Raising up the Hammers of Misfortune: (almost) 60 minutes with John Cobbett

Hammers of Misfortune are one of the most slept-on bands to be offering hauté metal compositions that’d sate vinyl gourmands’ appetite for a more adult alternative to power metal and something a bit more compositionally sophisticated than NWOBHM’s greasy denim bark. Like something that’s got all metal’s histrionic chutzpah but doesn’t require an ad hoc dental operation to staple your tongue to your cheek. And it’s not as though they don’t have pedigree: mainman/guitarist John Cobbett has been around for ages, having stints in Slough Feg, Gwar while also co-founding USBM outfit Ludicra. Their alumni has included Janis Tanaka of L7 and Mike Scalzi of Slough Feg, while current guitarist is none other than Vastum’s riff-enforcer, Leila Abdul-Raif.
His idea behind Hammers of Misfortune was partly to create a band that’d exist on its own terms, that it couldn’t be broken up so long as he was still writing songs and could find the talent—no matter how temporary—to complete the arrangements and record them. This is altruistic shit, folks; metal for metal’s sake. Anyways, their new album should be out before the end of the year, you can, should buy reissues of their catalogue through Metal Blade, by clicking here.

And, yeah, taking a moment out from a schedule that’s kinda pretty ramm-o jamm-o full—what with recording Hammers’s new and as-yet untitled album, Ludicra, teaching guitar, sound engineering and bartending—John Cobbett got on the phone to talk about how it’s all built from metal’s ostensible kryptonite—the acoustic guitar/folk music—and that over-intellectualizing things is a good thing.

What is your approach to songwriting for Hammers of Misfortune, and does it differ from, say, that of Ludicra’s, or of any other bands you’ve been in?

JC: “Well it’s a challenge because a lot of our songs I’ll write on the acoustic guitar as a folk song, like your classic Simon & Garfunkel method, your classic Peter, Paul & Mary bullshit method of writing a song, where you sit down with an acoustic guitar and a cup of coffee (in my case) and you hum out a melody or do some fingerpicking. It sounds like a folk song. My theory being that, if a song works as a folk song with one accompanying instrument and one voice, it can sound good in any presentation. So, you could have that song as a metal song and it’ll still be a good song. It stands up to the café test: if you can stand up with an acoustic guitar and a voice and play that song and have it be a good song then it is acceptable for Hammers. Of course, I don’t work that way with Ludicra – Ludicra is a pure metal band. Hammers is: ‘We are going to write some good, credible songs and then we are going to adapt them to metal.’”

Isn’t it a challenge to imagine the finished song if you’ve started on acoustic?

JC: “That makes the focus very much on the lyrics. You can’t depend on a whole band with huge amps, pyrotechnics and all sorts of guitar wizardry to mask your shitty, stupid, clichéd lyrics. Y’know, when there’s just a voice and an acoustic guitar, the lyrics are very important: that’s all there really is on the guitar front so it puts a huge focus on the lyrics. And that’s the difference between Ludicra and Hammers; I don’t write the lyrics for Ludicra. I have nothing to do with the lyrics for that band. To me, Ludicra is just about writing metal riffs and arranging. I don’t write everything for Ludicra. So far, I’ve written everything for Hammers, including the lyrics.”

You’ve likened Hammers’ songs, and metal in general, to folk music, in that it’s largely blue collar working class music. Is it a question of just adapting that folk acoustic song to metal? Is the folk song where it all starts?

JC: “I am not writing metal on an acoustic guitar, per se, I am writing a song. And the idea with Hammers is to take a guitar and produce it and perform the song with a metal ensemble. One of the reasons why we did away with the harsh black metal vocals after the first album was that for Hammers I just wanted to have clean vocals so that I could right songs and then adapt them to heavy metal. So, if I have a nice chord progression on acoustic guitar or piano, you could do that doom, you could do that thrash, you could do that NWOBHM, you could do it cold or gothic and it is still going to be the same song.”

So if you’ve got a good song on acoustic does it make it easier to reinterpret it, flesh it out as a metal/Hammers track?

