Encountering a Mother Hips album recalls visiting your favorite record store, flipping through titles classic and obscure, overwhelmed in the best way by rock ‘n’ roll’s history and possibilities. There are nods to the Big Bs (The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield), but the Hips– lead by Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono– aren’t merchants of revivalism. Since 1991, the California group has been the architect of its own scene, each record its own bliss, a singular mix of rootsy swagger and the sublime, conjuring sun-washed Polaroids of West Coast afternoons drifting to evening.
The group’s accomplishments are staggering– the feisty dustups of Back to the Grotto and Part-Timer Goes Full; the lavish pop of Green Hills of Earth; the heartland ache of Kiss the Crystal Flake; the warm buzz of Pacific Dust; the ruminative Chorus.
Despite their beloved discography, the Hips find themselves in league with artists as disparate as Game Theory, The Cramps, and Esquerita– critical darlings with no mainstream breakthrough. On paper and on record, The Hips have it all– harmonies, hooks, a thinking person’s poetry– except Top 40 credentials. Cult classics make for great list-making and record collector conversation, but it’s easy to forget that there are real people and should-have-been frustrations behind these records.
One could– perhaps should– expect bitterness from someone like Bluhm, who’s just seen the release of the Hips’ 12th album, the sometimes-conflicted, ultimately hopeful Glowing Lantern. Instead, a conversation with him reveals he is self-effacing, enthused, thankful, and still in love with his craft.
CF- Tim, I was reading some other interviews with you, and did I read correctly that you’re already working on a new record?
TB- It’s almost done! We just have to sing the vocals and mix it, and it’ll be done. Yeah, we’re motivated!
What’s your writing cycle like, your turnaround time between projects? I guess you’re not content to sit back and enjoy the post-album leisure. Do feel the anxiety to keep producing?
This time, our label [Blue Rose] just wanted us to get right back in the studio, so we certainly weren’t going to say no to that. We love doing it. It was kind of quick, but we were stoked and we made it happen; we pretty much had to write everything. We were surprised at how quick the turnaround was, so Greg and I had to get busy writing songs right away.
Is that the first time a label has asked for a follow-up record that quickly?
It’s definitely the fastest. Glowing Lantern wasn’t even released yet, and we were already recording a new record. I mean, it’s fabulous; that’s best-case scenario, for sure, but that really motivates anybody. When you have a deadline, you are the most productive, I think.
And that’s quite a vote of confidence too, I suppose.
Yeah, it felt good. We were really happy about that.
I know Glowing Lantern was written during the early months of COVID. How did writing, under those circumstances, affect your creativity? Did you feel like you were writing for a larger cause?
It brought a lot of things into focus that weren’t in focus, things that were obscured by the everyday schedule. You know, you get in your routines. I think everyone had a lot of time to reflect on life and the conditions that we’re living. Not being on the road and not having my normal work to do gave me a lot of time to think.
I didn’t write very much at first. I was freaked out and distracted by the whole thing, so I wasn’t really motivated to write for the first six or seven months of the lockdown. I was doing these live streams on Facebook every Friday, and that was taking up a long time. It was a lot of work, musically, but it wasn’t really creative work. It was more like learning old songs, trying to take people’s requests. But then when we realized that we needed to get this record done, Greg and I started going on hikes together, obviously outdoors. We would meet outside and go for a hike, and then we would play each other ideas that we had recorded on our phones while we were hiking and then decide what we were going to do. Then we’d sit outside when we got back home and play guitar together and just work on songs. We had a lot of extra time to do it. It was nice because we had the luxury of more time than we normally would have had.
And we weren’t touring, so that was that was nice. I think when we were younger, we used to write when we were on the road more often because this is what you do when you’re young and everything’s new and fresh. But as the years go on, it’s changed for us. Writing now happens when it’s quiet and when you have some private time, so there was plenty of that during the lockdown.
Did you pick up any new creative habits that have carried over to this new record and beyond?
Greg and I definitely collaborated a lot more than we did before. I think it’s something we’ve always wanted to do–it always seemed like that’s what we should have been doing, and I think a lot of people assumed we were doing–but there really wasn’t all that much collaboration when it came to the writing. This time, for Glowing Lantern–and for this new record– we collaborated a lot more. Partially, that’s because we always wanted to, but also we were under pressure to have the required amount of songs ready by a certain time. We relied on each other to get the songs and all the writing done. It was really nice. We both enjoy enjoyed that a lot.
