Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Inquisition: Stark Vs. Hoots & Hellmouth


An interview with Sean Hoots of Hoots & Hellmouth
by Andrew Daniels

Philadelphia's Hoots and Hellmouth is a wildly unpredictable band whose genre-shifting songs keep listeners guessing which direction they'll veer in next. That infectious mix of styles, combined with a serious dedication to touring, has earned the band thousands of diverse fans across the country. The group's recently-released sophomore album, The Holy Open Secret, is intelligent, meaningful and most importantly, catchy. Frontman Sean Hoots called in while on - you guessed it - tour, to discuss his inspirations behind the new album, the band's dedication to communities and its Aug. 5 Liederplatz appearance at Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pa.

Good morning, Sean. Where are you calling from right now?

We're in Atlanta right now, we played a show there last night and pretty soon we'll be on our way up to Athens.

You guys are known for touring pretty heavily. In fact, one recent press release calls the current tour you're on the "never-ending tour." Does that kind of schedule ever take its toll on you?

Certainly there's wear and tear any time you're in constant motion. Any machine that has moving parts is eventually going to experience some weaer and tear. But we keep it pretty well-oiled with a good sense of humor, good friends and food along the way. Life on the road is certainly different from a life style at home, but it's what we're all interested in doing at this point in our lives. We've got a certain momentum with the new record out, too. It keeps it going. It sort of renews our sense of purpose and reason to get out there to keep connecting with people.

For the rest of Sean's incredibly in-depth answers, continue reading after the jump.

That "no end in sight" mentality is interesting for a band your size. You're an independent band on a small label with limited national exposure or promotion, but you tour like crazy. How do you accomplish that, with the means to continue touring in a shaky economy?

It's funny, the economy being what it is. It certainly affects everything around us in pretty obvious ways, but we've always lived in the "hand them out" sort of way, regardless of what the economy is doing. So quite honestly, the economy hasn't really affected us. We've been used to living pretty meagerly on the road. Having a good booking agent to secure guarantees here and there is a help to keeping us afloat financially. We're not frivolous with our spending. We're just focused on the job at hand, and we find a way to make it work. When we're at home, a couple of us do some side work here and there, but we're home so infrequently that it's not a major part of our lives. We're just able to make ends meet by staying on the road and hitting a lot of the same places. Again, with the new record out, we have a new source of revenue on the merch table every night, so that's really what helps us keep going. Beyond that, it's plugging ourselves into these communities around the country, having friends and developing relationships. That makes it a richer experience without financial considerations.

Right now you're happy with making ends meet, but do you strive for more than that? It'd be foolish to think that you don't, but it seems like you're pretty happy chugging away like you have been for the last couple of years.

You know, if you're not happy doing what you do, you should find something else to do. Money for myself and the rest of us is not the reason for doing this. Certainly having some sort of stability so that we're not constantly worrying about making ends meet is important to anyone's psychological well being. Do we want us to get bigger? Yeah. We're in a band that's traveling across the country and we want as many people to hear our music as possible. Of course we want to grow and continue to develop, and with that, perhaps a little more financial freedom will come. I don't know, but that's not really of any major concern at the moment. Like I said, we're not doing this just to make money. It's something that's a viable trade. Our culture is a commerce culture, so there's going to be some kind of money exchanging hands, and that's cool. It's helping us continue doing what we want to do and love to do. There's no strategy to get rich quick, because this is not an industry where anyone can really map that out in any sure way. The industry is going through a complete overhaul, and it is what it is. We're happy to be where we are.

After this stretch of Southeast dates, you'll come back up and play up here, including the Musikfest show on Aug. 5. How familiar are you with the Lehigh Valley area?

We played at Godfrey Daniels a couple years ago. Other than that, we played in Scranton once... but we don't really have a lot of exposure in the Lehigh Valley, to be honest with you.

We've done the Philly area and New York, and other than that our touring is all over the country. It's easy for a band like ours who tours everywhere to neglect the back yard that's right there with easy access. I'm really looking forward to being in front of these people. Does the radio station from Philly, WXPN get all the way up there?

Yeah, we get it, and it's fantastic. Those kind of listeners definitely exist in the Lehigh Valley who appreciate XPN and all that they do. There's a station around here, WDIY, that's kind of similar to XPN. But I know you guys have a good history with that station, right?

Yeah. They're the local Triple A station, and one of the big tastemaking stations in the country with the playlists they have and some of the bands they give extensive airplay to. It's just a really beneficial ally to have, and we've all done as much as we can to be associated with them as possible. We all have our different relationships with the station. And in Philly, it's such a big city, but there are certain aspects to it that make it feel like a small town sometimes. When you're talking about a listener-supported station that's non-commercial, there's a common element of struggle there, and we all have that.

