BY MEREDITH KLEIBER FOLK FESTIVAL CORRESPONDENT The lineup of Philly’s own Hoots & Hellmouth has certainly changed a lot over the years, but what remain immutable are their folk-powered melodies, honeyed harmonies, and prevailing sense of good ol’ foot-stompin’ fun. To add a little more oomph and keep spirits high after the departure of founding member Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray, they recently added a drummer into the mix, thus changing the band’s dynamic and adding more rhythm to their already animated live energy. They play the Main Stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival tonight.
PHAWKER: Your performances always contain so much energy. With your busy touring schedule, how do you get yourself pumped up for each performance? Do you have a pre-show ritual?
SEAN HOOTS: It’s funny that people ask that, because generally we’re all pretty laid back in our “normal” day-to-day activities. But there’s something about getting on stage that triggers a sort of unique reaction. There’s no particular formula that I ascribe to, but it’s music that we’re passionate about, so when the passion is there, it kind of leaps out you. Energy is something that’s definitely become a hallmark of our shows, but more than just straight-up energy is just the passion for what we do… we’ve really embraced it. It’s just a part of who we are.
PHAWKER: I know that Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray left the band towards the end of 2010 to return to teaching. Has it been difficult to carry on without him?
SEAN HOOTS: I don’t want to say it’s been difficult. It’s definitely been an adjustment. He and I were the two that started the band… I mean, we didn’t even name ourselves. The name came from us playing the same open mic night and enjoying playing with one another just for the hell of it, and someone called us that when they were calling us up for the open mic. There was never much of an intention to be a band; the way that we started was just with the song. So that was our entrance — it was all about the song. As a result, with Andrew departing, our spirit has remained intact, so we just roll with it. The songs that I wrote are still in the repertoire. I write a whole lot, so I’ve got my old songs to go through. There’s been no shortage of material. Moving on to something he wanted to do kind of allowed us, in dealing with the loss, to reinvent ourselves. We added a full-time drummer/percussionist and are experimenting with new sounds and textures. It’s kind of allowing us to go forward in a new way. It’s ultimately a good thing for everybody, including Andrew. He really prefers being at home and having the steady day job that he has and all that kinda stuff. It really works to everyone’s benefit.
PHAWKER: That’s great. I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys with the drummer.
SEAN HOOTS: Yeah, it definitely changes the dynamic in that it allows us to get even louder, but it also allows us to be really subtle and nuanced in the quiet stuff. So for us it’s been a real inspirational kick.
PHAWKER: What first brought you to Philly?
SEAN HOOTS: My parents moved us up here when I was in high school to the Downingtown area. I went to Downingtown High School. Philly is my home, though, since I’ve been here half of my life. People make a big deal of me being from the south, as if that somehow makes our music relevant. People will say, “oh, I’ve never heard this music coming from Philly, but it makes sense since you’re from the south.” But quite honestly, me being from the south doesn’t have a whole lot to do with how this band turned out.
PHAWKER: How has living here shaped your music?
SEAN HOOTS: Good question. I take inspiration from so many different places. It’s not necessarily one point in specific. I’ve written since I was very young, so the form that those songs take is dependent upon what I’m into in the moment. Like when I first started writing I was into metal, so that’s kinda how things came out. But I discovered things like The Beatles on the way and started dabbling in pop songwriting, and then rock, blues, and jazz. It’s less a matter of geography and more a matter of my own personal discovery. I’m always looking for something new to devour; the music in me requires me to reach out and discover as much music as I can. I certainly don’t have a title or genre for the type of music that Hoots & Hellmouth plays, but for me personally, music that I connect with and write is generally what I call soul music. It’s not necessarily the genre of soul that people think of, like Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding, although they’re also huge in my life. It’s more just music with that sort of internal integrity. I feel like every genre and every corner of the music map contains somebody that tapped into their own personal soul, and that’s where that music came from. I’ve moved around a lot and have been on the road a lot, so my life is changing constantly geographically. My constants are music and what I’m pursuing in the moment. That’s where a lot of my musical influences come from. As far as writing songs, my influences come from everywhere.
PHAWKER: Who are your favorite local musicians to jam with?
