2014 is shaping up to be a productive year for the Hips, with the recent download release of the band’s fan-fucking-tastic second Ultimate Setlist Show, the forthcoming archival release Chronicle Man, the sixth annual Hipnic Festival in Big Sur next month, and choice live dates throughout spring and summer including the group’s happy return to High Sierra Music Festival in July. The Impound will be dishing out fresh Hips content throughout the year, including a lengthy chat with bassist Scott Thunes and an advance review of Chronicle Man in the not-too-distant future.
A fine gauge of an artist’s merit is how well regarded they are by their peers. Yes, one wants to please their fans and awards & rewards are swell, but respect, admiration, and influence carry a price above rubies and applause. There are few modern rock singer-songwriters more widely cherished and valued by his peers than Tim Bluhm of Bay Area champs The Mother Hips. His songs are gorgeously etched, an engaging interplay between dead solid fundamentals and clever, unexpected twists, and the way he delivers them – a voice filled with curiously curved emotion and unmistakable intelligence riding melodic waves and rushes of guitar goodness – further draws one in.
Other musicians, if they have half a brain, recognize that there are valuable things to be learned from Bluhm, and those fortunate enough to work directly with him categorically say he brings out the best in them, helping reveal what works in their music and helping them jigger what’s not. Put more simply, Tim Bluhm is a resoundingly great all-around musician who has proven ceaselessly interesting since he first emerged in the 1990s. Those that know his music understand that Bluhm is a cut above the vast majority of rock in 2014, and it’s only the general injustice of the universe that he isn’t rich as a sultan and as revered as Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Ryan Adams.
The Impound thought it would be fun to peel back a few layers of Bluhm’s musical mind so we asked him about the latest Mother Hips album, his thoughts on the Grateful Dead, working with David Simon-Baker, and more. As one might suspect, Tim had insights and off-handed wisdom to spare in his responses.
It’s not as if you’ve ever shied away from philosophical subject matter but Behind Beyond dives directly into some heady ontological waters – you send us back into the ocean by the first chorus, evolution in reverse. What prompted the exploration of big ideas in your tunes this time around? Was there some underlying “thing” you were trying to work out, get at, etc?
I suppose as we get older our experiences start showing us that life is fragile, that “safety” is a superstition. And that is a sobering thought. I had an experience that is addressed in the song “Behind Beyond” involving my dad and me. We had met up in the backcountry for a day and night. When we parted he was simply walking away from me down a ridge, turning and waving every so often. Due to the open terrain I was able to watch him for quite a while, growing smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vast alpine landscape. When he was finally out of sight I found myself alone in the silence, crying uncontrollably for a long time. I tried to write the song for months before I figured out how to make it work. You can’t just tell the story. It needs to operate on a deeper level because it’s dealing with some archetypal stuff.
Both you and Greg have matured a lot as songwriters over the decades, a fact resoundingly clear on the new album where you both move with confidence into interesting spaces that still rock. 20 years into this collaboration what traits do you think stand out in your songwriting and what stands out for you in Greg’s writing?
I suppose our most outstanding trait is originality. I feel like Greg and I have, for the most part, consistently challenged the clichés of rock. It hasn’t always been graceful or successful, but it has worked for us much of the time and it has protected us from the largely unsavory arena of commodifying one’s art. You’re not going to hear a lot of bands covering the Hips because the song forms and the guitar voices and the vocal arrangements are intentionally “encoded.” That is not because we want to prevent other people from playing our songs but just because that was how we strived to be innovative when we started out as songwriters. Lyrically, too, Greg and I both choose content and/or topics that we deem to be relatively untapped.
For myself I have noticed that, while still writing about personal subjects and experiences, I have tended to submerge them into contexts that are fictional or historical or abstract. I still want to expose and explore the human experience, but long ago I grew bored of always singing about “me.”
Tell me a bit about working with Dave Simon-Baker. You two collaborate a fair bit and this creative relationship is a bit different than what you share with the Hips because it plays to your ever-developing producer side. To my ear, what you guys do together is weave a sound a lot of modern producers and engineers have a hard time getting on tape (or digital storage format), which is an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance but with greater separation for the instruments and punch & clarity in the vocals. It has a feel that’s wise to the ways of musicians rather than layering something over what a band has laid down.
