Hoots & Hellmouth thrives on the road—and it’s been a busy summer so far for this increasingly popular band with indelible ties to the western suburbs. Known for its engagingly harmonic, acoustic-based salt-of-the-earth roots rock and color-outside-the-lines live performances, the group toured the South and Midwest with a vengeance in June, a month that marked the core trio’s fourth year in action. “Our strength lies in performance and live interpretation,” says 33-year-old songwriter and guitarist Sean Hoots.
Hoots, fellow guitarist Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray and mandolin player Robert Berliner got their start in West Chester. They’ve since relocated to Philadelphia, where they celebrated the release of their second CD, The Holy Open Secret, on Drexel University’s Mad Dragon Records with two release parties at the Northern Liberties club Johnny Brenda’s in May. Coming up, the group plays The Note in West Chester Aug. 21, and Kennett Flash in Kennett Square the following night.
Its cathartic shows already the stuff of local legend, the band is still working on translating that ebullient onstage persona to the studio. “We really wanted this album to feel live, kinetic and soulful,” Hoots says. “The first record was about trying to figure out who we were. This one is a mile-marker.”
Taking its title from the 19th-century scientific writings of Faust author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Holy Open Secret does a fine job of conveying the energy the band channels in-person. What’s a little harder to appreciate on your iPod, though, is their unique take on timekeeping, which shuns the standard drum kit in favor of a front-porch smattering of washboards, tambourines, spoons and homemade stomp boxes played by anyone with a free hand (or foot). Standup bass has traditionally been a shaky position for the band, though lately John Branigan is holding it down quite nicely on tour. Percussionist Tom Bendel and harmonica player Bob Beach fill out the latest lineup.
Given all the above, it’s no wonder Hoots & Hellmouth’s music sounds both different and strangely familiar. “It’s very diverse,” says Hoots of a sound the group has dubbed “new music for old souls.” “A little country, soul and gospel.”
The songs on Holy Open Secret were originally recorded in the summer of 2007, just a few months after the release of Hoots & Hellmouth’s self-titled debut. But after a number of performances for different audiences, the new tunes hadn’t shaken out in a way that felt right to the group. “We realized that the energy behind the songs hadn’t been fully realized,” says Hoots.
The band’s solution: Keep playing them live. “We hit the road before we sat down in the studio [again], which is a little backwards,” says Hoots.
Hoots & Hellmouth traces its roots to a pair of bands with decidedly different sounds: Hoots and Berliner’s punk outfit, Pilot Around the Sun, and Gray’s heavy-metal-leaning Midiron Blast Shaft. A philosophy and religion student at West Chester University, Hoots first met WCU grad Gray at an open-mic night at Fennario Coffee & Tobacco in the borough. After performing solo for a spell, the two joined each other on stage. Gray cribbed “Hellmouth” from an ex-girlfriend’s blunt assessment of an ornery, rather vocal roommate—a stage name that belied his often mellow, melancholy songs at the time. One night at Fennario, mutual friend Max Spiegel, a nationally known expert on folk music, introduced the duo as Hoots & Hellmouth, and it stuck.
A University of Delaware grad, Berliner met the two at Iron Hill Restaurant & Brewery in West Chester, where he was a bartender. Within months, the three hit the road. “It all just unfolded in an organic way,” Hoots recalls. “Luckily, we discovered pretty quickly that there was something more to develop.”
Even as Hoots & Hellmouth has enjoyed increasing national exposure and become more polished in the studio, the music’s improvised, from-the-gut feel remains. “There’s no pressure to craft a song into a mold,” says Gray.
What has changed are the band’s everyday lives. Menial jobs are a thing of the past (Gray’s most recent work was in construction; Hoots had worked as a cook). “Playing live is our job,” says Gray. “The beauty of our brand of music is that we can play anywhere—family-friendly events, rock venues.”
“We’re not trying to narrowly define who we are,” adds Hoots.
And neither is their label, Mad Dragon, which didn’t flinch when it came time to pay for recording Holy Open Secret a second time around. “We have a solid partnership with them,” says Berliner.
Hoots & Hellmouth will be in the studio again by the end of the year. In the meantime, they’ll be doing what they do best: playing live. In the fall, they’ll head out on a suitably earthy “harvest tour” of community-supported agricultural farms.
“Last time, we let 25 months go between CDs; we don’t want to do that again,” says Berliner. “A wave came along, and we rode it, but then we hung out on the shore too long with no waves. Our goal is to put out one album a year.”
Adds Gray, “When we started, we didn’t set out to do the band thing. But deep down, we knew we’d follow this if it went somewhere. Like here.”
To learn more about Hoots & Hellmouth, visit hootsandhellmouth.com.