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Interview – John Cobbett (The Hammers of Misfortune)

VHOL 6
Photo by Aaron Sharpsteen

I’ve written about guitarist and songwriter John Cobbett, the mastermind behind The Hammers of Misfortune, Vhol and Ludicra, more than maybe any other musician. That said, I can’t say I’m satisfied with any one of those pieces. Nothing I’ve said captures the way Cobbett’s songwriting has affected my mood, my life and my decisions.

Consider this interview my redemption shot. Cobbett, phoned me before a west coast tour with Vhol culminating in Migration Fest, his last as a Bay Area resident. Cobbett and I spoke at length about the excellent new Hammers of Misfortune album Dead Revolution, and the excised songs from The August Engine, as well as why more people need to turn social media off and develop some bad reputations.

It’s been long waits between records. I understand that you’re a pretty meticulous guy.

Oh, not really. It takes me a while to kind of get into the swing of an album. Once that ride starts, man, it’s a long hard ride and it will go all the way to the end for me. Once I go on an album, I can be very obsessive and single-minded, and turn into a bit of a dick, sometimes – because you have to. Making an album is a huge process, and you have to get people on board. Project management is huge. You really have to be a taskmaster to get it all done. A lot of musicians prefer to be on stage. I love being in the studio, and I much prefer it to being on stage. I’m kind of a shy, reclusive guy, and feel nervous onstage. But most other performers don’t dig it that much. You don’t get that immediate response from an audience when you’re tracking for eight hours. They don’t like it as much, you know.

I like hearing about process; it seems to me you know your process, and your process works.

Part of the reason it takes so long between albums is because I’m a little bit afraid of committing to making another record, because I know that once I do it’s going to be hard, and I can’t stop myself once it starts. It’s like looking down the barrel of three years of pulling my hair out, you know? So I go back to being a fan for a year, just collecting records and listening to other people’s records, before I start writing again. You don’t want to burn out on music, believe me, I’ve been there. It will take years to get back into listening if you burn out on music. I don’t know how other people do it; go out on the road for 9 months of the year. I guess they just drink themselves into a coma at an early age.

Have you ever burned out on music before?

Oh hell yeah, dude, I had a bad one, back in the mid-aughts. I got to the point where, I was playing in 5 bands, I was booking a metal club, I made three albums, one with Ludicra, one with Hammers, one with Slough Feg and I was going through a nasty breakup. By the time I got out of that I never wanted to hear another distorted electric guitar in my life, ever. I literally did not listen to any sort of rock music for a year. It took me a long time to get out of that. I really started to hate it. It was just too much. I fried a circuit in my brain. So what I did was I spent a year teaching myself how to program algorithmic composition tools and make all synthetic music. I made my own synthesizers from the ground up, I learned a program called Max/MSP, which is a digital programming language for MIDI and audio, and I improvised on drum machines, including building all these drum synthesizers, riff generators, things like that.

Until one day I just put on Jimi Hendrix on a whim, and my girlfriend said ‘oh my god, you’re coming back.’ She thought me putting on Hendrix was a good sign. And through all that, I was still playing gigs and going to rehearsal, but it was bad. You never come back from a burnout like that the same as you were before. You’re gonna listen to less music overall, which is bad. It sucks. Burnout is real, man, and it’ll fuck you up, for sure.

Could I confess something to you?

Sure.

I have been, like, on the verge of burnout for probably the last four months, and it’s from writing about music, which I love doing. It’s only now that I understand why anyone stops writing about music. There’s been a few days where I think “If I listen to one more metal album, I’m not gonna listen to one for six months. Even if it’s a good one.”

Yep, absolutely man, I feel you. I was booking at a metal club, Lucifer’s Hammer, through all this shit too, so I had to listen to all these fucking demos from San Jose like, a million stoner rock bands. I had a pile of CDs on my desk at all times. All I can tell you is take a break. That’s all you can do, is go back to being a fan. Because it’s more fun to be a consumer.

It is.

