Wed: 10-01-08 Column: Show No Mercy
Column by Brandon Stosuy
San Francisco's Hammers of Misfortune are the brainchild of John Cobbett, also of epic black metal crew Ludicra, ex-Slough Feg, and a past contributor to other various projects (Amber Asylum, Jarboe, Gwar). Since Hammers emerged from Unholy Cadaver in 2000, debuted with 2001's The Bastard, and followed with equally essential The August Engine (2003) and The Locust Years (2006), they've proven to be one the most ambitious, satisfying, and classic seeming underground metal crews. At the end of the month, they're releasing two new full-lengths packaged together-- Fields and Church of Broken Glass [Profound Lore/20 Buck Spin]. I spoke with Cobbett at length about both. Below, take a listen to Church's title track and Fields' "Rats Assembly". There's older material at the band's MySpace.
Pitchfork: Hammers of Misfortune debuted with The Bastard, a three-act opera. How did you make that decision?
John Cobbett: I don't remember exactly when or how it was decided, but I wanted to do something on a larger scale than just writing unrelated songs, compiling them into a set list, and recording the lot. I was a bike messenger at the time, and I would drink 40s of King Cobra and watch these Joseph Campbell lectures on PBS really late into the night (I think it was "Transformations of Myth Through Time"). He talked a lot about Wagner, James Joyce, and other artists who had tapped into this archetypical mythical stuff. I wanted to try it. The most important thing I got from Wagner, or opera in general, was the use of musical motifs for characters or situations. This meant using riffs or themes all over an album instead of having parts that were purely local to their respective song. Also, when you have them interacting you weave them together for some pretty interesting results. I've played with this approach ever since with Hammers. Any riff on an album is available to all the songs, like a global variable. The project evolved over time. The idea of doing that album was around before the idea of doing a band. As the idea got bigger and musicians were brought in to play the parts, it went from being a solo/bedroom type project to a full-scale band.
Pitchfork: Seven years later you've created a double album. Were there any previous double albums that got you thinking about doing this?
John Cobbett: We were talking specifically about putting our next LP out on vinyl. From there it wasn't much of a jump to make it a double LP (of course it had to be a double LP...) With that in mind we thought in terms of that format. With vinyl you get about 20 minutes per side before you start losing audio quality, so you have to arrange the flow of the album to accommodate that. We'd joked about doing "a split with ourselves" in the past, but in this situation it made sense. I always thought it would be cool to make two distinct albums joined at the spine. So all these ideas pointed in the same direction and it was clear what had to be done. As for other double LPs that might have inspired this idea, I can only cite [Pink Floyd's] The Wall. I've always wanted to attempt something on that scale. In fact The August Engine was our first attempt to make an album that big, but it didn't work out for various reasons.
Pitchfork: In the era of mp3 downloads, it's bold releasing something so tied to the album format. Was it motivated by the state of the music industry, hearkening back to a different time in metal?
John Cobbett: Mostly the motivation comes from being a fan first. As a fan, I think it's a cool idea for a release and I'd probably want it in my record collection (I wish all our records were available on vinyl). Maybe there's a defiant aspect to it, but I don't have anything against mp3s or downloading. The way it's going now, you have a group of fans that want the physical artifact-- the record or CD-- in their hands. The release is for them. The songs are for everyone, and let's face it, they are free for the majority of listeners whether we like it or not. "The industry" is in ruins. Our release strategy was more of a reaction to that than a statement about it. It's a self-financed, self-produced, DIY album, which is pretty much the only way we've ever done anything, and probably the only way left at this point.
Pitchfork: How do the two records link beyond being packaged together? Or do you prefer seeing them as separate entities?
John Cobbett: The songs were all recorded in the same sessions. That's the biggest common factor. They're also inevitably linked because that they came out of the same historical period and the same phase of the band. In other words, they're very related circumstantially, but that's as far as it goes for me. I see them as two distinct albums.
Pitchfork: Hammers has a new lineup. Was it different writing for the new vocalists and other players? The original drummer's back, right? How'd that happen?