Dave and I made a lot of records together at Mission Bells and we learned plenty about all the bands we worked with and we learned plenty about recording in general. With the Hips we had the chance to do two records back-to-back, which gave us the opportunity to learn exponentially more about how the band could work best in the space we had. Playing to the strengths of the Hips, we all decided we’d do as much live performance as we could and then resist the powerful temptation to do a lot of digital editing afterward. Of course, we over-dubbed a bit of guitar and voice and keyboard on most songs, but we staunchly preserved the original performances. That is the easiest way to make a recording have “an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance.” But the band has to be able to play well in the studio setting or that approach won’t work. As for the pleasing sonic qualities, that is attributed to Dave’s talent, experience and hard work.
“Jefferson Army” may be the prickliest tune you’ve ever penned, but it’s also become a fast fan favorite from the new crop. Where’d this one come from? Were you conscious of the Tea Party overtones? Is it okay that I chuckle every time I hear the line about Red Dawn? Are you championing the idea of secession? Are you feeling ornery these days, what with the lead flying in “Jefferson Army” and the fistfuls of whoop-ass on “Creation Smiles”?
I read Jack London’s The Iron Heel and it really felt like it was set in and around the Bay Area. The novel is a kind of future history, a fantasy that has its roots in actual events. It reminded me of the State of Jefferson secession movement. I thought it’d be a worthwhile thing to kind of extend the State of Jefferson concept into a dramatic future history. I am not real up on the Tea Party line, unless we’re talking about the Boston Tea Party. Because of that I’m not concerned with any political slant within the song. I don’t like that. It’s just a narrator that we’re listening to who is a soldier in his self-proclaimed “Jefferson Army.” Those guys say some crazy shit but I find it very interesting.
I would say I’ve always been a bit ornery, no more now than ever before. There’s plenty of good vibes on this record, too, for what it’s worth.
What are your thoughts on the Grateful Dead and any influence/overlap they have with The Mother Hips today and in the past?
The Grateful Dead is a part of the psychic landscape of California. I came to their music late and it’s been so enjoyable to hear it and learn some of it. Theirs is such an appealing legacy, too, because it encompasses more than just music. They played a key role in the birth of a significant social and cultural movement that continues to be hugely influential. Not many groups can claim that. The fact that most of them are still around and are still making things happen is great. That many of us next-generation Bay Area musicians have had opportunities to make music with them is so fortunate. It’s a special time to live in the Bay Area.
The Hips had always intentionally tacked away from the Dead’s influence. But then we stopped doing that. Behind Beyond has a number of deliberate Grateful Dead references.
What makes a good song? When you first began writing your own songs what sparked you in other’s writing? What sparks your imagination now as you draw inspiration from other craftsmen?
Because I’ve been playing so many live shows in the last few years I have mostly been experiencing other people’s songwriting in a live setting. Perceiving what is happening to the audience as well as to myself is something my performer-brain is always doing. If I am getting touched by a song I can’t help looking around and seeing how other people are reacting.
If I get moved by a song, then it’s a good song. If I don’t get moved, I guess it could still be a good song. Who knows? There are different ways to look at the thing.
I grew up listening to old rock music – Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Beach Boys. Most of it was pretty straightforward lyrically. Later, of course, I got into Zeppelin and Sabbath and the Stooges but that didn’t make me think about songwriting. That was about power and strut.
When I first heard Neil Young’s early solo stuff I had a shift inside. His strange, high, pretty voice was saying some words that expressed stuff that wasn’t straightforward. It was self-reflective but it was also innocently mystical, almost childlike, a strange foreigner. Musically, he was using familiar forms but he was tweaking them a little so you couldn’t quite recognize them or predict them. I internalized those things and they became important to my songwriting.
These days I read a lot of books, searching for a voice that makes me put the book down and start writing.
Just as I’m sure you’re the only rock songwriter to ever use the word “egress,” I’m also sure you’re the only rock ‘n’ roller referencing history like Richard Henry Dana and his grizzly bear observations. What’s the allure of going deep and specific about history in the song format?
I came to songwriting from studying and trying to write poetry in college. The lyrical content has always come first for me. Since I was interested in history as well it is only natural that I would write songs that contain historical references. Rock songs don’t have to be always be about love, angst, drugs, touring, and Lord of the Rings. They can be about whatever you want them to be about as long as the voice is believable.
More than a few folks have commented to me recently that your guitar playing of late is particularly fiery, tasty and other complimentary adjectives. How do you think you’ve developed as a guitarist? How does what you do on the instrument dovetail with Greg?