SEAN HOOTS: Honestly, it’s really sad to say this, but I haven’t had time to sit around and jam with anybody lately. We’re on the road so much and playing with one another so much that when I get home, I don’t really leave the house. I just kinda burrow in and cook and read and catch up with myself. I do a lot of playing by myself. I have a whole side thing going, too.
PHAWKER: I’ll look forward to hearing that.
SEAN HOOTS: Some of it is already up in abstract form. I have a Bandcamp page — seanhoots.bandcamp.com. The first volume of my solo work is a lot of soundscapes and all instrumental, but with a lot of voice that I kind of looped and cut up and turned into things that are completely worthless (laughs). But it’s a completely different thing from Hoots & Hellmouth.
PHAWKER: Having raised almost $24,000 from fans on Kickstarter.com to record your new album, it must feel liberating to not have to worry about money for a little while. But do you ever feel stressed about how the new album will be received, especially since it’s being made with the fans’ money?
SEAN HOOTS: I don’t really stress about that part. The Kickstarter campaign was absolutely overwhelming and flattering in the most sincere way possible. Our contract with our previous label had just expired and we had a bunch of new songs that we’d been sitting on for a while. Then we found ourselves sitting there with the freedom and the songs, but we were wondering how we were going to do this other than just recording like the way we did for the Window and the Woodshed on our Web site, which was just basically setting up a shitty camera and recording us playing things live in various incarnations and arrangements. We were going to just release an EP with the money we thought we might raise on Kickstarter, but we got so much response that we had enough money to release the EP we released in March, Face First in the Dirt, and then also record this record that we’re finishing up now. This new record will at the very least be released to the fans and the Kickstarter people in the fall, but the greater release might have to wait until next year, since we want to seek out someone who might be able to distribute and promote it on the level that we don’t have the money for. The money that we raised is already gone. The life in a band is not cheap and we don’t end up making anything. We end up just barely paying rent most of the time. The Kickstarter ended up entirely going to the records. The money from the fans is going to go right back to the fans. We just got the master back on the new record, so once we get the artwork finalized, it’s going to be ready to go into production. We’re hoping to have that available when we play the TLA on September 24th. At least that will be the release for the fans. It wont be necessarily a big release where it’s just distributed all over the place, because we don’t have that kind of system in place at this point.
PHAWKER: So would you say distribution is the biggest challenge in working with this fan-financed recording model?
SEAN HOOTS: Well, yeah, because distribution is really a whole other arm of what we were aiming to do. Our sole intent of the Kickstarter campaign was to raise money so that we could go into the studio and make a record. We manufactured our EP that came out. We even had our good friend Bobby Rosenstock do a letterpress for both the EP and the 10-inch vinyl that we made of it. Our standards for releasing are very high; we want to make a product in this age of digital-file transfer and everyone not giving a shit about records anymore. We hold onto a certain aesthetic for how we release our material. We wanted to make the release mean something. All that is very important to us. We got exactly what we wanted from the money, which was getting good versions of these songs down. Now we find ourselves at the crossroads of taking this money from the fans and turning it into something bigger. These days, the music industry is so blown wide open that we’re all at ground zero, basically. We all have to fend for ourselves. Things like Kickstarter are an amazing boon for what they’re worth, but what we’re trying to do is not cheap. We’re really happy with what we did with the money. The EP was meant to be a stepping stone from the days of yore with Andrew involved to what we’re evolving into. We’re working on creating an atmosphere and making our own statement rather than coming across as some sort of revival band. We’ve never tried to be a traditional band. We’re keeping songwriting as the central focus. That’s what the people willing to invest in our band are into, anyway — the songs. The songs are what remain constant.
PHAWKER: If you could make an album with anyone else on the bill this year, who would it be and why?
SEAN HOOTS: Wow. There’s so many. Honestly, off the top of head, I would fuckin’ kill to make a record with Levon Helm. He perfected what I like to call funky country. I’m a big fan of that. But beyond that, I would also say the Wood Brothers. I’m a huge Medeski, Martin & Wood fan, and I like the Wood Brothers as well. It would be awesome to get into a room, especially with Chris, and just kinda fuck around. We just played with them on Sunday at a fest up in Burlington, Vermont. We got to chat with them a little bit, and they were super nice guys and amazing players. The Folk Fest has done a good job with mixing locals with nonlocal bands. It’s going to be a good 50th all around.