Talking Trees - H&H Song Stories
Welcome to: Talking Trees - H&H Song Stories. This is a weekly series that’ll give a little look-see, as described by Sean Hoots, behind the veil of the new album, "In The Trees". Ten songs, ten stories. Two per Tuesday. Tune in!
Not Australia’s Gold Coast, but California's Pacific coaxed this song out of the ether back when I wrote it in 2012. It serves as a sort of sequel to “Roll, Brandywine, Roll” (Holy Open Secret, 2009), but I didn’t realize it at the time. Songs often reveal themselves in stages. Keeps the mystery alive, I guess.
Anyway, where “Brandywine” refers to a specific rivercourse, “Golden Coast” alludes to a destination that’s a bit more abstract: By the time we hit the coast, we’ve navigated the rocks and the cliffs and found a home along a bright, hazy shoreline. Call it the hydrological afterlife?
The Pacific influence showed up once again when the band recorded the song in 2014. This simple little acoustic ditty overflowed its borders with the addition of marimba and copious layers of reverberation, bringing to ear sunny reminders of the West Coast vibe and the music inspired beside its vast ocean. It’s the sweetest of brines.
Fire is a most visceral element. Endlessly fascinating source of both illumination and destruction, Prometheus’s gift brings blessing and curse in equal measure. Strike a match, read the wall, burn your finger.
“In Effigy” emerged from darkness around the same time that I began assembling songs for this new album. It served as a kind of state-of-the-union address for myself as an artist. An effigy is a sculpted likeness generally found on a monument, but the act of burning that likeness in effigy brings a sharper critique to the picture. Setting ablaze these images I create of and for myself as “artist” allows me to move beyond that which I (thought I) was and into a new space of becoming, ready to create anew.
And that’s all well and good, but honestly this song continues to ask more questions than it answers for me. At least at this point. Halls of learning? Mysteries in the archeology? I’m still trying to get a full read on this one. Perhaps a little more fire will help…
Robert Berliner, H&H’s fearless mando/organ/wurli wizard, and I have been playing music together for over 16 years now. Prior to H&H, we comprised the twin electric guitar attack of Pilot Round The Sun (featuring members of Mason Porter and The Sermon!), a rather loud electric soul-rock band. “Diction” made its initial appearance towards the end of that band’s tenure (mid-2004?). We made a DIY recording in a basement in West Chester, PA, but PRTS disbanded not long thereafter, leaving the song to an uncertain fate.
Fast-forward a decade and this indomitable ditty randomly reemerged in an H&H rehearsal jam not long before we began compiling songs for In The Trees. It was familiar to Rob and me, certainly, but even beyond the obvious historical connection, the song felt every bit as vibrant and relevant as we remembered it from the PRTS days. And what’s more, the new version wasn’t just a muted translation of a decade-old memory but a bright new star in the H&H sky. Suddenly an acoustic roots band was wailing with electric ferocity…and it felt darn good!
We liked the result so much that we not only recorded “Diction” for the new album, but we also contacted our good friend and filmmaker Stavros Stavropoulos to helm a video for it. BullettMedia.com hosted the online premier of the video and included a few additional thoughts regarding the song from yours truly. Check it out here (http://bullettmedia.com/…/love-lost-apparition-hoots-hellm…/) or the video below.
Here at Hoots & Hellmouth we’re no strangers to the soul ballad. Heck, it’s an essential part of our blueprint. We love playing them, and that’s a good thing, because I keep writing them.
“Only Animal” is a particular favorite of mine as it lyrically digs into ground that so typifies soul music for me. It’s a crossroads of spirit and body, the sacred and the secular. What does it mean to be a spiritual being having a physical experience? What about the other way around?
As an animal I experience the world through the five physical senses, but what about all those other extra-sensory perceptions I feel? How else does my consciousness interact with the universe? And where/how does personal responsibility factor in? What can I blame on my baser instincts, and what besmirches my soul?
Heady stuff at a certain level, to be sure, but then the drums crash and the organ beams and the voices rise to the rafters, hitting us all in the feels, reminding us of our animal selves. We feel the passion. The reeling mind is refreshed in a river of soul.
