Interview with Hammers of Misfortune leader John Cobbett

Interview with Hammers of Misfortune leader John Cobbett

Episode 55 of Radical Research features our overview of Hammers of Misfortune, one of the most creative, interesting, original metal bands to emerge in the aughts. Admittedly, we haven’t gotten super-excited about a ton of newer bands birthed in this current century, but we find Hammers to be an indispensable part of our listening DNA. Hunter Ginn posited several ideas and questions before Hammers mainman John Cobbett, and the results are as below. Please note, Cobbett offered a few additional notes, clarifications and expansions after listening to our episode on the band. These precede the interview itself.

Up the Hammers!

John Cobbett expands upon Radical Research episode 55:

• Sigrid’s last name is pronounced “Shay”. Rhymes with “Say”.

• The piano on “Rainfall” was performed by myself, on an out-of-tune piano at Louder Studio. Sigrid had yet to join the band at the time.

• Further notes on The August Engine sessions: That album was written and recorded as a two-piece, just Chewy [Marzolo] and I. Janis [Tanaka] was globetrotting with P!nk, and Mike [Scalzi] had moved to LA. We got them to fly (in Janis’s) and Greyhound (in Mike’s case) to SF to do their vocal tracks. So, the guitars and drums were recorded at Louder with Tim Green and the vocals were recorded at Trakworx with Justin Weis. Janis also did her bass tracks at Trakworx – all in one weekend while on a break from touring with P!nk. Such is her talent.

• While recording The August Engine, we knew Janis was out of the band. We were busy trying to rebuild the lineup as we recorded it. By the time the record finally came out the new lineup was firmly in place and gigging. Hence the confusion in the album credits: the album was recorded by one group but the band presently existed as another.

August Engine and next 2 albums were myself on all guitars. It wasn’t until we found Leila Abdul Rauf that the twin guitar attack really started to shine in a live setting. She and I shared guitar duties on 17th Street and Dead Revolution.

•The vocals on “Rainfall” are by Lorraine Rath, of The Gault, as you pointed out. (Lorraine also did the Bastard cover art). However, Jamie Myers was never in The Gault. Janis Tanaka was the first guitarist for The Gault and was later replaced by John Gossard (Weakling). They were way ahead of their time doing postpunk/deathrock/doom before anyone else that I know of.

• You are correct that The Locust Years has more vocals on it. This was intentional. I felt that the songs on The August Engine got a bit lost in all the long instrumental passages. Looking back, I think this only applies to “The August Engine” parts 1 and 2, but that was my thinking at the time.

• You are also spot on that the Fields/Church of Broken Glass LPs are when we had our progressive rock phase. (The opening passage of “The Gulls” is an homage to Genesis’s “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”). On the topic of Fields/Church: it’s been pointed out to me that these two records should have been edited down into a single release, trimming the fat and some of the long fade-outs. I believe this assessment to be correct.

• Regarding the Metal Blade axe logo on 17th Street: I directly requested the label use the axe design. I talked them into it. They hadn’t used it in years, but I insisted!

• I wish I could do a Hammers Family Tree, because the branches would be pretty vast, and still growing. It would include Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room as well as Vastum, Death Angel, Christ on Parade, L7, P!nk, Fireball Ministry, Gwar, Sabbath Assembly, and many others. Hell, we even jammed with Dustin Donaldson (Thought Industry, I Am Spoonbender) for a bit there. But that’s another story…

• Thank you for doing this retrospective. Made my day to hear your experiences and perspectives on this stuff!

JOHN COBBETT answers HUNTER GINN’s questions:

The Radical Radish: Hammers has had 3 singers during its life. Each clearly has a distinct personality, but their similarities are hard to ignore. Mike Scalzi is one of the most unique voices in modern metal, so to find two other vocalists capable of handling Hammers’ complex music with such skill is quite the feat. It’s an extremely personal vocal style – singers like Mark Shelton, Tim Baker, and Bobbie Wright come to mind – just as your writing has always had such a strong identity. What qualities do you value most in a vocalist and could you describe the interaction/cooperation that occurs between you and the vocalist during the writing process?

John Cobbett: We’ve had 8 singers, if you include everyone! 9 if you include Unholy Cadaver, which had Erika Stoltz (Sanhedrin, ex-Lost Goat) on bass and vocals before she left to be replaced by Janis. That’s Mike, Janis, Jamie, Sigrid, Leila, Joe, Patrick and Jesse Quatro. Having to replace a lead singer always sucks. You know people are going to bitch about it.

