Interview with John Cobbett of Hammers of Misfortune


I guess I’m calling bullshit on revolutions…

It’s been five years since San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune released 17th Street. Why? Ask songwriter / vocalist / guitarist John Cobbett and he will reply in the words of John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Cobbett and keyboardist Sigrid Sheie welcomed a baby, frontman Joe Hutton was sidelined after being involved in a severe motorcycle accident, and while Hammers of Misfortune were away, Cobbett and Sheie blazed a crusty northern sky in Vhöl, guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf had her coffin full with death metallers Vastum, bassist Paul Walker extolled doom metal’s virtues in The Worship of Silence, and drummer Will Carroll – who replaces Chewy Marzolo – was sticks up with legendary Bay Area thrashers Death Angel.

But fear not, on 22 July 2016 and Hammers of Misfortune are back with album number six, Dead Revolution. Darker and heavier than the band’s previous releases, it is, like all of their works, as diverse as it is dynamic and as broad as it is brilliant. Here, John Cobbett talks to MR’s Jason Guest about life and all that’s come their way these past five years and keeping the band on track, the album, it’s creation, line-up changes, and calling bullshit on revolutions…

Hi John. Thank you very much for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Dead Revolution. Also, congratulations to John Cobbett and Sigrid Sheie on the birth of their baby; I hope all are well and healthy. And I hope that Joe Hutton is recovering / recovered after his motorcycle accident (the promo material gives no indication of when these events occurred).

Hey Jason, Thanks! Tristan (our son) was born on July 17th 2014. His 2nd birthday is coming up! Joe’s accident occurred right around Halloween the same year. Both events happening right in the middle of the recording process. Of course Sigrid and I had to take time off from everything to bring Tristan into the world. When you get home with your first newborn, well, the impact is hard to overestimate. As for Joe’s accident, that’s also hard to describe in brief. Suffice it to say that the accident was rather catastrophic and his recovery is clinically miraculous.

So, it seems that life in the Hammers of Misfortune camp has been quite eventful these past five years since 17th Street. With all the band members involved in other activities and with other bands, how did you find time for Hammers of Misfortune?

With difficulty. I do most of the writing by myself, which is basically by necessity. We can get all 6 of us in the same room about once a week (when Death Angel or Vastum aren’t recording or touring), so we spend our practice time learning and tweaking arrangements rather than writing. Simply finding time to lock myself in my room and write music has been almost impossible, as I’m a full time parent by day and go to work at night. Babbysitters have been helpful, but they cost too much to use regularly. So yes, it’s been a real challenge.

What kind of progress or development does the album mark since 2011’s 17th Street?

Joe and Leila have a lot more experience singing our stuff, having been through this before. I think you can hear it in the vocals; they’ve been in the band for a while now and it all just clicks a little better. Also, we recorded in a different studio this time, with a grand old 1970 Trident board. This is the first time we’ve recorded on a proper board. In a way the recording is more raw and primitive than past recordings. There’s very little digital tweaking on this album. The studio just wasn’t set up to solve problems using computers. For example, we used 4 x 8  plates for reverb, and the other effects are done with pedals instead of plugins.

What did you achieve with this album?

We finished it! Seriously, finishing things is fucking hard. Starting things is easy. Finishing things is hard.

There’s a darker and heavier feel to this album than its predecessor. Why so?

Part of that is intentional. That’s the kind of album I wanted to make. The way we recorded it also contributed to that. I had it in my head that our last 2 albums sounded too “clean and nice”. I wanted a darker, dirtier sound, with louder guitars.

Did you have an idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did each of the tracks and the whole thing take shape as it was being developed?

Both. I had a good idea of how I wanted it to sound, but it always comes out different than you imagined. The circumstances and the gear you’re using determine a lot. We can try to control the sounds that are coming through the mics as much as we can, but you get surprised all the time. That’s part of the fun of recording.

Can you tell us about the title Dead Revolution, its meaning and its relationship to the music?

Sure. It has a few different meanings to me, but in short I guess you could say it’s a rebellion against all these so called “revolutions” I’ve been hearing about for years. I guess I’m calling bullshit on revolutions insofar as they are usually cover for people that want your money. I should mention that the city I live in has been ravaged by the Tech Industry twice. You don’t hear much about the devastation caused by the “tech revolution” but it’s been a disaster in many ways.

You’ve recorded your version of ‘Days of ‘49’, a folk song about the Gold Rush of 1849. Why this song? And how did you approach arranging it?

First, because it’s a wonderful song, and I’ve always wanted to adapt an American folk song (in the vein of Storm – Nordavind). Second, because it relates to the album in an interesting way. The protagonist came here to participate in the gold rush, and saw what happened after the boom ended. It’s a song about San Francisco’s past and future.

In the promo material, it says that you were trying some different writing methods. Can you elaborate on this? What methods? And how did they affect your approach?