Let's talk about the making of "The Holy Open Secret." You, Andrew [Gray] and Rob [Berliner] are all credited with writing the ten songs on the record. In general, is the writing process usually that collaborative?

No, I think the way we presented it on the record itself was that it was made by the three of us and our producer, Bill Moriarty. As far as the songwriting process goes, I write most of it.

The songs that I'm singing lead on are mine, and the songs that Andrew sings are his. On this record, he has two or three songs and the rest are mine. When the actual songs are being written, that's sort of individual processes for he and I, but once we've got the basic flow for the song, we bring it to the table and then everybody sort of adds their parts. And really, the biggest sort of refining moment for any of our songs is taking it out live night after night. That always helps the song for sure.

How did you hook up with Bill Moriarty to produce? Had you known him before?

A: We had met him through Dr. Dog. They share a studio together in Kensington (The American Diamond.) He's just been a really great guy for the Philly music scene. We were familiar with him but hadn't gotten a chance to know him very well until we started looking for people to work with. We went in and recorded a song in a day just to get a feel for the studio and him, and it was really comfortable and laid back. We knew there was something to the relationship with him and the studio, and it ultimately proved to be a rewarding experience.

You had mentioned Dr. Dog. They're playing this year's Musikfest, too.

Oh yeah! We're always out of step with them. We did a tour with them a couple years ago, but we're now just really busy and going off different directions all the time with them. Andrew's actually roomates with Justin, their drummer. So he sees them a little more often. But those guys are just great, I love them.

They've pretty much blown up over the last few years.

It's incredible. Everywhere we go, we'll mention we're from Philly and almost every town we're in, people will be like, "Oh, you know Dr. Dog?" Your phrase, "blowing up" is definitely not misused. They're on a meteoric wise, or at the beginning of one.

Have you seen a ripple effect from their success in Philly? Has the scene benefitted from it?

I think so. They're definitely a force to be reckoned with in the area, but they're like us in that they don't play in Philly very often just because they're always out elsewhere. We're sort of experiencing the same thing. The music scene in Philly over the last five or six years has become this really interesting melange of styles. There's a pocket of folk-influenced stuff, noise, psychadelic, neo-soul with The Roots, so the scene itself is really diverse. But any time anyone from Philly makes a name for themselves and starts turning heads obviously makes a difference. People will say, "You must have so much good music in there." It's true. It's raising the city's profile for sure, to people who care about music.

What were some of your influences in terms of lyrical content on the new record? What drove you to write these songs?

I personally go through phases of writing, where for a while it'll be an extroverted sort of subject, and inevitably the pendulum will swing back the other way to kind of keep the well continually refilled. I think this record in particular for me was more extroverted than introspective. It was more about the community on the local level and the network of communities that we come across in the country, and also extending that notion globally.

Especially in reference to the various issues going on with the world right now, with resources being what they are. Concepts such as peak oil and that sort of thing. I don't know, I guess there was a certain fire stoked from reading people like Derek Jensen's "Endgame" and that sort of thing: taking a more hollistic view of what's going on. I wanted to get away from turning my gaze inward and putting it out there and see how that affected me. That said, the last song on the record is one of my most personal songs I've ever written, too. So obviously it's not all one or the other. I've been reading about alchemy, natural sciences, and and a lot of my inspiration comes from what I'm reading. Also, the conversations that I'm getting into on the road that get beyond, "what do you like to listen to?" Trying to make deep connections.

Ultimately, that's where I was coming from on this record: trying to make connections and digging a little deeper than the surface and getting a bird's eye view of what's going on while balancing that with occasional slumps to the ground level to see things from that perspective.

I think your biggest selling point is the fact that it's so hard to pigeonhole your sound. At one point, you can sound like down-home roots rock, and at the next, you can be a lot more conventional, almost like alt-country. Is it a conscious effort to try and throw those curveballs at the listener and sort of keep them guessing?

No, it's not a conscious effort with regard to the listener. I think it's more of a personal conscious effort to continue to push ourselves as writers and artists and really explore. The song can be influenced by so many things. The lyrical content can influence the way that something is sung, and vice versa. Doing things in deference to the song, and where the song wants to go. That was one thing we were really able to accomplish with Bill: allowing the songs to take shape on their own. I mean, none of us want to be in any kind of band. It really allows for a certain level of honesty that I feel like some of the rock posings and aesthetics cover up; there's glitz and glamour in other styles of music that become the centerpiece of what you're listening to. With acoustic music, just strumming the guitar and feeling the vibrations is a visceral sort of connection with your instrument. That goes even deeper with the song.