What kept you two from collaborating, all those years prior?
I think just the practicality of collaborating on songwriting. It’s not as straightforward as it would sound, at least not to me. It requires letting go of some ideas that you might have about the way a certain idea will play out. You have to be open-minded to the other person’s input–and that’s an element of being in a band that’s always there. I think it’s easy to let one’s ego hold onto preconceptions and ideas, “Well, this is my idea and how I want it to be. I don’t want to give up control of this idea,” which is valid, but it’s also liberating and productive to let someone else mold your ideas.
Did you feel pressure to write about any sort of political or social concerns with the election and everything else that was under the microscope? I’m not sure what it was like in California, but it was all-consuming here in Georgia.
I wouldn’t say that I feel pressured to write about anything at all. But the way that I write operates a little more beneath the surface. Those themes and those concerns that we all have about political things and social issues, they inform my own songs, but I’m not a topical songwriter, so I’m not going to address anything that’s specific. I try to be a little more cerebral. Those things are in the songs, but those feelings, they seep into the songs. I try to use ideas and feelings that are a little more under the surface than that.
I know you already experienced your tragedy in 2015 when you had your speed flying accident. Did that ordeal prepare you for the pandemic, the world flipping out?
No, no, I was pretty freaked out. Honestly, it was pretty, upsetting. It took me by surprise. I had no idea. I always made a joke about how being self-employed gives you job security because you can’t be fired. But man, that’s basically what happened! It was just like one day the whole calendar drained out. There were no shows; no one had any idea how long it was going to last. It didn’t really occur to me that there would be a global pandemic that would just shut down certain industries all the way. We all figured out ways of surviving without playing live music, but that was a process in itself that took a while to feel comfortable and feel secure. So, I was pretty freaked out!
Did it renew your interest or passion for music?
Yeah, I think it did in an unexpected way. Having done it for so long, it definitely isn’t always easy to feel inspired or motivated or to feel very good about the choices that led me here. It’s not always positive reinforcement, by any means. It’s like an existential crisis sometimes. You just wonder, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing with my life? Is this the right path? Should I have been doing this?” But when you’re in survival mode like many people were during the pandemic– still are for that matter– you don’t really have time to have an existential question. It’s more like, “I have to do something right now to make this, to survive.”
I’m speaking mostly just financially because that’s the foremost challenge for most of us. The existential questions sort of drifted away. It did remind me that I love playing music, and to whatever degree that this is true, I have an aptitude for it, and I was lucky to find something that I’m pretty good at that I can do for a living. So yeah, anything that I may have taken for granted, I was reminded that I should be grateful for it.
And having my accident did that for me as well, like not taking for granted things like being able to walk or be able to not have to use crutches, or sit in a wheelchair, or be in a hospital, just things like your general health. I’ve been reminded of a lot of those things in the last five or six years.
I’ve also read that you experienced PTSD from your accident. I was wondering if it affected you creatively, like were you able to channel it in a positive way?
I think probably so, yeah. Anytime I’m able to write a song that I believe in, that I think is effective emotionally, then I think that is a positive thing. That’s the job of a songwriter. And you know, post-traumatic stress isn’t real pretty. It’s sad; it’s not a good thing to have. But none of that stress is really related to playing music for me, luckily. It’s more related with doing semi-risky activities. My PTSD is more related to risk-versus-reward when it comes to physical things more than it is to emotional things or how things are created. So I’m lucky; that’s a good thing.
Did it affect your ability to tour? I’m not sure if the risk-versus-reward comes into play concerning traveling.
Anytime time you spend a lot of time driving in a vehicle, you’re taking a risk. But no, it didn’t affect me much. It affected me in that I couldn’t really travel comfortably during that period because I was on crutches or in a wheelchair. But I don’t really want to tour that much anyways, even before that. I’m kind of tired of it. I mean, it has to be done, but it’s not my favorite thing.
It’s a young person’s game…
It’s hard, and we haven’t done it to that degree in a very long time, probably fifteen years, but nevertheless, what we do is we do weekends. So we’re gone from Thursday to Sunday or Monday, almost every week, and then come home for a few days and then go out again, which in some ways is actually more disruptive because you’re constantly switching between being home and taking care of your home and your home life, and then having to constantly switch back into tour mode and travel mode.
Is your label cool with that?
