When Hammers of Misfortune first broke roughly eight years ago with The August Engine, the term “office metal” was designated, for it appeared that only critics understood what the San Francisco-based outfit were doing. There’s certainly some credence to that notion, for the band’s elaborate, homespun, and unique brand of traditional metal-meets-70’s rock has made Hammers a critical delight, all the while keeping the band effectively under the radar. It’s a bit head-scratching as to why Hammers has toiled in relative obscurity, but that might change with the release of this year’s demanding 17th Street on Metal Blade Records.
Taking on a more amped-up and metal approach than its predecessor, 2008’s Fields/Church of Broken Glass, 17th Street is augmented by the striking vocals of Joe Hutton, who steps into the spotlight on such excellent cuts like “The Grain” and “Going Somewhere,” where vintage retro rock gets run in the metal field thanks to guitarist/founding member John Cobbett’s affinity for British metal and Bay Area thrash. It’s a lethal combination when firing on all cylinders, and it’s part of the reason why 17th Street is another feather in the cap of one of metal’s most distinctive figures.
With lots on the docket to discuss, we grabbed Cobbett for a round of questions, whereby the band’s enduring status as critical favorites and what goes down on any 17th Street in the country (among others) was elaborated upon. Onward ye go…
Blistering.com: I think it’s fitting that a band like yours that has worked this hard for so long ends up on a label like Metal Blade. Describe to me how feels to have such a large backing at this point in your career.
John Cobbett: It feels like we worked hard for many years and then somebody noticed. I mean, at the time (2008), we had no ambitions of getting signed. Metal Blade approached us through our Myspace page (this was 2008 after all, ha-ha). It was just like that, out of the blue. But at the time I felt, we've never been on a label like Metal Blade. We've been unknown for a long time, which is OK, there's nothing wrong with that. I was like, “I'll try it, just to see what it's like.” I asked around for some advice from friends who had been on the label, and they all had positive things to say. We got a lawyer to help us iron out all the details, and we got a fair deal. Of course the fact that I grew up listening to classics that came out on Metal Blade was pretty cool.
As far as recording the album, it wasn't any different from what we've always done. We made the album the same way we always do; on the same budget, at the same studio. Metal Blade did not interfere at all. The biggest difference is that the label really works hard on behalf of their bands. This aspect of working with Metal Blade didn't kick in until the album was done and getting ready for release. My inbox was full every day, regarding every aspect of the release: vinyl, layout, interviews, bios and press stuff like crazy.
Blistering.com: Does it make you feel like you’ve been rewarded for all of the hard work you’ve put in?
Cobbett: I'm not sure. I guess it feels good to get some recognition; having an institution like Metal Blade seek you out seems like validation of some sort. The hard work would have happened, and will continue to happen regardless of any label. I don't feel rewarded, more like "recognized.” There's no victory lap or trophy or anything. As far as I know, we'll continue to be obscure and unknown. If we get "rewarded,” I'll take that too. Either way, we'll continue on.
Blistering.com: Because of Metal Blade’s visibility, do you feel like to have to introduce yourself to a brand new audience?
Cobbett: It seems that we have to do this every time we release a record. This time, I can tell you that the amount of press, interviews, reviews etc. is unprecedented for me. I'm certainly not used to this much attention. It makes me wonder what "big" bands have to deal with on a regular basis. I guess they can hire people to help them with all the details.
Blistering.com: Are you at the stage in your career/life where you can do Hammers full-time, or are you selective about which tours and shows you can do?
Cobbett: The work that goes into the band usually takes a big chunk of my day and there is no remuneration for that, so I have a part-time job to make ends meet. Everyone else in the band works full-time. It's makes me sad that most of the time I spend on the band concerns logistics and typing. Sometimes I really miss writing songs and being creative. We are very selective about shows: Who we play with, and where. Touring, or even playing a single show, requires a lot of practice, setting up transportation and juggling people's schedules, so we always go for quality over quantity when it comes to playing live.
Blistering.com: The band has always been a favorite of critics, going all the way back to The August Engine. Why do you think that is?
Cobbett: Frankly, I really don't know. To hazard a guess, maybe it's because critics have to listen to mountains of generic garbage every day, and try to find something interesting to say about it. Almost every review I've read about us spends the first paragraph saying that we're hard to describe. Maybe that provides the writer some relief from the endless slurry of disposable drudgery coming out these days.
Blistering.com: You’ve always defied categorization, so do you think something like that has hurt the band when trying to appeal to a broader audience?
Cobbett: Oh yes, no doubt about it. The "broader audience" seems to like their music neatly branded and categorized. Even the fact that we use clean singing eliminates some of that audience, the keyboards eliminate another huge chunk, the female voices alienate another contingent, and the fact that the album doesn't sound the same from start to finish seems to confuse almost everyone. It's not surprising to find yourself in the margins, when you look at these narrow expectations. So we don't try to appeal to a wider audience. I'm glad we don't fit in. I wouldn't want to.
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