Interview: UV Hippo at Rock N Roll Resort
Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, also known as UV Hippo, is a Michigan-based jamtronica band that is working its way to the top. The group consists of Brian Samuels on bass, mandolin, and vocals; Joe Phillion on drums; Russel James on guitar and vocals; Dave Sanders on keyboard and vocals; and Casey Butts on percussion and vocals. After touring long and hard and with four albums under their belts, they are bit by bit breaking into the larger scene. Hitting up major festivals such as Rock N Roll Resort, Summer Camp, Rootwire, All Good, and Bear Creek, this is a band you will not want to miss this summer.
“The group deftly journeys between funk, jazz, livetronica, space rock, reggae, bluegrass, and progressive rock within a single show and, sometimes, within a single song. Exploring new ground and taking risks make every performance unique, and fans are never sure what exactly the band will deliver each night; other than exceptional music.” – http://hoplitemusic.com/ultraviolet-hippopotamus/
Sensible Reason had the opportunity to sit down with UV Hippo at Rock N Roll Resort V3: Tiny Rager. The band is incredibly quirky, all with a quick sense of humor that has helped them to survive the endless hours spent together on the road and playing together. We were able to get them to act serious just long enough to talk about light shows, endless hours spent on the road, and where their lyrics come from. I will do my best to convey the hilarious dialogue, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to truly illustrate the pithy rapport the bandmates have with each other. Just assume the whole time I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.
How are you liking Rock N Roll Resort?
Russel: It’s great, it’s awesome. I really wish that all festivals went this route because I like being in a hotel suite, taking a shower before we play…..
Brian: Russel’s pampered
Dave: [Rock N Roll Resort is] Very unique
Joe: We have played other indoor festivals on this tour…
Russel: Yeah, but this one definitely has it right.
Brian: This is the best one, the best indoor one we’ve ever done for sure. We haven’t even played yet and I can say that confidently… It’s organized well, great lineup…
Dave: And these free cool shades [picks up sunglasses on table]… and condoms!
Brian: What!? [Dives & grabs a fistful of condoms]
Brian: The production’s really good in all the rooms, [such as] the lighting and everything else.
Casey: Seems really well put together.
Dave: It feels like one giant wedding reception.
Joe: A wedding reception that never ends!
Joe (later): [Tonight we’re reallying looking forward to] Soulive!.. And the fact that we have this premium [late night time]slot! We feel really privileged.
Russel: Definitely privileged to be here as a part of this even.
You have your own visual artist, Ryan Dewitt, who tours with you and brings that extra touch to your musical experience. Tell us more about the lighting element of your show. What do you think it adds to your shows? How did Ryan get involved with your group?
Joe: I think we like to massage everyone’s senses. For the longest time we didn’t have lights. We were putting on great shows but that was it. Dynamically, we could step back and now add lights… Stimulate your eyes a little bit more.
Casey: Our guy Ryan [Dewitt] knows our songs inside and out so it is kind of another member of the band adding his touch to the music.
Russel: It brings a whole visual artistic element to the music… There are so many bands that are doing the same things as well [and] I think that everyone has the same objective, as Joe said: massaging people’s senses… Eye candy!
Brian: Like that photo of us at the Vogue Theater [in Indianapolis, Indiana] with the moving lights and a snow machine… Our music is fun and it’s upbeat and it’s what we’re going for—raging—and when you add a light show to it, it just adds that much more… [Ryan] can make peak moments where were freaking out musically and then [he starts to] freak out visually, and just everyone in the crowd is just like, “AAAHHH!” Massaging all the senses.
Russel: [The lighting] brings you into the experience… It just adds… another level of [that] experience factor to it. It’s almost like a suspension of disbelief where you get lost in the moment of the music. The music hitting your audio senses and the lights hitting your visual senses just really brings you into that moment.