This song made a kind of last-minute appearance in our recording sessions, but came together so effortlessly that it felt like it had been a part of the picture from the start. We eased right into that comfy groove like a pair of old jeans, worn at the knees and hugging this animal’s every curve. We were born to wear it, baby!
H&H in full pop swing. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of melancholic lyricism atop a jaunty groove (cf. The Smiths, “Girlfriend In A Coma,” 1987). There’s something in the disconnect between the two that teases out new meaning in each. The light illuminates the dark. The dark shades the light.
Where In The Trees’s previous track, “Only Animal,” presents a kind of first-person subjective perspective on the human condition, “Delicate Skeleton” takes a step back and attempts a more objective view. Looking at humans from the inside out it’s remarkable how much we tend to resemble the things we make, even when those things take on proportions far greater than our own. In this song buildings serve as towering/crumbling examples.
I remember writing this song after a walkabout in Philly. It’s an old city by American standards, so there are a number of neighborhoods sporting dilapidated structures of all kinds. And while some consider these abandoned houses of worship and government and education to be “eyesores,” I see them as beautiful metaphors for humanity, the process of decay that is at work in our bodies, physical and otherwise. Cracked walls and blown out windows expose the insides, allowing the rafters and foundations to show through, gilded by the golden light of a waning sunset. Illumined as we fall apart. Our creation, our destruction.
This is basically the spiritual center of the record. So much so that the album’s title comes from the first line of these lyrics. I was unsure of what direction new H&H material would take after years of relentless touring. I was burned out and my creativity was suffering because of it. It was a lonely feeling. Like the muse had just packed her bags and slipped out in the middle of the night.
The long road back to a creative space began with a demand. I stared into the abyss and yelled at the top of my lungs, “I dare you to move me!” And like a bolt of lightning from a black hole this song came to me full force. It was one of those immediate songs that just spilled out, words and music, fully formed into my lap. A gift from a muse that had never truly abandoned me…she just left me alone to heal and recover. And once I was ready to re-enter the flow, the floods came.
A song further down this album’s playlist reminds me every time I sing it that “timing is a friend you must know” (Off To Sea) – an interesting cross-reference with this song’s petulant impatience. These songs form a giant ten-part conversation on a certain level. There is connective tissue binding them all into a synergistic whole. It’s holographic. The magic of this art still mystifies me. I am continually moved. Sometimes I just have to wait a little bit.
Hurt a Little
Some songs arrive fully-formed in a matter of minutes. Others take their sweet-ass time. Some songs stick with you, faithful friends for life. Still others pop up out of nowhere, beguiling and seductive, only to vanish into thin air, as if the words just evaporate off the page. Years later there’s a knock on the front door which you answer with a grunt only to find the long-lost tune you’d all but forgotten, hair dyed blue and sporting a nose ring.
"Hurt A Little” began its life as a plaintive country ballad. I remember messing with a very early form of it during an H&H soundcheck in Athens, GA many, many moons ago. It had the spark of something worthwhile back then but never really made a solid case for itself. It needed some alone time.
Fast-forward a couple years to the short-lived but tons-o-fun Sean Hoots Trio side project. Todd Erk and I were making some noise with our drummer buddy Carl Bahner (Cheerleader) and we decided to chew on this tune for a while. Delay pedals were employed. A sultry groove was born. But then we all got too busy and nothing ever came of the Trio (call me, boys?), so the song went on another sabbatical.
When it came time to round up potential tunes for In The Trees, “Hurt A Little” resurfaced yet again and seemed to resonate with everyone in a fresh but familiar way. Mike Reilly’s rolling snare in conversation with the chiming guitar riff provided some fancy new scenery for our old rootsy leanings. Did we inadvertently stumble upon country r&b? Whatever the tag, the song finally found its way home after so many years of wandering. It’s always nice when they come back.
The lyrics for this song find a heightened (super-imposed?) resonance in our nation’s current political climate. While the original swagger of the song’s narrator was supposed to evoke that of an old snake-oil swindler, I did not foresee the prescience of this posturing with respect to the 2016 presidential auction. It’s a touch uncanny, when I think about it…and especially as I’ve sung it at recent shows. But maybe Stephen Colbert was right (did he hear this tune and make the connection before me?). Maybe we all “drank too much of the poison.” Did we all vote for snake-oil?