Stylistically, we never attempted to be conventional or unconventional. It's just all about where the song is leading to, which makes it hard for us or anyone else to call it anything in particular. It is, like you say, one of the things that sets us apart, but it can also be kind of confounding for people who like their styles neatly boxed and packaged.

Well, has that balance that you guys have found helped you achieve a wider fan base?

Absolutely. This band can play to almost any room that you put us in. We can do a listening band where everybody's sitting with their hands folded politely, or we can really drive it home in front of a rowdy crowd at a bar. It's amazing where this band has been, and as a result, the kinds of people that come out and listen to it. There's a diverse cross section when we play. Sometimes people will drive hours to see us, like old folks. And we're like, "Really? You drove three hours to come see us?" It's amazing. We always joke that we're really good with parents.

Parents love us. The music is a palatable style of music that's enabled us to cross a lot of those deliniations of demographics. People are just responding to the honesty of the music and what we're doing. That sort of levels the playing field and welcomes all comers. That fits into our ideas of community and those relationships and digging beneath the surface of the every day. They're responding to that, because so much in our culture works against that.

There's so much that separates and divides and defines things against one another. There's a lot of contrast in advertising and marketing. Speaking for myself and hopefully the people that we're appealing to, there's a type of unrest and discontent with that sort of prevalance in culture. Hopefully we're helping to gather people together in a different way and bring it all back home to the front porch or the kitchen or the city hall. Really, just wherever people gather and have meaningful interaction.

Can you talk about your history with Mad Dragon Records? It's really a remarkable little label and story that's going on at Drexel University. Talk about what it's like to have that team behind you.

Sure. We started with the label because a manager for our old band went on to the music industry program at Drexel and worked his way up through the ranks and is now the president of that label. We maintained contact, and as we developed locally, the label was just getting started. I remember we played a show at the Tin Angel where he brought the other head of the label and program, and it was this sold out, crazy show where we ended the night standing on tables and shouting at people's faces. There was that real intense atmosphere, and they just fell in love with it and wanted to be involved. The label was really appealing to us because they were going to give us complete creative control over what we wanted to do, and giving us the resources of the music industry program to promote the records. In that respect, it's been awesome. Now, they're college kids. Some of them are really into what they're doing, while some of them are just there because they feel like they have to be in college. You have to take it as it comes. There's been some outstanding people coming out of that program who just seem to get it. So much of the industry is changing and evolving, and the label is trying to create a new paradigm, and they're engineering that attitude in the students as well. The students are at an age where they're aware of everything that's going on. They're in touch with all this stuff automatically by default of being a teenager in America. That's really helped the label define its trajectory and figure out ways to utilize different channels. There's a lot of important give and take there. At the same time, they're college kids, so they're not always gonna be on the ball. And also, we're very particular about how we're represented, and we like to be in control of everything we do as a band. There are some things they offer to other bands that we just decide to do on our own. We like to do things to keep our hands involved in every step of the way. So we'll redirect their energy to things where they can really help us. On the whole, it's been a great relationship.

What's next for the band? Answer this question however you want. What's in the band's future as well as your future?

Well, it's hard to say. This band didn't start out with us saying, "let's be in a band." Andrew and I just sort of started trading songs on front porches late night in West Chester where we lived at the time, and the band sort of evolved out of that. There was never any specific intention to get to where we are right now. It just sort of...happened, which is why I think it's happened the way it's happened. There hasn't been a lot of effort. There's never been that moment where we're totally striving to become something that we aren't already. With that in mind, that's still sort of the approach we take with this band, and seeing where we can go with it. Certainly there's at least another record in us, which we will probably start to get down to in the winter once we're off the road. We're wide open with where we can take this, and we've already started to talk about some ways we can expand the instruments and the sounds. I think there's gonna be some experimentation in the near future. Obviously touring is a constant. We're on the road a lot, and we're looking to build those relationships for the life of the band. I know that ten years from now, I want to be a farmer in North Carolina. We have a family orchard out there, and that's ultimately where I think I'll end up. I'll never abandon music, though. We're sort of taking it as it comes. Every step up is progress. Once we get to a point where we're sort of making steps to the side or standing still, that's when the conversation about "where do we see ourselves going?" will come from. At this point, we're just sort of taking the whirlwind as it comes, and hopefully riding it to wherever the next level may be.

A huge thank you goes out to Sean for taking the time to talk to me, and to our good friend Howard Wuelfing for setting up the interview.

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