Oakland, CA’s HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE make the best music ever. But that’s a tie with yer OPETHs, MASTODONs, PORCUPINE TREEs and BIG ELFs of the world. OK, asinine comment, I know, but each of those mensa-metal egg acts falls into that category of huge striving and ambitions, huge smarts and encyclopedic knowledge of music, super-expensive sounding records despite wildly varying recording budgets I’m sure (from low to very low, most likely).
Anyway, talk to leader John Cobbett, and one gets a sense he knows how good his band is and was so over either bragging about it or being modest about it so long ago, he speaks jes’ plan factually and somewhat weary of too much analysis.
“Oh, let’s see, what did we do this time?” kicks off Cobbett, feeling kind of guilty lounging on a nice leather couch while his band gets saddled with load-in (my fault), addressing the topic of the Hammers’ surprisingly biting new album, 17th Street. “Probably less pastoral than the previous record. The previous record was more fanciful in places. This one, I think, is a little grittier. It doesn’t sound gritty, but the attitude of it is grittier. We have two new members this time, and of course writing for them is different from writing for the last two people we had. So you always want to write to your strengths. And Leila is a really, really strong guitar player, so I had a lot of fun writing stuff on the electric guitar this time. Whereas before, you know, I’d write on piano, I’d write on acoustic, or arrange the vocals first and sort of sketch the music in after that. This time it was very guitar-driven, right across the board.”
Don't let the modern front cover art fool ya though - this is still hard-hitting hammers. But what's the deal with that classy band shot?
"Well, the album cover is basically us on a hill overlooking our neighbourhood. I figured you see all these bands standing out in the woods behind their house with a fuckin’ bedsheet over there head and whatever (laughs). Posing in the woods. I just figured well, we would do the same thing in our own environment. We don’t live in the woods. So we did the same thing, overlooking our neighbourhood. There’s a hill in the center of where we live and we sort of stood up there. Not the most original idea but it seemed to work."
It is weird - Oakland, and not all over the place either. "No, Joe lives in Oakland; well, he lives across the bridge. The rest of us probably live within a mile or two of each other. Some of us live within the same ten block radius."
The Joe is Joe Hutton, who serves an important role in Cobbett's orbit, as one of a long line of purposefully thespian lead vocalists charged with telling John's fanciful tales. "He’s got a killer voice and killer range," says John. "And he can pretty much do anything any of our other singers have done before, except better (laughs). And you know, his voice is, I think, perfect for our sound. He’s not a generic metal singer, and his pitch is extremely good, if not perfect. Just excellent, cutting voice. Great personality."
Does Joe want to do lyrics?
"I don’t know. I’m not sure. At this point... we’ve talked about it, but I’m so picky about lyrics. It takes me ages to write the lyrics. I really work hard on them. The music is... I’m pretty fast writing music, but lyrics, I’ll agonize over the lyrics. I don’t think Joe would want me agonizing over his lyrics. I mean, I will agonize over the lyrics, no matter who writes them, and why spread the agony, you know? (laughs)."
And on those lyrics, some of the best west side of CLUTCH and BLUE OYSTER CULT, Cobbett figures, "I would say the lyrics for '317', the opening track, are some of my favourites, and they sort of set the tone. That’s what that song is for, essentially, setting the tone for the album. What was the question?"
Themes, do we got themes?!
"Oh yeah, several things, a lot of things. I mean, there’s like interlacing issues going on all the time. None of it is simple like, I wanted to write a song about a disenfranchised dragon that had Tourette’s or something. No, none of that bullshit. There’s a lot of things going on. And I was reading, studying a lot of different aspects, thinking about the present and the future. And I pretty much wrote about what I was seeing around. And that’s what I did on The Locust Years, and to an extent, Fields/Church Of Broken Glass, as well. To an extent all of our lyrics. None of our stuff is fantasy. It’s all reality. Reality is stranger than fantasy."
"Quite simply, I just do what feels good," continues John, confronted with the idea of trying to define or at least describe the "chivalrous(?)" Hammers sound to the pre-believer. "It feels good to play this, arrange chords this way, and add a harmony this way and stuff, and go somewhere else – that’s what I want to do. I do this because it’s fun. It’s fun to compose, it’s fun to build interesting things. It’s kind of like architecture. It’s kind of like, what do I want this building to look like? You know, it’s not like I’m going to take a pinch of BLACK SABBATH, add a teaspoon of DISCHARGE, add two drops of VENOM and mix it together. I don’t do… that’s ridiculous. That’s not how it happens."
"I don’t have one; I don’t have one," sighs Cobbett, pressed further. "You know what? People ask me all the time. How would you describe your sound? As if I have some good answer to that. I don’t. I don’t. You just have to hear it, because if anything I say, people are going to get the wrong impression. It’s not power metal, it’s not progressive metal, it’s not thrash metal, it’s not New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. It’s not a lot of things. It sort of… I don’t even like the word incorporates, because I don’t incorporate things, necessarily. I just do what I like to do. I listen to all those kinds of music, except I’ve never listen to progressive metal. I’ve never even heard DREAM THEATER in my life. I like old progressive shit like YES, KING CRIMSON. Even DEEP PURPLE, you know? Old PRIEST, whatever. These bands actually did a lot of interesting things with their music. They didn’t just chug riff after riff. They did a lot of cool arrangements and instrumentation and things. That’s all we’re doing. We’re not trying to break any records for speed or ingenuity. We’re just trying to do stuff that is fun and interesting to do, and hopefully to listen to as well."