this town. I just do it in a different way. It’s important to me that these Hiss Golden Messenger records at least be honest documents of that journey, and hopefully entertaining, too. This is also entertainment – I’m totally aware of that – but it’s important to me that what I put out feels honest.
Honest is as good a word as any at getting at the vibe of your music. There’s no other agenda besides the desire to write a good song that’s representative of what’s going on in your heart and head. Music writers too often make glib comparisons to Bob Dylan, but your work, especially as Hiss Golden Messenger has gone on, reminds me a lot of the mixture of the personal and almost fevered broadmindedness one gets in early Dylan. Bad Debt especially shares a rawness with Dylan’s early records.
Well, thank you…
One can’t invoke Dylan unless they’re serious about it. It’s like evoking Einstein when talking about a scientist.
The thing about Hiss Golden Messenger is it’s a long game I’m playing. My incentive is not the incentive a 20-year-old musician might have setting out on this path. My incentive and my pay are different. As far as I’m concerned, these are the early days of Golden Messenger as I try to figure out who I am as a person and an artist. This is a good time for me to be trying to understand myself.
Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care
And it isn’t even lonely when no one’s ever there
I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true
The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you
The first time I saw the Grateful Dead was July 13, 1984. It’s a date that lingers for lots of reasons – call it a re-birthday. Young, dumb and full of cum (as the old expression goes), I was dragged to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley by my buddies at UC Santa Cruz, where I’d begin college in a couple months. Already wild eyed zealots for Garcia and the gang after their first year at Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp (a favorite alternate definition for UCSC), my friends were on a mission to convert me, no simple task given that my listening at that point consisted mostly of Cali punks like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks (and all their 70s ancestors, particularly The Clash and Patti Smith Group) along with the seventies classic rock I’d grown up on and a growing obsession with John Coltrane, Miles Davis and all things modal. So, to say I was skeptical walking up the Greek’s stone steps would be a gross understatement. And then they played.
My preconceptions quickly fell to fractals inside my mind. I simply didn’t know what to make of it. It was derived from American music, but other than that broad term it seemed to have no precedent. Some of it was downright bar band, other bits redolent of ancient strains, and the connective tissue between it all something entirely their own. While my chums had staked up spots on the main floor, I kept to myself high above, letting the wind bring this strange new thing to me. And for reasons somewhat beyond comprehension, my anchor, my home base amidst the slurry of influences and explorations onstage was keyboardist Brent Mydland. It’s not something I had any hand in choosing – the connection was instantaneous and felt fated (a sensation I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life) – and for the next six years I posted up as close to Brent as circumstances allowed, a need more than a desire to be near to him, a commitment to ride out whatever wave came along by his side.
I think it was Brent’s obvious humanity, his frailties and struggles worn close to the surface – perhaps not by choice – that drew me in and gave everything he did extra gravity. If you paid attention you didn’t need anyone to tell you that life had been hard on Mydland. The pain of rising each day and struggling with it all rang out in his voice, a ragged, wild thing that would have fit in well with The Band – not pretty but absolutely fucking honest and beautiful in a gutbucket way. His keyboard work followed suit, stabbing and slashing at the music, chasing down something with sometimes brute intensity, while other times as tender as a kiss on a weary brow. I never quite knew what he’d do in a given song, and that unpredictability made him fun if a bit erratic. Like the rest of the Dead in the tumultuous 80s, there were glorious nights and there were outright belly flops, drunken and drugged-out displays that still make me want my money back for a few shows. But, it was easier to forgive with Brent, who seemed to carry more weight than his frame could really handle.
While almost everybody into the Dead can tell you about the day Jerry Garcia died, it’s not everyone who felt the same stomach churning sadness when they found out about Mydland’s drug overdose on July 26, 1990. My compass in the Grateful Dead was gone and the band was never the same for me again. I stopped going to concerts altogether by 1993, tired of pecking after something that wasn’t there for me anymore. I’ve been able to find the specialness in the individual surviving members of the Dead in the past decade, more interested in them apart from one another than the various aggregates that are chasing something that REALLY departed when Garcia shuffled off.
Mydland may have been the group’s fourth keyboardist but he was, even in his quiet way, one of the strongest personalities the band ever knew. Today is the anniversary of Brent Mydland’s birthday. He would have been 59 if he was still with us. As it is, he was just 37 years old when he died. I’m older than that now, and it gives me pause as I wrestle with my own demons, the ones that don’t go away no matter how much sweet talk or how many bribes I throw at them. Brent was a troubled soul but he made that work for him in his music. He gave form and context to feelings that don’t easily emerge from the shadows, a soul caught between eternal rocks and hard places giving voice to such cramped existence for the rest of us. Happy birthday wherever you are, brother. I hope you know how very, very missed you are.
More thoughts on Brent Mydland in a 2008 piece over here.