JC: “It almost makes it more difficult that you have a good song but, jeez, you could represent that song in a hundred different ways. There are some songs that I would like to do four different ways, so you’ve got to pick one. And then, that’s kinda how some of our songs grew so long, because we have three or four different ways that we can write this song; if we like more than one or two of them we are probably going to all those ways somewhere in the song. Hammers songs are based on one or two little progressions but we just work these some different ways and different sounds and it turns into a seven-minute song based on two or three ideas at the most.”

With Hammers, there seems to be a strong narrative—especially with The Bastard—and the arrangements and so forth call to mind Rising-era Rainbow, as in almost power metal without the lace shirt hyperbole: were/are they a big influence?

JC: “That is great stuff; though, that was never an influence on Hammers. When I was doing The Bastard, which was our only pure storytelling concept album, I was not listening to Rainbow at the time; I was watching Joseph Campbell lectures and listening to Dissection! Storm Of The Light’s Bane and The Somberlain, I was way into that back then. I don’t know if you can tell that from The Bastard. He [John Zwetsloot played the acoustic parts on The Somberlain] was such a good guitar player, but not only that, he always did such good acoustic interludes in their songs. Like if you listen to black metal which has acoustic guitar interludes—which it often does—his are just stellar, really well recorded, really clear, always prefacing or reiterating a riff which had been or is going to be done on full metal guitar. I love that. He was brilliant at that.”

You’ve always argued that Hammers are created so that you could do whatever you want; can you do whatever you want with Hammers and still be metal?

JC: “We’ve taken our share of heat for that, too. When we put out a record everybody goes, ‘Oh, they’re not heavy metal anymore. They’re no longer heavy; they’re all into ‘70s prog now.’ And y’know there is a little bit of that, but if you break it down to the base components it’s still metal. The minute you bend the rules of metal you are always going to get people who accuse you of not being metal anymore. Especially now, what bands do now is that they compartmentalize themselves into sub-sub-genres of metal, and then they create 10 to 12 examples of that genre and call it an album when basically it’s the same thing for 40/45 minutes. That’s what passes for albums these days. How do you get five albums into a career with that when all you can really do is a few different examples of one specific sound — “We play Cascadian black metal”, well, OK, you can listen to a whole album of this atmospheric black metal but then you’ve got to put out another record like that, and then another and another one. Like, you’re kinda screwed, artistically, you’ve just painted yourself into a corner and you’re going to run out of ideas kinda fast.”

It’s the law of diminishing marginal returns.

JC: “Exactly, you look at a band like Sabbath, they had all different songs on their records. Or Thin Lizzy for example, they went way to far in different directions, saccharine ballads, love songs, y’know; I like those songs, too, I like everything Thin Lizzy have done. But a little variety in your album doesn’t mean you’re not metal.”

Is metal guilty of over-thinking—do we over-intellectualize it?

JC: “No. I think that metal could do with more intellect – especially in the lyric department. So I think it is good when people hold it up to scrutiny. Not many people come to metal looking for intellectual stimulation, and frankly, they shouldn’t. A lot of times when I have seen bands come out and do this pseudo-intellectual posturing with their music, and they have this manifesto, it really does kind of stink of shit to me, most of the time.

To answer your question: people tending to over-intellectualise metal, I’ve seen some blogs do it really, really well. They actually get the point of what the artist is trying to say. So, no: I don’t think people are over-intellectualising it. I am in favour of over-intellectualizing, because if someone is over-intellectualizing, that means that they are actually going to listen to the whole fucking album and read the liner notes. I read a lot of reviews where it looks like they’ve just listened to the first minute-and-a-half of the song and just listed the bands it sounds like. And these people, I’m sure, are not getting paid, they’re just getting a copy, but I’ve read reviews of our stuff where they say Hammers of Misfortune was started as a side-project of Slough Feg—I mean, just go to Wikipedia, dude. So yeah, a little over-intellectualizing might get people to actually pay attention to what’s going on in the record, who is doing what.”

And so what if this audio is a bit ropey, this is cool archive footage and you get the idea.