Brian: It’s funny to see, too, at the end of a really intense song and it ends on the drop of a dime and they bring up the house lights and everyone is just like [jaw open, eyes wide]: the music was crazy, the lights were crazy [and the crowd, still in shock, begins to slow clap]. Those moments are pretty neat. I wish I had my camera for those moments.
Russel: Ryan has been working for us since September of last year. He had lighting experience before that and our old lighting guy had a different opportunity that he moved on to. Ryan stepped in and really has taken that aspect of the show to a different level… Ryan’s a musician—a drummer—so he understands [our music’s] dynamics and he can build the lights to the dynamics of the song, whereas a lot of visual artists we see with different bands don’t have that aspect to it. Where they’re just like, “Ah! They’re going crazy! Strobe! AHH!” Ryan doesn’t do that: he plays with the lights almost like a musical instrument.
You list Brian, Russel, Dave, and Casey as vocalists for your band—that’s 4 out of 5 members! And on your website you state, “Tight, energetic jams and outstanding vocals — a true rarity among the band’s peers — coupled with the act’s spontaneity and strong songwriting add to its appeal.” Can you tell us more about this emphasis on vocals and why you think it sets your band apart?
Casey: Once in a great while I’ll sing a song.
Russel: …I’m going to go on a limb here and say we are not the best singers out there.
Dave: I’ll go ahead and 2nd that!
Brian: Some nights are great. But when you play 6 nights a week, usually by the 6th night your vocals aren’t going to be really good.
Russel: But there’s a lyrical content that isn’t necessarily always there in the jam scene. There are a lot of jamtronic bands that don’t necessarily pay attention to the type of stories we would tell and the way they are told. I think that is one thing that distinguishes us.
Joe: It’s good when we see people singing along.
Russel: And the words have meaning to us in a way. Just like all of us have a favorite song from when we were growing up: the words might mean something different from what was intended [by the original songwriter] but it resonates with you for a specific reason, it helps you through a situation… There are definitely songs that we have like “Medicine”… where it has really resonated [with many people], helped them through so many difficult times. “Songs for the Reaper” is another one that tackles a controversial subject in a very unique way.
Who writes your lyrics?
Dave: Usually whoever sings on the song is the writer of the lyrics.
Joe: So it would be these three [points to Brian, Russel, and Dave].
What is the process for writing your lyrics?
Russel: I think it’s a different process for each of us. It’s always something that’s a personal event for me. These two are by far the most prolific writers in the group.
Dave: I’m someone who loves stories and that’s what I always try to do when I write a song, is tell a story… I just enjoy a good story. If you can tell a good story you can make a good song.
Brian: It’s a little mix of everything. Sometimes it’s just poetry. I have a lot of words that don’t have songs to it yet, just ‘cause I haven’t figured out what I want… I want [my lyrics] to be able to apply to everyone else, so it’s not just my skewed view of what’s happening, but something that everyone can sing along to and feel and experience as well.
Russel: We also have plenty of songs without lyrics…
Brian: And some of our songs just have straight up silly lyrics just to be a silly song.
Russel: There’s the whole gambit.
How do you deal with the long stretches of touring and shows?
Brian: I think our longest stretch was 13 shows without a day off…
Joe: It’s gotta be more than that… I think like 50 or 60!
Brian: You’re tired, you’re haggard, as soon as you step out on that stage and you feel that energy and the music starts going, it’s gone. Even if you’re angry or sad or whatever you’re feeling that day, it’s just gone.
Dave: Until the show’s over…
Brian: And then you’re just like, “ARG! ARG! ARG!”… As far as the vocals go, you just have to suffer through it. You’re voice is scratchy and you’ll just sound like crap… Whether you’re sick or not you just gotta fight through it… You can’t get a lot of subs in this business. Luckily, you can shift [which band members will be singing] because we make sure we don’t do repeats from the night before or the last time we were in that city. Sometimes that works in your favor… Sometimes you don’t have to sing that night; sometimes you have to just bite the bullet.
How long can you continue to sustain this constant touring?
