The newest installment in the “one song” series features Sean Hoots of the band Hoots and Hellmouth, talking about the song Off to Sea, which is on a two-track album free to download or available on white vinyl on tour. Hoots and Hellmouth is an Americana band from Philadelphia that we hope will one day perform at a Common Chord concert here in Charlotte.
I talked to Sean at The Grey Eagle in Asheville before a show. When he first told me what song he was interested in talking about, I was struck by how different it is from most Hoots & Hellmouth songs. Hoots & Hellmouth concerts are raucous affairs. Although they do have some quiet songs, their shows are known for high-energy songs that get the crowd dancing. Sean adds extra percussion to the already infectious rhythms by stomping on a wooden platform.
Off to Sea is different. There’s no driving beat, no thumping bass line. The instrumentation provides ambient accents as Sean sings of being adrift at sea. As opposed to many songs that we actively take in, the atmospheric Off to Sea takes us in. The vocals, somehow both soaring and vulnerable, bring us along on a journey to the middle of a vast ocean, where we’re surrounded by water and the meaning and inspiration that Sean Hoots draws from it.
Sean says, “In the studio we were throwing around the word ‘cinematic.’ We were trying to paint a scene almost with the tone we were using.“
I ask him, given how singular this song is for the band, if their approach to recording it was also unique, an anomaly.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s an anomaly. I don’t know that we’ve ever gone in thinking ‘this particular sound is what we’re going for.’ It makes itself apparent once we’re in the studio and in the process of recording. It depends on the room, depends on the night, depends on everyone’s mood. This song certainly particularly lends itself to a very atmospheric, open reading. I wrote it and had performed it solo. It worked really well as a solo piece because it can be very quiet and contemplative but once I introduced the band to it we figured out where everyone fit into the equation and it started to blossom and grow into something a lot bigger than the original idea for it.”
There’s a part of the song where it’s quiet but then it swells into an explosive crescendo, around the 3:50 on the studio version.
Sean points to that moment as one due to the collaboration of the band.
“You feel like you’re bobbing for a little while and then a wave smacks you. The band just really emphasizes that to a very epic sort of moment. It serves the song in a way because at that point when it swells, lyrically and thematically it’s gotten to a point it’s almost resigned. Like there’s this little sputtering out and then all of a sudden it whips you right back with this big crescendo.”
I tell him that moment gives me chills and he says, “Yeah, every time we play it I totally feel it.”
Right before that moment, he creates an interesting echo effect by singing a verse into the body of the guitar, resulting in vocals that sound haunting and distant. I’ve never seen anyone do that before, and I wonder where he got the idea for that technique.
“I’ve never seen anyone do it before. It’s something I discovered on my own at home years ago just messing around in my bedroom. And I had never used it because it’s one of those things that you overuse it and then it becomes a gimmick. But I felt like it really fit the mood. It removed the singer from the foreground. Puts the singer to the back. He’s floating out to sea, sort of drifting back. I felt like that technique really worked. But no, I’ve never seen anyone do it before. I would never be so presumptuous to say I invented it. I’m sure someone else has done it but I have not seen it nor has anyone told me about it. So far it feels pretty unique to us. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I stumble upon something someday where someone else is doing it. It’s really not intended to be a signature move or a gimmick or anything. It just felt like it really fit the song. So that’s why it’s there.”
That verse in particular reminds me of the band The Low Anthem, and Sean agrees.
“Sure. Yeah, they do a really great job of painting soundscapes with their music. It really creates a whole scene the way that they present it. So that’s an apt comparison. For that song. Like you said, this is something a little bit out of our normal repertoire. But it sort of brings us over to that territory.”
In one song The Low Anthem asks the audience to put their cell phones on speaker and call the person next to them. The result is hypnotic.
So I say, “They do this thing in one of their songs…”
“The cell phone trick?” he asks. “I love that. Love that. Again, it really suits the mood of the song. It underscores everything. It’s not a gimmick. I’ve seen them do that a couple times. We’ve played a few shows with them. I’ve seen them do it on more than one occasion and it’s not like it gets old or like ‘here they go again.’”
“And it’s never the same,” I point out.
“That’s true. It has this really haunting, eerie sort of sound and that’s what they were going for and it’s very successful.”
There’s one more thing about the music I ask Sean about before we talk about the lyrics.
“You do something around the 4:33 mark (in the studio recording) that sounds like drops of water.”
