2010 saw San Francisco's Hammers of Misfortune sign with Metal Blade Records for a re-release of their first four albums (read MR's review here). With a newly-rejuvenated line-up, Hammers Of Misfortune have returned with their latest 17th Street released on 24th October 2011. John Cobbett, guitarist and producer of the band, took time out to speak to Midlands Rocks’ Jason about the band’s history, their music, the creative process, and the music scene.
Press play to listen to Hammers of Misfortune "The Grain" while you read the interview.
MR: Hammers of Misfortune appear to reinvent its sound with every release. The Bastard is very different to The August Engine which is very different to The Locust Years and, again, very different to Fields / Church of Broken Glass. And the Hammers of Misfortune on 17th Street has a sound that has recognisable elements from the past but takes the band further into new territories. What is it that makes you want to reinvent Hammers of Misfortune’s sound with every release? Is it a conscious decision to change the band’s sound?
John Cobbett: The changes in our albums come pretty naturally. I always try to learn from my mistakes, and get better at playing, writing and recording. Also, the band's line-up changes over time. That's going to alter the sound one way or another. At the same time, I was aware of how a band can paint itself into a corner from very early on. I wanted Hammers to be versatile from the beginning; capable of a wide range of expression and not stylistically limited. I didn't want to put myself in a situation where we'd have to make the same album over and over. The ability to re-invent ourselves was built in, hardwired into the bands DNA on purpose.
MR: What’s your relationship with those first four albums? How do you view them now?
John Cobbett: Mainly, I see them as memories. I remember recording them and I remember writing the songs. They are all lessons. The things that you got right, the things that could've been better, etc. I don't go back and listen to them very often, but I stand behind them all.
MR: Hammers of Misfortune’s line-up has changed with every recording, a factor that is reflected in the sound. What do you look for in the musicians that you choose to work with for Hammers of Misfortune?
John Cobbett: Usually, it's someone who lives nearby, who is a friend of the band or a peer in the local music scene. It's important that everyone gets along. We gravitate toward nice people, who are responsible and not strung out on drugs or whatever. If they know the songs, learn fast, and can play them correctly, that's obviously a big factor. After that there are a lot of intangibles; it has to feel right. I'd go with someone who "gets" us way before I'd consider the fastest shredder on the block.
MR: How did the songs for 17th Street come together? Is it all new material or are there any that have been with the band for a while?
John Cobbett: As usual, there are a few song ideas that came right on the heels of the last album, and got a lot of time at rehearsal. Then there are late-comers; songs that I wrote later in the process. There are always a few ideas kicking around that have been waiting in the back of my mind for years. Putting it all together into an album is a long and detailed process. We could do a whole interview about that process alone…
MR: Were there any goals that you set out to achieve with 17th Street? Do you feel you have achieved or even surpassed them?
John Cobbett: Well, I wanted heavier guitars, and I wanted more fast songs. That was the only obvious thing to do after Fields/Church in my opinion. I purposely wrote a lot of it using electric guitar, as opposed to piano or acoustic guitar. The most important goal is always the same: write good songs and arrange them in the best way possible. I think we achieved this, but at a certain point you get so deep into a project that you lose objectivity; you can't see the forest from the trees, so to speak. At this point, I don't really know what we've done. I know we've done something, and I hope it's great.MR: Are there any songs on 17th Street that you are particularly proud of?
John Cobbett: I like the title track. I'm also very proud of "Summer Tears", but I like all of them. I can't pick a favourite, that wouldn't be fair to the other songs!
MR: Are there any that you think will challenge audiences?
John Cobbett: Well, let's just say that audiences seem really easily challenged these days. They're not used to an album where you can tell the songs apart. I've also noticed that the prog crowd wants us to be more prog and the metal crowd wants us to more metal. We're used to this. There's no point in trying to please everyone. It's impossible, so why bother?
MR: How do you approach the songwriting? Do the ideas and lyrics come first or does the music inspire ideas and lyrics?
John Cobbett: It can go either way. Often a song title will be first, other times a riff, or a chord progression, or a vocal melody. It can happen any way it wants. A lot of the time I'll have some lyrics that need music, and I'll have some instrumental music put together, and sometimes they fit. Sometimes they don't.
MR: How do you work as a band to create the songs? Is it a democratic process or is there one person that decides what’s in or out and makes the final decision as to what a song will sound like?
