Since its beginning nearly a decade ago in the dorms of Chico State, the Mother Hips have spun together various parts of California's musical legacy -- and have themselves become a thread in keeping the state whole. Cutting their teeth on covers of Bakersfield's Merle Haggard in Chico living rooms, the Hips have grown into a touring act that plays connect-the-dots across the entire state multiple times a year. In their world, "the coast" can only refer to one place; there's no confusing this coast with any other. But with a new album nearly completed and interest swirling around the band's latest studio evolution, the Mother Hips' California soul threatens to go nationwide.
Songwriter Tim Bluhm, whose Lincoln-esque frame is most at home in a tight and faded '70s T-shirt, paints image-laden portraits of people and places in California, his voice taking turns between slacker curl and glimmery falsetto, balanced by fellow singer/guitarist Greg Loiacono's equally wide-ranging tones. Even in their early music, with its flurry of tempo changes and faster rhythms, Loiacono and Bluhm's harmonies and country-tinged melodies honored California's musical past -- from Haggard to the Beach Boys to Neil Young. Backed by fellow Chico dormie Isaac Parsons on bass and drummer John Hofer (who joined the band three years ago), the Mother Hips have cultivated an audience tuned in to their mixed bag of folk, blues, country, and rock. An audience that for many years happened to be into drum circles and smoking California's other gold.
1998's country-rock Later Days killed the hippie band reputation that kept many -- in listening and critical circles alike -- from taking the group's music seriously. The album distilled Bluhm and Loiacono's sublime harmonies and paired them with spare, lo-fi instrumentation. "When Later Days came out," says drummer Hofer, "all of a sudden we had a lot of cowboy hat-wearing people. It was a whole new scene." A burgeoning altcountry movement finally recognized one of the earliest groups to pick up where proto-California sounders had left off. The album's first track, "Gold Plated," contains the kernel of what years on the road had done for the Hips' music: "There's some boys I know/ Who play that rock 'n' roll./ They slept on a lot of floors/ To get that California soul./ They got that California soul." And while they're not sure if that's what to call it, the Mother Hips' "California soul" embodies a Golden State sound that's finally come into its own.
If the band continues to inspire a few Deadhead-like characteristics in its audience (bootleg trading and a caravan following, for example), that's more than anything else a testament to the mastery of its craft. Playing close to 200 dates a year (down from 300 awhile back), the Mother Hips pick from a catalog of songs that number in the hundreds, switching up arrangements and tempos and tossing in a jukebox's worth of covers to keep the audience -- and the band -- interested. "The people who come to our shows, most of them have seen us at least 10 times," says Bluhm. "Some of them as many as a hundred." Perhaps because of this, the Mother Hips aim to play a different show every night, which places them among the hardest-working bands out there. And they manage it without any trace of arena-seeking spectacle.
"I don't want to be a rock star," says Bluhm. "Rock stars are awful. Seriously." The members say they're far more concerned with refining their songwriting and playing. "We've gotten a lot more discerning in the last couple years about how the song is going," says Bluhm. "We pay a lot more attention to things like structure and tempo and we decide those things to get the maximum impact for each song. We used to be a lot more haphazard rock. Now we're a little more scientific."
Tim Bluhm has been the band's primary songwriter, and its musical evolution has been his own. While some of the band's earliest material was phenomenal ("Hey Emily" from the 1992 debut Back to the Grotto remains one of the finest in the Hips' songbook), Later Days showed an appreciation for the finite breadth and depth of an album. The songs are simpler and the lyrics less cryptic than what the band had weaned itself on, which proves to the album's gain. Nonetheless, Bluhm's soul-searching lyrics are still tales of California bust and heartache, woebegone yarns that might have come from Steinbeck or Saroyan, had either played guitar. "We don't go for all the pop music tricks," says Bluhm of his evolution as a songwriter. "I personally think repetition is shit. Repeating a chorus a bunch of times so that you drill it into the listener's head. I take offense to that."
And the new album? "There's pretty much no country rock on it," says Bluhm. "It's poppier, but it's also more experimental, more fucked up." It's also more studio heavy, departing from the raw, intimate sound of their last album. "Later Days we went in and banged out real quick," says Loiacono. "We played the songs, we didn't spend a lot of time on overdubs. This is the opposite. Just more of a record than a recording." Finishing the album has taken longer than expected ("Our fans are sorta pissed," Loiacono admits), since self-financing the project makes touring in the midst of recording a necessity.
Citing influences like the Kinks, early Bee Gees, the Zombies, and the Beatles' White Album, the Mother Hips' new sound is their latest detour. Bluhm and Loiacono's guitars have been syncopated in quirky counterpoint, deftly bouncing hooky rhythms off one another. While the trademark vocal harmonies remain intact, both singers have taken to exploring new ranges of their voices. Like past albums, piano and mellotron build out on some of the songs, though here these instruments take on more significant roles. While several of the new songs have already wound up in shows, their feel on the album is entirely different. On the record, "Seems to Ease Me" moves from layers of distorted guitar to a trippy vocal that degenerates into goatlike bleating by song's end. Another new song in steady live rotation, "Sara Bellum," evokes even sadder tones when coupled with minor-key piano. The album revisits the first record's playfulness -- trippy Beatles-like vocals and sound effects -- while updating the band's gargantuan songbook and range of styles.
It's a bold move away from the country-touched sound that had earned the band respect from a music community now hip to the California roots the Hips have long explored. But it's a progression that's entirely within the band's vision of constant movement. Hofer explains, "It drives me crazy about bands today. It seems they get their sound -- their trademark sound -- and they never want to vary from it. As much as their next [album] can sound like the last one, the better. We've never been that way."
Still, the largest question about the album isn't how soon or how it sounds; it's simply how. While the first and last albums were self-released on Mother Hips Records, the band is fully aware of the limitations imposed by going it alone: fewer sales, difficult distribution, and little to no radio support. "The thing is, we want to get the music out to people who've never heard us before," says Bluhm. "We can't do that on our own." Hofer agrees, "It's very hard, in this age, to not somehow play the game and still win."
American Recordings signed the band for its sophomore Part Timer Goes Full (1995) and the follow-up Shootout (1996), also reissuing Back to the Grotto before dropping the Mother Hips from its roster in a reorganization shakeup that put three of the band's four albums out of print. The self-released fourth -- given that touring is the Mother Hips' primary focus (and source of income) -- can be equally hard to find in record stores. While the band's willing to release the new album on its own, especially if shopping it around becomes too much of a waiting game, getting it picked up would be a relief. "I don't want to be a record company," says Bluhm. "I just want to play rock." Though tight-lipped about who's eager to give it a listen, the band says there are interested parties, and interesting options. With a recent 7-inch on Chicago's Orange Recordings selling well despite the fact that the Hips haven't played Chicago in three years, the band is optimistic that it could soon be swimming in a much larger pond.
As one of the most popular touring bands in California, the Hips have continued to grow virtually on their live reputation alone. And with a concert contract that stipulates that they choose their openers -- bands they frequently take on the road -- the Mother Hips are also part of a grass-roots musical movement. Picking groups with similar sensibilities -- San Diego's Convoy, Placerville's Jackpot, Sacramento's Forever Goldrush, for example -- the Hips are bearing a California soul banner up and down the state. "That's like our music scene," says Bluhm. "But it doesn't exist in one city; it exists in all cities in California. Because we have these friends who are in bands wherever we go, we play with them, and then those guys play together when we're not around."