If you take Sean Hoots' claim that he and the rest of Hoots and Hellmouth sleep on people's couches and floors on tour as a way to engage with the local community, and lift it out of the context of the band's music and extracurricular efforts, it sounds suspiciously like high-minded spin on a matter of necessity. At one point or another, plenty of hardworking bands find themselves too cash-strapped for Howard Johnson and have to rely on the kindness of acquaintances for a place to crash.
But hear Hoots out: "We're not the, I guess, what has now become, like, a typical image of a band where you know the inside of your touring vehicle, then you know the hotel and then you know the club, and that's all you know. That's not really the way that we experience [touring], nor is it the way that we want to experience [it]. We're creating a network as we drive around the country of friends and sort of making a home in as many towns as we possibly can for ourselves."
The frenetic, Philadelphia-based acoustic band—consisting of singers and guitarists Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray, mandolinist and harmony singer Rob Berliner and a revolving cast of bassists—get their zeal for the local across on their new album, The Holy Open Secret, in a way that feels, well, sincere.
Their second full-length—released on Drexel University's MAD Dragon Records, same as their self-titled 2007 debut—opens with "Root of the Industry," a modernized string band romp that takes aim at the eating up of farmland by cookie-cutter commercial development. Next, "You and All of Us" invites listeners to get onboard with the local farming movement. The most confrontational moment comes a few tracks later in a song that has the elemental pulse of rockabilly, percolating gospel organ and shades of Prince's vocal explosiveness: "What Good Are Plowshares If We Use Them Like Swords?"
Hoots and Hellmouth aren't just aiming to stir nostalgia and romanticism, or to help show-goers have a good time, though they do all that. They're driven by an unease with the way things are—with how hard it's become to talk about any style of music being unique to a particular region and how far some anonymous corporation's apples travel to reach the grocery store. In a very loose sense, the band draws inspiration from long-gone models of music-, food- and friend-making to create something warm-hearted, dynamic and—they hope—unifying.
"The warmth, I think, is sort of an innate quality of the music itself, where it comes from," says Hoots. "It's a more musical approach in the sense of expression for itself, as opposed to some ulterior motive or some third-party product or image or aesthetic.... It's music that sort of has roots that go back before the music industry, music as a way for a community or group of people to come together and share in expression."
Without the help of a booking agent, Hoots and Hellmouth are planning a farm tour that will require more of them than just sleeping on somebody's floor. They're offering to set up, clean up and cook. The result will probably be something like a potluck and picking party—with a P.A.
"We don't want this to be like a typical venue experience," Hoots says. "And we certainly don't expect these hardworking farmers to know [how to be] or to even try to be a venue in any sense.... That's kind of part of the whole point here. We want it to be something where we're bringing our music to them, rather than them trying to create a concert experience."