Not that we’re a political band
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rivers & Rivulets
I’ve never been all that talented with casual conversation. It has traditionally taken quite a bit to draw me out to a point where I’ll interact and hold up my end. And if I’ve made it that far, then it’s usually not long before I’m exhausted by the process and just want to withdraw back into my hermit crab shell. As I type these words I’m getting a rather vivid “crotchety old man” vibe about myself. Is this true? Could this be me? Nah…?
It took a while for me to realize that the first person perspective in this song is actually talking to me. I am not the me in this song. I am the you. Songs offer an inverted kind of therapy if you spin them right (or let them spin you?). But like I said, it took me a while to figure this one out. Recognizing yourself in the other requires patience sometimes.
“Rivers And Rivulets” was a favorite of mine throughout the entire process of making this record. It was arranged and executed so simply, so quickly. I love its creaky little amble. The rustic string band instrumentation provides a gentle reminder of how we got here, featuring one of the album’s two instances of upright bass and mandolin. It’s a root firmly planted in the soil of our beginning conversing with the fruit of our future. The lonely distant whistle calling us home across time.
And just a quick final note, the last verse calls upon another song on this record (“the diction keeps me in it”) which thrills my literary heart to no end. All is woven!
OFF TO SEA
The sharp-witted among you will notice that this little ditty has seen a previous release. Back in 2013 we put out a 7” piece of vinyl featuring this song along with “Repeat Myself.” In the time since, “Off To Sea” has become such a powerful live presence, we decided to give it a remix and a proper LP showing this time around. Fits like a glove.
The song itself came on the heels of my very first sea-faring adventure. H&H was tapped to play a cruise ship in early 2010, and while the experience left a lot to be desired, I did come away with one of my favorite songs, so…win? It’s not specifically about the trip, but the nautical environs certainly provided inspiration.
A few days back on land, I found myself sitting at a bar in Philly…the rocking motion of the ship still stirring faintly inside me (no, it wasn’t the beer). The sea began to speak to me as a metaphor for “that place we all go” when the going gets tough. So far removed from the gravity of land-locked situations, we find a lightness in the buoyancy of the waves, cresting above the depths below.
But of course, the ocean has its darkness, as every escapist fantasy tends to reveal upon further inspection. The undrinkability, the drowning, the nausea…the sirens who call us to our watery graves, a final resting place for all world-weary travelers…a home beyond the briny veil. A bit morbid in a certain light, I guess, but in every death there is rebirth, a transference of energy that is neither created nor destroyed. How well the teeming oceans feed upon shipwreck!
GOLDEN COMPASS ROSE
Following the aimless drift of “Off To Sea” there is a more concrete sense of place with this lumbering psych-tinged album closer. It’s a personal navigation beginning deep within and sprawling out into the farthest corners of the universe. It’s an exploration of perspective and other entanglements associated with space and time. It’s a love song for my wife.
This song wasn’t written with H&H in mind initially. It came to me as all creative “direct downloads” tend to – a rush of giddy inspiration followed by awe and reverence for whatever benevolent force had chosen to move through me. At first I set it aside for some unknown future purpose. Shoegaze project maybe? It certainly did not scream folky Americana (or whatever you wanna call the original H&H style).
But then we started assembling songs for In The Trees and I noticed that songs like “Diction” and “Hurt A Little” were suggesting more of an atmospheric rock vibe than we had messed with in the past. Suddenly walls of fuzzy guitar and trippy delays didn’t feel so foreign. We recorded this one late in the game along with “Only Animal,” and just like that track, “Golden Compass Rose” came together rather quickly, providing additional assurance that it truly belongs in this moment with this ensemble.
“Find me here,” the song implores. So we did. A song that perhaps seemed an outlier at its inception eventually wove it’s way quite naturally into the fabric of this band. Turns out old dogs can learn new tricks. Just goes to show what an open mind and a universal perspective can accomplish.