“That was probably Mike (Mike Reilly, the drummer.) He had a variety of things he was hitting with mallets that sort of approximated sea, watery sort of sounds. The cowbell with lots of reverb on it sounds like buoy, sort of ringing. There was a variety of things he was doing creating part of the soundscape of what was going on. We definitely wanted to incorporate some non…I wouldn’t say it’s a non-musical sound but it’s definitely something you would not typically hear in a band.”
The lyrics of Off to Sea invoke the imagery of the ocean but are clearly open to interpretation.
Started a sinking feeling
Swiftly became undertow
Filled me to overflowing
Now, off to sea I go
Off to sea I go
Beguiled, bewildered, bemused
Broken and bruised bag of bones
Timing is a friend you must know
So, off to sea I go
Off to sea with me
Off to sea I go, I go
Till the sirens sing me
Home once more
Off to sea I go, I go
Surely, I’m a sucker for somedays
With a reverence for natural flow
Fills my craw with the crowing
Off to sea I go
Off to sea with me…
My heart is at home in the mountains
My spirit sprints for days down the road
My soul searches the skyline
And off to sea I go…
Sean says, “I wouldn’t say that there’s an over-arching specific point to it. Thematically, there’s this idea of the sea being this vast body of water that connects all of the land, and how there is a sense of escape when you leave the land and go to sea. It’s still on earth and it’s still in our atmosphere. There’s a difference but there’s also a similarity, as in all things, I think.
“It doesn’t necessarily speak to a particular incident in my life but I did happen to write it after we had played a cruise. It was my first time on a cruise, so nautical things were certainly banging around in my head. There was certainly an influence there. But it wasn’t about that experience. It was just kind of influenced by having been on the ocean for about a week, so feeling the rhythms of it.”
This song isn’t his first to explore the imagery of water.
“Water has always been a very big point in my writing. It’s always been a muse for me. There’s always been a thread of some kind of aquatic movement in my music, whether it’s been rivers or lakes or whatever. In this case, the sea. I just really identify with water and find a lot of inspiration in it. It’s an extension of that. Feeling that sense of resignation toward the middle (of the song) where things back off a little. My heart is here, my soul is here, my spirit is there, and trying to place yourself geographically. Not to sound too cliché about ‘finding yourself’ but figuring out where you are and who you are, what it means and what’s the context.”
The first song to come to mind when I think about other songs he’s written about water is Ocean Open Wide from their most recent full release, Salt.
I ask Sean a little bit about the imagery of the ocean in Off to Sea.
“When I think of being off to sea, especially the way it sounds in your song, it feels like things are happening out of your control. “
“Certainly. When you’re on the sea you are at its mercy. We were in this big gigantic cruise ship and the waves, one of the nights in particular, were batting us around like a cat with a ball of yarn. Even this massive cruise ship, bigger than any moving object I’ve ever been on, ended up subject to the forces of nature. There’s a helplessness there, for sure. There’s a surrender, a giving up to it, because you can’t fight it. “
I ask him about the sirens in the chorus. “If you look at the sirens in mythology they don’t sing anybody home.”
“They sing them to their grave,” Sean says.
“Maybe the grave is your home. Maybe that’s what it is. They’re singing me back to my origin, my end. My beginning is my end. “
“I didn’t even think of it that way.”
Sean says, “It kind of speaks to the full circular nature of life in general, I think.”
I ask Sean about the verse about the mountains and the skyline.
“That’s the verse that I sing into the body of the guitar. My heart is at home in the mountains. My dad’s side of the family is actually from right outside of Asheville, in Hendersonville. We have a family orchard up there. I’ve come to know a lot of my family roots from being involved in the mountains, and it feels like home to me.
“My spirit sprints for days down the road. We’re constantly on the go, we’re on tour. I’m not at home whether it’s my Philadelphia or my mountain home. Spiritually, we’re just gallivanting all over the place. But my soul still searches the skyline. I’m restless. I’m not where I feel I need to be. I’m always looking for the path that leads me back to that.
“And if that means going off to sea, then so be it. Let’s go. Let’s shove off and find it.”
I took this video during the encore at the show at The Grey Eagle. The crowd was rowdy, in the best way, engaged in the music, singing and dancing. But when Hoots & Hellmouth played this song, with which most listeners were unfamiliar, they grew quiet. Listen especially to their reaction starting around 3:50.