Hammers of Misfortune
The Locust Years (Cruz Del Sur/The End)
An interview with guitarist John Cobbett
by Martin Popoff
“People are like, ‘What kind of metal are you?’ I’m like, we’re not! It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just writing… I grew up playing hardcore and metal. I’ve played a little bit a jazz, I’ve played a little bit of blues, a little bit of this, a little bit of pop, all kinds of stuff. And Hammers of Misfortune is just the band that, thinking as a fan, I’m like, what would be the coolest band ever? Well, it doesn’t exist. So I went ahead and made it.
So speaketh John, and that’s pretty much the coolest reason to make music, or art, ain’t it? And when you’re as damned and damnably capable at sculpting sound as genius John Cobbett (I hate that word, but John gets it, unlike a soccer player or sumthin’), the end result is far beyond exquisite. Hammers of Misfortune are quite simply one at the pinnacle of greatness, like King’s X, like Blue Oyster Cult, like Opeth, like King Crimson, like Led Zeppelin. Quite effusively, I consider this San Francisco consortium’s latest album, The Locust Years, a 10 fer 10, just as I did its predecessor, The August Engine. Among 489 other things, it’s timeless. Er, right John?
“Yeah, I think so. I think the lyrics and the music should be timeless. That’s one of the few things I’m worried about when I’m making a record. I started avoiding lnew stuff, because I just don’t want to be influenced by that. I don’t want to know what fucking Children of Bodom is doing right now. I don’t want to have that in my brain. I was listening to an ass-load of old Roxy Music and Brian Eno and a certain period of Bowie, like between Diamond Dogs and Heroes, and a shitload of Deep Purple, an album by Genesis called Nursery Crime, and a whole bunch of other dirty-ass rare shit like Comus. And man, I guess that’s all here on The Locust Years, but also something we never really talked about in our wide-ranging discussion – a certain scurrying, panicked New Wave of British Heavy Metal vibe, to go along with the operatics, the proggy grandness, the medievals, the keyboards, one hard-top nut to crack on this vaulted cathedral of sound, to be sure.”
“I’ve never really worked with keyboards this much,” reflects John, “especially this is a 250 pound Hammond B3 you’re hearing, with a 1951 Leslie cabinet, 200 Watt speaker. It’s a real Fender Rhodes electric piano, and it’s a real acoustic piano. So just micing up all this stuff and working with that, trying to blend it with the guitars and stuff, it’s pretty tough. There’s a lot going on musically. At one point, there are four tracks of guitars, five tracks of vocals, and two tracks of keyboards going on all at the same time. Just trying to strike a balance in all that was really tough.”
No detail is left untrammeled when it comes to making Hammers the intellectually rich artistic drenching that it is. Two jarringly opposite photos of the band confront and provoke, within a digipak presentation that keeps throwing up smokescreens and spiderwebs o’er glass horses.
Explains John, “My brother – my identical twin brother, actually – is a professional photographer. He and I have been talking about working on a photo shoot for a long time. He lives in New York City. We finally did it. The front cover, the shot on the outside cover, is a shot I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I knew for a fact I didn’t want us to look like a rock band, or any kind of band. I wanted to look more like an orchestra, or a political action committee or something, to fit the theme of the record. So I wanted to take a really, really good band photo, which you don’t see very often. You rarely see good band photos anymore. You know, you used to see great photos. The cover of Kraftwerk’s Trans-World Express was a major influence on that picture, and you know, just think about the cover to Highway To Hell. What a great band photo! Amazing! Now you stand in front of a fucking brick wall.”
“So we got the tuxes (FYI: John, criminally talented for a paltry 40 years of age, is the one with the moustache), went to Macy’s and bought all the dresses and jewelry. Of course, we returned them later and got our money back for that stuff. And then my brother is a consummate pro. He did all the hair and the nails himself, everything. We bought a fabric for the backdrop etc. Makeup, everything. And after that shoot was done, we had a box of glam clothes there, and we decided to have a little bit of fun and do a glam band shot, in the last hour of the photo shoot. The rock ‘n’ roll shot inside the booklet came out of that. I think it’s kind of a fun juxtaposition to the tuxedo shot. You couldn’t really get more opposite.
For the (also timeless) and magnificently conspiratorial cover art, Cobbett relates that he “had the privilege of sitting down with one of my favorite artists, Thomas Woodruff, and I showed him a newspaper clipping of a book cover that I liked, but I didn’t have any idea how I wanted it to look, but I knew I wanted purple and gold with a splash of red. And we sat down and drank whiskey, and my brother Aaron, my photographer, was there also. The two of them are both good friends from New York, and we got together to work on the cover art, which again, was a huge privilege to work on those guys. And we sat down and conceived the whole cover in about two hours. I told them I wanted glass horses, webs, I wanted theater curtains, I wanted an eagle, and I wanted a banner. He sketched and came up with the idea of having the rose in the web on the CD, and the rose being eaten by june bugs underneath. Having seen his work before, I knew he was basically a genius, and he sent me the finished piece about three months later. It was perfect, beautiful.”
“He used acrylic, watercolor, and I think some pastel. The original is about 36″ x 48″, really big, and yes, I was instantly into it. It was perfect. He kept the original, unfortunately, because I can’t afford his work. He has collectors that’ll pay a lot more money than I could ever afford. This is the only album cover he’s ever done, and it’s because he liked the band and he liked the concept.”