John Cobbett: Yeah it was different writing for different singers and a new bass player. There are songs that Patrick [Goodwin] sings, for example, that I would never have asked Mike [Scalzi] to sing-- it just wouldn't work for him. You always have to write to people's strengths and new members always bring in new possibilities. It affects the writing process for sure. [Drummer] Chewy left the band for almost a year. We tried out a bunch of drummers but nothing sounded right. Eventually we just asked him to come back and luckily he did. The first time I played with Ron Nichols was at a mental institution on Halloween 2005. We played covers of "Purple People Eater" and "Monster Mash" and stuff like that. The audience was made up of pretty severe cases, really heavily medicated. True story.
Pitchfork: What's the idea idea behind "The Fields Trilogy"? Going back to my previous question about the opera-- you start this pair of records with a triology, a signal of the ambitious scope. How did you decide on this for the opener? The vocals shift from Patrick to Jesse between track one and two. A call and response?
John Cobbett: OK, before going into the lyrics I want to make it clear that I try to write with several different, unrelated things in mind at the same time. The song could be about five or six things simultaneously. That way it's abstract enough for the listener to fill in the blanks and get something unique from the words. I don't like explaining too much for fear of spoiling it for people who get their own meaning out of it. The words can be taken as personal, storytelling, political or whatever you like. That being said, for "The Fields Trilogy" I was reading a lot of history, particularly that of Russia and the U.S.S.R. It struck me that it's all about the peasant class. However, peasants never write history, they merely execute it. The poorest people have always grown the food, fought the wars and done all the dirty work of history. A peasant lives a short, brutal life in fields - be it a field of crops or a battlefield. Thus: Fields. That's where the idea started. From there it went several different places. Musically a trilogy works really well. You can take a few themes and really work them to death (pun intended) over the course of three movements-- like the classical sonata form. In a nutshell, the lyrical point of view shifts to a different worldview for each song. For each part, it was pretty obvious which singer to use. I think Jesse [Quattro] and Patrick both have some of their finest moments on that one.
Pitchfork: Are these "Fields" tracks a commentary on our current shitty economic situation, the greater rich/struggling divide? "Spare us alas, for our seasons have sown only great expectations and rust/ Only in labor and sun-beaten backs can we place our trust." There's also talk of "the coming war," a farmer/peasant revolution, which leads into "Part 3: Motorcade."
John Cobbett: Well, sort of...basically we start with History 101: The rich get rich by exploiting the poor. The poor rebel. Institutions like government and religion are deployed. These institutions steal from the poor and give to the rich. Rinse and repeat... That's where the idea started. It goes into a lot of other stuff from there, more specific scenery and points of view. First you have an aristocratic narrator ("Agriculture"), then you have a more working class, melancholy voice ("Fields"), then you have a military/police point of view. The first two-- in their own respective ways-- are lamenting a loss of innocence and longing for simpler times. The third ("Motorcade") has no illusions at all.
Pitchfork: On side two we move into "Rats Assembly": "Article 128 could hardly be more clear/ By order of the council you are always welcome here." It's like we've gone from the fields to some urban Kafka-style tale.
John Cobbett: Yes, you have moved from the field, to the street, to prison-- and the interrogation room. The Kafka reference is dead on. One book-- The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn-- was a direct influence on this song. There are references to "extraordinary rendition" and "black sites" in there also.
Pitchfork: Rats become the recurring image of side two: "Rats we live like/ In the walls/ Or hiding underground/ Fearful of the sound/ Those who fly/ Own the sky..."
John Cobbett: That song, "Always Looking Down" has a lot to do with poverty, homelessness, drugs, paranoia, crime, despair, and all that stuff. I like the idea of Ayn Rand as a homeless tweaker, invoking objectivist doctrine as she's breaking into your car. There's an Orwellian theme throughout; planes flying above, satellites above those, all looking down, watching. Spies everywhere, in your walls, on the corner of your street, you get the idea...we're all criminals.
Pitchfork: "Too Soon" returns us to the fields...folks being "spirt[ed] and deposit[ed] abroad." The more I dig into the lyrics, the more this seems an overall/extended commentary on our current situation. Am I wrong?
