Interviews : Hammers of Misfortune

Hammers of Misfortune : The Locust Years
Hammers of Misfortune
With John Cobbett
Interviewed by

Enjoy the interview with one of the best U.S. metal bands today. A huge thanks to Dan Berger for helping with the questions.

What's up with all these line-up changes, man? Are you such a "bastard" (pun intended) to work with?

Yeah, I'm pretty much the most rotten son-of-a-bitch you could ever hope to meet. That's what I've heard anyway.

Seriously, people have other priorities. Janis had her career to worry about. Chewy had had his health to worry about. Mike was on tour pretty much all the time with his other band. Jamie moved away and started a family. Hammers is the number one thing for me, but it isn't this way for other people.

Another factor is that we're pretty obscure and unknown so there's very little pay-off . If we had gotten huge right away or something people would have had a lot more incentive to stick around.

I've been lucky to work with some of the best musicians around, but these people almost always have other priorities or they are in high demand in other ways. It's hard to hang on to them.

Where do you see the band now with Mike's departure?

The male vocals are gonna sound different. In a way not much has changed; we're going to sound different yet totally like Hammers again. We may lose a few fans, we may gain a few fans. I'm really gonna miss working (and especially touring) with Mike, but it won't be the end of Hammers Of Misfortune.

"Turmoil", whether relating to line-ups or label trouble, has always been the word that worked hand in hand with Hammers of Misfortune. Can't things be perfect for once?

As far as bands go, I like to think that Hammers Of Misfortune is an extraordinary undertaking. Any time you do something extraordinary you're going to face extraordinary difficulties. When the going gets tough the tough get going. If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. If you wanna make an omelet you gotta break some eggs. Once we get our ducks in a row it'll be just like shootin' fish in a barrel. You know what they say...

So are you currently looking for new musicians or just going to concentrate on pushing "The Locust Years" and then looking for a stable line-up when the right time comes?

I already have a new line-up. It's Phil Collins on drums, Whitney Houston on female vocals, Bono on male vocals and Lemmy on bass. Actually, I do have a new line-up, but no announcements on that yet.

How relieved are you with a new album finally released?

Very. There was a time when I wondered if this album would ever be finished, let alone released with cover art and all.

Did studio time and recording of "The Locust Years" compare to the previous two albums?

We recorded at Trakworx studio, where I've done a ton of recording and mixing. The engineer there, Justin Weis, and I have worked together to the point where we can pretty much read each other's minds. Thus the recording and mixing was difficult, but not a total nightmare like previous albums.

John, the new album sounds a bit more free-spirited. Intentional or just a logical expansion on "The Bastard" and "The Autumn Engine"?

That is a keen observation. We had more fun with this one. Circumstances weren't quite as desperate. As I referred to above, I recorded a lot of music in the interim between albums and came into this one with a lot more confidence and know-how.

I was having a bit more fun with the songs as well. The thing about Hammers is that we don't owe anyone anything artistically. We're not getting paid for this, no-one's looking over our shoulder, so why not have a little fun?

What jumps out is that the song structures are a bit more simplified this time around...

I think the key word here is "focused", not "simple". "We Are The Widows" was deliberately very monolithic, but "Election Day" and "Locust Years" are hardly what I would call simple arrangements.

Did you compose new songs with a thought of female vocals playing a more dominant role?

No, that just sorta happened. Anyway, Mike sings all the way through "War Anthem" and "Chastity Rides". Does the presence of mixed voices make people automatically think it's all female vocals? I guess so...

The fact that I had 2 new female voices to write for probably effected things. Next time I write a Hammers album I'll have lots of new voices to write for...

Why was the incorporation of the Hammond organ integral to the sound of "The Locust Years"?

I've always wanted to use the organ and piano. These instruments can do stuff and create moods that guitars can't. It's great to have these beautiful old instruments to work with. It really expands what we're capable of doing with chords and sounds. When Sigrid first joined the band she was actually playing bass. When we found out that she was a classical pianist the opportunity to incorporate these instruments was too good to pass up.

We had a 1953 Hammond organ "chopped" by this guy in Oakland, CA, who is one of the few people left in the world who still chops and services B3s. Learning about the whole world of the Hammond organ was quite an experience. We toured the entire US with this 210 pound Hammond, people thought we were crazy...

Is "The Locust Years" a political record?

Yes. All our albums are political in one way or another.

Is it a modern Greek tragedy?

No no no. It's not an "opera" or anything like that. It has no plot and no real characters. It's more like a song cycle.

Does the concept come first or is it derived from the feeling the music creates?

It all just kind of forms together over time. The album was written between 2001 and 2004. I guess you could say that the concept and the music inform each other as the album takes shape.

The band looks like is having a lot of fun posing for the pictures. How serious is the image and the concept to you?

Album cover art is extremely important to me. We put a shitload of work into those pictures. The idea is that I didn't want us to look like a band at all, more like a family portrait or a political party or something.

We don't have much of an "image" in the sense of, say, Kiss or Judas Priest. We don't go out of our way to look a certain way or wear uniforms onstage. I guess our image is that we usually look like a bunch of drug-addled degenerates.

The Bay area has an untapped underground potential with such unknown stalwarts like Weakling (RIP), The Fucking Champs, Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, just to name a few. Quite a nice niche for an underground musician that most know nothing about...

The Bay area has a great scene. The Pacific Northwest - from San Francisco up to Seattle - has got some great stuff going on. Amber Asylum, Slough Feg, Saros, Asunder, Midian, Splatterhouse, Ghoul, Agolloch, Impaled, Secret Chiefs 3, Graves At Sea, High On Fire and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are just a few bands we have the privilege of seeing on a semi-regular basis. We're spoiled. Carlos Santana owns a taco place down the street from my house.

Can underground music affect social change?

What do you mean by social change? Social change usually happens when underground ideas become mainstream. Sometimes there's music involved, like when Bob Dylan became the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. If real social change is to take place the music has to reach a wide audience, at which point it's not really underground anymore.

Music can effect society in other ways too, especially if there's crime involved. The whole music effecting social change idea took hold in the 60s. While I don't think its music's job to change society, every big movement needs a soundtrack. I think this question is beyond the scope of this interview.

How if any, does being the main songwriter in Ludicra - a black metal band, affect your writing for Hammers of Misfortune?

The whole approach is totally different for each band. Hammers songs are written more like traditional songwriting with lyrics, vocal melodies and chords first. With Ludicra I don't write any lyrics. It's more spontaneous, more primitive, and more dealing with riffs and depressive landscapes.

After "The Bastard", I realized that I wanted Hammers as a vehicle for a more classic style of songwriting and the black metal influence didn't fit with that. Since I really like playing dark, primitive metal, the only solution was to take that stuff and direct it into another band, which became Ludicra. The other nice thing about Ludicra is that we all contribute and there isn't really a band leader.

"Widow's Wall" contains one of the most gripping melodies in Hammers' repertoire. Such a depressing aura that songs creates...

Thanks. I like that one too.

When are you going to have a fully functioning web site that is worthy of the band?

Don't we already? I really can't stand doing websites and it's usually the last thing I worry about when it comes to band stuff. I guess it shows. When I have the time and money I'll work on the website, or get someone who knows what they're doing fix it up.

What will epitaph say?

You mean what will my epitaph say? Like on my grave, as opposed to the punk label? "Large Coffee Please" or maybe "PLATITUDE".