The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono were still teenagers when they first met at Chico State in 1990. They founded a quartet and recorded Back to the Grotto two years later, kicking off a creative partnership that remains vital to this day.
However, The Mother Hips’ new album When We Disappear ushers in a new era for the group, as it’s the first time that the Hips have created an album outside of their home state of California.
Loiacono explains, “We’ve always sort of stuck pretty close to home when we’ve made our records but, after we finished [2021’s] Glowing Lantern, the owner of the label was excited about it and wanted to keep the momentum going. So he said, ‘Let’s get you into a different region and see if that sort of shakes things up.’”
In the fall of 2021, the quartet decamped to Jono Manson’s Kitchen Sink studio in Sante Fe, N.M. There the two vocalists/guitarists along with bandmates John Hofer (drums) and Brian Rashap (bassist) recorded nine original tracks as well as a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine.”
When asked about the impact of this new setting, Loiacono muses, “We have this odd job compared to people working at gas stations or in office buildings, because when we’re on tour, we’re sort of parachuting into places, playing music and then leaving. There’s a certain energy that comes with being out there as a band doing it together. Then, when you’re recording at home, it’s a little different. But this time, working together in a new place, walking to the studio together, having meals together and not having any distractions gave the record a very focused energy.”
As for the songwriting, Bluhm explains that his longtime partnership with Loiacono has evolved over time. “There wasn’t a whole lot of collaboration happening before the last maybe three or four years, which is surprising to some,” he notes. “Frankly, it’s kind of surprising to me because we’d always wanted that to be the case. But now we have a pretty good way of making that work, and it’s a ‘letting go’ exercise. Even with someone that I trust as much as Greg, who’s been my closest friend for a whole lot of years, it can be challenging to let someone else steer it a little bit. It’s not as easy as it sounds but we’ve finally found a way to do that together, and it’s great. It makes the whole idea of being in a band make more sense. It’s kind of the ideal thing.”
When We Disappear
TIM BLUHM: Greg had the concept for this particular song down. He sent me a recording of it, just voice and guitar. It had a lot of placeholder lyrics where he wasn’t really saying real words or he was kind of just saying whatever came to the top of his head. Something we’ve been doing more and more lately, which is pretty fun, is I’ll write down the way I hear his lyrics and then I’ll try to translate what he is saying.
I don’t necessarily think it’s all random, which is why I trust the process. I had all these verses and then, to some degree, I moved some lines around to make them fit a little bit better. Then, occasionally, I would change something, add a line or an image that was relevant to us, and I’d show those to Greg. We fine-tuned them a little bit and that was the song.
GREG LOIACONO: We first heard this song on a camping trip with Tim’s older brother. His brother turned us on to a lot of music early on, like Can, weird space rock, Merle Haggard and the early Bee Gees. He was constantly feeding us stuff, but one night, we were like, “What the hell is this?” It was The Charlatans’ version, not the original by Buffy Sainte-Marie, and it kind of stuck but we didn’t hear it again for a while.
When we were thinking about this album, Tim sent it to me and he was like, “Remember this one?” As I relistened to it, I was going, “Is it as freaked out and cool as we thought it was? Yes, absolutely.”
TB: I can’t say I know all that much about Buffy Sainte-Marie. We were exposed to the song through The Charlatans. It was so evocative of the Old West in a cool way. It’s pretty incongruous, but it does that for me somehow—it is San Francisco psychedelic rock that sounds like the Old West somehow, which is just a cool juxtaposition.
As the story goes—I don’t know much about the actual history—the guys in that band lived in Virginia City outside of Reno, Nev. for a while and they wore Victorian clothes, had pistols on their belts and were kind of eccentric, throwback San Francisco guys, which is pretty interesting.
That song had been kicking around for a bit. I had a solo band for a while back in the early 2000s and we would play it. I had always wanted to do it with the Hips, and this was finally the time.
