A Conversation with The Mother Hips

an interview by Benedict Phillips

I sat down with the Mother Hips for a couple hours before their show at The Davis Graduate May 13th. Alex Wroblicky from Entertainment Council put me in touch with the Hips’ road manager, Danny Ponder. I wanted to talk about the new album, Later Days, and the changes the band has made over the two years since the release of their last album, Shootout. I told Danny I thought the new album was a bit of a departure from the band’s previous work. "It’s more of a progression than a departure, I think," Danny said. Progression defines the past two years for the Mother Hips. Their music has been refined, their performance has been polished, and the band has matured. Tim, Greg, Isaac, and John talked with me about the music on Later Days, approaching a year and a half of sobriety, their upcoming national tour, and the bitter termination of their relationship with their former record label, American Recordings.

GREG: So what’s this for?

SPYGLASS: The interview?

GREG: Yeah.

SPYGLASS: It’s for a new online magazine on the UCD campus.

GREG: Cool.

SPYGLASS: I want to talk about the new record.

GREG: Have you heard it?

SPYGLASS: Yeah, I bought it last week. The sound is different from Shootout

TIM: I think the most obvious thing is that the drumming is done by a different person. That’s probably the most immediately noticeable change.

SPYGLASS: You’re talking about the new Mother Hips drummer, John Hofer. John, how are things going here as opposed to with your previous band, the Freewheelers?

JOHN: You mean comparatively?

SPYGLASS: Are you happy with the Mother Hips?

JOHN: Yes, very much so.

SPYGLASS: They’ve accepted you?

JOHN: Most times (laughs).

SPYGLASS: This is the first album you worked on with the band. How do you think this album is different from the older Mother Hips records?

JOHN: Well, there aren’t any of those real groove-type songs on this one.

ISAAC: We had those songs, we just booted ‘em off.

JOHN: We were trying for a more cohesive sound on this record.

TIM: We were trying to avoid the word ‘eclectic.’ It’s a crappy word.

SPYGLASS: You guys try to avoid a lot of words.

TIM: Who doesn’t? Everyone I know is trying to avoid titles or descriptions. Nobody wants to be called ‘poser’ or…eclectic. So we made a conscious decision to for once make a record that sounded like one band, instead of like four. And I think it was a good decision.

SPYGLASS: Was it made out of necessity?

TIM: No. If anything it was kind of a bold decision.

GREG: It was something we wanted to do.

TIM: The path of least resistance would have been to put those songs—‘Rich Little Girls’ and ‘Lady Be Cool’—to put those songs on because that’s what people expect.

GREG: Some of the songs we left off are some of the crowds’ favorites. But, we had this record that was three fourths one way, and to put these other songs on just because fans like them wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to put the songs on that fit with the rest of the record.

ISAAC: It’s a more cohesive work.

JOHN: It’s not like those songs are dead. They’ll pop up on a rock-‘n’-roll album which could come within the next eight months if we did it like this one. The other thing is that we did Later Days in a small studio. It wasn’t like a million dollar rock studio, so doing songs classic rock songs like ‘Rich Little Girls’ just wouldn’t have worked—you don’t get those big room drum sounds.

SPYGLASS: Let’s talk about a few of the songs from this record.

TIM: Yeah, let’s get specific.

SPYGLASS: ‘Gold Plated’ is the song that you’re trying to get played on the radio first, right?

TIM: It has to be one of them, right?

SPYGLASS: Is it your favorite song?

TIM: I think it sounds the most like what you hear when you turn on the radio. Which isn’t to say it’s anything close to anything like that. Basically, you have to choose one song, so everyone’s requesting the same song. All the songs are modeled after single style songs. Verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus…

SPYGLASS: Why did you choose the Sherwood Anderson quotation? Who’s the English major in the band?

TIM: Greg and I are both dropouts from the Chico State English Department.

JOHN: Like any good band, the two singers are English major dropouts and the rhythm section are music major dropouts.

TIM: I was never exposed to Sherwood Anderson until last year, which is surprising because he’s so essential. Have you read any Anderson?

