Hammers Of Misfortune Guitarist John Cobbett Discusses "17th Street" And The Band's U.S. Summer Tour
For over a decade, Hammers Of Misfortune has been a prime example of an overlooked gem. Each of their albums, from their 2001 debut “The Bastard” to last year’s “17th Street,” has always delivered the musical goods. Their sound, which pulls from enough influences to write a novel about, is broad and jammed with variety. That is possibly one of the reasons why they haven’t been as embraced as they should be, but “17th Street” was the first sign of that changing. The band is gearing up for a brief U.S. tour, which starts this week (dates can be found here), and I had the chance to speak to guitarist John Cobbett about the tour and the band's current position in metal.
How did this tour with The Gates Of Slumber come together?
We wanted to do a U.S. tour this summer in support of our album that came out last year, “17th Street.” We had about two or three weeks to get it done. We went to Europe in April and we came back and had to sort of recover from that. We decided to just start the tour in Chicago and just hit a bunch of dates around the Midwest/Eastern seaboard. That’s what we’re doing. Gates Of Slumber is one of my favorite U.S. doom bands. I think they’re great. The idea to tour with them was mine. I’m really happy we were able to make that happen.
Being that this is such a brief tour, about a dozen dates or so, how does the band decide which cities to play?
A lot of that is just routing. You’re trying to get from one city to the next in a coherent, logistically-sound manner (laughs). The problem with touring the entire U.S. is that as much as I love the Western part of the country, where I live, once you get in from the coast, the drives are just cripplingly long; 13 hour drives between places where you can play a gig. We didn’t really have that kind of time. We’re not going to do a five or six week tour this summer. Once you get east of the Mississippi, the drives are a lot shorter and major cities and places to play are a lot closer together. It just makes sense to go around. You drive from Baltimore, Philly, New York, Boston; those are all really strong places to play and they’re all two hours apart. It’s really pretty much the most eloquent way we can find to tour the U.S. in two weeks, and play in front of the most people possible. We definitely wanted to hit Canada too, so that awesome that we’ll be able to do that.
You guys seem to hit Canada a decent amount. What is it about Canada, the fans and the environment that makes you want to go back there a lot?
Canada is awesome. I love Canada. We always have a great time playing up there. We meet great people. They are always supportive. They buy a lot of vinyl. For being a pretty obscure band and all, we’ve always had a lot of support from Canada. I don’t know why, but I don’t really care. I think it’s awesome. It might have been that we got a really good review very early on in our career in BW&BK. We’ve always had strong support from Canada, so yay for Canada.
You mentioned that you consider the band pretty obscure. With this album that just came out, “17th Street,” looking at the reaction to it, you guys seem to be building up some momentum. Would you agree with that?
From where I’m standing, in the middle of it, it’s definitely gotten more attention than some of our albums in the past. We did a lot of media and press, but realistically, we’re not out to be the next Amon Amarth or anything. We’re never going to be that commercial, and I wouldn’t want to be held to a commercial standard anyway. I like to write at our own pace, and do pretty much what we want. All our albums are pretty different. Every time we put out an album, there are some people that love it, and there are some people that really don’t. I like working that way.
None of us are anywhere close to quitting our day jobs. It’s not like we’re just a bunch of kids living in a bus, traveling around and playing all the time. That’s not us. We’re trying to get more into playing live and touring, but we’re always an album's band. Ludicra, my other band, was always about the live show; we were a live band. Hammers has been more about albums. If there is some building up to great success, that’s fine. I have no problem with it, but that’s not my main goal. If that comes, fine, but that’s not the point of this.
You said you don’t want to be commercial like Amon Amarth, and I find that interesting because Amon Amarth is what many would consider more extreme than Hammers Of Misfortune. It seems like your sound would actually gain more attention. Do you think that is because the band is so hard to pin down from a genre or style standpoint, which makes it difficult for you guys to get to the level of an extreme band like Amon Amarth?
It’s actually an interesting point. Our music, even since the beginning, has always been pretty based on melody and songwriting and storytelling. We’ve never been out to win the brutal Olympics. We don’t really care about that kind of stuff. I consider us a heavy metal band, and like a lot of heavy metal bands in the past, we have songs and write albums that are supposed to be coherent and have all these peaks and valleys and all that other nice stuff. You expect that to be something that would have been popular 20 or 30 years ago, when you had bands like Thin Lizzy out there and Queen out there and Black Sabbath, but now, what’s popular is that people want a whole record or group of songs that’s all one thing; extreme ‘something-something’ metal from front to back. If you don’t provide it, you don’t expect to be popular in the way the market works today.