You should never let that little kid part of you that is really enthusiastic about music, the part of you that led you down this path in the first place – you should never let that part go. You need to protect that part at all costs. Do you understand what I mean by that?

The little kid in you, that’s a fan, is the most valuable part of your personality. And you need to protect that kid at all costs, don’t lose that kid. Because once you do, you’re just going through the motions, you become cynical, you lose your fire. You lose your passion. If you lose that, you’re done for. That’s my big piece of advice to anybody in this business. The reason I’ve actually been able to make albums, and sound passionate, sound real, like I’m not just phoning shit in, is because I protected that little-kid part. Most guys my age can’t do it, don’t do it. Because it’s hard, you really have to be aware of it.

I hope you find an opportunity to take some time off. Especially from the internet. The internet is the most toxic shit, if you pay attention to what’s going on on the internet, it’ll make it so much worse.

Go to a festival, go — see the world. There’s a worldwide thing, millions of people. Metal represents freedom. If you just looking at what’s going on online, you’re just gonna see a bunch of posturing assholes, mad at each other. That can destroy a lot of people’s’ faith, and it’s a shame. Go to a gig, tag along on a tour. Go to Europe and travel around to the festivals, and you’ll see. Go to fucking Rio. It’s about the real world, man. Metal is a beautiful thing for so many people and so many parts of the world. Everywhere from Africa to Siberia to Indonesia to Brazil. You really have to remember that. All this shit talking is online. It’s not real. I want you to remember that. I want more people to remember that.

I gotta tell you, there’s been more than a few occasions in my life where I’ve nearly gotten out of the scene, and specifically records that you’ve written were things that kept me in the loop. I’m talking specifically about The Tenant and 17th Street.

Oh, cool, thank you. I thought The Tenant was a good little record. I thought that was Ludicra’s finest hour.

I had just gotten out of college, was just entering the workforce, and the economy was just destroyed. At that time, it felt good that someone got it. It felt good that someone was making music that reflected that situation.

17th Street dealt with that stuff too, a lot of people just feeling like really betrayed. ‘how am I gonna make it in this shitshow?’ That’s not a very good summation of what those records meant at all. I just finished two records. I don’t go back and listen to my records very often, so I’d have to go back and look at what I was trying to mean back then. And we had a kid in the middle of it all!

I didn’t write any lyrics for Ludica, I just wrote the music and produced the albums. I can’t really speak about the lyrics. But I know what they meant to me. The Tenant is about being a fucking renter.

It’s hard to think about propping up the United States economy by continuing to push people down.

That’s what happens. Exploiting people, using them up and throwing them away, the effect of globalization on the working class, you know? My dad was a guidance counselor in public schools in upstate NY, and my mom was a stay at home mom. They bought a house in the early 70s, a long time ago. He actually retired and managed to pay off his modest house by working for the New York State public school system his whole life. That is gone. Long gone. I was reading an article in Harper’s about a whole class of people that are 60 and over who live in RVs, because they have no retirement, they just drive around doing seasonal labor, like working in Amazon shipping compounds, or picking grapes. These are people who are in their 70s, but they’re traveling around as migrant labor. There’s a whole population of these people doing this. They talk about the working class being decimated, well, these are real people being decimated, and I think the suicide rates and the death rates are like… if you’re 65 years old and fucking dirt poor, you don’t have any fucking money, you’re in debt up to your eyeballs, and the only job you can get is sweeping the floors at fucking Wal-Mart, there’s a good chance you’re gonna drink yourself to death, you know?

On the cover of Dead Revolution, you see this sort of dichotomy. There’s that one figure wearing the gas mask pleading with the trans-human, the brain in the jar. I saw that entity as the tech bro of 20 years from now.

You know, I took that painting partly because in the first song, “The Velvet Inquisition”, there’s a line, “Who dares question their confessor?’ and that to me looked like their confessor, the robot brain. The city on fire in the background reminded me of “Flying Alone”, when the city’s destroyed. And the figure praying to the Confessor, yeah, that’s us. I picked these images out specifically because they illustrate certain things in the lyrics.

