Mother Hips bring ‘Green Hills of Earth’ to Chico
oming back to Chico is always a little strange for the Mother Hips.
“The town’s so rich in memories, both good and bad, that it’s kind of a spooky place for us sometimes,” said Tim Bluhm, the band’s lead singer and guitarist.
Chico is where Bluhm met singer/guitarist Greg Loiacono, where they first played together in dorm room jam sessions, where they started writing songs and recruited bassist Isaac Parsons and drummer Mike Wofchuck to join the band they named in admiration of a shapely female acquaintance. Chico is where they all lived together, built up an enormous local following, issued a self-produced CD, then signed a major-label recording contract and started reading stories in major newspapers touting them as the proverbial Next Big Thing during the early ‘90s.
But Chico is also the place they moved away from during a difficult time when their record label dropped them, when they had to replace Wofchuck and realized they needed to give up drinking and drugs. And for a while, a few years back, it was a place where part of their audience seemed to resent the fact that they’d given up their hard-partying ways.
“That was really tough,” said Loiacono. “I think some of the people who wanted our shows to be ‘Chico Party 1992 Revisited’ might have packed up and moved on. But at the same time, a lot of new fans were being turned on, and we started getting new people. That’s still happening; in fact, now it’s happening more and more.”
Over time, the Hips regained the local following that made them one of the most popular Chico bands ever. And this week, as they get ready to play here once again, on Saturday at the Senator Theater as part of the Nowhere X Nowhere festival, the release of Green Hills of Earth is generating a buzz the band hasn’t heard since the old days. The CD has gotten them a lot of press, including a front-page feature in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Datebook, and the band is finally finding its way onto radio play lists.
“There are like 45 radio stations that are playing us now,” said Loiacono. “It’s great. It’s a great way for us to break through to new fans.”
For 10 years, the Mother Hips made fans the old fashioned way—by playing shows 200-300 nights per year, mostly in Northern California, where the band has earned a fanatical following that allows it to sell out venues many nationally popular acts wouldn’t be able to play. At some shows, most of the audience will have seen the band dozens—even hundreds—of times.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Bluhm. “I’m just glad they come.”
One reason, Loiacono suggests, may be that the Hips never play the same set twice. “We always throw in surprises,” he said.
That’s true. But, more important, the band’s as solid a performing unit as you’ll find. Bluhm and Loiacono are good guitarists and outstanding singers; Parsons is a bassist with jazz-level chops, and John Hofer, who replaced Wofchuck four years ago, brings a steadiness and economy that have made the band more focused and professional.
Even more impressive is the songwriting. From early efforts like “Hey Emily” and “The Figure 11” to the brand-new “Pull Us All Together,” these guys write tunes that blend influences from the Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield into a unique sound several writers have termed “California soul,” coining a phrase from Bluhm’s lyrics.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Hips have a devoted following in this state (and in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, where they also play regularly), or that many have marked them as potential stars. In 1992, when the band signed with American Recordings after selling 5,000 copies of its self-released debut, Back to the Grotto, there was every reason to believe that American could make the Hips a household word.
But it didn’t happen. Partly because the band picked up an unwarranted reputation as a “jam band” but largely because American failed to promote them, the band’s two American CDs stiffed. The label dropped them while undergoing financial difficulties in 1996.
“It’s pretty much your standard story: Band gets signed, band gets screwed, band gets dumped,” said Bluhm. “I’m just sorry we made such good records for them, and nobody can get them now.”
It was around that time that Bluhm and Loiacono quit drinking and using drugs. The Hips had existed for years in the middle of a long-running party that centered around their house on Chestnut Street—sometimes, Loiacono said, they would stay at hotels just to get a break from it all—but by 1996 their good-natured partying had come to include hardcore drug use.
“It was one of those things where it’s gradually, imperceptibly growing, until it just becomes a nightmare,” said Bluhm.
The band would certainly have broken up, Bluhm said, except that Loiacono, at the urging of his family, was able to get straight, giving Bluhm the incentive he needed to clean up. Recognizing Loiacono as his musical soul mate, he knew they couldn’t continue to work together unless he quit, too.
“When Greg stopped, it opened up a chasm between him and me,” Bluhm recalled. “It became an easy decision at that point. It was clear what I had to do.”
The newly sober band rebounded, issuing Later Days on Mother Hips Records in 1998. The CD’s bare-bones production style was appropriate for that set of countrified gems, but for Green Hills of Earth they wanted something different.
“We realized these were songs we could dig into and experiment with, tweaking guitar tones and playing around with things in the studio,” Loiacono said. “We wanted to make a record, not just a recording of what we would play live.”
Production-wise, it’s certainly much more lush and densely layered than previous recordings. Though “Smoke” and “Rich Little Girl"—long staples of the band’s live shows—get straight-ahead run-throughs, tunes like “Protein Sky” and “Sara Bellum” recall the ornate pop of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds period. “Such a Thing” features a sitar-like guitar sound and Kinks-style riff, while the insanely catchy “Pull Us All Together” has a melody that John Lennon would have been proud of. The odd, idiosyncratic “Protein Sky” and “Seaward Son” sound like they almost could have come from Syd Barrett or Space Oddity-era Bowie.
It’s probably their strongest and most varied effort yet, and so far reviews have been excellent. With radio stations such as the Bay Area’s KFOG playing the Beatlesque “Singing Seems To Ease Me,” it’s just possible that this CD might finally bring the Hips to a mass audience.
Bluhm, who lives in his truck and spends his time surfing, skiing, reading and generally “looking at things” when the Hips aren’t playing, is philosophical about the possibility.
“The record has definitely raised our profile, and I’m so pleased about that," said Bluhm. "But really, I’m happy with what we have. I sincerely believe it’ll never be top 40, and aside from wanting more money, I would never want it to be. There’s just too much that comes with all that. I feel incredibly lucky to have what we have, and if we can just hold on to that, I’ll be stoked."