Hoots & Hellmouth craft an ever-evolving mix of folk, rock, soul, and gospel-influenced Americana that’s earnest and inviting, organic and real, and feels like home.
The story of Hoots & Hellmouth begins in 2005 in the college town of West Chester, Pennsylvania, where Sean Hoots and Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray, both veterans of the Philly music scene through long stints with rockers Pilot Round The Sun and post-punk outfit Midiron Blast Shaft, respectively, were yearning for something different.
Hoots, who spent his youth in the Carolinas, steeped in bluegrass, gospel, and everything Southern, was looking to revisit his folk roots, and found a kindred sprit in Gray. “We had burned out,” explains Hoots, “and decided to sort of burrow inside of acoustic guitars and try to reconnect with what writing and music really meant to us beyond the edifice.” They brought in multi-instrumentalist Rob Berliner, and developed a fanatical following for their raucous, foot-stomping, revival-style live shows.
The group released their first two full-length records, 2007’s Hoots & Hellmouth and 2009’s The Holy Open Secret, on Drexel University’s award-winning MAD Dragon label, before forging out on their own. Over the next few years, the band eventually saw the departure of Gray and the addition of drummer Mike Reilly and bassist Todd Erk—the lineup that stands today.
In 2010, thanks to a staggering show of support on Kickstarter, they were able to record both a new EP, Face First in the Dirt; and their third full-length, the rootsy, bluesy Salt.
Hoots & Hellmouth literally spent years on tour, “jettisoning our relationships, our jobs, any career prospects outside of music, to basically stay on the road as often as our booking agent could keep us there,” says Hoots. In both a reaction to the neo-Americana wave saturating the pop landscape and an effort to evolve their craft, they began re-introducing elements of rock and R&B into their music, developing a new rock-and-soul sound that still remained true to their Americana roots.
In the summer of 2014, the band were ready to record again. They took up residency at Mt. Slippery, a former silversmith studio in Clifton Heights, P.A. that now served as the home base to indie band Dr Dog. The tracks spent many months in limbo as they perfected mixes with Brooklyn producer/engineer Devin Greenwood; eventually the band emerged with their fourth full-length, In the Trees Where I can See the Forest–a stirring, soulful record that would go on to earn praise from the likes of Elmore, which wrote, “a lovelier, more lilting endeavor would be hard to imagine.”
Four of the songs from those landmark sessions would become the EP Uneasy Pieces, Hoots & Hellmouth’s debut release on The Giving Groove label. Uneasy Pieces demonstrates the fully-realized songcraft of a mature band. It’s careful and concise, introspective without being self-centered. It doesn’t lay everything out on the first listen—rather, offering hints of meaning that invite the listener to participate a little more actively, cultivating a deeper relationship with the song. “I really love the idea of art as perceived by the viewer or the listener, as opposed to art solely as an intention of the maker of said art,” Hoots explains. “It creates a conversation that makes you think a little deeper about it. You carry those words with you.”
Uneasy Pieces takes its title from a play on words, that “uneasy peace” brokered between factions that aren’t very interested in a truce; ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle that never quite line up. Its themes explore tension between ideologically opposed forces, from the title track, a plea for resolution from an elusive muse; to the locally-inspired “The Down Part of Town,” a portrait of the poor, underserved community that becomes marginalized when a neighborhood becomes gentrified.
“Oh, The Bugs” takes a more abstract form, drawing lyrical inspiration from John Lennon's “I Am the Walrus,” conjuring up nonsensical imagery through inventive turns of phrase; while the melancholy “Soft and Lazy” confronts those feelings of creative complacency that we all recognize in ourselves from time to time.
With Uneasy Pieces, Hoots & Hellmouth edges toward rock and R&B with grit and grace. That rootsy, bluesy Americana sound they’re known for forms the foundation, but here, it’s layered with fuzzy, reverb-y guitar and warm organ, offering easygoing grooves and upbeat hooks that belie the tension beneath. Hoots’ fiery voice cuts with clarity and cracks with vulnerability, soaring over rough-edged arrangements that swell from delicate acoustic guitar articulations to rich, densely textured choruses, driving rhythms always propelling forward. It’s atmospheric, it’s deeply personal, and it invites you to linger.
Hoots & Hellmouth, long admirers of The Giving Groove’s “artist-friendly, socially conscious” model, joined the label in early 2017. They’ve partnered with the Rock to the Future organization, which provides music education for Philadelphia’s underserved youth at no cost to them or their families. “Music has shaped my life in such powerful ways; I don't know who I'd be without it,” he says. “And that's coming from a place of privilege. To witness the transformative effects on those born into less fortunate situations, especially ones without parents, shows how deep that power really goes. It's inspiring and humbling."