Vienna Teng at The Power Center

The Magazine

July 19, 2011

New Sonic Textures with Hoots & Hellmouth


by David Nassar

Very little has remained constant over the years for the Philadelphia-based Hoots & Hellmouth.  Lead singer/guitarist Sean Hoots and his friend Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray started off as a duo, but the band has grown and shrunk in multiple incarnations along the way.  They’ve rocked everything from breweries to organic farms with their foot-stompin’, bluegrass inspired folk-rock.  With the recent departure of Andrew Gray from the band, Hoots & Hellmouth might be tempted to view their future as uncertain.  But with new instruments, a new album in production and new tour dates ahead, Hoots & Hellmouth are making this an opportunity to redefine their sound and reconnect with fans.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sean Hoots about the recent changes to the band, the time they spent recording in Ann Arbor with Jim Roll, their views on localism and sustainability and their love of craft-brewed beer.

H&H started with just you and Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray, but both of you had been in bands before that.  How did your experiences with those bands influence what you wanted H&H to be?

We didn’t have a specific vision for what this band would be when we started out.  It was a slow process of evolution.  Me and Andrew started out in more traditional rock band and started re-discovering acoustic roots music and getting back to a simpler form of expression that didn’t require anything plugged in.  It was a very simple, honest, naked experience. [...] That spilled over into a local open mic that served as sort of a testing ground and eventually solidified us as a pair.  From there we started adding people we knew from our previous bands, and the whole thing kind of evolved from there.

We never intended to be a roots band, or bluegrass, or Americana, or whatever label you want to put on it.  We’re still officially very much a rock band, but with acoustic instruments.  Traditional music is very much an influence, but it’s not the goal.  As far as original goals or visions, there really weren’t any, and I think that really shaped what we are as a band.  Eventually we had to start making decisions and start steering the course a little more because the more we eventually realized that we were becoming a band—something we never originally intended to do—the more we had to start focusing on the mechanics of that.  Since then, we’ve added members and lost members, managers and booking agents.  Now with Andrew having left the band last summer, it’s a whole new turn of events and evolution of the band.

Speaking of Andrew leaving the band, I read his blog post from last year that announced his intentions to leave and perhaps pursue a career in teaching.  Are those still his plans?

Right now he’s involved in a literacy program for court-appointed cases in Philadelphia.  It’s quite a bit rougher scene than he was used to when he was teaching 8th grade English out in the suburbs years ago.  That’s what he did before the band, so he’s really just going back to what he originally intended to do with his life.

Do you still speak with Andrew?

Yeah!  We actually just played a show with him this past Sunday.  It was a memorial for a mutual friend of ours, so we ended up playing sort an old-school set of songs that we hadn’t played in a long time.  There’s no love-lost.  It was just a decision that he needed to make for himself with the direction that his life was taking.  We’re friends first before we’re band mates.  We all still live within a few blocks of each other here in west Philly.  It’s not a bitter parting by any means on either side.  We support his decision fully.

Has the sound of the band changed since Andrew left?

Yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s had anything directly to do with Andrew leaving.  We’ve added a drummer and some new sounds—keys, accordions and even some electric guitar sneaking in—but we’re always on a roll as far as who we are and what we are.  People ask us all the time, “What do you call this music?” and I can never answer that.  It’s not easily graspable for me.  I can’t put it into words.  We kind of leave that up to other people to decide.

I can imagine you have an even tougher time when people ask you to define the sound of your solo album. (Sean’s debut solo album, “Raise the Dead! Language: Volume 1” is a an abstract / soundscape album available for download at

Oh yeah!  I call that the “counter-point.”  It sort of balances out all this ritzy, acoustic music that I do.  It gives me a chance to be something completely “other” and give my creative side a workout.

You guys recorded the EP, “Face First in the Dirt,” in Ann Arbor with local folk legend, Jim Roll.  What was that experience like?

It was awesome.  I love the Ann Arbor area.  Our booking agent is from there and, as a result, we’ve done quite a bit of touring in the Michigan area.  I love the new modern folk scene that’s going on there with people like Chris Bathgate and Frontier Ruckus.  Michigan has a lot of cool stuff going on right now, and Ann Arbor particularly has a really cool, sort of forward-thinking vibe to it that we really relate to.  We made really great friends there in town.

How did you hook-up with Jim Roll?

It started off with Anya (Siglin) at The Ark, and we built a great relationship there over the years.  We had met Jim Roll’s manager, and she heard that we were looking for a place to do some recording.  So, we stopped by his studio and just chatted with him for a few minutes and it seemed like a perfect fit.  I really loved the work that he’d done with Breathe Owl Breathe.  Even though we didn’t know each other before then, we just had a lot of common points between us through the folk scene.  We worked out a five-day session with him in December and it was just amazing.  We went there and it snowed for a couple of days, so we got the full winter-in-Michigan vibe.  We get some snow [in Philly], but there’s just something different about it there.  It really helped get us into the mindset.  Just leaving home for us was a different mindset for us.  We’d only ever recorded in studios in Philadelphia before then.

What were your favorite places to hang out while you were in Ann Arbor?

