Ten Questions with Sean Hoots on Hoots and Hellmouth’s Beautiful New Record, IN THE TREES
It’s been four and half years since Hoots and Hellmouth’s last record, 2012’s promising but uneven Salt. In that time, songwriter Sean Hoots was able to take a much needed sabbatical from the relentless touring that defined the band through its first half-dozen years together.
That result, Hoots and Hellmouth’s fourth full-length effort, In the Trees Where I Can See the Forest, has the reenergized feel of a band that’s comfortable with the new, a band that’s poised to become something altogether different than what it’s known best for: a woodshedding, kickass Americana jam band.
While their 2007 self-titled debut was hailed by the roots and college rock communities alike, and their subsequent live shows did nothing to dim that promise, the departure of founding member Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray left questions about the identity and direction of the band. What In the Trees shows is an evolved, mature sound of a band that’s been through some fire and has come out on the other side with renewed purpose and introspection.
The new record, which Hoots and Hellmouth has been touring behind since early Fall extends the tension that Salt introduced, and is their most varied collection yet of neo-soul, pop grooves, soaring chords, and most significantly, Hoots’ increasingly introspective writing.
It doesn’t yield its secrets immediately. It’s a patient record, but pieces like the falsetto-driven “Diction,” the REM-ish “Delicate Skeleton,” and the delayed crescendo of “Hurts A Little” will linger with you for days.
What you are left with is the possibility of the neo-Americana movement when a gifted band trusts the process of “introducing the analog to the digital,” as Hoots says. For one thing, it’s one of the prettiest albums in one of our ugliest years.
Sean Hoots opened his West Philadelphia home studio to us to talk about the new record, his recent sonic and spiritual explorations, and what his impending fatherhood might mean for his creative output.
1. I always ask songwriters this because it’s fascinating to me how often it shows up in the flavor of the songs: What were you like as a kid?
I was pretty chill, I think. But I’ve been pounding on pianos and things for as long as I can remember. We had a piano in the house. My mom played a little bit, and I loved the things my mom was playing for me, everything from Elvis to old soul music and gospel music. I grew up in South Carolina, where her side of the family is from, and so there was a lot of influence of that.
I played in the woods a lot; my friends and I would just be gone for hours at a time, just kind of getting lost out there. So, yeah, I had a great childhood.
But we did tend to move around a lot as I got older, and that influenced my creative output. Hoots and Hellmouth’s style now tends to straddle a lot of lines, and I think some of that is because I’ve moved around and was exposed to so many different environments.
2. So what was the moment musically?
I got a little 1980s keyboard and I was writing songs [already], but then I got a guitar for my 12th birthday. I had just discovered heavy metal. And it was awesome. I could just feel the power of the music through me and how different it was from my parents’ music. This felt like my music. It just felt like this is a whole other power. And of course I’ve navigated so many different styles since then, but that was the moment.
3. So you, one of the earlier favorites of current Americana strain, started on electric?
[Laughs] I did, I did. I really didn’t start playing acoustic, believe it or not, until right before Hoots and Hellmouth started. This band started because I wanted to step away from the loud rock bands I’d been in. I wanted to bury myself in the hole with my acoustic guitar, because I’d never really gotten to know it that well. I had started really getting into fingerpicking, ragtime, the old-time blues stuff and just loving it. And realizing that it was such a different world for me.
4. And now this new album is very different again from what you’ve come to be known for. When I listen to it, it seems more atmospheric, more patient. There’s these hold-offs in songs like “Diction” or “Hurts a Little” before you hit the rising chords that you guys do so well.
[Multi-instrumentalist] Rob Berliner and I were in a band before Hoots and Hellmouth called Pilot Around the Sun, and “Diction” was a song we were working on at the tail end of that. That was a lot of what that band was about. It was an electric rock band with a lot of soul. When you look at the Hoots and Hellmouth discography, that atmospheric element seems to come in more and more.
The first record was a straightforward rootsy, folky, static in terms of the dynamics. Things start to get a little tense in [their second record] The Holy Open, and then Salt is when we were like “we can get into atmosphere, play with effects,”—still keep the rootsy aspects, introduce the analog to the digital, but take our machinery out in the woods, so to speak.
And in this latest one, we really started to flesh that out. Most of the tracks have electric guitar and keys and electric bass instead of mandolin or stand-up.
And even more drums.
Right. And in doing that, we wanted to give more peaks and valleys. Not doing them just to do them. Not doing it so you just get the feels, not doing it maybe at the first chorus, but waiting until the second or third so when it comes, it’s all the more powerful.
And it’s a lot of fun to play live too—you can feel the audience feel it [laughs].
5. The middle of the record is really powerful, and you can hear what it lets you guys do on stage. But there are some beautiful quiet moments like “Rivers and Rivulets” near the end—how are those quieter songs coming off live?
I’ve been really impressed by everyone’s ability to suspend their expectations when they come to the shows. They’ve been really well received, which feels really good.
There were definitely questions in my mind how this music was going to hit fans who’d been with us since the first record. Because we definitely started as a stripped down, raw, acoustic sort of thing—that was the whole idea, like I was saying earlier. . .
That wasn’t as much as a known quantity when you guys started.
No exactly, but I think there’s something very compelling about folk music and acoustic music that I think people needed to remember. I think that’s where this wave comes from. People are like “oh yeah, we can reconnect with that, and it sort of helps us understand our present a little bit.”
But my favorite acts in that [Americana] genre are the ones that are not just mimicking but pushing it forward. And I hope that’s what folks see we’re trying to do. We’re genuinely interested in this music and in pushing it forward.