If you listen to The Locust Years, you might notice that Mike only sings on four songs. Jamie (and Sigrid on harmonies) do a lot of the lead vocals on that album. The truth is that Mike had all but quit by then. The trend continued on Fields/Church with Jessie Quatro taking the lead on key tracks. One of my all time favorite Hammers songs is the title track to Fields. Jessie delivers the vocals beautifully.

But how do you replace a guy like Mike Scalzi? The only answer is you don’t even try. It’s tough enough to find a male metal vocalist who sings clean. A lot of screaming and barking going on out there, but not much singing. Guys: take note – fucking sing notes. Sing like fucking Tom Jones. There’s a reason women throw their underclothes at him! So, I knew it was pointless to try and find a guy who sounded like Mike.

After Patrick [Goodwin] left, we started auditioning singers again. I’ll note here that replacing members and rebuilding the lineup of Hammers was exhausting. I spent the better part of the 2000s sweating and fretting about lineup changes. I found Joe [Hutton] by asking around. One of the recording engineers at Earhammer Studio in Oakland had recorded Joe with his previous band, The Worship of Silence. Upon listening to their demo, I was surprised by Joe’s timbral similarity to Mike. The almost folky, earthy tone was there, and I knew it was a voice I could write for. Very expressive and melancholy, qualities I always gravitate to with singers.

One huge factor in all this is that I’m a songwriter, but not a singer. Most commonly you’ll find a self-contained singer/songwriter/guitarist like Mike Scalzi or Mark Shelton, or a million others. Our situation was somewhat unusual, which added layers of difficulty to the process of replacing singers. A lot of singers are uncomfortable with someone else writing the lyrics. Which I understand, while acknowledging that artists like Elton John, King Crimson, The Who, Frank Sinatra and the entire genre of Opera employed lyricists to great effect.

Mike Scalzi and John Cobbett, Halloween 2000

To that end, where do you see Hammers in the context and history of American heavy metal? It’s easy to point to the kinds of bands referenced above – Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, Brocas Helm – though Hammers sounds not at all like any of them. It has more to do with the critic’s/listener’s inability to describe Hammers with anything like real precision. I can think of no other band that’s been able to mix together epic metal, doom, pomp rock, et cetera, with such ease. So, having said that, to what traditions do you feel you belong and where are the fault lines where you break from those traditions?

I think of us as “Heavy Metal” because that label encompasses so much it could mean almost anything, while at the same time it’s definitely our culture far more than any other. If people want to put us alongside Manilla Road, Mercyful Fate, Rainbow, Dark Quarterer, Fates Warning, et cetera, then I’m proud to stand there. Dragonforce or Rhapsody though? Maybe not so much. We all have our boundaries I guess.

Why do I balk at the “Prog Metal” tag? Maybe because I can’t relate to Dream Theater?

The adherence to genre devices ended after The Bastard. At that point I formed Ludicra, and decided to focus Hammers on coherent songwriting first and foremost. I definitely wanted to play metal, but I didn’t want to be constrained to blast beats and grim vocals, or constant galloping. I wanted a band I could grow into. I wanted to go anywhere and do anything with Hammers, from raging thrash to baroque prog to pastoral ballads. At the same time I didn’t want to do the “genre bending” thing like Mr. Bungle or Naked City. I wanted to make coherent albums that went over the river and through the woods but always ended up at grandmother’s house, if you know what I mean.

This is the secret to our lack of success. We just don’t fit anywhere in the genre matrix. Impossible to pigeonhole. A real head-scratcher for the marketing department.

The Bastard lineup, l to r: Cobbett, Scalzi, Marzolo, Tanaka

Your music has always been so richly textured and detailed. You’ve also done a lot of touring over the years. When writing new music, to what extent do you think about the live consequences of your compositions? It’s assumed, at least by me, that you know you’ll be playing your new music live, but do you ever disregard the commitment to live integrity in the interest of the studio version?

Speaking of our lack of success, we haven’t toured all that much. If we toured relentlessly for a decade we would have found a much bigger audience. Over the years and different lineups, we’ve had a few members who really pushed for comprehensive touring, while in the same lineups we’ve had members who were too busy with other bands, or just couldn’t be bothered to take time off work.

That being said, I never let the logistics of live performance interfere with the recording process. Did Queen? Hell no. I love recording because of all the cool shit you can try. Precisely the kind of stuff you can’t do live because you don’t have the time, the space in the van, or a grand piano tuned and mic’d on the stage. People are going to be listening to your album in their cars, or in headphones, alone a lot of the time. You have to respect their ears and give them some colorful treats. You have to remember that albums are forever. Those recordings will be around long after we’re gone.