All: Hopefully until tomorrow!
Brian: It does get stressful, but at the same time we don’t know what else we’re going to do for the rest of our lives. It’s what we’re good at.
Russel: It’s what we love to do.
Casey: We’ve been working for it our entire adult lives. We’ve been playing music for 20+ years now.
Brian: We’re definitely hitting the point where we’re seeing a lot of growth throughout the country. There’s plenty of stops where it hasn’t been much growth, but there are plenty of spots where the growth is exponential and you see that. You keep suffering through the bad nights and wait ‘til the good night comes and it makes it all better.
Russel: We schedule it to where we do a long run, like this one, we’re actually at the end of our run.
Joe: HURRAY! GOOD JOB GUYS! [All begin to applaud]
Russel: we always try to schedule it so that afterwards there is a little bit of downtime. So in May we’re going to have three weeks off without any shows. We’ll be focusing on writing, recording, practicing, reconnecting with our families and the people we love. Honestly, that’s the toughest part about being out on the road. It’s two completely different worlds: you’re home for a couple weeks to a month and you get right to that and then you get back on the road.
Brian: We’re starting to see success in certain cities. Once we get to a point where it is more sustainable, we’ll be playing less. We can just play in a major city; we don’t have to play in all the towns around the major city. We can go to that one spot [and people will come to us]. That’s the goal.
Where do you see the growth the most?
Brian: Southeast! Definitely the fastest growing… Midwest we do really well: Colorado, Denver, Boulder; Montana… Florida, North Carolina.
Do you have any big summer plans?
Brian: Summer Camp, there’s a couple of good ones but we’re not at liberty to talk about them apparently…
Joe: We’re waiting to see if it’s too good to be true. [Laughs.]
What’s the most out-of-the-way town you’ve had to go to?
Joe: Whitefish, Montana. There were these crazy mountains and lakes. Oh, it was beautiful.
Brian: Beauford, North Carolina.
Joe: Anywhere in Kansas.
Russel: There was this one festival out in the middle of nowhere in Canada…
Dave: They didn’t know what provolone cheese was! (Realizing he will be quoted on this) I’m sorry, it had to be said! [Laughs.]
Joe: Green olives was like their lettuce. They didn’t have any lettuce, just green olives.
Brian: This one show [in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan] was pretty far: 14 hours from our home… We had a really funny quote from this kid after we were playing. His jaw’s open, his eyes are wide open… “You’re like super shreddy space robots… from the future!”
Speaking of the future, where do you see the future of your band going?
Brian: Just goes back to the sustainability thing. We want to be sustainable; we want to be playing theaters.
Casey: The next album is the next stepping stone for us.
Russel: Because of the touring at the end of the year, we didn’t get a chance to go in and finish it… But it’ll be out later this year.
Do you have a title for it?
Russel: No we don’t yet.
Brian: Well, we have a working title.
Russel: NO! [Laughs and shakes head]
Brian: Apocalyptic Robot Pterodactyl.
Dave: Uh, it’s pretty awesome. Joe made some concept art for it.
Joe: I drew it out in 2 seconds!
Dave: It’s pretty much what we all pictured… and more.
Brian: If our album ever won an award I would love to see the announcer be like, “Ultraviolet Hippopatmus’ Apocalyptic Robot Pterodactyl!” That’s a mouthful!
And on that note, we concluded our interview. The band clearly has a ton of great chemistry. They effortlessly push the conversation around, cracking jokes and then reeling it back in. Each one has their distinct personalities, each bringing their own ideas and energies to the table, and their openness with one another allows them to collaborate and work (and live!) together. These guys have a great attitude that will keep them tied together as a band for many years to come. Definitely do not miss them at their next festival and look for their new album, to be released this year!
Thank you so much to Ultraviolet Hippopotamus for taking the time to talk with us and thank you to Rock N Roll resort for bringing amazing artists like these together in one fabulous festival!