SPYGLASS: Not much. My twentieth century American Literature classes picked up from Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

TIM: See, they picked it up from him.

SPYGLASS: ‘Later Days’ [a song that takes its title from the Sherwood Anderson passage on the album sleeve] is a great song.

ISAAC: I think that could have been the single.

TIM: ‘Later Days’ is even more simple than ‘Gold Plated.’ There’s no bridge or anything. It’s just intro, double verse, chorus, intro, single verse, chorus, intro. It really has a simple structure.

SPYGLASS: ‘Motorhome’

TIM: It’s a love song. But it’s not a traditional love song. The whole narration of the song is triggered by the singer of the song hearing a piano make a weird noise during a show. And it reminds him of his lovers’ voice. That’s where the song starts.

SPYGLASS: You said something at a Chico show about ‘Stunt Double.’ You said this is a song about growing up. What did you mean by that?

TIM: Well, the song is sung from the aftermath of making a bunch of bad decisions, and going through the consequences of those decisions.

SPYGLASS: You’re drinking a Sharp’s [non-alcoholic beer] right now.

TIM: Damn right.

SPYGLASS: The song is about—

TIM: It’s about drugs. It’s about hard drugs.

SPYGLASS: Are you still—

ISAAC: We don’t do ‘em anymore.

GREG: We used up all our hard drug tickets. [everybody laughs]

ISAAC: We’ve been off all drugs and all alcohol for over a year, working on a year and a half. Me, Tim and Greg, anyway.

GREG: John’s still a drug addict. [everybody laughs]

JOHN: I am not a hard drug user.

TIM: No, he’s not.

GREG: He has his beer after the show.

JOHN: See, I can do the soft drugs, like beer, because I haven’t been doing hard drugs for years. People get into these situations where they get clean off of hard drugs, and they can’t even have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner [because of twelve-step programs]. Like these guys can’t even—

TIM: Enough. Enough. (everybody laughs) You know, the songs talk so much about drugs that we don’t have to talk about them.

GREG: Other than to say we’re not doing them.

SPYGLASS: I think it’s fair to say that if you’re not drinking on stage, the music is going to sound different, probably better.

GREG: Singing and playing is so much more fun, and easier, and sounds a lot better.

TIM: We used to get really drunk on stage, you can’t even call it a craft—playing music I mean.

ISAAC: The drinking was a craft! [everybody laughs]

TIM: We were just slugging it out, having too much fun. It’s more calculated now. It’s more serious. We still play loose, and we still have fun, but you’re seeing a better band now than you were two years ago.

SPYGLASS: You guys have a very devoted following. I’ve been talking to some of my friends that follow your music, and we all have a very personal connection to the music and to the band.

TIM: We feel that connection to them as well.

SPYGLASS: Why do you think that you have such an extremely devoted following, I mean, you have people traveling hundreds of miles to hear you play. Fans have web sites. Why the Mother Hips?

ISAAC: One obvious thing is that our music isn’t something that comes across as something you heard some radio station. There’s a lot of self discovery. You heard us in some little bar in some college town.

GREG: We don’t sound like anybody else.

ISAAC: It’s not part of any movement. People say we sound like this band or that.

SPYGLASS: I think you sound like the Hips.

ISAAC: Of course. At the same time we do have our own sound.

TIM: I think also a big factor in that is that we haven’t seen huge widespread success after a long time of playing. People I talk to think that we’re good enough to have found far more success than we have. That’s endearing, I think. We still have that neighborhood, backyard party band sound. But at the same time the music sounds really good. It sounds like a famous band.

SPYGLASS: A lot has been written about the label issue. The Sacramento Bee printed an article recently describing the breakdown with American Recordings. Do the Mother Hips need major label representation to achieve that high level of renown?

GREG: Probably. Yeah.

ISAAC: That’s fairly accurate.

SPYGLASS: Are you actively seeking another label?

JOHN: Sure, but we’re not waiting around for it. That was the whole idea of putting this record out on our own. We’re not going to wait around for years, those guys run at their own pace. We’ve had label interest for the last year.

