Shiloh Hill celebrate new release and play Winston-Salem
Featured photo by Jody Carbone
The fact that Shiloh Hill has a mandolin player (who also plays banjo at times) can sometimes confuse people. The individuals responsible for booking clubs and festivals take a look at the instrumentation and they occasionally just assume that the quartet is a bluegrass act, or an Americana ensemble. And that’s not really the case. The Triad-based four-piece doesn’t play traditional string music from the American South. You might call them a folk-rock band. You could also just as easily call them an indie rock band that leans toward the acoustic side. They have as much or more in common with Out Of Time-era R.E.M. (remember when Pete Buck started rocking the mandolin?) than they do with Mumford & Sons. In any case, the neither/nor aspect of Shiloh Hill can set up expectations that might get dashed.
“It makes it terribly hard to promote our band,” said Nick Hofstetter, who started Shiloh Hill five or six years ago and who is one half of the couple that fronts the band. (Nick is married to Mamie Hofstetter, who also sings, writes some of the material and is the one playing mandolin and banjo.) But that challenge seems to be part of what Shiloh Hill is about.
The band is set to release a new album, Circadian, their second full-length, and they’re celebrating with a hometown show and release event on Dec. 14 at Monstercade in Winston-Salem.
There’s a playful tension in the music and presentation of Shiloh Hill, which sort of helps to balance out the uncertainty that some first-timers might have when approaching the band. They’ve spent dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds) of nights playing at breweries around the country, folding in a fair number of cover tunes and working to blend in to that environment to quietly win over new fans and converts in a setting that doesn’t necessarily attract customers bent on discovering new music.
“We grew very tight as a band,” said Nick, 31, who quit a salaried day job a few years ago to pursue music full time. (He also works at Winston-Salem’s Heyday Guitars when he’s not out playing with Shiloh Hill.) Rounding out the ensemble are Jacob Kuhn and Nikki Forrester.
The experience of touring has given the band a sense of how they don’t exactly conform to certain genre expectations in terms of dynamics.
“We’re too soft to play with the rock bands, but too heavy to play with the folk bands,” said Nick, who spoke to me by phone earlier this week.
And over that time on the road they’ve taken note of what music tends to attract listeners who don’t have any preconceived idea of what the band does. As a result, Shiloh Hill has zeroed in more on what they want to do and on their sound, gravitating toward more upbeat, danceable and fun-spirited songs. In its way, the new album is about not getting stuck in a rut, or not letting the routines of life blind you to the mysteries and possibilities.
“Since we started recording this album, we sort of figured out who we are as a band,” said Nick.
That core essence as a band has involved a willingness, in previous years, to go on the road extensively. They’ve busked on the streets of New York City and they’ve booked tours motivated mainly by the chance to see some tourist destinations. (A tour to Buffalo, New York was designed to give them a chance to see Niagara Falls.) The band is preparing to stay a little closer to home for 2020, cultivating the fan base and focusing on having a good time, and ideally bringing that feeling to audiences around the region.
“We like to have fun. We want to put on a fun show,” said Nick. “We’re trying to be ourselves and just write happy music, and that’s how we deal with the stress in our lives.”
Some people love dark, serious and sad music, and the argument has been made that sombre and slightly depressing songs can actually bring cheer to those who are feeling down. But that’s not what the Hofstetters and their bandmates in Shiloh Hill are interested in. They want to have a bright, smiley good time. (There’s a reason that “Shiny Happy People”-era R.E.M. or the sunny bounce of a ska-inflected pop tune comes to mind when you listen to “Frozen,” one of the first singles from the new record.)
Musicians can tell pretty quickly if a crowd is responding to the songs they’re playing live. One obvious measure of that response is whether people are moving to the music. While it’s true that light shows, volume, alcohol consumption and body-moving beats can all serve as a stimulus for getting crowds on a dance floor, bands often like to do what they can to spur that kinetic payoff.
“We want to write upbeat music,” said Nick, who mentioned that songs on the new album trotted through a variety of beats that might be described as Latin, pop-punk and even hip-hop.
“We just really wanted to write music that people could dance to.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.