Listening to a record and seeing a live band are two totally different experiences. They should be treated as such. Many bands make the mistake of limiting their recordings to what they can do live, and end up with dull, colorless albums. Live (ah, remember live music?) you will be surrounded by others. The music will be at a towering 100+ dB. You may be buzzed. You may be there with friends having a great time. The band will be standing in front of you, moving, amps blasting, drums thundering. Couldn’t be more different than listening to an album in your room.

Another thing to consider is that after you’re three albums deep in your career, you won’t be playing every song on the new album anyway. We usually get 45 minutes to play, so we may be able to fit a few new ones in there. There’s always one or two songs on each album that really go over well onstage, so we stick with those. There was one time we did the entire Locust Years front to back on stage, at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. We had a grand piano and acoustic guitars onstage for that. It was wonderful.
You’ve always stayed a busy musician, not only keeping a reliable production schedule with Hammers, but with other groups like Ludicra, Vhol, Amber Asylum, and Slough Feg. What kind of experiences/inspirations/ideas did you bring back from those groups to bear on your work and writing with Hammers?

I’ve been asked this a lot, and for the life of me I can’t see one band influencing another. Perhaps it happens subliminally. It’s happened that a riff will migrate from Hammers to Ludicra or vice versa, but very seldom. I have a different set of standards for each band. They are different worlds to me. Same solar system, different planets. With Hammers I’m always writing with the singers in mind, and I have to write the lyrics, which makes a huge difference. Also, Hammers is way more focused on songwriting as I said, so I’m more likely to be thinking about The Beatles or Roxy Music than, say, Gorgoroth when writing for Hammers.
Having asked that, would you mind talking about the San Francisco underground scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like one of the richest, most varied, most cooperative American heavy music scenes. It also rarely gets credit as one of, if not the, crucibles of American black metal, first with Von and then with Weakling. What was it like for you as a musician and participant back in those days? As both a nostalgist and one completely without first-hand knowledge of the SF metal community, is mine an over-romanticized take on things or did the reality bear any resemblance to my imaginings?

Well, I’ll try to riff a little bit from that time/place. There was an amazing punk scene in my neighborhood, The Mission District. That fell apart due to drugs and dissolution around ’95. At the same time, me and a bunch of those people, mainly Aesop [Dekker] and a few others, were discovering black metal, and all kinds of other weird shit that was coming out of Europe at the time. This stuff was really hard to come by in the metal-phobic, pre-Internet US. A lot of activity centered around Aquarius Records on Valencia Street, which eventually housed Tumult Records (The Bastard, Weakling’s Dead As Dreams, Leviathan’s first CD, etc.). This was the only record store in town that even knew that black metal existed. It was cool because they also carried all kinds of obscure death metal, industrial, experimental and dark ambient stuff. A crucial record store, in the venerable tradition of crucial record stores!

There was a clique that followed The Champs — later The Fucking Champs — because they were the most metal thing in the neighborhood. This contingent soon gave rise to Weakling, which included Josh from The Champs himself. Concurrently there was some interesting stuff happening in the wider Bay Area, Neurosis in Oakland, Sleep, Autopsy, et cetera. It didn’t take long for us all to find each other. It reminded me of being a punk rocker in ’81, where if you met anyone else who knew about the Dead Kennedys you were instant friends. Hammers/Ludicra and Weakling/Gault shared a rehearsal space for a long time.

Being a veteran of the DC punk scene and the first wave of US Hardcore, I could see that this zeitgeist was special. It was small, but bursting with enthusiasm. The music was so exciting and mysterious! We were no strangers to Morbid Angel, Deicide and the like, but you have to understand that “metal” was a dirty word in mid ’90s SF, besotted with “indie” as it was. We were outcasts, but we had a new rose in town, as the song says.

I started booking some shows. Crust, death metal, noise, anything that came close to the lane we were in. Eventually I landed a booking with Mortiis (yes, the one with the prosthetic nose). All the way from Norway, and ex-Emperor! Having been in the bar business for some years, I managed to secure a venue and adequate guarantee for the Mortiis show. The show was a huge success! It was packed with weirdos. All the familiar faces, but also a bunch of critters who crawled out of the woodwork from god knows where. The whole show, most notably Mortiis’s bizarre set, had people talking for weeks afterwards. I figured I was on to something…

So I started a club. Lucifer’s Hammer. “All Metal, All The Time.” Every Tuesday night at a local dive bar. Before long we’d developed a small following, and a scene began to take shape around this club. My proudest moment was one Tuesday night early on, we had a “new band night.” Four new local dark/metal bands on the same bill, The Gault and Ludicra among them. It was like people started forming bands because there was a place for them to play. By ’98 things started rolling. I booked Mayhem, Enslaved, Impaled Nazarene, Orange Goblin, Burning Witch, Melvins and many others – all at this little dive bar. Wolves in the Throne Room played one of their first ever shows at Lucifer’s Hammer, as did High On Fire.