This is a bit complicated. It’s all about letting the last chord of a section determine the first chord of the next section. So the transitions  become the first thing guiding the arrangement. Other things like dynamics, themes, symmetry, choruses etc. are still important, but the transitions are determined first. Not all the time, but it was kind of a new, fun thing for me to try. I mainly used this technique arranging “The Velvet Inquisition” and certain sections of other songs.

“The riffs come easy; lyrics, and arrangements are murder. Most of it comes down to making decisions, deciding what to cut out and what to keep. At least half of the music I write gets thrown away.” How do you decide what gets thrown away and what’s kept?

I’ve never had trouble with riffs. I always have too many. The hardest part for me (besides lyrics) is forming big piles of riffs into coherent songs. This means throwing away a lot of riffs and just keeping the ones that serve the final arrangement. If I have a riff that I really like and don’t want to throw away, I’ll try to build a song around it. Sometimes it works…

Hammers of Misfortune - Dead Revolution

Can you tell us about the artwork and how it relates to the music?

The artwork was chosen because it’s awesome, and I felt that it goes well with some of the images in the lyrics. It’s a bit twisted, which works for me. The back cover is also pretty awesome, and really fits the overall mood.

Robert Steven Connet designed the artwork, which is stunning. Why chose to work with him? What about his style drew you to him for Dead Revolution?

I was searching around for artists, and his stuff really stood out. He’s an amazing painter. Great use of color, and a wonderful macabre twist.

How much direction did you give him in the design?

None. The paintings already existed when I found them. I contacted him and asked if we could use his work and he generously agreed. There’s no way in hell we could afford to commission original work by an artist of his stature. I picked out the paintings from his portfolio and we got a great deal, amazing artwork! I did the lyric sheet myself, which is designed to be a gatefold. It’s all hand drawn and hand lettered.

In 2013, Paul Walker joined on bass and in 2014, Will Carroll (of Death Angel) joined on drums. What have they brought to the band?

Along with being a heavy bass player, Paul is a classically trained cellist and pianist. Having classically trained folks in your band is awesome! They can work off sheet music and know the language. It saves a ton of time. At this point we have 2 classically trained musicians in the band (Paul and Sigrid), while Leila and I have some training as well. This is fantastic. I love working with knowledgable musicians! Will has been a blessing as well. He’s a maniac behind the drums, he’s a quick study and he hits HARD. He aced his drum tracks in record time and we didn’t do any drum editing at all.

Other than line-up changes, how does the band of Dead Revolution compare to the band on 17th Street?

The rhythm section is different, but other than that it’s the same line up. We’ve played a bunch of shows since 17th Street was released. That always helps. In general we have a lot more chemistry by now and we’re pretty quick on our feet for a 6-peice band.

From The Bastard through to this album, Hammers of Misfortune appear to reinvent its sound with every release, drawing from genres as diverse as metal, prog, folk, etc. but resisting being pinned to any one of them and this, dare I say, chameleonic ability to move between genres has served the band very well. What does this approach allow the band?

It keeps us from getting bored! When I formed the band I wanted to create a situation that would keep me interested for years to come. I didn’t want to be stuck in genre conventions, which is why I ditched the blast beats and (most of) the grim vocals after our first album and moved all that stuff over to Ludicra. That leaves Hammers free to explore songwriting without having to adhere to a bunch of rules. We can get away with a lot that other bands can’t. I still love playing thrash and blackened styles, that’s why I have Vhöl. I can get that stuff out of my system and just focus on songwriting with Hammers.

What does making music mean to Hammers of Misfortune? What, if anything, are you looking to capture when making music for Hammers of Misfortune?

I can’t speak for all the members of the band, I’m sure it means something different to everyone. For me, it’s something I can’t help doing. I have this inexplicable urge to make records. If I didn’t need to do this, I would have given up a long time ago! With any band I’m doing, I’m trying to make art, and at this point I don’t care if that sounds cheesy or pretentious. It may be a low form of art, using metal as my chosen medium, but apparently that’s my lot in life. So be it, can’t complain…

Any plans for shows in support of the album? And if so, will we be seeing you in the UK anytime soon?

We all have some big stuff coming up. Will has a Death Angel tour coming up (with Slayer!), Joe’s getting married, Sigrid and I are moving out of San Francisco. We’ll manage to navigate all this craziness and play some shows somehow!

What would be the ideal setting for a Hammers of Misfortune performance?

A medium sized club with a big stage and a good sound system. There are 6 of us and we have trouble cramming on to your average stage at a bar. Still, I grew up seeing bands at small clubs and I still prefer it. We don’t have any stage show to speak of, it’s pretty simple. We just get up and play. I think this lineup we have at the moment is the best so far. We’ve been onstage together enough to get pretty tight live.

What does the future hold for Hammers of Misfortune? Is there more music in the works? And will we be waiting five years for the next one?

We’ll see. I don’t expect it’ll take that long to make another album. I’m going to be moving to a rural setting very soon, and I expect this will affect me creatively in a profound way (no more albums about San Francisco, ha ha!)

Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?

Thanks for contacting me! It’s great to talk to you. Hail to England!