The Mother Hips, a fixture in the Bay Area rock scene since 1996, are finishing the year with with two hometown shows in San Francisco before ringing in the new year in their old Chico stomping grounds.
Starting as a couple of kids playing cover tunes in Chico, the Mother Hips signed to Rick Ruben’s American Recordings label 20 years ago, befriending bands like the Black Crowes and Dawes, and adding hundreds of original songs to their catalog. We caught up with vocalist and San Francisco resident Tim Bluhm to talk about the band’s upcoming “Ultimate Set List” gig at the Great American Music Hall, recording the Hips’ new album Behind Beyond at his San Francisco studio and playing music with his wife, Nicki Bluhm.
You’re playing two shows at the Great American Music Hall. The first night is with the Donkeys, and the second is the second annual “Ultimate Set List” show. Can you explain a little more about how this works?
It’s mostly through this fan-run website called the Grotto. There’s a pretty active chatboard on there. We just announce the show on our Facebook page and the Grotto and anyone can submit the set list they’d like us to play. There were like 200 submissions we had to go through. Of course there were parameters, like 28 songs, two sets and an encore, and they had to be our songs. It couldn’t be a Radiohead album. We then narrow it down to four set lists and the fans get to pick from there. It’s fun, but a lot work. We have to relearn songs, and our bassist has only been playing with us for three years.
Do you feel like you bring a new energy replaying older songs?
It depends on the nature of the song. Sometimes you want to be able to play like they were recorded. There are other songs you feel like you didn’t do them right, so you get an opportunity to rearrange them.
I’m sure the fans would want to hear the original recordings.
That’s what I’d want. It would be weird if Mick Jagger played “Wild Horses” to a different tune or something.
You’re currently supporting your latest album, Behind Beyond, your first record since 2009. What inspired you to make another Mother Hips album?
I think it’s just what you do. It’s getting everyone’s schedule together, and then it takes about a year to record. It isn’t about being inspired, because that’s just what we do as recording artists. The songs begin, and they have their own particular sources of inspiration. We have such a deep rapport together that to some degree songs sort of just come from jamming. We could probably just go into a recording studio and make a record in a week if we really needed to. It’s fun to just have the band play, rather than sitting down on the couch and writing a song.
You worked with David Simon-Baker again and recorded at your studio, Mission Bells. Do you think you’ll record somewhere else on the next record?
I struggle because sometimes I think it’s important to branch out with new people and gain fresh ideas, but at the same time I feel like the Hips and the Gramblers both have this story that has this common thread of self recording. It’s kind of scary to give the keys to someone else. I think next time we’re going to record somewhere else and then do a lot of mixing at my studio.
This album also marks the 20-year anniversary since you signed with Rick Ruben’s American Records. Are you still sort of in awe that you’ve been fortunate to play music for so long?
Well, mostly I still feel like I’m doing the work. I’m not really sitting back and observing. I’m just pushing forward and still achieving what I’ve wanted to do with my head down and working hard. The ones that make it initially are hungry. They’re hungry and smart, and willing to work their butts off.
This tour features several sort of homecomings for you, playing in your hometown of San Francisco and then heading north to Chico for a New Year’s gig. How excited are you?
Super stoked, we’re always super stoked for Chico. There’s lots of good friends, good community and the Sierra Nevada brewery—can’t beat that. This is our second year in a row playing New Year’s.
I heard it’s snowing up there.
Man, I’m totally prepared for the snow. I’m an avid skier, so bring it on.
You’re part of the Hipnic concert series that has featured some great acts including Sean Hayes, Jackie Greene and Dawes (to name a few). Do you plan on doing this again?
We do it every year. It’s pretty low key, with only about 500 tickets. We want to share it with people, but it’s a small site. It was just like this idea we had, that we wanted to do a festival the way we thought it should be. It doesn’t have to be this big thing with millions of people and dust kicking up in the sweltering heat. So we found this place in Bigg Sur; a nice clean river with tall trees and shade. It will be May 9-11 this year. I don’t know who’s gonna be on it yet.
We get bands from all over California and a few out of towners, but it’s so small it’s not like we can get a bigger band from the East Coast and offer them that much money, so if they are friends of ours and want to do it for cheap, than that’s awesome.
You’ve always been involved in many musical projects, and you’re currently playing in your wife’s band Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers. Do you have any other projects or endeavors planned for 2014?
I’m trying to just keep it to that. I tend to get excited about too many things and it sort of compromises my current projects a bit. I’ve been spread a little thin and I need to stay more focused. I want to produce records and play with other people, but for now it’s all I can do to keep my head above water. And it’s great playing with my wife, that’s like the dream.
The Mother Hips play Great American Music Hall on December 20-21. Tickets are $16 and the show starts at 8pm.