New journeys with Hoots and Hellmouth - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Hoots and Hellmouth | photo via

Philly roots scene favorites Hoots and Hellmouth emerged from a stretch of semi-hibernation earlier this fall with In The Trees Where I Can See The Forest. It’s the band’s fourth, and finest album — a true evolution of its sound into something spacious and spectral, atmospheric and engaging. The acoustic bootstomp folk rock that they built their name around has given way to sensitive electric jams, with the stunning “Diction” acting as a centerpiece. On the one hand, it’s the same Hoots and Hellmouth you’ve always known, but on the other hand, they’re more grown up than ever.

The band — which features Sean Hoots on guitar and vocals, Rob Berliner on mandolin and vocals, Todd Erk on bass and Mike Reilly on drums –went on a U.S. tour this fall. It was their first run in a few years, and wasn’t without its challenges: a van break-in after a St. Louis gig left them with gear and personal items stolen, while shows in markets they never played before were on the underwhelming side.

When I caught up with Hoots via phone this week, he admitted that it took the band a minute to find their footing on this run, but it had its transcendant moments as well (including a performance for the OpenAir sessions at Colorado Public Radio), and he remains optimistic about the next leg of the journey. Tonight, Hoots and Hellmouth brings it home at Ardmore Music Hall; get tickets and more information on the show at the XPN Concert Calendar, and read my interview with Hoots below.

The Key: This was your first tour in a while. How was the response and how did it make you feel going into the next push behind the record?

Sean Hoots: It was good. There were a couple markets that are really great, there were a few markets that we hadn’t hit in a really long time or even have never played. Like in Kansas City or St. Louis, those are cities that we haven’t done much in or had much traction in. Those shows were just kind of meh. But the markets where we have some pull like Denver, Chicago, a couple other ones [were stronger] — and obviously when we get back to the east coast things start to get a lot more consistent.

Some people already knew some of the new stuff especially once the record got released, and we had put out the “Diction” video ahead of the tour to get some of the new material circulating so we had a couple of things out there. We ran into a few people who were already familiar with that stuff — that was very encouraging — and we had a couple great radio sessions. The highlight of which would have been CPR in Denver, their version of XPN out there, was awesome. It was a really great studio and he had said that David Dye had been out there not too long ago to do a couple World Cafe’s.

We found our groove in all the places that we had previously established a groove, and as far as cracking new markets and getting new listeners, going out without any kind of big promotion behind the record at least until midway the tour didn’t help us in those areas at all. It was a little bit of the bummer and while we were in St. Louis having lunch our van got broken into.

TK: Since you mentioned it, I really love the look of the “Diction” video. It seems to be very reflective of the album art, set outdoors and in nature. I also liked the idea of capturing the sounds of the outdoors — it seemed like this combination of technology, or pre-digital technology, with a more organic setting and it got me thinking on a lot of levels about that contrast. Was it something you conceptualized, the director or was it something you all worked together on?

SH: The director is a really good friend of ours, Stavros Stavropoulos. That is actually his name, it’s not just a clever directorial name. He is a friend of ours from the West Chester days and he lives in L.A. because his life is film. He was back visiting some folks when we first started talking about having him conceptualize and direct a video for us. So, he and I got together, my wife also, the three of us got together for breakfast one morning when he was in town and we basically hashed through this whole thing.

Originally the band was supposed to be in the video also, but I wanted to take the focus off of the band and make it more conceptual in its presentation. Some holdovers from the original idea with the band involved included taping and that idea of preserving recordings of things and how that helps you remember things that have vanished. Sometimes it’s a representative of something that you aren’t even sure if you heard it right or if it existed at all. Those little earworms that you’re like ‘where did that come from?’ It’s kind of like trying to pin down a melody or a fragment that’s not connected to an artist or a song in your head.

