Describing their style as “new music for old souls,” Hoots and Hellmouth is a Philadelphia-based roots music act whose music brings together the passion of alt-country and the rustic tone of acoustic folk, merging them with loping jam band grooves. Sean Hoots and Andrew Gray (aka Hellmouth) were both veterans of the Pennsylvania alternative rock scene when they began making music together in 2005 — Gray released an album as a member of Midiron Blast Shaft and Hoots spent five years with the group Pilot Around the Sun.
Eager to move in a different direction, Hoots and Gray began writing songs together on their acoustic guitars, and started playing out as a duo. In time, friends were joining in with Hoots and Hellmouth on-stage, and before long Rob Berliner on mandolin and Tom Celfo on upright bass (both former members of Pilot Around the Sun) became a regular part of the show. After a breakthrough appearance at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Festival, the group established a loyal following in their hometown, and frequent touring through the South earned them a large fan base there as well. Hoots and Hellmouth landed a deal with the WEA-distributed Mad Dragon Records label and in April 2007 they released their debut album, simply called “Hoots and Hellmouth.”
JM: I’m thinking of Hoots & Hellmouth as a “creative and talented acoustic string band.” How would you describe your music?
SH: This changes with weather, mood, etc., but I’d say something like “soulful roots,” “modern americana” or “just another rock band playing acoustic instruments.”
JM: What bands/influences have have most affected your sound?
SH: My family’s roots in the mountains of NC and the lowlands of SC have influenced my “sound” more than any particular band or artist. As a band, we all are very open and broad in our appreciation of music, so it’s difficult to pin it all on artist x, y or z. That said, Otis Redding is a van favorite for getting pumped up on the road.
JM: You guys are no strangers to sophisticated harmonies in both your playing and singing. Are your vocals more organic/spontaneous or planned/orchestrated?
SH: A little bit of both, I guess. when I write, I tend to record sketches of ideas in my basement alone…this usually involves lots of harmonies that I just come up with kind of instinctually/spontaneously. Then, when I bring the tunes to the rest of the band we do a bit more orchestrating to get everyone else on the same page (sometimes the parts I come up with are out of their ranges, so we’ll adjust to accommodate).
JM: Like all great string bands, you guys are very inventive in your playing and in the way your instruments interact. What can you tell me about the way you approach your instruments individually and how do you meld that into such a cohesive group sound?
SH: More than anything, I think we approach our individual instruments within the context of this group…not many solos or solo playing, really…and, as a result, things usually end up being very percussive, interlocking with one another, propelling each other forward. We have no drummer, and although the stomp boards create a good punctuation, the string instruments help to nuance our rhythms and really create something that appears greater than the sum of its parts.
JM: My favorite aspect of Hoots & Hellmouth, is the sense that you’re really listening to each other play and sing. Your live performances seem to parallel your recorded efforts. How do you communicate musically so well as a band?
SH: We’ve known each other for years, well before this band started. I think our long-standing friendships help create an easy flow of dialog, both musically and otherwise. At this point, we’ve been on the road with H&H so consistently for so long, that it’s a fluent second language for us all…we just fall into it.
JM: A band is only as good as its songwriting. What’s the creative process in Hoots & Hellmouth? Is there a main songwriter or is it a collaborative effort? Are you trying to tell your audience a story, or are your lyrics just quirky, interesting feelings?
SH: Andrew and I are the songwriters. The ones I sing lead on are mine and vice-versa. We write individually, then bring our ideas to the band to be fleshed out and such. I tend to write more completely than Andrew, so the process is a little different for us both.
Lyrically, neither of us have ever been much for storytelling, but I don’t know that I’d regard it as “quirky, interesting feelings” either. I write what’s inside of me wanting to come out…sometimes that’s a personal, introspective song considering the persuasive powers of a river, sometimes it’s a song creating abstract links between slaughter houses, organized religion and oral sex. I’m all over the place, really.
JM: Although it has a storied musical history, Philly isn’t usually known as an “acoustic string band” kind of town. Are there any Philadelphia-influenced musical ideas or influences in your music?
SH: Living in the city is, in itself, enough to influence a person. How can it not? As a writer I’m profoundly influenced by my environment, whether that be here in Philly or down on the family orchard in the mountains of NC. Inspiration peeks around every corner. Musically, I don’t know that there’s anything specifically “Philly” about what we do…except for maybe that doo-wop breakdown in “Wizened.”
JM: Like all bands, you’re out on the road supporting your albums. What’s happening now with Hoots & Hellmouth, and what are your plans for the near future?
SH: The fall will be crazy busy with tours all over the country…including a “harvest tour” at the end of Sept/beginning of Oct, where we’ll be taking our show to farms in the region to celebrate the harvest, local community and good times. After the fall, we intend to hunker down and begin work on the next album. After that? We’ll see!