John Cobbett: You are right, there isn't really a wrong way. Again, I try to be abstract enough to allow the listener to project his or her own meaning into it. For my part, the following quote (via Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine quoting John Robb, for Fast Company magazine) had a lot to do with that song: "Wealthy individuals and multinational corporations will be the first to bail out of our collective system, opting instead to hire private military companies...to protect their homes and facilities and establish a protective perimeter around daily life. Parallel transportation networks...will cater to this group, leapfrogging its members from one secure, well-appointed lily pad to the next." That elite world is already largely in place. But Robb predicts that the middle class will soon follow suit, "forming suburban collectives to share the costs of security." These "'armored suburbs' will deploy and maintain backup generators and communication links" and be patrolled by private militias "that have received corporate training and boast their own state-of-the-art emergency-response systems." ...As for those outside the secured perimeter, "they will have to make do with the remains of the national system. They will gravitate to America's cities, where they will be subject to ubiquitous surveillance and marginal or nonexistent services. For the poor, there will be no other refuge." And this quote [from James Howard Kunstler] "We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope-- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts."
Pitchfork: How do you view Church of Broken Glass musically and lyrically in relation to Fields? The lyrics feel more mystical-- or fantastical-- the playing more windswept and heavy, less pastoral. They're clearly quite different. The latter seems to have more of a focus on the pictorial, structures (buildings).
John Cobbett: Church is more of an inner landscape, the commoditization of personality, the individual as an industrial ruin, the decay of the inner life etc. It looks through some different pairs of eyes at similar scenes of decline.
Pitchfork: Are you referencing an actual Butchertown? Or is this a place you've created as a stand-in for cities in general, setting for these particular songs? "Everything is metal now/ Metal is the king whose crown is melted down/ In Butchertown."
John Cobbett: There's a neighborhood in San Francisco known as Butchertown. Not many people use the name anymore. This neighborhood is all abandoned warehouses, closed power plants, toxic waste, ruined factories and so on. It's the kind of place where you can see nature trying to take over again, weeds growing up through the concrete and rust in the air and everywhere. I lived there for a while and that's where the song came from. The lines you refer to could paint a picture of any rust-belt neighborhood slowly falling into ruin.
Pitchfork: What was the inspiration for "Church of Broken Glass"? This track reminds me of certain post-apocalpytic sci-fi texts.
John Cobbett: Interesting story about that song... it was written for The August Engine-- back in 2001-02. It never made it on to that album, so we recorded another version for The Locust Years in 2005. That didn't get used either. We made sure to make it stick this time, even going as far as making it a title track. It's a simple song about longing and melancholy, and searching for something long gone...classic stuff like that.
Pitchfork: As far as other projects, I was talking with [Ludicra drummer] Aesop [Dekker] recently and he mentioned a new Ludicra, perhaps in 2009. How do you manage the work between your various bands? What can we expect the new Ludicra to be like?
John Cobbett: This is how it works: Ludicra practices on Tuesdays and Hammers on Wednesdays. Sometimes one band or another will do a Thursday or a Saturday. Leading up to recording we'll try to get in as many practices as we can, even if only two or three people can show up. That's right-- we can only manage practice once or twice a week. Everyone in both bands is chronically busy at all times. Ludicra and Hammers are like two different attitudes. The way the bands work and the approach to playing and practicing is totally unrelated. I don't expect Hammers fans to like Ludicra any more than I expect Slough Feg fans to like Hammers. It's like different worlds. Next Ludicra record is about 70% written, and I think it's going to be more "vast" than previous albums, hopefully.
Pitchfork: In the States, the west coast's seen as a key spot for black metal, among other things. Why do you think the Bay Area's managed to birth such a high caliber of ambitious, unique metal?
John Cobbett: I don't know. Maybe it's all the hippies, foodies, burning man trash, haircuts, fixies, craigslisters and hipsters around here. If you walk down the street, you don't get the idea that it's a stronghold for metal, but it's obviously bubbling beneath the surface. There's a healthy scene here, so if you have a metal band there's going to be some real competition. That could result in better quality and more variety.