Hoots and Hellmouth is not easy to classify. The band, which describes itself as "new music for old souls," plays foot-stomping, gospel-flavored music with a bluesy edge, blending elements of folk, bluegrass, roots rock, soul and country.
The members as comfortable performing in coffee shops or living rooms as folk festivals and clubs such as Steel City in Phoenixville, where they'll do a New Year's Eve show.
They don't use amplifiers or distortion pedals, but they manage to deliver their songs with as much passion and fury as an ear-shattering punk band.
"It takes a little while for music-industry types, who like to pigeonhole everything, to figure out what's going on," said Sean Hoots, 32. "They're never quite sure what to do with us."
For music fans looking for something unique and genuine, that can only be a good thing. "It's all about the music," Hoots said. "Our approach is just really simple and pure."
Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray, 29, who went to school together at West Chester University, began playing music together when their rock bands - Pilot Round the Sun and Midiron Blast Shaft, respectively - broke up. Bored and disillusioned with the rock scene, they decided to trade their electric guitars for acoustic ones. Gray adopted the "Hellmouth" name when he was a solo act.
Hoots, who was raised on gospel and bluegrass music, began to appreciate his musical roots in a new way. "I had never connected to it before like I did then," Hoots said. "It's such a pure way of expressing yourself, like a sort of snapshot of the soul. It was just me and my guitar and my songs. It renewed me in a powerful way, really breathed new life into my desire to pursue music."
Hoots and Gray began writing songs together. "We didn't want a band, we didn't want a record label, we just wanted to make music together," Hoots said. But after their first tour in June 2005 - which was when current member Rob Berliner, previously a member of Pilot Round the Sun, joined them on the mandolin - they realized that something special had formed.
"Over those ten days, all of a sudden it just clicked," Hoots said. "We had a handful of songs, a couple guitars, and a beat-up mandolin that Rob was learning to play in the car as we were driving. And that's when the personality of Hoots and Hellmouth was born."
All three members have since quit their full-time jobs in order to devote more time to touring. "We went from not wanting to be a band at all, to wanting to be a band full-time," Hoots said, laughing. They recently began working with a booking agent from the Agency Group, which affords them "better shows and bigger venues with bigger bands, and helps make this thing a little more sustainable."
Hoots and Hellmouth are a three-piece at their core, but other musicians often play with them live. They have shared their stage with a cello, harmonica, flute, organ, back-up singers and drums, among other instruments. Their touring schedule has made it difficult to find permanent members. They can only hope that Aaron Blouin, their current bassist, will stick around longer than the four bassists before him.
The band aims to create a feeling of togetherness not unlike a religious sermon. "We don't get ideological ourselves, but having grown up in the church, I've seen a lot of that zeal and soul, where everyone is just swept up in the moment," Hoots said.
Hoots and Hellmouth released their first full-length record (self-titled) last April on MAD Dragon Records, Drexel University's student-run record label.
"In a university setting, we have the ability to give the artists more," said Marcy Wagman, director of Drexel's Music Industry program and CEO of MAD Dragon. "Because the label is non-profit - no one's salary depends on record sales - we can afford to pay the artists a bit more."
For Hoots and Hellmouth, it isn't about getting money, it's about not having to worry. "We started playing music thinking we wouldn't deal with a label again," Hoots said, "but this wasn't like any other label experience we had ever had or even heard of. We didn't have to sell our souls to anyone. They give artists total control, and money doesn't become such a deciding factor as it would in a regular label."
Hoots and Hellmouth will perform at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve at Steel City Coffee House, 203 Bridge St., Phoenixville.
Tickets are $15 in advance, and $18 at the door. Must be 21 or older.
For more information, call 610-933-4043, or visit