Hammers_of_Misfortune_-_Dead_Revolution

There’s one song on Dead Revolution that really stands out to me, and that’s “Precipice (Waiting for the Crash)”. I’ve been listening to that song pretty much nonstop. Almost maybe to the detriment of the album. I’m that guy— I get stuck on one song.

I’m almost surprised that they didn’t release that one as one of the lead-off singles. I was really expecting them to use that one. They made their decision. I’m sure they have their reasons, they’ve been doing this for a long time. I was pretty surprised that they wanted “Sea of Heroes” first, which is a good song, I like that one a lot. With “Precipice”… when you make a record, certain songs tend to stand out, it’s kind of inevitable, unavoidable. Of course, you want all songs to stand out, you do your best, but I thought “:Precipice” was a real standout track. Maybe it was the long fade-out. We have a problem with long fade-outs. I try to get away from them, but they always keep coming back.

You’re one of the only bands that does the rock and roll fade-out that I like.

Oh, man. I like rock and roll fade-outs, but Jesus Christ, we do too much of it. I’m always trying to get away from it. I realize we have that problem. How many of these do we have on this record? I think that might be the only one. The other songs end coherently. I had to keep this fade-out because I found the most amazing tone for that solo at the end. I’ve been trying to get that tone forever, it’s like the Victor Griffin in Pentagram lead tone. I finally got it at the end, and Will [Carroll, drums] was going fucking crazy on the drums during that fade-out, and we were all really stoked on that, so we just had to keep it.

Will’s performance really makes this whole record stand out in your discography I think.

He’s a beast. Absolutely. The guy played drums every day. If he’s not on tour, he’ll join another band. That’s the way to do it. He’ll play in cover bands if he can’t find anybody else to play with. I really admire that level of being active and practicing. And yeah, it makes a difference. The guy can rip into these insane drum fills and, without breaking a sweat, come right back out of it perfectly in tempo. He’s got a lot of styles. I just feel bad because I made him play the shaker through the entirety of several songs. There’s a lot of hand percussion on this record. Hand percussion, man, nobody uses it anymore but it’s great shit. It was all over the Vhol record, too.

He had to play a shaker all the way through “Dead Revolution”, and I believe “Flying Alone” and then he went to go play Hellfest with Death Angel. He told me, ‘god-damn it Cobbett, my fucking wrist was seizing up during Death Angel’s set because of that fucking track you made me do.’ I was like, ‘we got the take, bro!’

There’s a cowbell on there too, isn’t there?

Yeah. We went there.

Good! People should. There’s that Saturday Night Live sketch that makes fun of Blue Oyster Cult.

I know, I know, more cowbell.

It sort of ruined cowbell.

Yeah, and everybody’s gotta go ‘oh cowbell’ in the comments, you know? Unfortunately I did look at the comments and one of the first ones was, ‘more cowbell, hahaha.’ Whatever man. Who cares? It’s not like we’re making any money off this shit. If I really gave a shit about any of that, it would kind of take the fun out of it a little bit. There is cowbell. Because that’s what I wanted to hear. ‘Ohh you put cowbell on it.’ Yes I did, I put cowbell on it. Get over it. (laughs)

I think it’s cool.

Well, I do too. Cowbells sound great. That’s why people use them. They really propel the song along; it’s an awesome sound. Ever heard Too Fast for Love by Motley Crue? The cowbell is massive on that album. So fucking badass. I only wish we could’ve gotten that cowbell tone. But we didn’t have a huge cowbell in the studio, so we had to use the one we had. So my only complaint about that is the cowbell wasn’t big enough.

Admittedly, as I was writing up the record, I put a sentence in about the cowbell, and then I thought, ‘I haven’t sank that low yet. I’m not quite that out of ideas.’

Yeah, too easy. You know everybody’s gonna make the cowbell joke, you know? Why should you? Let people do it for you.

Again I’m getting personal, but I have this enormous problem with your music, because I love it so much but I’ve never been satisfied with anything that I’ve ever written about any of your projects. Not once. Every time I’ve tried to write something, about Hammers, about Vhol, I’ve looked at it and thought, ‘I’m still not saying exactly what I’m trying to say.’ But, eventually you run out of time, and it’s just gotta go up.

