Hammers of Misfortune Adventure “Outside Our Minds” (New Song Debut + Interview with John Cobbett)
Have no fear, for Hammers of Misfortune are back, and, in classic style, have chameleonically shifted once more. On Overtaker, "Hammers" embrace the strange worlds of progressive and thrash metal, taking a Tim Smith-influenced trip down into a colorful kaleidoscope of riffs and sheer joy. On "Outside Our Minds," which is streaming below, the band, now with vocalist Jamie Myers once again in tow (her first performance as a full band member since 2006), takes a hyperactive approach, twisting through technically proficient prog passages and bizarre, catchy melodies alike. It's a strange song, but it works in Hammers of Misfortune's favor, and Overtaker as a whole follows suit, bouncing through weird thrash riffs galore. Listen to "Outside Our Minds" and read a lengthy interview with John Cobbett below.
Having listened through the album a few times now, I will say it is undeniably a thrash record (especially when compared to your older material), but there is definitely something more which I would attribute to a band you've referenced as influential in an Instagram post before. That being said, what is your favorite Cardiacs album and how did Tim Smith's influence lend itself to this very antics-heavy album?
Great question! First to the point about thrash: yes this is a thrash album. In 2016, having relocated to Montana, I started thinking (in rare moments when I had time to think) about what I wanted to do next musically. Having just released Dead Revolution by Hammers and Deeper Than Sky by Vhol, I was primarily intrigued by the possibilities of the latter; pushing the creative boundaries of thrash. I was on a big thrash kick at the time (when am I not on a big thrash kick haha). Discovering Sadus’ first album Illusions whetted my appetite for more furious thrash, not just fast and technical but fast and furious. I wasn’t worried about which band I was writing for because I was far away from everyone and they were so busy anyway. I was just going for what was interesting to me. That’s where Overtaker started.
And on the topic of musical discovery, I stumbled across Cardiacs after the above albums were released. Probably in 2016 sometime. It was a complete accident. I had downloaded a Cardiacs album sometime before, having heard that they were a big influence on Mr Bungle and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. But I had never listened to it. I put it on randomly one day and was blown away. That sent me down the Cardiacs rabbit hole and the more I heard the more I fell in love. That first listen was A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window, but my favorite Cardiacs album is Sing to God. Cardiacs don’t make bad albums – one of those rare bands where you can shuffle the entire discography and never skip a song.
You could say that Cardiacs singlehandedly revitalized my interest in “Prog”. It’s pointless to try and define their music, but I heard it as progressive music, in the truest sense of the word. The unhinged creativity, no-fucks-given virtuosity and wild energy of Cardiacs also provided a perfect chaser to my steady diet of thrash. These qualities were probably the most influential aspect of Tim Smith’s genius. Obviously I’m not gonna make music that sounds like Cardiacs, and know better than to try. It was more a matter of aspiring to that level of awesomeness.
I did experiment with some musical nuts and bolts that I picked up from studying Tim Smith’s insane chord progressions. For example the “mode of limited transposition” method can be heard in "Vipers Cross," i.e. slightly modified (as discussed in this video). Cardiac’s variety of soundscapes and instrumentation was also a big inspiration. I wanted to try some of that, while keeping things thrashy, an experiment that is far from over...
Cardiacs are one of those bands… not everyone "gets" it. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste. I understand that. There are some shrill sounds and the vocals may be off-putting to some. But for those who get bitten by the Cardiacs bug, things are never quite the same. RIP Tim Smith.
Do you feel Overtaker's Cardiacs-like "no-fucks-given" approach will be similarly misunderstood by the wider Hammers fanbase who might be expecting another Dead Revolution?
