The Mother Hips Connection

Or, how a fascination with a slew of genres turned into California soul

There's a sleepy movement in California that would have the state split in two. The reasons for that swirl around political representation, urban-rural distinctions, water, and North State pride. Those differences have fueled talk of a new state of Jefferson, which would attach the top third of California to a slice of southern Oregon. But such controversy ignores the common threads that bind California together: The sunny-day misfits at a continent's edge, natural beauty from coast to Sierra, and, of course, a music that spans a geography of the land and the mind.

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."

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