John Cobbett: Well, as the songwriter (and producer) in the band, I make the majority of the decisions. However, if someone objects, or has a better idea for a part, we try it. There's a certain amount of consensus that happens. If somebody really hates the direction we're going with a song, we'll talk it over and try a different approach. With everyone in the band being so busy, rehearsal time is hard to come by. I often find myself in a position to where I have to make decisions unilaterally, just because it's crunch time and everyone is busy doing other stuff.
MR: Has the approach differed in any way to your previous albums?
John Cobbett: Yes, we tried some new things. Recording guitar overdubs at home and re-amping them in the studio turned out to be a great idea. We also did more pre-production on the vocals this time around, recording vocal demos to see what would work. I was working with new singers, so that helped a lot when it came time to track the vocals in the studio.
MR: Lyrically, Hammers of Misfortune’s have always been poetic and thematically unconventional. What is it that inspires this approach? Are there any writers that have been and maybe still are an inspiration for Hammers of Misfortune?
John Cobbett: Absolutely. Reading is a key part of writing the lyrics. Just getting the language center of your brain active and in shape helps. It's like research: you're looking for a tone, you're interested in themes and what's happening in the world. I don't believe personal experience is important in writing lyrics because I think one's personal experience is going to creep in subconsciously, whether you like it or not. There's no point in writing about yourself. In fact, there's way too much of that self-important crap in people's lyrics today. I don't give a fuck about you as a lyricist, I'm interested in what you're trying to say, what story you're trying to tell.
For this album, I read a lot of news about the on-going economic disaster, and how it affects regular people. I read a lot of hardcore econ blogs, including the comment sections (which are often the best part). I also devoured as much Noir/crime fiction as I possibly could, particularly Raymond Chandler. The intersection between crime and finance was not a coincidence.17th Street is very different to the first four albums. Instead, you’ve chosen a photograph of the band in silhouette against a city. Does this signify a change in approach to the music and what it represents for Hammers of Misfortune? And how does it relate to the music?
John Cobbett: The decision to do a photographic album cover came about long after the material was written. I didn't have a clear idea about cover art. I was talking to my twin brother (Aaron Cobbett), who is a pretty well-known artist/photographer in New York, and he had all these ideas. By the end of that conversation I had a clear picture of the cover in my head. He flew to San Francisco and shot the entire album cover in a weekend. It worked out really cool!
MR: Some argue that the internet has contributed to a culture where music has become commodified to the point that creativity has become redundant. What are your views on the internet? Do you see it as a benefit or a hinderance to the music business?
John Cobbett: Hmmm, I'm not sure if I would use the word 'commodified'. The music business commodified recorded music by turning it into a consumer product and monetizing it. The internet reversed that, making recorded music "worthless", as in free. There are many positives to this. The first is that the major label system has been decimated, and no longer has a stranglehold on shelf space, distribution and the music press.
There are downsides of course, one of which is that mp3 audio quality sucks, and that nothing is rare anymore. Everything is so easily available that it's no longer a struggle to find it. It's a struggle to find the time to listen to all that free music. Thus, not only does its monetary value go down, but its value as something rare and hard to find goes down, along with the aforementioned audio quality.
These factors may be contributing to the increasing sales of vinyl, which - while the music is not rare - can still be quite hard to find. Again, the sound quality, the cover art, the whole experience is way better. At this point I'm even buying CDs again, if I really like the album.
MR: In a music scene that seems to have more imitators than innovators, what musicians or bands do you find interesting at the moment? Do you think it’s difficult to find music that’s interesting or innovative in the current climate?John Cobbett: Yob, Worm Ouroboros, Giant Squid, Deathspell Omega, Virus, Blut Aud Nord, anything Mick Barr (Krallice) is involved with, anything Wino is doing - I'm sure there are many that I'm forgetting.
MR: Do you have any plans for touring 17th Street? And will we be seeing you in the UK?John Cobbett: We're starting with a short tour in December;, a few dates in the Pacific Northwest. Then it looks like we're playing Roadburn festival. More touring is sure to follow but I can't say where. It depends on how things go.
MR: Is there anything you’d like to add or say to our readers?
John Cobbett: Hello, thanks for listening!
MR: Again, thanks for taking time out for this interview.
John Cobbett: Thanks for the thoughtful questions!