The hard-touring Grand Rapids’ jam band’s masterfully produced 2013 album was recorded at two different West Michigan studios. It snags the first big award of the year. And check out the Local Spins Top 10.
Frank Zappa would have loved Ultraviolet Hippopotamus.
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Same goes for The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and even, I’ll bet, jazz legend Miles Davis.
That’s because the Grand Rapids-based jam band oozes the sort of technical expertise, boundary-pushing temperament and multifarious musical approach that made these beloved artists enduring American icons.
So it’s no surprise that UV Hippo’s 2013 masterwork, “Translate,” pays homage in a variety of ways to those musicians – and plenty of others – by concocting a genre-bending stew of prog-rock, jazz, funk and jam-band electronica.
“We like to say if you like any kind of music, stick around long enough and you’ll probably hear it,” says guitarist Russell James Olmsted. “That’s what brings us together as musicians, not just one type of music.”
DELICIOUSLY LISTENABLE, IMPECCABLY PRODUCED
That also makes “Translate” a deliciously listenable affair, an intricately constructed album with varying time signatures that was written over a long period of time and recorded at two different West Michigan studios – Grand Haven’s Redwall North Studios (Bill Chrysler and Joe Sturgill) and Grand Rapids’ River City Studios (Roy Wallace) – with mastering by Al McAvoy at Atomic Sound. Read the Local Spins review of the album here.
Olmsted says band members found the making of “Translate” “an experience like none other that we’ve had in recording,” and that’s evident in all 10 tracks on the gorgeously produced CD.
Consequently, Local Spins selected the hard-touring jam band’s fourth album – the follow-up to 2011’s successful “Square Pegs, Round Hole” – as the 2013 Local Spin of the Year, the best of an impressive bunch of regional recordings released last year. UV Hippo follows Simien the Whale, which won the 2012 Local Spin of the Year award for its self-titled studio album.
“Just the response we’ve had from it has been an honor and it makes everything worthwhile,” says Olmsted, noting the band won’t even mount an aggressive national campaign for “Translate” until later this year. “It’s art and you’re putting yourself out there a little bit. You never know how people are going to react, and overall, we’ve been getting very good reaction.”
There’s also a heartwarming story behind “Tiny Eyes,” the third track on “Translate,” that gives the entire album an uplifting milieu. (Listen to the song here. And here’s a Local Spins Live podcast of UV Hippo.)
Bassist and singer Brian Samuels wrote the song about his niece, Mollie Samuels, who was born prematurely and developed a rare lung disease (pulmonary interstitial glycogenosis) with only a small chance of survival. The tune was inspired by his visits to the neonatal unit where his sister’s daughter was being treated.
“Every time I went in there it was really sad,” Samuels recalls. “I started writing a song for her.”
Fortunately, Mollie survived and is now a healthy 6-year-old. “Mollie’s journey is a medical miracle,” the album’s liner notes proclaim, “and the information gained from her progress has saved the lives of several preemies born in the last three years.”
“When Brian brought the song in was right after she was born. They didn’t know if she was going to live or die,” Olmsted recalls. “Brian was distraught about it and wrote a beautiful song because of it. It took a while to find the right album. … This album really needed a song like that.”
UV Hippo’s own journey over the past 10 years has been a story of survival and success, too, starting with the group’s formation as a modest “college band” at Ferris State University in Big Rapids.
Drummer Joe Phillion remembers playing occasionally to an empty bar at the old Founders Brewing location on Monroe Avenue NW, but also at times, to as many as 200 people.
A MAINSTAY ON THE NATIONAL JAM-BAND SCENE
Eventually, the rock group – Olmsted, Samuels, Phillion, keyboard player Dave Sanders and percussionist Casey Butts – built a devoted audience and progressed through various lineup changes to become a mainstay on the national jam-band scene.
“What I’m most proud of is how it’s allowed itself to grow with every change and with every hardship that’s happened. There were numerous times when we’ve been written off and we’ve been able to push through it,” Olmsted says.
Band members credit UV Hippo’s “Army of Energy” street team for helping build momentum and create a following that now even extends overseas. The band hopes to reward them by launching its “Hive” online in 2014, a membership system that would allow fans to get access to all of UV Hippo’s live recordings and new studio material throughout the year.
“Translate” – and the musical creativity it represents – marks another important step in growing that enthusiastic audience.
“Without the fans, there’s nothing, especially in this scene. The fans are able to drive you to keep going and inspire you to keep writing through all the hard times on the road,” Olmsted says. “It’s really what it’s all about. We’ve been very blessed to have a fan base here in the Midwest that’s just fantastic.”
LOCAL SPINS 2013 HONOR ROLL
It was another superb year of Local Spins, so this represents merely the tip of West Michigan’s glorious musical iceberg. It always seems unfair to select a few from so many deserving candidates; some great stuff gets omitted. But no worries: This is just the first volley of recognition. WYCE-FM (88.1) stages its Jammie Awards show in February, with a host of worthy bands nominated in several categories.
Local Spin of the Year: Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, “Translate”
THE TOP 10 (in no particular order, with links to websites/audio samples)
Hank Mowery, “Account to Me”
The Bangups, “Hellcat!”
Elisabeth Pixley-Fink, “Bloodroot”
Rick Chyme, “The 5iveit LP”
The B-Sides, “The B-Sides”
Roger Brown, “Sometimes You’re Lucky”
Vincent Hayes, “The Grind”
Mustard Plug, “Can’t Contain It”
Pat Carroll, “Glow in the Dark”
Email John Sinkevics at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2013, Spins on Music