I’ve never written a song as a reaction to something—you know, “the last record was folky, so I need a real rocker.” It’s just the natural flow of how these songs are being created. That evolution has always felt very natural to me.
6. Speaking of what people need at the moment, as an artist, how are you coping with the zeitgeist out there now—what’s happening in America?
You know, it’s been a roller coaster ride, which I think seems to be everybody’s reaction. I go between thinking it’s the American government, a democracy with checks and balances, and so nothing that horrible can happen, but then you see this guy appointing people, who are just as unqualified as he is, who are really going to affect all of us.
So I go between depression and some kind of jaded sense of optimism or hopefulness. I’m trying not to get bogged down in it too much. But it’s dark. It’s a dark moment. We certainly have had dark moments. I’ve never been an alarmist. It’s going to be okay, but we just have a lot of work to do. But we’ve always had a lot of work to do; this is a sort of a reminder.
And that’s important. We need to always be rethinking. You know, even as a traveling band, making our way through all these different regions, we understand maybe a little better how diverse this country is. If you don’t leave your zone very often, you begin to think everybody must think this way. But you know there’s a commonality out there: that people are dissatisfied, and they are looking to these leaders who promise change. Just like the last election—running on change—it’s just that the pendulum has swung the other way.
7. For your own swinging pendulum, forgive me for being presumptuous, but it seems like you’ve personally been through some dramatic change between these last records. The theme of rebirth from ash in prominent in the song “In Effigy,” and even the title of the record—are you able to see the forest from the trees a bit more lately?
Yeah, in exploring the healing modalities of music and art in some of the soundscape stuff I’ve done recently, I’ve really started to dive back into spiritual practice, and really exploring a lot more. Spirituality has always been very top-of-mind for me, but in the last few years I’ve really started to dive into a deeper sense of it for myself.
It’s just been so great, and my writing is reflective of a lot of my contemplation and where my head’s been and where my heart’s been. It’s opened a new sense of vulnerability in my writing.
In my earlier songs, a lot of it is “out there”—I’m analyzing it and singing about it. But this record is a lot more internal, and allowing that process to come into my writing. I never really felt totally comfortable with that, or I thought “ah, nobody really wants to hear this.”
But now I find a real benefit in exploring these things. Taking them onstage and sharing them with the public in a way that allows me to explore them myself, but also allows me to connect with people and show them what I’m going through. You know, it creates more of a dialogue . . .
And when you start to think of the music you really love from others, it’s always that . . .
Yeah, it’s the stuff that I just feel in here, that moves me. I’ve really been leaning into that feeling in my work.
8. One thing that was really intriguing to me about the new album: the body and the bones. You seem amazed by both the impermanence and power of what we’re built upon.
First the songs were just the latest things of what I’d been thinking and feeling, but I began to realize in the studio over several takes, it started to emerge that there was a pattern here.
There’s a lot about trees and bones—there’s a metaphor there that feels like they are related. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s definitely a meditation of where we come from, what we’re made of—I mean, big, human, clichéd things [laughs] everybody wrestles with, right?
It’s just my way of looking inside at the mechanics to try and better understand the world around us. Understanding that the same energy that vibrates in each one of my selves is the same energy that vibrates in every atom around us. Really, trying to wrap my head around, trying to understand that concept that “all is one”—and reconciling that with your individual human experience.
But our bones: you have them, I have them, the simple things that build all of us. You just start from there.
9. You mention your “selves”—plural. The first track on the record “The Golden Coast” has a refrain about a “song for every soul.” I think of you, how you’ve branched into these other sonic projects lately, outside of Hoots and Hellmouth, putting out soundscape type of music, holding music and yoga events in New York and Philly, essentially seeming to meld your artistic life with the rest of your life. As an artist, as a person, how separate are those two selves?
I’ve just been really enjoying exploring the whole musical world lately. I’ve been opening some doors into different territories for me. For the first few years with this band, it was just touring non-stop. Everything was this band. And it got to this point where I was feeling like I didn’t want to live my life so narrowly focused. On relationship levels, on personal growth levels, or creative levels. I was just starting to feel the burn a little bit.
So taking a step back a few years ago and slowing down the band’s activity really allowed me to refresh and reenergize. On tour at the end of the night, I’d put on headphones, almost therapeutically, and experiment with these different kind of soundscapes. And I started realizing that I wasn’t just making them for my own use, but I could interact with listeners on a different level. So I started working with musicians here in Philly and New York in meditation classes, yoga classes, and bringing in this almost entirely improvised music with all types of new instruments: Tibetan Bowls, gongs, droning instruments.
And it’s been amazing.
So lyrically on this new record, I was trying to understand the vibration that’s inside and that surrounds and connects all of us. And so that music became so important and eye-opening and soul-opening.
10. Okay, now, for the most eye-opening experience: you and your wife are about to have your first child. Have you given much thought to how much it’s going to change things for you?
Yeah, you know everyone has their anecdotes: “just you wait, things are going to be different . . .” And of course, I totally understand that from an outside perspective, and of course everything is going to become much more real and tangible in a couple of months, but I’m really excited and as ready as I can be.
I’m 40, and it took me a while to come around to being ready. I always wanted a family, but this all came about really naturally and in its own time, its right time. I’m just ready to take this on and learn all that I’m about ready to learn.
For a while, I wrestled with this idea of “if I have a child, I’m not going to have time to write. What happens to my creativity, where do I go from here?” But I really have this sense over the last several months, that’s it’s about ready to explode, that it’s going to bring this whole wave of creativity.
I really think this child is going to teach me a lot. I’m really excited for that. I want to be molded in this new way, this way that only a child can do for you.