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So many projects, so little time

From his work with the Mother Hips to the Ball-Point Birds to his own solo work, Tim Bluhm has never been busier.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Catching up with Tim Bluhm (rhymes with plume) on his cell phone, you can almost hear the chilly emerald waves of the Pacific crashing mere steps from his Ocean Beach flat in San Francisco.

You know that it’s only a matter of minutes before he hangs up and ambles over the sand to tackle the afternoon breaks, a rare respite of leisure for a man whose “indoor lifestyle” has happily taken over his winter.

Bluhm, a veteran singer-songwriter and burgeoning multi-instrumentalist and producer, has never been busier.

The California rock mainstay known as Mother Hips, a quartet for which Bluhm has been the ubiquitous frontman since its birth at Chico State University in 1991, recently wrapped a year’s work on its sixth studio album.

Bluhm is proud to report that the as-yet-untitled CD will be released on the Brooklyn-based indie label Camera and distributed through Dave Matthews’ imprint, ATO Records, some time next year.

Along with his longtime left-hand man, Hips guitar-and-singing partner and co-conscience Greg Loiacono, Bluhm will soon drop a second independent acoustic collection of songs — as the Ball-Point Birds — entitled “Two Discover.”

Bluhm also is excited to talk about his rapidly growing musical kinship with Jackie Greene, the Sacramento-bred, 26-year-old, major-label blues-rock phenom. The two are writing, recording and starting to play gigs as the appropriately named Skinny Singers.

Then there’s Bluhm’s solo career, which has already yielded three albums — most recently 2005’s starkly beautiful acoustic full-length on Fog City Records, “California Way” — and will be pursued aggressively in 2007.

And Bluhm makes a point to mention the work he’s doing in his San Francisco studio, Pacific Dust.

There, he’s collecting instruments — Bluhm is “stoked” to have just purchased a Hammond B-3 organ and accompanying Leslie 122 speaker — while recording and producing other emerging indie artists. Mexico resident Dave Mulligan and Bluhm’s girlfriend, folk-rock singer Nicki Chambly, are his two current projects in that arena.

“It’s fair to say the plate is full,” Bluhm says with a laugh. “It’s tough to keep up from a physical time standpoint, but it’s incredibly fulfilling. For so many years, everything in my whole life was just Mother Hips. That’s all it was, and there was nothing wrong with that. But naturally, it doesn’t have to be like that.

“When the Hips started taking more time off and not working as hard, it was necessary to start doing some other things. I realized that it was really fun and kept getting more and more into it.”

But rabid Hips fans, fear not. Your 6-foot-4, blond rail of a rock hero isn’t abandoning the outfit that’s pretty much done it all for the last 16 years, including earning and losing a big-money major-label deal; having their most beloved touring van catch fire; sharing bills with Johnny Cash, Wilco and Cracker; having three separate feature-length documentaries made about their colorful history; and still coming out clean on the other side with yet another new record.

“We spent a lot of time getting good live-in-the-studio takes,” Bluhm says. “It’s really organic and definitely a new direction for all of us. It’s more psychedelic than anything since maybe our first record, and in a good way.”

That effort, 1992’s “Back to the Grotto,” earned them a spot on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and overflowed with elements of almost every conceivable rock influence — honky-tonk, Delta blues, funk, surf, prog, thrash — jammed together into songs of haphazard perfection. Time-signature changes galore were pulled off with enough panache to create a jam-rock epic.

But as Bluhm and Loiacono got older and their senses, well, sobered a bit, they fell in love with the three-minute song. This pared-down approach led them to 1998’s country-rock gem “Later Days” and the critically acclaimed combination of California soul and British Invasion pop known as “Green Hills of Earth” in 2001.

“For a long time, Greg and I especially felt we could make Mother Hips be real mellow,” Bluhm says. “We sort of forced on anyone who was listening that we weren’t just a rock band. It was sort of stubborn and it didn’t really work well in the live setting. Ball-Point Birds gave us an outlet for the gentle stuff, as did our solo material.

“We realized that as the Mother Hips, we should just rock. We’re a good rock band. We do what we do well.”

And Bluhm is branching out well, too.

He says he can’t wait to take his passion for California history and the ongoing discussion of the Golden State’s disappearing environment to new heights in his solo follow-up to “California Way,” and he describes the Skinny Singers vibe with Greene, 10 years his junior, as mutually educational.

“I sort of find myself trying to emulate Jackie, and in some ways, he tries to emulate me,” Bluhm says. “I think he’s seeing more of my lyrical point of view and for me, it’s definitely more blues than I’ve ever been a part of in the past.

“I always feel stupid when I try to play the blues, but Jackie’s helping me.”

Check out Tim Bluhm at http://www.timbluhm.com/.