Since I never learned anything formal about guitar I have always felt a little like an outsider when playing with other guitarists, with the exception of Greg. He and I value the same things in guitar expressions. Many times those values do not “compete” with chops that most experienced guitar players use frequently to express themselves. I have had to come up with my own way of getting to where I want my guitar parts to go, and to overcome insecurities related to that. It has taken a long time, and it is still a work in progress, of course. It helps me to have consistency of tone. Over the last few years I have worked really hard on getting the right sound to come out of my equipment. It has taken patience and the help of many people smarter than me. That makes a huge difference in how well I can perform and do what I feel like doing with the guitar.
Have The Mother Hips ever considered crafting an epic studio work akin to The Who’s Quadrophenia or even a thematically linked album like The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow? Your albums hang together well but it doesn’t seem you’ve ever tried to impose an overarching theme or contiguous storyline. Any interest in such bold creative statements?
We’ve definitely considered doing a concept album. It is a very ambitious thing, and I think it is often the result of one of the band members kind of taking over the creative vision, a creative coup, and not necessarily a blood-less one. That isn’t gonna happen in the Hips. But who knows? Maybe someday Greg and I will put our heads together and come up with a concept.
A fair amount of Mother Hips fans still gravitate to the early material, especially the first three albums and live rarities from those days. What do these songs mean to you now, and any theories about why this music has remained so relevant for many fans? Is there anything you’re tired of playing that you simply can’t take out of the rotation because it would upset folks too much? The drummer from Journey has told me about the “Dirty Dozen” they have to build every setlist around or they’ll get lynched by the audience.
We sort of have the “dirty dozen” I guess, but not like bands that have had hits. The Hips only have favorites. People will argue about which are the best Hips songs but there are no charts to back anyone up. It’s kind of nice, really.
As the older songs get older and their inceptions recede into the good old days, I find it easier to enjoy them objectively, taking no responsibility for them, just checking them out and letting them work on my emotions like any other song I’d hear. But there is a satisfaction with seeing all of them build up and not disappear. After all, the hope is that one’s body of work will outlast one’s body.
As far as getting tired of playing any one song too often, of course that happens. There’s an easy fix for it though, and like I said, none of our songs could ever be called a hit, and therefore none is essential for any given setlist. I’ll just refuse to play a song I’m sick of until I’m not sick of it anymore.
Tell us a bit about playing with John Hofer. His swing and style have become marbled into the Hips’ sound since he joined but he’s a lot different than Wofchuck. How is it different to ride the rhythm of these two dudes?
When John joined the band, Greg, Ike and I quickly realized that we had developed a very odd collective sense of tempo. With Wofchuck on drums, the whole band would unconsciously do these very pronounced tempo shifts. John started playing the songs with us and we would get to a chorus, and he would keep playing the same tempo and we would slow down about 8 BPMs and the song would train wreck. Hofe would look at us and say, “What the fuck are you guys doing?” And we’d say, “What do you mean? You fell off the horse.” But we soon realized it was us that had never even learned to ride a horse. We fixed that after a time, but then we started reintroducing it on purpose because it has a tremendous power to it. The exaggerated tempo shifts are kind of a Hips trademark. Hofer is such solid drummer that the listener just believes the story that he’s telling, even when it involves a surreal element.
What do you think the biggest misconceptions about The Mother Hips are? What is on the money and what is off the mark in the Hips’ general impression/pop culture soundbite? Perhaps the real question here is what are the Hips about at their core?
The Mother Hips are about amalgamating the obscure sounds and ideas that we were exposed to in our collective formative years as youngsters, musicians and songwriters. There is a distinct landscape that was created all those years ago, and the possibilities that we can extract from it, when we can connect to it, are limitless and will certainly outlive all of us. It was created when we were young and music was always pure magic. We brought our childhood influences and impressions together with some old but new-to-us music and had the time and the innocence to be a part of creating a unique little world.
Sometimes I hear someone say that the name is the worst they’ve ever heard, that it scared them off for years until they finally, accidentally, heard the music. That is unfortunate, but I can relate to that kind of judgment. The band was named so long ago that I can neither defend nor condemn the naming of it. It is what it is. People have to get to the music however they need to, and some people just won’t. It’s not for everyone.
For whatever reason, I think the way we were perceived, especially early on, was as a jam band or a hippie band (back when hippies were not very cool), which is ironic because no one hated that genre and that label as much as the Mother Hips. How that label was bestowed upon us I will never know. But it just drove us deeper into a place where we simply didn’t give a shit what other people thought or wrote about our music. We recoiled into our own world instead of actively trying to re-brand ourselves with an image that was more agreeable to us. That reaction served the music very well, but it probably hurt our commercial prospects at a time when we had some legitimate opportunities. I don’t regret it, honestly. We’re still here, and nothing external has ever changed us or our artistic vision.