Our discography is full of stylistic variations. Compare The Bastard to Fields/Church of Broken Glass if you have any doubts. Change is nothing new for us. In fact, I sat down and tried to write in the style of the last few albums (17th Street and Dead Revolution) several times. It was hopeless, my heart just wasn’t in it. The Overtaker material was flowing, so I went with it. The important thing is to be honest. Listeners can tell when you’re phoning it in or just going through the motions. The old cliche "follow your heart" has always been true for Hammers; if I’m not excited about the music I’m writing then why would anyone else be?
As for our fanbase, I’m pretty sure they know well enough to expect the unexpected. I wouldn’t be surprised if we lost a lot of fans with each release, and gained some new ones. People’s tastes change over time; they might be in a prog phase one week and a black metal phase the next. I know that’s true for me haha. Our last two albums aren’t all that different stylistically. A change was inevitable.
You can’t worry about the reaction, or being misunderstood, or what people are going to say. That’s the path to stagnation. The most crucial thing is to be excited about what you’re doing.
Though the ultimate goal is to avoid stagnation, what is it about variety in styles which appeals to you when crafting Hammers songs and albums?
The ultimate goal is to create stuff that I want to hear. The cliche holds true: as a fan, what do I want to hear? What’s missing? The history of Hammers is me asking myself that question and the music that results is the closest I can get to an answer. In the case of Overtaker I wanted to know what happens if Sadus' Illusions got in a car crash with Genesis' Nursery Cryme. You can drop any number of albums in there: Holy Terror meets early King Crimson, or Pleasure to Kill meets Close to the Edge. You get the idea. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to that question, and no one out there was answering it. Not even close. So the thesis started there.
It’s important to point out that these examples are not taken literally and barely considered when actually writing. It’s the spirit of something I’m chasing. You could say that some part of my brain is remembering how those albums affected me, and going with those feelings. I know better than to lift ideas from these "influences" (I have plenty of those floating around in my head already). It’s the spirit of a thing that I’m trying to capture, not its form.
One guiding principle when writing was the fury. I played Blake and Frank the notorious "Tokyo Flight" tape of Yngwie Malmsteen screaming on a plane: "You’ve unleashed the FUCKING FURY!!" That became an inside joke, but also an emblem of the attitude we were going for –The Fucking Fury! Another was my interest in psychedelia. Not just the obvious approach–which for me is Hendrix's Electric Ladyland–but the way Siouxie and the Banshees are psychedelic. Or Venom. The first two Venom albums are wonderfully acid-drenched and psychedelic to my ears.*
It’s not a "variety of styles" to me, it’s a singular style! It’s hugely important to develop a style. Leave it to others to play within the confines of established models. As much as I dig Mr Bungle and Naked City, a mishmash of styles is not what I’m going for. I’m trying to create a holistic sound that works across the entire album. Each song is a unique emanation of the “style” while at the same time being an integral part of its formation.
*…and their early EPs, some of their best stuff: Bursting Out/Acid Queen/Die Hard, Manitou, Warhead etc.
If we were to look at this spectrum approach as the unique John Cobbett style and your own musical fingerprint, is there anywhere on the genre spectrum you see it sitting comfortably?
Not really. This ties in with my previous answer; my goal is to do things that aren’t being done already. I mean if I wanted to play OSDM, "atmospheric" black metal, or doom, or whatever – something that fits neatly into an existing genre–what would be the point? I’d rather just join an existing band that has already mastered their niche. No sense in jostling for position in these already overcrowded fields.
And it’s not a matter of being "different for different sake." If what we play is not easily categorized, it’s because what I want to hear is not easily categorized. Things would sure be a lot easier if we fit neatly into one pigeonhole or another. Going back to Cardiacs, talk about a band that never fit in anywhere. Perhaps that’s one reason they resonate so strongly with me.
Add to this the fact that our albums are all kinda different from one another, and you have a marketing department’s worst nightmare. The best approach is to listen and decide for yourself.
All that being said, there’s no denying that Overtaker is an attempt to break some ground in the realm of thrash, as stated at the top. This does not necessarily apply to any of our other albums, but if you like Overtaker there’s a good chance you’ll like some of our other records, too.