Yeah, there’s a reason we don’t do it like that– because we can’t really. We would lose a ton of money. Our business model doesn’t support playing 25 days a month. It never really did, honestly. We used to do it because that’s just what you do when you’re in a band. But after we hit about 35 or 36-years-old, we realized, “Wow, any money we earn, we’re just spending it again on touring,” and we don’t want to do that. We’d rather be home, have time to record, and enjoy our family lives, whatever those might be.
And yeah, we did that for years and years and years, and it was a good experience. I’m glad we did. It makes a band a band. That’s where the chemistry [happens]. If there’s going to be any magic in a group of people playing together, that’s where it’s going to come from, those 10,000 hours or those 50,000 hours or whatever it is. We have that in our past; it’s always there, which is great. I’m grateful for all those years that we did that.
How does Glowing Lantern reflect your growth as a songwriter at this stage of your career, after all of these albums in? Are you still growing as a songwriter or producer?
Yeah, definitely always. I would hope that it keeps getting better. But I don’t ever assume that. It’s always new. Every time I write a new song, I’m just so relieved, like, “Oh, I can still do this!” So I never feel complacent or smug about any of that. Every time I write a new song, it’s like a little miracle, like, “Oh wow, cool!” And I love that about music. I love that about songwriting. It still has that little bit of magic that seems like it’s there when you’re younger, especially when you’re like a kid or teenager. There’s so many times that you feel [that] when you’re discovering new things in the world, and it’s like a sense of magic that I think fades as you get older.
The idea of magic and the awe of discovering things when we’re younger reminds me of my friend’s raving about the new Beatles documentary, Get Back. We’re all in our 40s or beyond, and the enthusiasm, the words we’re using to describe the film remind me of the conversations I’d have about bands when I was in high school. Do you still have that same level of enthusiasm?
No, I don’t know! And yeah, that’s kind of what I was talking about. Watching that Beatles movie, I mean, I could just do a whole interview on that; I love it— but that record in particular, of all the Beatles records… I got into the Beatles in high school, which was probably in ‘86. I fell in love with this girl who got into the Beatles in 1980. She was my age, so she was 15 or 16 in 1986. She had heard about the Beatles first when John Lennon was shot. She was surprised, like, “Who is this guy? Why is it so sad that he died?” So she got into the Beatles when she was 10, so when I met her when I was 15, she was just super into the Beatles. That’s all we listened to all through high school. It was just the songs, the words, the way everything was just so magical, so formative to me. Watching that movie and hearing those songs emerge out of just nothing, out of sloppy, crummy rehearsals was just unbelievable. It was so inspiring. It was a very affective movie.
It made me miss having band practices.
You guys hit on so many genres. Is that a conscious decision or innate, inevitable?
I think it was sort of conscious when we were forming the band when we were just getting started. I wanted to be… I could hear it when people were coming up with new ideas when I was listening to records, and I didn’t want to just rehash them. To some degree, you have to because it’s just rock ‘n’ roll. But within that, I tried to always approach it in a way that I had never heard anyone do before. And I think I was successful, and I still am successful once in a while. It gets harder and harder as the world gets older, but I think I’ve been successful at doing that at times. But that tendency to do that can push you out of genres, and it makes the music less approachable to the lowest common denominator. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. But yeah, it is what it is.
Besides The Beatles, what’s a band that you’ve grown with, and how’s your relationship with that band changed over time?
I grew up in Southern California in the ’70s, and I was really into the Beach Boys. Everyone was! It was kind of ubiquitous. They have such a deep catalog, and they have such a broad range of style. It depends on which era you’re talking about in The Beach Boys.
Did you check out the Sunflower and Surf’s Up boxset that came out during the summer?
No, but I definitely bought all those CDs when they were reissuing them, like Friends and 20/20.
Yeah, like around 2000 or so, right?
Yeah, exactly. And The Byrds were doing that same thing.
Yeah! Those were some great times. The liner notes were as essential as the music.
Those reissues– in a way, to a lesser degree–sort of did what Get Back did, where it sort of reveals a little bit of the creation story. It was very inspiring to hear different versions, less polished versions. It makes you realize that these epic, classic records were made by guys just sitting around in a room! They didn’t have anything that we don’t have– except that they’re freaking super-talented– but ostensibly, they were just guys, sitting in a room, dorking around on their guitars, just like anybody else.
You’ve maintained a substantial fanbase throughout your career. Is it difficult to maintain that relationship, to ask someone at age 14 or 15 to stay with you into their adulthood with all of your albums?
