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The Mother Hips
an interview with Tim Bluhm by Matt Dornan

'Green Hills of Earth' is The Mother Hips' fifth full-length and a contender for album of the year. Nine years on from their self-released debut 'Back to the Grotto' the San Francisco quartet have delivered a magnificent collection teeming with invention and flawless performances. Two years in the making and drawing from a wealth of songs from the prolific Tim Bluhm (who also put out a solo record, 'Land and Sea Chanteys') and Greg Loiacono, 'Green Hills' rewards with fourteen tracks that draw influence from the golden age of British music, gilded with west-coast harmonies, and drenched in melody. Reflective and realistic as his band enters its second decade, Tim Bluhm talks about the album's gestation, the trappings of 'success' and the value of a good song.

In an on-line interview you talk about Sarah Bellum as representing 'a search that never ends.' You also said that 'it's not the finding that matters, it's the looking.' If we apply that philosophy to your musical career would you consider the ten years you've dedicated to Mother Hips a search?
I have spent most of my adult years playing in the Mother Hips. As with any life, there is never a stopping point. There are places where you stop and look back at where you have been and reflect on your progress, and times when you look to the future and plan your route. I realise as I have grown that whenever I have gained something that I strived for, I grew bored with that thing after a while. I am seldom happier at the end than I am before the end. There is no ultimate goal that I hope to achieve by playing in the band, other than to write better songs and to make better records. But despite this realisation I guess I still believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow enough to keep searching in earnest for it. I kind of know by now that such things do not exist.

Would 'Green Hills of Earth' be considered the musical culmination of that search or just another chapter?
'Green Hills' is, of course, the next chapter for us. Even if it was the last Mother Hips record, which it will not be, it could not be the end of anything. Possibilities in music are so incredibly vast that I will be able to make records that are interesting to me for many years to come.

It's a very crafted record, sonically, with some inspired arrangements. Was it a tough record to make, fine-tuning the details etc? How do you envisage following this record, stylistically?
This was a difficult record to make. Even without the long lapses between some of the sessions, the recording would have taken us almost a year. As it was it took a little over two years. The songs represented some four years of songwriting. The group decided early on in the project that we would be meticulous in our process and decisions and make this the best crafted album we had done to date. We were concerned with making it sound new and reflecting the changes we had undergone since the release of the stripped-down, live-sounding 'Later Days'. Of course 'Green Hills' was a difficult record to make, tedious and straining on the band's inter-relations. Nowhere are group dynamics more difficult than in the field of artistic vision. I will always remember the immense feeling of relief that came to us when we had finally finished it. We were the best of friends again. Following this one will be easy enough, I should think. We always seem to have plenty of songs ready to go. Which of those we choose will decide how the record will sound. My instinct tells me to go in some totally different direction.

The new record has gained the band more exposure and some glowing reviews. I'll confess that this is the first I've heard of Mother Hips, quite possibly the case for many in Europe. Is a wider audience - geographic-ally speaking - something the band have hoped for?
We are always looking for ways of playing in front of people who have never heard us. >From experience we know that there are lots of people who would be turned on if they only knew what we were getting after. Our music has proven to have a wide appeal without stooping to the "lowest common denominator" theory that prevails among musical talents found in MTV or in the pages of such magazines as Rolling Stone. What better place to find new audiences than another continent?

Did British music in any way influence ' Green Hills'?
Of course the sounds on the new record have been shaped by British bands of the late 60's era like the Bee Gees, the Kinks and a band from another part of the Isles, Fairport Convention. This was a time so rich in pleasing pop sounds that it is an obvious place to go for references. There is a tradition of California bands emulating British bands and vice versa. What we tried to do was reference the sounds of records such as 'Face to Face' by the Kinks, or 'Bee Gees First' or 'The White Album' or 'Hunky Dory' and add a more modern colour to them and apply them to our own style of songwriting. Unenthusiastic critics call it retro but that is a hasty and unthoughtful judgement. It is no more retro than a Boeing 757 jet liner.

What inspired your solo records, why were the songs not Mother Hips songs?
Pure enthusiasm for making records is what inspired me to release a solo record. I couldn't wait for the ponderous motions of the band's recording schedule to do it again. The process of recording a record by oneself is far quicker, at least for me, because I tend to stick to first or second takes when there isn't someone there to tell me to try again. I am not patient enough to be a perfectionist. Most of the songs on that record are songs that are not appropriate for the band. Either they are too mellow or they don't sound good with drums and/or bass or the band, collectively, just didn't like them. Anyways, songs are relatively easy to write and there are a lot of them hanging around. The more I and we can record and release, the better.

Rich Little Girl sounds like it could have come from an earlier Mother Hips record in that it's funky and riff-based. It fits into 'Green Hills' because one of the album's strengths is its diversity, but was it and Smoke deliberately sequenced late in the running order?
Rich Little Girl is indeed an old,old song. We have, in fact, recorded it for several other records and never included it before. We have found it more difficult in general to make the more rocking songs listenable without destroying their rock. I believe we accomplished it finally on this album with the aid of a certain Big Star recording. Smoke, too, is an older song and they were placed later in the record because that's where they felt good. There was certainly debate as to their inclusion on the record at all.

Smoke sounds like a crowd-pleaser. I'm intrigued as to how this studio record works in the live setting. What are the key differences for you between the live set that you've honed over the years to your approach in a studio setting?
Most of the arrangements were worked out on the stage. Performances are where the material is tested and honed as practising is distasteful to us. Therefore most of the songs already worked live before we recorded them. Certainly we tried to alter them sonically to make them sound as pleasing as possible. It didn't matter if the studio versions were unplayable on the stage because we already knew they worked there in some other form. Over the years we have experimented with other instruments and additional musicians onstage but we always go back to the four-piece set-up. That is how the chemistry seems to be purest and have the most impact on listeners.

The acoustic show downloadable from The Grotto leans towards the country stylings of Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard etc. You sound equally at home with these songs as you to with the more pop oriented material. Is a good song a good song regardless of its presentation? Do you feel the 'industry' is reluctant to embrace a multi-faceted band?
A good song is a good song but a good performance is a good song done well. One of the coolest things about old country music is the tireless attention to the quality of the songwriting. A "multi-faceted band" requires a multi-faceted fan-base. I have found that a band can actually lead their fans to styles of music that were previously unknown or even unappealling to them. I believe we have done this over the years by putting out records that are stylistically different form one another. The risk of doing this is losing fans but the pay-off is escaping the horrendous chore of churning out the same culture-product that is expected of you in the name of making some more money. Lack of broad success has relieved us of the pressures of that regrettable situation.

You seem to have found the ideal label in Future Farmer. The records I have on that label (For Stars, Virgil Shaw, Matt Ward and yourselves) are among my favourites of the past year or so. Is there a sense of label identity with FF? What drew you to them and them to you?
Future Farmer is a San Fransisco label and the Mother Hips is a San Fransisco band. The label can use an act that sells records, the band can use a label that has "indie cred." On a personal level, we all trust Dennis Mitchell and his vision and get along with him. It is more important for us to have some control and a label's full attention than to have a traditional major-label deal and the outrageous price-tags that accompany it. It is easy for us to make the music we really want to make when our agenda does not include writing hooks in hopes of getting the label to say "We hear a single."

CWAS #9 - Winter 2002

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