Of all the things Tim Bluhm could be excited about, beer doesn't seem like it would be at the top of the Mother Hips front man's list. But on a Monday afternoon amidst discussion of the rootsy rock band's 20th anniversary, a forthcoming box set and a new studio record, he spends some time chatting about brewing.
The following day, Bluhm would be heading from his home in the Bay Area to Chico, the California college town where the Mother Hips originated, to visit Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. This is huge for Bluhm, a self-admitted beer fan, because the brewery is making a special beer for the band's upcoming Family HipNic music festival in Big Sur.
When it's all said and done, there will be a special German lager brewed for the band and its fans. It's something that's been a long time coming, given that the Mother Hips have long been a favorite of the Chico music scene and Sierra Nevada has for 30 years been ingrained in the fabric of that city. The band and the brewery now have an excellent relationship, but Bluhm says it wasn't necessarily always that way, even if The Hips were steady consumers of the brew.
"Aside from the Natural Light, as soon as we got to Chico it was all about Sierra Nevada," says Bluhm with a laugh. "It seems like we would have had a closer relationship with that brewery over the years. I think we played there back then, but people got rowdy and climbed the fence or something like that."
There are plenty of memories like this for the Mother Hips to play back. This year marks the band's 20th in existence, but unlike other acts that came about around their time, The Mother Hips are finding new fans, and in a way, a new sound. The band's late-2009 album Pacific Dust featured a sleek production and poppy yet rock-grounded songs that spoke to a more youthful indie rock audience. Whereas some had long identified the four-piece unit as orbiting somewhere on the rockier edges of the jam band system, this album showcased what The Mother Hips should have always been known for - excellent, well-wrought songs delivered by way of a '70s throwback rock sound.
"I think for myself and the other people in the band it's the best thing we've done. It went really well in every way that it could have," says Bluhm of Pacific Dust, which enjoyed plenty of favorable reviews.
While it is hardly the Mother Hips' first foray into the critical spotlight. In the mid 1990s, the band was surrounded by a wave of buzz that brought the attention of producer Rick Rubin, who signed the band to his label, American Recordings. Bluhm and company got to meet label mate Johnny Cash before releasing two albums on the imprint, which folded not long after The Mother Hips were dropped from the label. Since then, the band has done well with its under-the-radar approach, and its most recent push comes after a short hiatus in the middle of the last decade.
Now, the band is soldiering on in the wake of Pacific Dust's critical success. The band members are about to hit the road - after they get everything squared away with their beer, of course - for a tour that includes playing a prominent party at SXSW. The band then heads up to the Northwest with a headlining spot at McMenamins Old St. Francis School's St. Patrick's Day celebration on a bill that also includes the excellent melodic indie rock of Parson Red Heads. Then, this spring, The Mother Hips are set to put out a box set of unreleased material, much to the pleasure of the band's sizable fan base, which has grown over the years despite little commercial backing. But the band did benefit from its seemingly odd association with the once-powerful jam band market, which over the years has been as confusing to Bluhm as it has to some of us watching from afar.
"We've never understood why that was ever said about us. It's a mystery," Bluhm says, adding that he was once offended by the tag, but has since grown less sensitive.
Bluhm, who is also a successful producer, mentions that The Mother Hips are in the middle of laying down a new record. As for what we'll hear on that disc, Bluhm says it will be another stylistic shift for the group, then gives a summation that more or less encapsulates the 20-year story of his band.
"You don't know is if it's going to be better than the last one, but you know if it's going to be different. Otherwise, you're just following a model," says Bluhm, "That might be good for business, but that's not good for art."
The Mother Hips at McMenamins
Old St. Francis School's St. Patrick's Day Celebration
8pm, Parson Readheads. 10pm, The Mother Hips. St. Francis Theater, 700 NW Bond St. Free. 21 and over. Visit mcmenamins.com for a complete schedule.