This past weekend, the City of Brotherly Love hosted the second annual Philadelphia Popped! Festival (more on that to come). Following a wildly energetic set of the greatest experimental indie roots music that Philadelphia has to offer, I got to sit down with Andrew Gray and Rob Berliner of the local Hoots & Hellmouth.
Sitting dead center on the lawn of the VIP area brought some surprise guests to the interview and made for some great off-the-cuff chatter.
Jessica, PopWreckoning: Hey, Hoots & Hellmouth. How’s it going?
Andrew Gray: Hey, how are ya?
Rob Berliner: Hey.
PW: Doing well, thanks. Thank you for sitting down and chatting at the festival. Growing up, what influenced you guys to start playing music?
Biff Kennedy (H&H Manager): I’d like to know this myself!
AG: I think I always loved music when I was a kid. I was an addict. My parents would play the oldies station and I think when they took me to see The Drifters, I remember I got up out of my seat and started twirling down the aisle. I just couldn’t stop dancing and loving it.
From there I just continued to love music and was really excited to play instruments. So I guess my interest started at a young age.
PW: When did you start actually playing music?
AG: I got a trombone when I was in 4th grade, which then turned into a tuba borrowed from the school. Then I played some instruments in high school. A while I guess. I was a kid.
PW: What about you?
RB: [makes a pained face] My mom made me take piano lessons when I was a kid.
PW: Did you hate it?
RB: I did hate it! I hated it and I finally talked her into letting me take guitar lessons. I played guitar for a while and in high school. I became addicted to performing live in the marching band and the high school band and stuff. I was a band F-blank-blank in school; I really got into it.
PW: Did you guys grow up around here?
RB: I’m from north Jersey. Sean [Hoots]’s from down south.
AG: [in country accent] I’m from Montgomery County, P-A.
PW: Where in Montgomery county?
PW: I have cousins who live there. Right by those train tracks?
AG: [accent again]: I used to walk those tracks as a kid. [normal voice] Cinderblock houses?
PW: I think so. How did Hoots & Hellmouth start out? How’d you guys all meet each other and decide form the band?
AG: Well Sean and Rob were in a band together for a few years…and they were awesome, by the way, but got caught flying around the sun, and I was in a band. We all met in a town called West Chester.
We played together and, at the demise of our respective bands, Sean and I started playing together. We quickly invited Rob on to attend a tour, which somehow turned into a band. We never really had the intentions to be a band, but somehow we’re still here doing it three years later.
PW: It’s working out pretty well.
AG: Yeah, we’re doing what we can do.
PW: How did you guys get involved with MAD Dragon Records?
RB: The President of the label goes way back with us. He actually managed our last band. They were looking for artists to fill their roster and I sent him…I don’t remember what I sent him. I guess I sent him a demo, just to listen to, to say, ‘hey, check this out. This is what we’re doing now.’
Within a day of hearing the demo he asked if we’d be interested in signing with him and MAD Dragon. It all started rolling really fast. We’d remained friends so I was just sending the disc over to say, ‘this is what we’re doing now. Check it out!’
PW: You guys are currently working on a sophomore record. How’s that going?
AG: It’s going. Takes time and we’ve been on the road so much. It’s been hard to find the time, really. We’re gonna have it out in the near future. We have all the songs ready to go.
PW: You guys were recording in Chicago?
RB: Just for a couple of days. We were meeting up with a guy we knew out there trying out his studio. We recorded one song. That was it.
This record has been a series of experimenting a lot with studios and engineers. I guess it makes it sound like this is going to be a crazy experimental record, but it’s not. We’ve just been messing around with different ideas with different people.
PW: Speaking of touring a minute ago: you guys have a bunch of sporadic dates coming up through the summer and fall, including the Philly Folk Fest and Purple Fiddle. Where are you looking forward to playing the most?
AG: All of them because they’re all great!
RB: All of them…if you’re listening, promoters.
AG: Philly Folk Festival is really fantastic. We’re really excited to be going back to that.
PW: Why is that in Schwenksville?
AG: Uh…because you can’t have a folk festival here in Philadelphia. They’ve had it out in Schwenksville for forever, I think. I think probably before Philadelphia was even a city.
AG: That was the original Philadelphia. They moved Philadelphia, they didn’t move the festival.
PW: Oooh, makes perfect sense.
RB: I’m not sure that’s true.
PW: We can’t validate that statement, but we’ll roll with it.
AG: Let’s check Wikipedia, [pause] as soon as I get home and update it.
PW: Totally legit.
Still with the touring: if you could put together your own dream tour, whether you opened or headlined on it, who would you wanna play with? It can be anybody living or dead or defunct, whatever.
AG: That’s kind of complicated. Who we like or who we might wanna tour with doesn’t necessarily mean that we would have a good show.
PW: Yeah, but it’s for you guys. It’s not for anybody else. Forget everybody else.