Ashley’s was awesome.  All the beers, especially all the Michigan beers they feature there [made it a] must-stop when I was going into town.  Actually, another cool thing we did was that we met this couple there who, one morning a week, open up their house to local chefs who come in and bring local food from farms in the area.  They cook up a big brunch and you come in and sit down [and eat]. It was definitely one of those things where we felt like we were connecting with the community rather than just passing through town as tourists.

You have three local shows coming up—one in Kalamazoo at Bell’s Brewery, a free show in A2 for Sonic Lunch and the Roots Jamboree in Ypsi. Have you played any of these venues before?

No.  We’ve been to Bell’s a bunch passing through because we love their beer.  I don’t think we’ve ever actually played in Ypsilanti before.  An old band of mine played at the Elbow Room, but that’s the only connection we’ve had to Ypsilanti.

You’re playing several breweries on your upcoming tour.  Do you have any favorite beers or favorite breweries from the area?

Honestly, I like it all.  It just depends on what the seasonal availabilities are and what the plans are for the evening.  If I’m playing, I have to try and keep things on the more “sessionable” side.  Some of the bigger beers can tend to sort of mess up the vocal chords a bit.  At Bell’s, the Two-Hearted has always been a big favorite of mine.  Short’s is another one I really like.  And, Founder’s … their Centennial IPA is just outstanding.

The band seems to play a lot of free shows and unusual venues such as farms and breweries.  What drives you to continue playing these kinds of shows?

It’s advantageous for us to get in front of an audience that we might not otherwise get in front of.  A free show definitely changes the spirit of the event.  It goes a long way to make the audience feel more comfortable about being there.  If you play at a club and charge $20, the people that are willing to pay that already know about you.  They’re going to come and have a good time, but you’re not going to reach the people that are either on the fence or have never heard you before.  It’s really all about balancing out the free shows with paying gigs.  For example, we were able to sell out The Ark in Ann Arbor now, which is a nice chunk of change so we can use that to balance out something like the free show at Sonic Lunch.   Plus, we’re able to be pretty fickle if need be.  I mean, it doesn’t really take a whole lot for us to come out, grab a guitar a play a few songs.  It makes the event a more unique experience for the audience.  It’s the same for me.  When I discover something new rather than being handed it and told that I should like it, I feel a greater sense of ownership over it… a deeper connection to it.

You’ve also been working on a new full-length album back in Philly.  What can fans expect the sound of the new album to be?

If you’re familiar with the EP, “Face First In the Dirt,” that we put out in March, I would say that’s sort of a harbinger of things to come—a little bit of a stepping stone.  Our first record was on the slightly more traditional side of things.  Then, “Holy Open Secret” kind of further developed that theme.  But now we’ve kind of added a bit of hip-hop or soul and R&B influence.  It’s not finished, but the EP is sort of us exploring new textures and sonic worlds.  The record that we’re doing now is even sort of a further development of that.  We’re definitely not interested in maintaining the hee-haw, barn-stormin’ reputation that we’ve gotten so far.

H&H are very well known for promoting localism and sustainability through your music and at your shows.  Was this something you planned from the beginning or did you become interested in it in some other way?

It’s definitely something that we sort of stumbled upon along the way.  I grew up with a certain amount of farming in my family.  My grandfather on my mom’s side was a livestock farmer in South Carolina, and my father grew up on an orchard in western North Carolina.  Both of those places were key parts in my years growing up.  I mean, it wasn’t like we preached the farmer’s ideal or anything like that.  It was just life.  I think we as a culture, or a certain segment of the culture, is becoming more and more aware of just how disconnected we’ve become from our food sources and how it’s unraveling a lot of local communities.  The fact is that the system and the resources that we have now are eventually going to fail.  It just isn’t going to last.

Now, it’s just a part of our life.  We spend so much time on the road that there has to be an attempt to bring a holistic approach to our lives, whether we’re on the road or at home because the inconsistency of life on the road can really knock you for a loop.  So what we’re trying to do is just incorporate the kinds of things that we would be supporting at home while we’re on the road, and that’s where a lot of the things that we do come from.  In order to make this work on a business-level, we have to play music all the time right now and, if we’re going to do that, we might as well make it as interesting and as stimulating as possible so that it’s not just day-in and day-out, bar-van-bar-van, because that can really sort of destroy one’s spark.

Do you see yourselves as an “issue” band?

We’re not an issue band or a soapbox band.  We’re not trying to politicize it because it’s a basic fundamental human need.  It’s not an issue or a gimmick that we’re trying to get behind.  I’m certainly not into politics at all or taking a side because I think it’s a waste of time.  I more interested in something a lot more important and immediate that will affect every living being.

Catch Hoots & Hellmouth on August 4 at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo and at Sonic Lunch in Ann Arbor’s Liberty Park.  You can also see them in Ypsilanti on August 6 at the Michigan Roots Jamboree.

About the Author

Tim Adkins
Tim Adkins
Tim is the publisher of iSPY and co-founder of Pakmode Media + Marketing. He's a social, vegetarian geek who recently welcomed a beautiful baby girl into his family. For any questions or suggestions in regards to design, ad sales, web, content or anything at all related to iSPY, Tim's your guy.

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