ISAAC: Also, if we got signed tomorrow by a major label, we probably wouldn’t have another album out for a year. And we don’t want to make another mistake that will cost us another five years.

SPYGLASS: Can we talk about the upcoming tour?

TIM: The tour with Huffamoose?

SPYGLASS: Yeah.

TIM: It’s great. It’s a great opportunity to get back to the east, the south. We’ll play to a bunch of people, most of whom haven’t heard our music—sell our record.

GREG: It certainly isn’t going to be a luxury tour, we’re going to have to work really hard.

SPYGLASS: You’re getting in the van after your Chico show at the end of this month, and driving to Pittsburgh.

TIM: Driving for basically—

ISAAC: Four days—

TIM: I was going to say two months. We’re basically making two revolutions around the United States.

ISAAC: What? Doesn’t it stop at the end of June?

GREG: The second part hasn’t been definitely worked out, but it looks like—

TIM: We can talk about it later.

SPYGLASS: I was expecting you guys back in June.

TIM: So was Isaac’s wife. [everybody laughs]

GREG: We will be back in June but we’ll very likely be back out in early July.

ISAAC: I’m all for the road. The road’s great, it’s great for the band, it’s one of the best ways to get our music really tight. The months prior to the record release, we weren’t playing as much. If you’re not playing more than two, three times a week, and not seeing each other really during the week because everybody’s so spread out, you spend the first night not real tight, the second night getting tight, and then the third night it’s time to drive home. So it’s real nice to get out on the road, so we can play every night, get real tight.

GREG: Keep that edge toned.

SPYGLASS: Are you playing 250 shows a year still?

TIM: A solid 250. For sure.

SPYGLASS: What does your wife think, Isaac?

ISAAC: She thinks it’s great. [everybody laughs] No. Seriously, it’s what I do. Every relationship I have with anyone, whether it be with my wife, my mom, my dog…this is what I do. If I’m gone, I’m gone.

The bar manager walks in and informs the band that it’s time for their sound check. After the sound check, Isaac heads downtown to get some coffee. John and Greg are greeting and talking to friends. Tim and I sit back down to talk some more. The rest of the band filters in over the course of this second hour.

SPYGLASS: The Sacramento Bee article talked almost entirely about the trouble with American Recordings, your former record label, and barely mentioned the new record [an independent release]. I was telling Danny [the Mother Hips road manager] that journalists are always looking for an angle for their stories, and the repeated blunders that American made constituted that angle. But there’s something else. With such an enormous fan base, and such a unique sound, a lot of us have trouble understanding—

TIM: Why we’re not selling records?

SPYGLASS: But you are selling records, right?

TIM: Yeah…

SPYGLASS: How is the new record selling?

TIM: It’s selling very, very well. Surprisingly well, actually. We knew that there was anticipation for this record. It’s been quite a while since the last one. It’s a good story, like you said, there’s a pretty good angle here. Bouncing back and doing it ourselves. We knew we were going to sell records pretty quickly, but it’s exceeded our expectations. We had to reorder CDs within like six days of its coming out.

SPYGLASS: I read that you guys picked the American Recordings label deal over MCA because MCA didn’t have any fresh acts.

TIM: Yeah, you take a bunch of 22 year-old guys, and you expect them—you can’t expect people like we were, even like we are, to choose which of these corporations is going to do the best for you. So you have to judge the label by which bands are on which labels and who’s selling. That’s all you can really judge them by. And who you’re talking to at the label. But that’s so far from being an accurate representation of what that label’s going to do for your own band. So, in retrospect, we made a shitty choice. We blew off a label that had promised they would take really, really, good care of us. And there was a lot excitement to have us on [MCA’s] label, and we chose the label that looked cooler. They turned out to be worthless. But we had no way of knowing that.

SPYGLASS: How much has the music been influenced by individuals outside the band?

