Hammers of Misfortune – Office Metal Forever

Sunday, 31st March 2013

(This content originally appeared on Blistering.com)

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 Glass17th 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.

Blistering.com: Hammers is no stranger to lineup changes, so tell me about Joe and Leila [Abdul Rauf; Amber Aslyum] and how you used their skills to your advantage on 17th Street?

Cobbett: Leila is a great guitar player, and Joe is a great singer. This resulted in a lot of guitar work on this album, and a lot of Joe singing lead vocals. You always want to play to your strengths, and have everyone do what their best at. Joe is a frontman, and this is the first time we’ve had a male frontman, whose only job is to sing. As a result, this is the first album where we have male lead vocals on every song.

Blistering.com: The cover is very simple and is unlike what we’re used to seeing from a metal cover. What prompted you to go with that image?

Cobbett: My twin brother, Aaron Cobbett, is a professional artist and photographer. It was his concept. I was having real trouble coming up with an idea for the cover, so I called him asking for advice on visuals. Basically he came up with the whole concept off the top of his head – laid it out to me over the phone. By the end of that conversation, I could see it in my mind’s eye, and visually, I knew it was a big departure for us, but I liked it. A month later, he flew out from New York and shot the whole thing in a weekend. He designed and visualized our album cover in his head over the course of a single phone conversation. It’s good to work with the best!

Blistering.com: The album title is taken after the street in which you live on. Obviously, there’s some kind of significance there. What made you use it as the title?

Cobbett: I don’t live on 17th street. I live near 17th Street. A vast majority of Americans could tell you the same thing. There are 17th Streets in every city. I guess that’s the significance of it right there. In a way, it’s a place everyone knows. The album was named after that track at the last minute. We didn’t think much about an album title in the mad rush of trying to get it done, and there was some controversy among the ranks about the title. Eventually we decided to name the album after the song “17th Street.” I’m really glad we did, looking back, it was the obvious thing to do.

Blistering.com: In terms of pure compositions, songs like “The Grain” and “Going Somewhere” are your most complete to date, and is where Joe really shines. It must be exciting for you as a songwriter to have these tools at your disposal, right?

Cobbett: Yes, for sure. However, I’m not sure if I agree that these are our most complete compositions to date. If anything, I was trying to keep things a little shorter and more concise on this album. Going back through our catalogue, especially on The Locust Years and Fields/Church of Broken Glass, there are some songs that I’m really proud of. I think that [ex-vocalist] Jesse Quattro’s vocal performance on Fields is criminally overlooked, especially on the title track. I feel like I’ve set high standards for myself as a songwriter in the past, and the challenge is to live up to that. Having Joe and Leila to work with was fantastic. The talent, positive attitudes and work ethic they brought to the table were crucial.

Blistering.com: There’s always been a distinct 70’s rock influence in your sound. What is it about this particular era that you so enjoy?

Cobbett: Actually, I think of this album as more 80’s-tinged than 70’s. I was listening to a lot of Discharge and Master of Puppets, as a model for certain aspects of the record. I think that any time people hear Hammond B3 and piano, they automatically think 70’s. To me it’s more like we’re dragging those instruments into a more modern metal framework on this one. Maybe it’s the production? Recordings from the 70’s sound a whole lot better than they did in the 80’s. During the 90’s you had some good production work, but since then things have gotten really bad. Hyper-compression, the loudness wars (where all the dynamics are crushed by digital limiting) and blatant use of auto-tune…all of this stuff just sounds like shit. Just horrible. I can’t even listen to it.

Blistering.com: Finally, what’s on the agenda going into 2012?

Cobbett: We’re playing some dates in the Pacific Northwest in early December 2011with Christian Mistress, then we’re playing Roadburn Festival 2012. After that, maybe some US dates, maybe some European dates, we’ll see.

 www.hammersofmisfortune.com