The market today wants really pure, one sound from start to finish on a CD or whatever device. People don’t want variety. They don’t want real serious music or real thoughtful...maybe some do, but it certainly isn’t going to get you to the top. If we wanted to be huge and popular, I would just play some blackened death form of something and just crank albums that were just that one thing. That’s what people are into these days. I couldn’t do that. I would die of boredom. I’m prepared to accept the commercial consequences of not dying of boredom (laughs).
You’ve been a songwriter for many bands and have been doing this for quite a while. When you’re writing songs, like for “17th Street,” are you still motivated the same way you were a decade ago? Do you have to do more preparation? Do you have to get yourself psyched up more to do it?
Yes and no. My method of working is different now. I’m using technology on the computer, where I used to use a four-track to record ideas at home. Now I can use the computer to do that, and it’s a lot easier. I can actually look at the tracks I recorded and bump them around and rearrange them and see how things work. On a four-track, you’re just rewinding and fast-forwarding. It’s a lot harder. I’m using a digital audio workstation and recording using software. I can sketch in some drums and I can record bass and sketch in some keyboards, just to see what the idea is going to sound like in a rough way. That’s been really helpful. I’ve been doing that for the last two, maybe three, records.
For the most part, my MO has always been the same. It sounds cheesy, but it’s like, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a song that sounded like this?’ (laughs). That’s the way I’ve worked since I was a kid. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. It’s like that little gleam in your eye when you’re a kid and you’re listening to a record; that’s what it’s all about for me. Hopefully, that will never go away. I still put on records at home and go, ‘Oh man, that’s cool.’ I still listen to music all the time. I still want to part of it, and I want to do it myself.
“17th Street” has a ton of variety, from heaver songs like “Staring (The 31st Floor)” to a ballad like “Summer Tears.” Do you have to be in certain mindsets to write either type of song?
Sometimes. With “The Day The City Died,” I set out to write a specific type of song. With a song like “Summer Tears,” I had this piano melody kicking out for a few years for a ballad. It took me a long time to write that song. I put it down for a year and picked it back up, like, ‘Maybe I can do something with this old idea.’ The ideas for the lyrics clicked and that’s when I knew I had the song. It was just a manner of fine-tuning it from there. I try not to let methodology be the defining factor of any idea from anywhere. My front windows are facing out on the street here and I hear cars going by blasting music. I can only hear a second of it, but occasionally, I’ll get an idea from that. I’m not picky man. I can take an idea from anywhere.
In the past, you’ve been involved with several projects at once. It doesn’t seem to be that way right now. Would you say that you’re putting most of your focus, maybe even 100%, into only Hammers Of Misfortune?
Not really, because I have another band. It just doesn’t have a name yet. It’s something that I’m doing with some people I’ve known for years. I used to be in a band called Ludicra and we were much more raw, primitive music. That band sadly broke up last year, but I still have that place where I have to do that. Hammers is one kind of thing for me, but I also have this primal urge to play really primitive, raw music.
I grew up playing hardcore punk, so I still have that part of me that wants to do something in-your-face and fast and brutal and simple. I’m doing that. I have to do that. I couldn’t just do Hammers. It’s really composed, it’s really thought-out. It’s emotional, but it’s also really cerebral. There’s the other side of things, where I just want something that’s really raw and not really thought out. I have to do both things, as they balance each other out. After this tour is over, I’m going to be going in the studio and record some of that. That doesn’t even have a name yet. We’ll see that early next year.
I like how you’re being really cryptic with that. Almost teasing, in fact (laughs).
Well, the band is me, Aesop Dekker, Mike Scheidt, and Sigrid Sheie. It doesn’t sound anything like Yob, it doesn’t sound anything like Hammers, and it doesn’t sound anything like Agalloch (laughs). I hope people aren’t too pissed off, because it doesn’t sound anything like all the bands it could sound like. This is not like a fucking supergroup. We’re old friends and we just wanted to do a band. This is not an one-off supergroup record. We intend to do this for a while.
If you could tour with one band, past or present, which one would it be?
I would have to say Black Sabbath, but King Crimson on the same bill would be awesome.
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