I noticed you put quotes around "atmospheric" when citing atmospheric black metal. Though I have my own thoughts on the redundancy in said subgenre, what is it about that particular genre tag which, for you, warrants quotation marks?
I find that the "atmospheric��� tag often means watered down black metal drenched in a ton of digital reverb and software synths, with the same old achy-breaky chord changes looped endlessly in a DAW. I’m probably wrong in many cases. This illustrates a problem with genre tags. Is it wrong that I just skip over everything that says "atmospheric black metal" while scrolling my Bandcamp feed? Probably. Likely I’m missing out on some interesting stuff. But I’ve heard that tonic to minor 6th change–drenched in reverb with a mournful scream–waaaay too many times.
That thing–which is called a "mediant relation" in music theory talk for our readers who might not know–is super prominent in "mournful" music in general and it is super overused. I can definitely tell you look to transcend that and other overdone metal trappings with Hammers of Misfortune. How do you find yourself approaching melody and harmony when writing Hammers material?
The main thing I avoid is what I call the Iron Maiden progression: tonic to minor 6 to minor 7. I mean Maiden uses this so much it’s pretty much their version of a 12 bar blues. Most of the time when I hear this change I’m out. I can tolerate it from Maiden of course, and Black Sabbath and Priest, who use it here and there. But in contemporary stuff it puts me off pretty quick, unless it’s used in some interesting or novel way.
I played with this change in the song "August Engine part 2" by stringing two of them together in the chorus: C, D, Em, F, G, Am – then kept it going through C, D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm, C, D, B7, and back to Em (Note that the guitars are tuned to D relative with a drop C on the recording. These are the chords in standard tuning.)
Outside of that one, I’m fine with generic note choices and intervals. Rhythm and phrasing can make all the difference in a riff or melody, and if I’m on some really standard changes I’ll almost always use these to make it interesting. Modes, like using Lydian over a 1 to flat 5, are always fun. I use a lot of major chords. A major change can sound cool and mysterious if you do it right. I use 7th and 9th chords all over the place to add depth and color.
A note about music theory: to all those who say that learning music theory will “limit your creativity”, you are dead wrong. Music is a language, the most powerful language on earth. The more you know, the more you can express. Knowledge is power.
I’m currently studying theory, trying to get better at it. I’m taking guitar and piano lessons where I can. Working with Blake Anderson was really inspiring. Had I known that guy was such a great pianist and educated musician I would have approached things differently. Now I know, and Blake and I have some plans…
You mentioned music theory's power of expression–what new areas of expression have you found music theory to unlock as you've learned more?
Theory exists as soon as two pitches are put together. It’s not like I apply it to anything on purpose, or use it in certain circumstances. It’s there as I look at the frets on my guitar. Everyone uses theory, whether they realize it or not.
I learned interval training at a very young age, at work, trying to remember all the riffs I‘d come up with while away from my guitar. It was a total accident and I didn’t know what I was doing, but that has been invaluable in more ways than I have time to describe.
Chord voicings add so much depth and harmonic possibility. This can be heard everywhere in our music. Harmony is another thing that becomes a lot easier once you know how chords and scales work. No more hunting around for the right note. You just know where to go. And a harmony can be made really interesting by employing some counterpoint. Again, this can be heard all over our records.
Working with trained musicians is amazing. You can just hand them sheet music and off they go. You don’t have to show them where to put their fingers lol. I don’t write our songs using notation. I write by ear. I can’t sight read either (working on that) but I’ve often generated scores for musicians who can. One fond memory from the Overtaker sessions was watching Sigrid and Blake at Electrical Audio's grand piano, going over a piano score for one of our songs.
Do you feel Hammers of Misfortune is a cumulative experience? That is to say, do you feel each album builds on its predecessor stylistically and/or conceptually, or do you want each album to be its own separate experience?