As for where we placed in the album sequence, we were trying to ignore the fact that it was a cover song. I think the natural inclination for us, and for anyone probably, would be to sort of discount the song because it’s not an original. We haven’t made a practice of putting cover songs on our records but we were trying to break patterns. So we decided that if we were going to commit to putting a cover song on our record, let’s just treat it like it was one of our own tunes and not separate it in any way from the rest of the songs. We didn’t want to think of it as different or less than or greater than the other songs. So that’s where we thought it would fit. It’s surprising in a way because it’s a little different than the other songs, but that was the intention. We thought that it would be bold to put it second.
She Stepped Away
GL: We came up with that one while we were sitting on my back lawn at a point when we needed to get songs together. This is one of the later ones we came up with. I had a riff and Tim had something in the same key, so this was a situation where we were like, “How can we make them work together?” It’s always nice on a Hips record to have one of those riffy rock things. They’re super fun to play. Tim had an idea for the lyrics, and by the time that we were tracking it, he had most of them done.
This was a situation where the whole band was in there sort of piecing it together— “Here are the A, B and C sections of the song, how do we make this make sense? What if it starts here? Does this part happen twice? What do we do for the solo? Should we do a different section there?” The bulk of the notes, progressions and melodies were there, but this was something that we all worked on together on the floor to shape and mold into its known structure.
TB: “Iffy Jackpot,” in the simplest terms, is kind of a response to the world around me at the time I wrote it. There seemed like there was a lot of contention—lots of people disagreeing politically and everyone being so flipped out by our political situation, the world situation, COVID, the lockdowns and all that stuff. I was just trying to deal with that a little bit. It’s basically saying, “What’s important to me might not be important to you and vice versa. That’s just the way it is and I’m going to be OK with that. I know it’s important to me and I don’t really care if it’s not important to you. That’s not necessary.”
The music kind of sounds to me like this band that we used to play with a lot called Jackpot. They were from Sacramento, and they’re not around anymore. Rusty Miller was the main guy; they were a fabulous band and they played a lot of shows with the Hips over the years. The riff kind of sounded like Jackpot to me, and that’s where my mind went with the lyrics. I had to say “jackpot” in it somewhere because, to me, it sounded like I was trying to write a Jackpot song. They had a record called F+, which is an awesome name for a record. [Laughs.] And “Iffy” kind of sounded like F+ to me. It was an association thing.
Almost To Idaho
TB: I’ve been spending a couple of weeks every summer going to Idaho and floating on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, which is a famous wilderness river in Central Idaho. I’ve been going out there for the past eight or nine years, getting to know the place pretty well and I’ve seen other people feel the same reverence for it. It’s like a lot of our wide-open natural spaces in the world where people have that reaction, so I just wanted to express some of that. I wrote it initially as an Idaho-specific campfire song, but as always happens with me, it ended up not quite being the campfire song I had originally intended. It became a little more involved.
Greg helped me write the bridge. I grew up listening to James Taylor and there’s a version of “Carolina in My Mind” that Greg and I really love. The song has an awesome bridge and I’ve always wanted to write a bridge like that. So Greg helped me come up with it. The 16th notes that John’s playing on the high hat also makes it boogie a little bit.
Leaving The Valley
TB: I wouldn’t say this was ever really written; it was more like a feel that we were playing in the studio and it just came out. It’s one of those songs that was built around stating a very simple melody but doing it in a very specific way that felt nice.
The Mother Hips don’t ever really do that. There are certain songs that rely on a specific tempo and a specific touch, like some of J.J. Cale’s songs for instance. Not that “Leaving the Valley” sounds like J.J. Cale, but when you try to cover one of those songs it just doesn’t come off the same way. It’s so specific to the way that it’s played and the way that it sounds. If you play the groove sloppily on an acoustic guitar and sing the melody, it doesn’t hit you the same way.