I don’t know how to do it, either. Lester Bangs said it’s a lot easier to write about something you don’t like rather than something you do like.

He’s exactly right.

People just recite the fucking press release, these days. I’m not a writer, although I’ve done some writing. But as a musician, I think about music a lot, and, you know, if we’re to sit down with a beer and a David Bowie record, I could go through every single song and point out everything that’s amazing to you. And you’d probably get very bored. The history of Mike Garson, who played piano on Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs — I would surely point out to you the amazing role of the piano player on those records, and those are the kind of things I would write about. But if you’ve got a stack of CDs on your desk and you have to listen to all of them, it’s hard to get that deep into those records.

It is. Eventually you resort to just not-listening to things you know that you’re bored with. With me it’s occult themed stoner metal bands, with a woman singing.

I didn’t realize there were that many out there, these days. I really don’t go for stoner metal, but if I had your job, I guess I wouldn’t have a choice. That’s just what put me off death metal. I was booking a metal club in northern California. I used to love death metal, Entombed, Morbid Angel, Dismember, all that. At the time, there were so many death metal bands coming out of San Jose and other suburbs of the Bay Area. Oh my god, I couldn’t’ listen to it man. After a while, it just got so redundant. If you’re booking a local club, you can’t expect every band to have their sea legs. In a local scene, young bands have to find themselves. And that’s part of your job, to give them a place where they can do that. You can’t expect them to have figured everything out yet. So it’s not like I look down on these people at all; I was booking them, week after week. But there are certain bands in the scene, like Impaled and Exhumed, that definitely figured their shit out and were really good. They played my club again and again. I’m just realizing this as you say this, maybe that’s why I got off the death metal train at that point.

I can always tell the reviews where the person listened to one song, or listened to the first few minutes or seconds of a few songs on the record. You see the reviews that kick down— you know, ‘this song sounds like Queen,  this song sounds like Megadeth’. There’s a lot of that going on. They listen to the first minute of a song and then they compare you to another band. I’m sure none of them are getting paid anything though, so what can you expect, you know? We’re not getting paid, the people writing about us probably aren’t getting paid, nobody’s getting paid. The only people getting paid are the publicists. So what do you expect, really?

I think there’s an argument to be made for quality for its own sake as an independent good thing.

Well, you wanna do something for posterity, right? These albums are all gonna be around long after we’re all gone. So, you know, my kid is gonna be playing my albums for his kids, maybe, I hope. So they have to be good, or I feel ashamed if they’re not good. So I do my best. There are really so many time and money restraints. There’s no way you’re ever gonna be satisfied with anything. I know I’ve said this before, but starting things is easy, and finishing anything is fucking hard. It’s easy to start a band, but how many bands even get to the point where they record a first album? Maybe five percent. You can form a band at the bar with your buddies in five minutes. But you’ll never be 100% satisfied. Just keep at it. It’s not for everybody, it really isn’t. This is a fool’s game, we’re in.

Speaking of fool’s games, there is one thing I’ve been waiting to ask you for literally years and I’m not going to miss my opportunity to ask it. I’ve been told that The August Engine is a concept album, but I don’t understand the concept. If that’s true, will you explain it to me?

The August Engine was a concept album, and it’s missing several very large pieces in its released form. It was something I’d set out to be something on the scale of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I wanted to do a huge record. And I did it, and no one was interested. In fact, I shelved that record, literally gave up on it. Nobody wanted to put it out. It was dead in the water. It was dead to me. So we started working on The Locust Years. Some of the songs had never been mixed or mastered—the album was collapsing under its own weight.

It was Enrico from Cruz Del Sur in Italy that eventually inquired about The August Engine. That was after I had edited it down to it’s current length and given up on it. He ended up releasing it and Locust Years.