To me, each album is a snapshot of where we were at when it was made. They represent the best we could do with what we had at the time. There isn’t any coherent arc that I know of, except the process of trying to learn from past mistakes with each release. If anyone has the fortitude to sit through them all in sequence (haha, godspeed to you if you do!) maybe they'd discover some interconnecting thread that I’m unaware of.
Though you've expressed your music in terms of music theory which explains how your music does what it does, what else inspires Hammers of Misfortune's music, especially on Overtaker?
I watched a documentary about Richard Thompson once, as I was somewhat obsessed with a song he wrote ("Vincent Black Lightning 1952"). At one point he described his writing process: he gets up every weekday morning and writes for eight hours, just like any full time job. This is not inspiration, just discipline and hard work. That level of dedication will eventually yield results, such as the masterpiece of a song linked above.
Of course I don't have the time to write all day. However, I’m under no illusion that “inspiration” is going to zap a brilliant idea into my brain out of nowhere. You need to prepare the ground before your seeds will grow, and that ground takes time and effort. I put in as much time as I possibly can, whenever possible. This yields two things: ideas and practice. Practice is its own reward, and songwriting (i.e. developing ideas) takes practice. Most ideas aren’t very good, but if you come up with thirty ideas, chances are that one of them will be worth developing.
For inspiration, find time. I mean hours on end, to focus without interruption. Don’t worry if your ideas aren’t amazing, just keep at it. Eventually you may find yourself in a “flow state”, mining a rich vein of creativity. That’s where you find the good stuff. If not, don’t worry. At worst you’ll find yourself sitting on a bunch of ideas that didn’t exist before. Save them all. Go back a few months later and look ‘em over. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Another useful practice is removing all input. That means no videos, no scrolling, no music, not even reading. Just sit in the dark and think. Some might call this meditation. To me it's more like daydreaming. It gives your imagination a chance to wake up and get some exercise. Of course sitting in the dark listening to music can also be inspiring (and awesome), but it’s important to give your brain a chance to stop processing input and just entertain itself.
Is there anything you've learned about Hammers of Misfortune while writing and recording Overtaker that wasn't obvious or apparent to you before?
It took a long time for me to accept the Overtaker project as a Hammers album. There were several factors that went into the decision, foremost of which was Jamie’s involvement. But it also required me to change my ideas about what the band is, and what it is to be a band in these times. The inescapable reality is that if we were to work in the customary way it would never happen. The logistics were simply impossible, given our limited time and resources. The pandemic merely reinforced this.
So I had to change my way of thinking. I grew up in a culture where a band formed locally, wrote, practiced and played local gigs together. Eventually, if things lasted long enough, the band would record a demo, and maybe even a first album if the stars lined up properly. This all went out the window in 2020. The only way forward was working remotely. I approached Will Carrol and Joe Hutton with these demos and they weren’t interested. The new direction was not their cup of tea. So my definition of the band–or any band–had to evolve. The idea of a solid line-up became fluid. Who’s in the band? Who’s not in the band? It's all about who’s down to work on it; who’s available and enthusiastic.
But the most significant learning curve was recording. I expanded my home recording set up into a small home studio. I taught myself how to record guitars properly: how to get good tones, which amps to combine with which speakers, etc. I did a lot of experimenting with speakers and mics. All the guitars on Overtaker were recorded in my little basement studio using real amps, mics and speakers. No amp sims or plug-ins. Most of the effects on the album were achieved using stomp boxes. I also recorded all the keyboards here, except for the grand piano on "Orbweaver."
I learned so much about recording. I could do an entire interview on this topic.
My guitar style evolved as well. I started using tremolo systems for the first time. I’m sure some will notice that there are dive bombs all over the place haha. I had to practice A LOT to get up to the speeds I wanted to achieve.
I’m still climbing these learning curves as we speak. It’s an ongoing process and I feel like I’m starting a whole new chapter.
Overtaker is being released independently on December 2nd.