TIM: We had control over the music, but the producers always have some influence. And people like my older brother, who has a huge influence over me just because he’s my older brother. It’s this whole musical pipeline that’s been coming through him to me, and it’s a large part of the reason this band sounds the way it does [Tim’s older brother introduced him to many of the bands that have become his musical influences]. I don’t know if the other guys would agree, but in my life the taste and style choices I make—everyone has that personal audience that they’re playing their music for, or writing their books for, or whatever it is you do. My brother is the main member of that audience for me. Besides that, naturally if there’s an A&R person present, a representative of the label, they’re going to have an influence because they represent the people who are paying for the whole thing. There has been some sway from outside the band. I think that most of it we shouldn’t have listened to. But you learn.

SPYGLASS: 20-20 hindsight.

TIM: Yeah, but you have to be open-minded. I think it’s a mistake to have that tunnel vision. Part of being in a band is sharing different influences and different visions. No one is doing it on their own. [Greg walks in]

SPYGLASS: Everybody I talk to says ‘Later Days’ is the band’s best record.

GREG: It’s clearly a better record. We’re biased because our newest work is going to be our favorite, just because it represents more where we’re at right now. But I think it has better performance, better sound, better concept overall.

SPYGLASS: How long did it take you [Tim and Greg] to get to the way you harmonize the way you do?

GREG: It pretty much clicked right away. It wasn’t necessarily good. Obviously it wasn’t as good as it now, and it’s not as good now as it’s going to be in twenty years. I don’t plan on not singing with Tim until I’m in the grave. Tim was the first person I ever harmonized with. I had never had anyone to sing with. Tim had sung in choirs and he knew about harmony as a theory and a practice.

TIM: It was definitely as soon as we started singing together. I’d sung with other people growing up, but we worked well together right away.

GREG: I don’t know if it’s because I have a higher voice, or our range blends well—I mean, you can analyze it or whatever. It was just a good chemistry. And then we just worked on it. We spent hours and hours. We shared a bedroom in Chico that was, like eight by ten.

TIM: We spent an inordinate amount of time together. More than most people our age have spent together. We only met each other ten years ago.

GREG: Not even that long.

TIM: But in that time, we’ve spent an incredible amount of time together singing or writing or playing guitar. Or just doing drugs.

GREG & TIM: And singing and playing guitar…[they laugh]

SPYGLASS: Alright. Different question: what the hell is a crank flat? [They laugh…the question refers to a ‘roadnotes’ section on the Mother Hips site]

GREG: The baaad side of town.

TIM: That’s where you drive down the street and everyone you see looks like they’ve been on crank for like twelve years. A lot of toothless people. [John and Isaac walk in] Isaac, you got a cigarette for ol’ T-Bone?

SPYGLASS: [Isaac has his coffee in his hand, and hands Tim a cigarette] Isaac, I thought you were off drugs—what’s with the caffeine?

JOHN: Have you ever been to an AA meeting? It’s all coffee and cigarettes.

ISAAC: How would you know Hofer? [everybody laughs]

JOHN: ‘Cause I here you guys talking about it all the time!

SPYGLASS: When did you guys play the H.O.R.D.E. festival?

GREG: In ’95. We played one show in ’94. But we toured in ’95.

SPYGLASS: So how do you go from playing the H.O.R.D.E. or a big show like the one at the Crest Theater in Sacramento, to playing a small show like the one in Aurora [home of the ‘crank flats’] or here at the Grad?

TIM: It can break your heart a little bit to play a small show after a big one.

GREG: It can go the other way though, too. It can be difficult to play a big room because the sound is more spread out. It’s easy to get a good sound in a little bar because the instruments are close. So, physically, it’s hard to go to a big show after playing a string of bars. It’s a whole different feeling—it’s not as intimate.

TIM: Emotionally though, whenever you have progress—success—it feels great. Anytime you have stagnation or regression it’s discouraging.

The Mother Hips have had their fill of success and discouragement over the past seven years. Their new record, Later Days, is their most cohesive, refined work to date, and is available in stores now. The band has developed their stage presence, delivering the best rock-‘n’-roll music Northern California has to offer. Whether it is because of new drummer John Hofer, or their new sobriety, the band plays an enormously better show today than it did two years ago. The struggle with their recording label is in their past. Today, the Mother Hips concentrate on the future—a future that promises nothing less than greatness.