The story of Lucifer’s Hammer is discussed in more depth here:

Can you tell us a little about the evolution of the Hammers logo? Very often, at least in metal, bands will have an early, edgy logo and then change it to contour with their self-perceived maturity. But such is not the case with Hammers. By my estimation, Hammers has had about six different logos to date. What do you see as the role of the logo on an album cover – or in relation to the artwork/layout – and how has this contributed to the evolution of the Hammers logo over the years?

We have a different logo for every album. We try to make the logo fit with the cover. In fact, our most well-known logo (on the patch/T-shirt) has never been used on an album. My personal favorite is the Fields logo, an homage to the great Roger Dean. Of course, the best use of lettering overall is on the Locust Years cover.

Hammers, at least to my mind, has always been a very visual band – your artwork, band photos, album packaging, et cetera. You seem to be very conscious of the way that Hammers is presented, comprehensively, which further distinguishes you all from the casual ways that have characterized much of 2000s metal culture. As Hammers evolved from Unholy Cadaver, how much thought were you giving to the visual aspects of the band? How much a priority is presentation to you and to what degree does it impact your work as a musician and your experience as a listener and fan?

Thanks! I do my best to figure out the artwork. Not an easy task, when the budget for art has shrunk along with every other type of budget in the business. Have you ever noticed how the cover of a record can shape your perception of the music? The colors and the images definitely have an effect on how I see it. In my mind’s eye, when I think of an album, I picture the cover, or at least the colors. So yes, it’s extremely important to me.

I grew up looking at art from a young age, staring at the gatefold of ELP’s Tarkus or Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, thinking the people who made these records must be insane evil wizards or something. Before discovering punk rock, I’d ride my bike for miles to scrounge through second-hand comic book stores looking for back issues with certain artists. Bernie Wrightson was my all time favorite, along with Barry Windsor-Smith, Kaluta, Druilett and many others. I collected comics for the art, not the story or character. At the age of 12 it was my ambition to be a comic book artist. Little did I know that music was about to take over my life and lead me to bands like Crass, Amebix, and Voivod. The art style of these bands is a massive part of their identity. I’ve always admired this holistic approach to graphics, especially in the case of Crass. Their artwork was so defining it came to be synonymous with an entire genre. I’ve never been able to achieve this level of cohesion with our album covers, but it’s something to aspire to.

My favorite cover of ours is The Locust Years. All the art was done by a brilliant artist and family friend, Tom Woodruff. We got lucky with that one. It was paired with amazing photography by my identical twin brother, Aaron Cobbett, who also shot all the photos for 17th Street. Dead Revolution featured the art of Robert S. Connett, another amazing artist whom I cold-called upon seeing his works online. I did the August Engine cover art myself, along with the inside gatefold of Dead Revolution with my infant son squirming in my lap!

Onstage we have simple guidelines: no shorts! No logos. No sneakers. (Drummers are not beholden to these rules.) We try to look a little more put-together than the average audience member, just to retain a shred of mystique, or perhaps even “class.” It always bums me out to see a band take the stage in shorts and hockey jerseys. One should at least try, just a little bit…

recording The Locust Years

My final question is a bit more personal. I’ve long wanted to thank you for including my hometown of Savannah, Georgia in “The Day the City Died,” which is one of my favorite Hammers songs. I’m very grateful that I had come back from school in the summer of 2004 and was able to catch your show at The Jinx in Savannah. It remains a highlight of my show-attending life. Do you remember anything of your experience in Savannah? I hope we treated you half as well as you treated us that night!

I’ll always remember Savannah. It was one of the best gigs on that tour. The stage, the sound, and the staff were all excellent. We had a great time that night and it was a shining bright spot on an otherwise dark trip through the south. I remember we were all in love with the bartender. She was beautiful and kept pouring us free shots. That’s why I included Savannah in “The Day The City Died.” Good memories. I remember Joe’s delivery of the line “I’m off to Savannah GA!” had us in stitches in the studio. Something about the way he enunciated it was just perfect.