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Published: 2007/05/24
by Ben Rubenstein

Everything Old is New Again: A Conversation with ekoostik hookah’s John Mullins

ekoostik hookah has build a strong reputation for its live show. That’s a good thing, because fans haven’t always been able to count on a new album to play at home. The band hasn’t released a new recording in five years, a streak that ended on May 3 with the release of Under Full Sail: It All Comes Together. If the title sounds familiar, it should; Under Full Sail was also the name of the group's first album, recorded in a Columbus, Ohio basement back in 1991. The 2-CD set, recorded at the legendary Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta, finds the band revisiting many of the songs from that debut, injecting them with new life and energy, as well as embarking on some new territory. The package also includes a recording of the band's special live performance for a couple hundred of its closest friends in November.

It's a unique way to welcome co-founder John Mullins back into the fold after a 10-year absence (he replaced departing guitarist Ed McGee last year). I caught up with Mullins to talk about the reunion, the upcoming Hookahville festival, and what's next for the band. For his part, Mullins seems excited about his return: "Everything I said tonightput an exclamation point after it!"

BR- Where did the idea come from to revisit some of these old songs?

JM- A friend of ours named Cary Romanoffit was his idea. That was one of his favorite albums of all time. There was some trepidation because hey, we've been there, done that, and I agreed with that, but then I also thought that these songs have changed so much. When we recorded Under Full Sail, we'd only been together like a month, maybe two. So the whole substance of every song has changed considerably, unlike songs on the later albums where they'd had time to develop through live shows and stuff before they got recorded. So I kind of had to support it based on that. And I'd really hoped to get a lot accomplished as far as new compositions. Luckily, we did have time to get some of that across. I think "Water Bear" is one of the best things that came out of that.

BR- Are there plans for an entire album of new songs in the near future?

JM- In my mind, there certainly is. I'm chomping at the bit to get back in the studio. I think the studio experience for the band this time has probably been one of the most positive ones the band has ever experienced. There's always been a certain discomfort level in the studio with ekoostik hookah, and I think this is a very comfortable situation that we were in, even though we were pressed for time. We had 2 actual days in the studio and then the two nights recording live. If you listen to it, it's incredible that we got that much accomplished in that amount of time.

BR- What was it like recording at Tree Sound Studios?

JM- There have been so many people who have made great albums there, so we were just really impressed to be there. Some of us were overwhelmed. I wasn't overwhelmed because the studio's something I love and I thrive on. They've got a whole staff there to do whatever we needed to do. We've never been treated so well in a place. These guys just really knew how to dial it inthey knew how to achieve a sound that we were looking for. And this is without even really knowing us that well as a band.

BR- So you did a second disc recorded live in the studio, right?

JM- Yeah. They actually have a venue in there that can seat probably up to 200, and we had about 150 of our fans who came down from Ohio, and then whoever from the area, and obviously our personal friends. It added up to about 200 people in the hall. It's called The Cave, and they have a lot of stalactites and stalagmites and artit's a beautiful place to play. You can kind of see it if you look on the CD-ROM that's on the first disc. It was a great intimate place to play, with all of our closest fans.

BR- ekoostik hookah seems to be the kind of band that inspires longtime fans. How much have you encountered this, especially when you returned to the band, and why do you think this is?

JM- I think everybody has realized that this is what should be happening, this is where everything belongs. I've never felt more at home in any band situation than I do with ekoostik hookah. That's from the very start of it until August '96 when we split, until a little over a year ago when we got back together. It's always felt really natural, and anyone who comes and participates can feel it, especially the musicians involved.

It's amazing, the changes in us as musicians and as people. Since the old days when we used to travel together and bickerthere's just none of that. Of course we're not all riding in the same vehicle, we're not all staying in the same hotel room like we used to. We give each other space, but also when there are issues, we deal with them on a much more mature level. I remember thinking to myself the other night, I had a problem with the way something was being played in a rehearsal or something, and I was just able to explain it, rather than just go, 'I'm gonna live with the way it's being played,' but you know, 15 years ago I probably would've, and I would've just been frustrated with it. We're all just better at communication.

BR- So the situation that came up ten years ago, it’s not going to come up again, probably?

JM- I seriously doubt it. I've made very strict rules on myself as far as, you know, all the party aspects of the rock n' roll thing. I'm not gonna say that's never been an issue. It's been an overblown issue from time to time, but that, at least on my part, won't ever be a problem again. I just don't party during shows.

BR- What were your feelings when you initially came back to the band? I had heard that you were originally invited to fill in for a couple of gigs

JM- I'm not sure about what was happening on everyone else's end, but I know that I was invited to Jamaica to play three to five gigs. It kind of felt like a feeler, just feeling out if the situations were right. Dave Katz and I, before that happened, started doing duo gigs. The inception of ekoostik hookah was actually him and I doing these duo gigs back in '90, '91. And those gave me chills. Our voices have always been so perfect together. Everything my voice lacks, his has, and vice versa.