The concept itself had a lot to do with music as something that I loved and something that was dying. It dealt with what happens when you get into a music scene. The excitement of meeting all these people, and the disappointment when you realize it’s just another fucking scene, and these people are — some of them — not good people. Your idealism starts to suffer. I was watching what was happening to pop music at the time, and it was just disgusting. I can’t remember what it was, but it’s the same thing that’s happening now. The autotune. Most of the radio hits you hear now don’t even have an actual musical instrument on them, at all. It’s all done by sequencing on computers. And no, a computer is not a musical instrument. A computer just executes instructions. Without going too far into that, I was disgusted by what was happening to music, and I still am, but I was so hurt about it that I put it on an album. At the end of the album, the entity that’s being put on trial is hard music itself, condemned and chopped up into pieces, destroyed.

“The August Engine” is a voice. I’ve had people tell me, ‘oh that’s the most egotistical song ever written,’ as though I’m writing it from my own point of view (laughs). No, this is what society is telling you, what society is telling me. “Oh, you think you’re this smartass rebel punk guy, huh? Well, do your worst, you can’t scratch me. We are the warlords, we own your asses. You see what we want you to see, you hear what we want you to hear.” That [attitude] came from the punk scene in D.C. Punks, anarchy, all that shit. I’m not an anarchist, but you know, out on the streets, whatever. Anyhow, it was about the emptiness of underground pop culture rebellions. “You think you’re clever, you think you’re gonna outwit me, but I’m the mainstream. I will always win. Disco always wins. The internet always wins.” If you’re starting to worry that the internet is taking over your life, where do you go to read about that? You go to the internet.

You’ve already lost.

Exactly. These people own your mind. I mean, when’s the last time you did something interesting without posting it to social media? I’m not asking you personally.

Me, I love doing interesting things and never posting anything about it. Because, fuck off, you know? Back in the old days when we were punks, we did all kinds of crazy shit. We underwent all kinds of danger and heartbreak, and all that shit, and we never got to post it. Everybody hated us. Everybody in your school hated you. Everybody on the street hated you when you were a punk back in those days. Or in metal. People would get out of their cars to beat you up. You weren’t looking for likes on Facebook. You weren’t looking for subscribers on YouTube. You knew everybody hated you. That shit’s gone, you know? That spirit. Did that make any sense to you?

I forget who it was; someone was talking about that song “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. ‘I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation’. Where has that spirit gone? Now it’s all, ‘oh no, like and subscribe’, you know? Get some likes, like me, like me, like me. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s hard to describe, but there’s definitely something to that. Joan Jett wasn’t saying, ‘oh, like and subscribe’, she was saying, ‘fuck off’, you know? So that spirit is—that would be a think piece.

Feel free to write it, because I can’t. There was some of that in my high school. I would wear black, and people would come up to me and say, ‘do you worship the devil?’ But the minute I got out of high school, Facebook was a thing, and pretty soon it stopped being, ‘are you a fag?’ and became, ‘I see you going to all these shows and you look like you’re having a good time, seems very interesting.” This came from total strangers, people I don’t really know. So for most of my adult life, it’s different. I’m not the enemy, I’m a curiosity. I’m someone’s exotic pet, right? You’ve got your friend who has a reticulated python, ‘isn’t that interesting?’

Yeah, ‘he has an interesting hobby.’

Right. ‘You live an interesting life.’

It wasn’t like that. People did not have any idea. It was really tough going in high school. A lot of violence. And then, what changed is that senior year, MTV came to my town, and Billy Idol and Madonna were all over TV wearing black. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be my friend. I was like, ‘fuck you.’ That’s when I started bringing the Satanic Bible to school and just listening to Venom nonstop. ‘You’re not gonna be able to follow me here. Stay the fuck away from me.’ Not only that, but the punk scene was getting so fucking sanctimonious. The punk scene in D.C. got taken over by political opportunists, which most people know as Revolution Summer. What happened was that the punk scene, trying to be open-minded and everything, let in a lot of people who really just took all that youthful energy and bent it to their own political will. Which was a tragedy. And now we have emo for that. That’s where emo was born (laughs). Little bit more thinkpiece fodder for you.

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