The focus for me on that song was taking a simple idea and stating it over and over again. We wanted it to be just the right feeling and I think we accomplished that. Greg and I both agreed that it might be the best sounding song on the whole record. There’s something about the key that it was in, the room where we recorded it, the volume we were playing— everything just came together and all the sounds were just big and pleasing.
Lost out the Window
GL: This is where the album sort of gets sleepy. At first I was like, “We can’t have that; it’s too much of a soft pocket.” But then I liked having that moment to breathe after all of this information. “Leaving the Valley” has this very thick groove and then “Lost out the Windows” has a little sadness mixed with some hope.
This was a pandemic-written song. It has a moody, sad kind of vibe, which I’ll sometimes lean into, and it was inspired by this Van Gogh book that my wife Carolina has had for a while. I had never really looked through it before, but not only does it have a bunch of his paintings, it also has a bunch of his journal entries. So this is what I took away after reading some of his words and looking at his art.
It has some great contributions from all the band members, from John’s tom parts to Brian’s great bassline—it’s sort of a counter where he walks the bass, then he stops and the vocals come in, which is a nice launching pad. Tim’s guitar playing kind of reminds me of the song “Albatross” from Fleetwood Mac—that beautiful instrumental.
Spirit of 98
TB: “Spirit of 98” is a direct reference to our album from 1998, Later Days, which we recorded in a friend’s pool house in Beverly Hills. He charged us no money and I think that was the only record we’ve ever made that cost us so little. We had to buy a couple of reels of tape and that was it—half-inch tape, not even expensive tape.
Our friend Jason Hiller, who recorded and produced it, was very generous and he was at a place in his life where he could do that for us. John Hofer had just joined the band and we had recently gotten off drugs. We also had been dropped from our record label and our management company had just quit as well. So we were in a sketchy spot when we made that record.
This song kind of refers to that time in our lives and deals with how, back then, I can remember feeling like we were so far along in our lives and our careers already. I was only 28 years old, but it is funny how I can look back 25 years later and remember that I already felt kind of old and that maybe everything was drawing to a close. But now I’m still doing the same thing, and that was a whole lot of years ago.
GL: That’s a classic Timmer song. That could have been off of Later Days. In my book, even lyrically, it’s harkening back to that time. I think it came out wonderfully. I love all the reverb and the California imagery. There are also some cool parts there, some great drum and bass grooves, some echoey guitars and harmonies— all the fun stuff.
GL: We worked on that one while we were in Big Sur for the Hipnic [the band’s annual multi-day event that took place in late September 2021]. It’s about the room we were writing in, which is where Tim usually stays and people come visit. We were sitting in that room and I had a riff and he had a riff, so we put those together and then we started playing around with some melodies. That was a fun collaboration.
TB: Originally, I was trying to call it “Room One” because it’s about a specific hotel room that I’ve stayed in many times. At first, I was trying to write it from the room’s perspective— the room was actually the voice, the singer. But I couldn’t quite do that. Still, I wanted it to be about this specific room and all these different experiences that I’ve had there at these different stages of my life.
Greg suggested that I call it “Room L” but that’s sort of hard to sing and it wasn’t working well. Then he came up with “Room Four” and that way you could say there’s room for things—there’s room for events to happen. So it took on this little double meaning.
TB: That was, again, harkening back to the days when I first met Greg. We were in the off-campus dorms at Chico State up in Northern California. The song chronicles some of our experiences during that year when we lived there, which was a very formative time. I had just met Greg, who was just learning how to sing harmonies. So I was sort of teaching him what I knew about singing harmonies and he was teaching me what he knew about playing guitar. It touches on some of the experiences that you go through when you’re a freshman in college.
GL: At the Hipnic, Tim played it for me and I loved it. When we were recording, Tim said something like, “There needs to be a doggy door, a psychedelic doggy door.” [Laughs.] We all understood what he meant. That’s the part in the middle—the free part that’s the instrumental section in there. So we had a lot of fun with it.