So that was kind of like feeling it out, because I think everybody saw the writing on the wall as far as Ed [McGee] leavingSo we kind of felt it out for a minute and as we realized that 'hey, it still feels really good and really positive,' everybody was happy doing it, there was just no more question about it.

BR- Were you in contact with the band even while you were away from it?

JM- We're from the same town and hang out in the same places, have the same friends. I also would attend Hookahvilles, you know, I was around. To be honest, I always thought that somehow, some way, it would happen this way. I didn't realistically think it would happen, but I felt it would. It's just like, you know, if you're in a family, you're not out of the family, you're just not participating in it for awhile. That was kind of what it was like. I was still hanging out with the guys from time to time. Of course, Dave didn't live in town, so I didn't really connect with him that often. But when I did, it was always significant. He's one of the guys I respect most in the world. I always thought it was natural that it would happen again, although I didn't see the circumstances ever arising. I also never thought Ed would leave.

BR- So you were doing solo work and had your own band (The John Mullins Band) during the last ten years. Are you still doing that, or is ekoostik hookah now your sole focus?

JM- I talked to all the original members of the Mullins Band when we first started out. We talked about playing gigs on a limited basis, although the setlist would have to be a little bit different. I don't want to play the same stuff I'm playing with hookah, just with a different band. That'd be kind of silly. So we're trying to figure out what kind of good, diversified songlist we could come up with. Obviously, it'd be more cover-oriented if we do that. Kind of songs that I couldn't get away with playing with hookah.

BR- Like what?

JM- Shoot, that's a good question. Well, you know, Hookah doesn't play a lot of covers. So if I want to play some strange Jethro Tull thing, or some obscure Pink Floyd song. hookah does play covers enough so that I can throw things in, but the focus is on the original. That's not a question we've all got together and kicked around yet. It'll be a group effort; in fact, I'd like to lead it away from being the John Mullins Band and have it be more of a body, a whole group.

BR- So Hookahville is coming up soon (May 25-27). I’d heard that the band is not really as involved this year in terms of promotion and picking the bands. How has the band’s involvement with the festival changed in recent years?

JM- The band is as involved as we want to be. We're not the main assets behind it, which is different from years past. It's always been something that Hookah put on themselves, took upon all the risk. When everything moved from the ranch, Steve Trickle, who owns Legend Valley, wanted to see Hookahville go on. He took it on, and he's done a fantastic job. He started off the first couple ones nice and easy, and this one coming up is starting to build a little bit, and I think by fall and spring, it'll be back to its best glory ever. It's still a great magnet for a group of fans to come and have a great time.

BR- It seems like now festivals are becoming very popular. Do you think Hookahville had any part in starting that trend?

JM- I think people did see Hookahville as something that started on someone's property, you know, just a patch of woods out in the country, and grew into something beyond all our imaginations at that time. I think a lot of people in Ohio and other regions probably did see that as a good kind of role model for a way to do a festival. Personally, I'm not the kind of guy who would go to a Bonnaroo, because I think I'd be overwhelmed with everything I would want to see, so I have not bothered to go down there. Of course, you know, I would if I was playing.

BR- Bonnaroo started out very jam band-oriented, but now it seems to be turning towards indie rock and hip-hop. Do you think that’s a reflection of the jamband scene dying down a little bit?

JM- Our drummer Eric [Lanese] made a point the other dayhe was talking about jamband as a category versus a genre. I would say it's more of a category than a genre. That was his point. There's so many things that qualify as a jam band. Especially with all these newgrass bands, they're very different than a String Cheese or a Widespread, but they're all still under that jam band genre. They call it a genre, but it really isn't. I haven't seen the lineup for this year of Bonnaroo, but I know they've gotten more and more diverse. I like the diversity. At Hookahville, ideally we'd love to have a very diverse group of bands coming through. I'd love to see Les Claypool come and play Hookahville. I'd love to see Buckethead play Hookahville. I think it'd blow everybody's mind.

BR- What is on tap for ekoostik hookah over the next few months?

JM- I'd like to be on the road as much as we possibly can, and I'd definitely like to see us get in the studio and see us put out a nice studio-quality album that we could spend more than a couple of days on. That's one of my immediate goals for the next yearwe've got tons of songs we haven't even gotten to even in rehearsals, and so our setlist is ever-expanding. At this point we've got too many songs and we're just trying to catch up with ourselves. It's hard to rehearse, play and get everything going like we'd like to. I'm sure every band struggles with it.

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