The path from punk-based rock artsiness to acoustic string-band rootsiness is not as long as it appears. Just as alt-country bands blended country and punk in the '90s, the current decade has seen musicians trade their electric guitars for mandolins and banjos, their Modest Mouse CDs for Appalachian folk records. The Avett Brothers — currently at the head of the string-band movement — were punks before they went Americana and, in some ways, still are. The members of Chatham County Line were originally Neil Young acolytes, and the musicians in Hoots & Hellmouth were in studious indie-rock bands in West Chester, Pennsylvania, before they picked up acoustic instruments, started stomping on the floorboards, and began writing lively folk-gospel numbers.
This development heralds a return to pre-rock influences and the quest for a very different music-making environment, one untouched by commercial concerns. "This was music before there was a music industry and before music was considered a product," says Sean Hoots of his band's influences. "These people in the mountains were playing to express themselves, whether it was a blues or a colorful Irish reel. To me it all speaks to something much deeper than anything else I've listened to."
Hoots turned to traditional music partly out of frustration, but the discovery proved revelatory. He and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray had spent years playing in rock bands around West Chester, a college community outside of Philadelphia, but felt overwhelmed by commercial and creative disappointments. After their bands split, the two began playing acoustic open-mic nights, first as separate acts and later as a duo.
Initially, they never intended to form a permanent band or follow any particular course — certainly not the one they're currently on. "It had humble, non-ambitious beginnings," Hoots says. "There was never any attempt to put these songs together, form a band, make a record, have a manager and a booking agent, go on tour. That was the last thing we wanted, both of us having come out of bands that were doing all of that in the rock world. We were both burnt out on pushing and giving it our all on that front." Instead, they let the group take shape casually, recording on their own timetable and signing to MAD Dragon Records, the student-run label at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Adding two new members — Rob Berliner on mandolin and Tom Celfo on bass — Hoots & Hellmouth toured relentlessly, developing a reputation for sweaty, spirited live shows that showcase their breakneck arrangements, intricate song structures, and excitable lyrics. But the band's defining trait may be the traces of gospel that inform their sound, most notably in Hoots' big, blustery force-of-nature voice, which is part Joe Cocker, part Marjoe Gortner. It's hard to imagine such an instrument confined to an indie act, but it burst forth fully formed on the band's eponymous full-length debut in 2007 and sounds even more forceful on their rambunctious follow-up, The Holy Open Secret.
Despite the band's considerable experience in the studio, Secret had a long birthing period. After writing most of the songs, the band booked time at a Philadelphia studio and recorded most of the album. Then they went on tour. Playing the new material for live audiences developed the songs in different ways, such that the band grew increasingly dissatisfied with the recordings.
"Those songs were utilizing the studio space to create more of an atmosphere and more of a cinematic soundscape," Hoots says. "That's what we went in thinking we would do, just to be artsy about Americana. But it ended up that we were favoring the live versions of the songs that we were doing every night and doing with a lot more gusto and a bit more raw, ragged vibe."
So they decided to re-record with Philly producer Bill Moriarty, who has helmed albums by Dr. Dog, Man Man, and Josh Ritter.
"We wanted to keep an eye on keeping things representative of the live show, because that's what our reputation has become," Hoots says. "We've played these songs so many times prior to recording this time around, and I think we all had that ingrained sense of how they came off live. We just tapped into that and rode with it."
The result is a well-rounded album that intersperses rowdy rave-ups such as "You and All of Us" and "Known for Possession" with quieter, more delicate numbers such as "Ne'er Do Well" and "Three Penny Charm." However, just as they are mastering this particular style, Hoots & Hellmouth plan to expand on it on their next record, to move forward with perhaps a greater sense of mission.
"The people we all admire are the ones who have defined their own path album to album," Hoots says. "There's absolutely no preconception that we are a bluegrass or a folk band or even an acoustic band. I think the next step for us is going to be away from that but still maintaining the spirit and the overall idea of who we are."