I do. I think that’s a big challenge, and it’s an important topic for a band our age with our history because as people get older, they might fade away from wanting to go see live music. It’s not like we’re collecting a bunch of new 14, 15, 16-year-old old listeners because we’re old guys now– but it does happen! We were playing in Utah not long ago, and the whole front row was kids that were… I don’t even think even were old enough to be in the bar! I’m not sure how they got in there, but they were 18, 19-years old, singing the words, dancing like maniacs. It’s notable. It doesn’t happen that often, but it was cool to see that happen. That was exciting to see people of the age that we were when we started playing a lot of these songs that are still, even now, they’re listening to them and relating to them the way that we were relating to them when we were 19 or 20.
How have you maintained momentum after all these years? After lineup changes, restarts, and resets, how do you keep bitterness off at arm’s length?
I’m not sure if bitterness is the right word…
No, you’re right; you understand it very well. I don’t really. It’s about just dealing with it, fighting it, and trying to reframe the context so that I remind myself that I’m lucky to have what success I have had, and that helps a lot. If you practice gratitude, it really does work. It doesn’t always work, but it’s necessary. You have to remind yourself that you’re lucky to be where you are.
I can’t count how many reviews of your records say something to the effect, “This is the record that will break the band!” What’s it like having all of the critical praise from the right magazines and writers but never seeing it translate to something larger?
I’ve sorta passed the point… That was a big hurdle I had to get over. It doesn’t have the power it used to have. It’s almost like a comical theme in our band’s trajectory, “Why isn’t this band more famous?” Well, why isn’t everyone’s band more famous? Everyone thinks they’re worthy of more than they have, even successful[bands] probably think they should be more successful. It’s so easy to compare yourself to your peers or your superiors and say, “I’m better than that guy! Why is he so successful?” And that’s just folly, a fallacy that exists in life. You have to deal with it. I don’t think anyone escapes it.
Well, if you were going to start over, would you rather start a band in today’s climate with the internet or something similar to when you began, with word of mouth…
No, no, definitely not! I think I would consider our band and myself to be lucky to have caught the tail end of the old music industry when there were major labels and you made records in big, expensive studios and there was actually 5 or 6-figure record budgets. I think it’s gotten way harder. That’s coming from my perspective, having had a foot in both realities. But who knows? I don’t know. It’s so much more accessible now to be a recording artist, but there’s so much more noise and clutter going on. It’s easier to make and “put out records” but there’s also just so many more of them.
I love the idea that the internet democratizes the industry, but like you said, it’s just overwhelming at some point because I only have so much money to spend on records. So it’s, “What do I buy? Where do I buy it? How do I buy it?”
And how do you find what you want to hear? It’s like turning on your TV and figuring out what you want to stream. There’s millions of choices! And there’s some genius going on there– lots of it– but there’s months at a time when I’m just lost, and I don’t know what to watch, and it’s like watching some bullshit series that you get invested in because it just happens, and you end up spending hours watching something, realizing it’s not that good. Meanwhile, there’s something that’s totally genius somewhere else that you just don’t know how to find it. You don’t know what it is!
It’s overwhelming, right?
It’s overwhelming. You can’t even get above it. Think about it– it’s kind of a silly scenario, but you know, what if The Beatles put out Let It Be this year, and they were just an unknown band from Macon, Georgia? Would anyone ever even hear it? Probably not.
Thinking about the new year, are you still planning to host the Hipnic Festival?
Yeah! We did it in September this year. We sorta redid it. We had to reschedule it last May, and we did it in September. It was really great, and nobody got sick, thankfully. It’s already pretty much sold out– which, it’s small; that’s not such an incredible accomplishment. But it’s already pretty much sold out. It’s happening May 19th and 20th. We’re also playing three nights at the Great American Music Hall a week from today, and that’s pretty much sold out.
It’s coming back. It’s sketchy, feels weird. Greg and I don’t feel great about encouraging people to gather in crowded places, but it’s really up to individuals what they want to do, what risks [they want to take]. It goes back to that risk-versus-reward thing. Honestly, I’m not going to go to a crowded place and watch a show at this point, but I’m going to go play the shows. That’s what I do, but I don’t know how good I feel about… Everyone has a certain tolerance for risk, and there’s people that want to go see a show bad enough to go take the risk, whatever that risk might be. I’m glad, but it’s different for everyone else.
Do you have a release date down yet for the new record?
No, not specifically. But it’ll probably come out in November 2022.