“I don’t like coloring people’s perceptions,” says John, asked to elaborate just a bit on his coal-fired, enigmatic lyrics, offered in an array of male/female arrangements, courtesy of Mike Scalzi (John plays with him in Slough Feg) and new arrival Jamie Myers. Asked further on the band’s dream-sequenced singing, John comments that “the band kind of didn’t really have a lineup for a couple of years, so in order to rebuild it, we brought in Jamie Myers and Sigrid Sheie. Jamie brought in completely different female vocals, which is obvious. Kind of really the opposite to the way Janice (Tanaka) sang, which is good. Kind of like a foil to Mike’s voice. Not everybody agrees with that, but what can you do? I mean, Janice’s voice was awesome, but she has a really kind of Carly Simon sort of pro singer thing. And Jamie has this sort of girlish, wounded quality I really liked a lot, so I decided to go with it. Plus she can play bass. Which, at the time, we were looking for a female bass player/singer. I’ve since learned better, because I’m really eager to find good singers without being worried about whether they can play the bass.”
Back to the subject of subjects, John offers, “I know what it means to me, but that’s one of the problems music videos. I’m so visual-oriented, if you associate the visual with the music, for me, that visual will always color my musical perception. That’s why I think the cover is so important. And that’s why I don’t really dig videos. I don’t really appreciate it when someone just lays everything out on a plate for me. It destroys the mystique of what’s in there.”
When asked of literary influences, John exclaims, “The fuckin’ Bible. For sure, dude (laughs). The Bible rules! It’s sort of like all this ‘and the beast of the fields shall perish, and the wheat of your mountain shall wither,’ and the this and that. It just lists. There are tons of lists in the Bible. And I aslo like shit like ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water’ (laughs). You know, like ‘Famine’s Lamp’: ‘Famine always hangs his lamp about holy land.’ Fairy tales. Biblical writing. Edgar Allan Poe is the Jimi Hendrix of writing. And Jimi Hendrix is the Jimi Hendrix of everything (laughs). Bob Dylan, of course, is extremely fucking clever. Literally influences? Very influenced by a guy named JK Huysmans. He wrote a book called A Rebours – Against The Grain or Against Nature. Fantastic book! Fantastic. The prose, even translated from the French into English, is just breathtaking.”
“The lyrics on this record are really distilled. Like, with the exception of “The Locust Years” and “Trot Out The Dead,” I tried to distill the lyrics down to the most purely… oh, I don’t even know the word. I just wanted to sharpen the words to a diamond-hard edge, very shiny and beautiful, very poetic and nice, but very hard. The lyrics to “Chastity Rides” are the best I’ve ever done, because it’s the cruelest and most sarcastic song I’ve ever written. I was cackling with glee as I wrote it. But now I’m giving a lot away. I knew we were going to get a lot of shit for that song. It’s such a pretty, dreamy and feminine song, and we do a lot of that. And I have no apologies to anyone about that. And I’m pretty tired of hearing all these snot-nosed little kids whining about how we’re not metal. Well, don’t fucking listen to it then, you know? (laughs)”
“We’ve got a couple of members in graduate school right now,” says John, dubious that you’ll be seeing this immense studio accomplishment rendered live any time soon. “Sigrid is going to grad school for music right now. She’s a classical pianist. And Mike is going to grad school for philosophy. Mike tours with Slough Feg extensively, pretty much as much as he can. So that leaves them rather unavailable.”
When asked about the touring lifestyle, John remarks, “It’s like anything: There’s a way to do it ,and there’s a way to not do it. At the point where I’m sleeping outside, using my guitar case as a pillow so it doesn’t get stolen, that’s when I start to go, ‘I’m too old for this bullshit.’ Living like a bum is OK when you’re in your early 20s, but I would prefer to sleep in a bed.”
“But we actually can do it live pretty much,” says John with respect to the logistics of recreating this plush octet of purple pieces. “I’ve got to find another female singer, and I think I found one. She’s also classically trained, and that’s important to me. And then we have a bass player, this guy Ron, who used to play in Grinch. I think pretty sure we have a drummer, but I’m not at liberty to say right now, because we’re saving that bit of news. So yeah, we’ve been rehearsing to play a record release show, it’s going to be like a six-piece.”
While you wait, you can experience the Hammers, on record, on Cruz Del Sur Music, the way it frankly should best be digested. And while you’re doing that, John will make ends meet.
“As usual, I’ve got a whole library of ideas,” he says, already looking ahead to the next opus daydream, when asked also about what he does for work outside the band. “I’ve got some lyrics, and I’ve been doing a little bit of writing for EQ Magazine, reviewing software, audio software. I do a lot of freelance writing. I do freelance music for video games. In fact, I’ve contributed 22 original songs to the Sims franchise, ranging from thrash metal to Goth pop to nü metal to pop music. I’ve done just about everything for them, every kind of music. Well, no country. I also do some writing for the iTunes music store, and I compile lists of essentials for the iTunes music store. And I do live sound for bands. What else do I do for money? Whatever. Why, do you need your lawn mowed or anything? Yeah, I can mow the lawn and then compose an opera about it. (laughs)”