AG: Oh! Alright. Hmm…
PW: Or if you just want to play three whole hours by yourself and don’t want to tour with anybody…
AG [laughs] Nooobody.
RB: I would like to tour with Langhorne Slim. I love that guy.
AG: I think Otis Redding would be a lot of fun to tour with.
Terry Tompkins (President of MAD Dragon Records): [sits down and grunts] That’s the sound of an old man sitting down. You hear my knees crack? [pause] Oh! I’m sorry. Is this an interview? [laughs]
PW: No, it’s fine. Hi! Who are you?
RB: Ha, it’s Terry!
TT: I’m Terry.
RB: He’s with MAD Dragon.
[off the record label talk]
TT: Fill her in on all the blanks.
PW: Please! So what’s this TV pilot about, guys?
AG: Us cook. People eat. We play show.
RB: We’re big foodies. We like to explore places to eat on the road and we’re always excited when we have opportunities to cook for people on the road. For a short while, we were using it as a commodity to stay in people’s places, promising that we would cook for them, although usually they’d let us stay anyway.
The label caught wind of that and decided they wanted to create a TV show where we were going around and cooking. We decided that since we were really interested in local food and small family farmers that we would try to align ourselves with them and record some, visit them and travel around. So we shot a pilot that they were gonna edit and sell to…I dunno where they were going to sell it; the Cooking Network or something?
AG: That was a great experience because we actually got to go on a working farm that was a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and meet with the farmers, hang out with them a couple days, see what they do, learn what they do there, then use the food from the farm to cook a meal for the farmers and workers.
It was a great experience. Then we had a big show in this barn. It was awesome!
RB: We really are getting into local food and trying to support that as much as possible.
AG: It’s tough on the road because the road’s a very wasteful place; you get so many water bottles and stuff. I mean, we do our best. We’re not perfect, but we reuse water bottles and or bring Nalgene bottles. The bottled water industry is terrible.
RB: Musicians and festivals are part of the biggest culprits of that. There’s that and if, like, you want to eat cereal on the go you can buy a box of cereal and you either need plastic bowls or you have your own bowls but then where are you gonna wash them?
So it becomes hard. It’s just hard to manage in a van living the way we want to live. It’s just been really interesting. I hope that as we continue on the road, we will develop little systems and practices that we’re able to help other people see how to get off their dependence of plastic bags, plastic bottles, etc.
AG: We did play a festival this year in Florida called Langerado and it was really interesting: on their trashcans they had ‘recycling’ for what you could recycle and on the regular trashcans they had ‘landfill.’ That really changes your perception of trash. Trash is like, ‘oh, get rid of it,’ but if you put ‘landfill’ on it, it totally changes the idea.
RB: At the other festival we played [Wakarusa] it said, ‘fill your bottle, not your landfill.’
AG: Then they had those corn made cups that were made out of, uh, corn is it? They biodegrade really easily so as a result, I mean they were really good, but the cups started melting and disintegrating before we even had beer in them. So we had all these lopsided cups.
RB: We still got beer, though. It’s not that we do a very good job of it, but we’re trying to become more local food oriented. It just involves a lot of research. We spend a lot of time scouring the internet and trying to find these sparse areas where you can eat locally. It’s hard to travel and stay local.
PW: Let’s talk local. The Philly music scene seems very tight knit and very supportive of each other. Do you find that to be true?
RB: Do you want us to say that it’s tight knit and all the bands support each other?
PW: No, no, no!
PW: That’s just my perception of it, living around it and even as silly as MySpace where you’ve all got each other in the Top Friends spots. If it’s awful and clique-y and everybody really hates each other, you can tell me.
AG: Maybe about 10 years ago I felt kind of weird about the scene of the circle in which I was not running. Now, I feel like it’s definitely tight knit and everyone is actually open to doing stuff with and listening to each other instead of being hip or aligning with some kind of trend. You have that everywhere you go, of course, but I definitely feel a community here. It’s good. It’s really good.
PW: So what are you guys listening to?
AG: I’ve been getting into the new Sun Kil Moon album. I’ve been digging. I’m a big fan of Red House Painters. I go running with it. Lots of stuff, though. No shortage of music in our lives.
RB: I’ve just been recycling my way through my music collection. Slowly adding to it as we travel around and keeping it on shuffle. It stays pretty random.
AG: There’s always a soundtrack to every different moment you’re experiencing on the road. Sometimes you’re listening to The Band, sometimes you’re listening to Metallica. Sometimes you’re listening to, oh, I dunno, Anna Christie [she sat down next to us] and the Sisters3.
Sometimes you’re the fly and sometimes you’re the windshield.
PW :[laughs] Wax on, please. I love it.
AG: And wax off!
PW: Thank you guys for sitting down, taking time out of the festival to chill. I really appreciate it.
AG: Thank you!
RB: Thanks a lot, Jessica.