It was all filmed in Chester County out in the woods. We are all very familiar with that location from the West Chester days. We knew we wanted to have the woods be a part of it because we’ve always tried to keep our imagery very natural, and then having this relationship between these two people become the focus. Thinking about the more ephemeral abstract parts of a relationship and how those are sometimes the things that linger long after the relationship is no longer.

Ultimately a lot of the creative control rested in Stavros’ lap. We all respect him as a filmmaker and we wanted to get someone else’s input. Going back to the theme of us always being DIY- no label, no manager. We’ve always been pretty much front and center with every creative decision and I know that’s the goal that a lot of artists strive for. It is a wonderful thing but it’s always nice to give what you do and see how it will inspire someone else.

Like I said, we just had a pretty brief breakfast conversation about it outlining the general details but he put everything together. He got all the actors together that he wanted, we weren’t even anywhere near the set when he was filming. We just let him have free reign and he came back with this thing, and we were like “Woah, yes this is exactly what we were looking for.”

HOOTS AND HELLMOUTH | “Diction” from Hoots Hellmouth on Vimeo.

TK: This happened with the recording of the album too, right? You started it yourselves at Dr. Dog’s studio, and it ended elsewhere.

SH: We had prefaced our studio time with that month weekly residency at Boot and Saddle and we were intending to workshop some of the newer songs and get them on a stage in front of people. They weren’t in our live repertoire at that point. We were into the idea of things being fresh in the studio rather than just recording a bunch of stuff that we had been playing forever. Something about playing a song on stage that really changes it, once you see how it hits people and how they interact with it.

So, I think by going through that process we may have had an inclination that going into the studio that things were going to go at a faster clip. To be honest, the recording process was almost exactly what we set out to do. We booked three weeks in there or so and we didn’t have to add anything to recording. We got everything done in the time allotted as far as tracking was concerned. Where we ended up spending all the extra time was in the mixing process.

The initial mix was done at that studio as well with Nathan Sabatino from Dr. Dog, who had engineered the whole record. Everybody who was involved in the recording process was involved in the mixing process. Rob and I were there every day and I think that was the point where, at least for me, we realized we were in too deep to really have the perspective that we wanted. At the end of that mixing session, I put it down for a month and I went back to it and just said “This is just not what this is supposed to sound like.” The songs were there, the performances were there but the mix and the overall tone and texture just didn’t seem quite right.

So, we got all the tracks and through no fault of anyone’s, but we just felt that we needed another perspective from someone who wasn’t there for any point along the process thus far. So we sent it up to our good buddy Devin Greenwood up in New York. He’s done a lot of mixing things for us in the past and I just really love the way he places things in the sonic fields. He’s got a real knack for texture and for really teasing out details in a song. So, we sent it up to him and had a lot of back and forth there but ultimately let him do the first pack on his own. He came back with pretty much what you hear now with a few little tweaks here and there. Once it came back from Devin I just had a nice big sigh of relief.

TK: What are you anticipating with the Ardmore Music Hall show and then looking ahead to 2017?

SH: That’s a good question. Ardmore will be great, we did that at the end of last year and had a hell of a time. That room feels really good, I love the sound in there and the way it’s laid out. I think that will be really good to cap this year and celebrate this new record with our hometown friends.

s far as next year, I have a lot on my plate personally outside the band. I’m doing a play here in town in January and I’m having a baby in February. I know that that’s going to take up quite a bit of my time from a touring perspective. As far as touring next year, that’s still a little amorphous for us. But we’re already getting offers for the festival season so we will definitely be doing that stuff. As far as winter goes, I imagine we will be hibernating and I will be working on other things.

We knew it would be a slow build reintroducing ourselves to the world [with this record]. We’re anticipating that it’s going to take a minute for people to start adjusting themselves to our new stuff. I think we were going to make our way through this busy fall and then sort of have a pow wow after this Ardmore show to figure out what we are doing moving forward.

Hoots and Hellmouth performs with Cris Jacobs tonight at Ardmore Music Hall. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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