Ed Hamell of Hamell on Trial is one of the most exciting and brilliant songwriters to come our way in years. The New York-based Hamell is a one-man punk band, and what with his frantically strummed and heavily amplified acoustic guitar and wonderful vocal delivery; simultaneously bleak, touching, and hilarious songs; and propensity for telling long and very amusing anecdotes you won’t even notice he’s up there all by himself. You’ll be too busy laughing, or being moved by the man’s incredible empathy for the damaged, the downtrodden, and the damned.
Hamell has released numerous LPs on various labels including his own DIY label and frequent touring mate Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records, and they’re all great. And while songs like “I Hate Your Kid” and the homicidal “Tough Love” may lead you to think he’s a cynic, nobody could be less so, as songs like the hilarious but ultimately moving “First Date”—and “Blessed,” “Whores,” and “Mom’s Hot” off his forthcoming LP The Happiest Man in the World on New West Records—prove. Ed Hamell has a heart of gold, and I can honestly say he was without a doubt the kindest, funniest, and most knowledgeable musician I’ve ever interviewed.
Indeed, I was so enthralled by Hamell I forgot to ask him (as I do everyone I interview, cuz it usually pisses ‘em off) whether he’d have sooner been a member of Grand Funk Railroad or Bachman Turner Overdrive. Anyway, here goes:
Alternative Folk, Anti-Folk, Folk-Punk, Punk: How do you describe what you do?
I think it’s rock’n’roll. Whenever anybody from a folk magazine calls, they think it’s anti-folk. And whenever somebody from a punk magazine calls, they think it’s folk. To my mind it’s rock and roll. But when I say that, people look at me and think, “You’ve grown two heads. We must kill you.” I saw John Cougar with his 10-piece band and it didn’t sound like rock’n’roll to me. He’s an anti-synergetic artist—the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
I read your article on CS&N and same thing—they’re an anti-synergetic group. Then I saw Neil Young with an acoustic guitar and it was much more rock’n’ roll. My thing is such a tough sell. It’s so idiosyncratic. If somebody told me let’s go see this middle-aged guy who sweats a lot play acoustic guitar, I wouldn’t go either.
You’ve recorded “Don’t Kill” and “There Is a God.” And “Blessed” is a lovely song. It even moves a cynic like me. “Whores” is wonderful too, one of the most spiritual songs I’ve ever heard. It’s very Jesus-like. Would you describe yourself as a religious man? A spiritual man?
This new album—let me just say I was married for 23 years, and then the marriage broke up. I didn’t see it coming. It hit me hard. So I, I don’t know, you can say one rationalizes, and I was back to square one financially, and it was me, a car, a guitar, and an eight-year-old boy. I was also 23 years sober at the time. So I wrote a song a day for YouTube [ed. He ended up with over 400 songs] to keep my sanity. And I kind of waited until there were moments of hope and those moments were what became the album. If I hadn’t waited, it would have been dark.
I felt the divorce was all my fault. It took me a while to think, I’m not such a bad guy. It took a while for me to get my mojo back. I kept writing and writing and writing until it came back, and then I committed to those songs. I am very proud, but it took me a while to get to that place. I have a sneaking suspicion that in a year I’ll be thinking the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think I was in love with what she was. People freaked out. We were best friends. People couldn’t believe it, myself included. I don’t know that she had a reason, she just rationalized a reason.
I debated internally about this: should I be honest about this. But my attitude is fuck it. She’s moving on with her life and I have to get to the other side of it. Are you going to say I wasted 25 years of my life? And maybe this album is the beginning of that.
I’m a big believer in the futility of trying to tell human beings what to do. Do you ever feel like you’re pissing into the wind with songs like “Don’t Kill”?
Yeah, I know what you mean. At the time I realized had I written a song called “Kill,” it would have sold a lot more for me. It was the Bush Administration and there was a real war effort going on, and they would have locked on to it. And the hipsters with their irony would have latched on to it.
The bigger question is, do I think I’m pissing in the wind period, with my whole life. It’s very frustrating, this country, I have a much bigger profile in Europe. It’s this country. I read your piece on The Dictators. They were influenced by Creem magazine, and this country has a real tough time accepting irony. Even a guy like Bill Hicks, he had no profile over here. [Note: The long stories on Hamell’s Rant’n’Roll, The Terrorism of Everyday Life were influenced by and are tribute of sorts to the late Hicks.]
I take it you’re not very happy with the artist’s lot in this country?
In this country, if you bring home a cop or a politician or a sports figure, everything’s fine. But if you bring home a musician… you’re a second-class citizen. And God help you if you’re a poet!
Is there any rhyme or reason for using a full band on some albums and not on others?
You know, this album kinda showed me the answer to that. I’ve always toured solo, mostly for ease of operation. If I want to pull over I can, and if I want to write a song that afternoon and not consult with the bass player, I can. There’s no way I can play, say, the song “95” solo, but on this particular album I wanted to broaden my audience. I wanted a band, but all of the songs on it can be played solo, live. I know, because I perform all my songs live before I record them.
What were some of the bands you played with before you went solo? Everybody mentions ‘em but nobody names names. I want names!
I was in a band called The Works. It was like the Ramones meets J. Geils. Kind of like pub rock. Yeah, pub rock.
I simply adore “Bobby and the Russians” off the new LP—It reminds me of a Warren Zevon song, only with better and more detailed lyrics. Are you a Zevon fan?
Zevon is one of my top three guys. Drives me out of my mind he didn’t get what he deserved. Dylan, Lou Reed, and Warren Zevon. Nick Cave—
Are you now telling me you have four big guys?
Yeah, but no. Nick Cave wrote two great books, two great movies, everything he touches turns to gold. Grinderman is how grown men should play rock’n’ roll. A lot of the other stuff, if you love him, it’s great. Unlike the other three, you can’t convince people of the greatness of Nick Cave. He’s a little too dark beer or dark chocolate or seafood for some people.
Who plays harmonica on “Global Tattoo” on the new LP? And how did you distort it?
That’s Wammo, lead singer for The [ed. now defunct] Asylum Street Spankers. Watch the video, “Put Another Magnet on your SUV.” It’s done to the melody of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” He did the harmonica work for “Global Tattoo” at his house in Pittsburgh. He tinkers with old gadgets to produce those sounds.
I love “Together” off the new album. It actually conjures joy from a very unappetizing prospect—that of growing old and losing everything, including your mind.
I think I wrote it when the wife and I were together. And I did it live almost as a ballad. Very different live. Then the marriage broke up and I put it away. That’s Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches and the Uncluded singing with me. The opera voice is a sample. The Butcher Bros [note: they’re music producers] are friends of mine out of Philly—Phil kind of knew my situation had hit the shitter and said, “Look, Ed, you need help.” So we recorded the song and sent it over to his brother, and just to fuck with us, thinking we’d never use it, he put the opera voice at the beginning and end. I loved it. And Brian Wolff, who was with Drums & Tuba, did everything; he played the trumpet, and even did the percussion.
“Lappa Oo Mau Mau”—who sings with you? I love the nonsensical lyrics. Was this influenced by an oldies song? It reminds me of something Harry Nilsson might have recorded.
Wammo is the male voice. Then there’s a woman who works under the name Bird of Prey. And Jeneen Terrana. I think I was going for a Sly and The Family Stone “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” vibe. It’s crazy messy but in a kinda cool way. I don’t really know much about Harry Nilsson except that he was one of the “Lost Weekend Boys” with John Lennon. And Nilsson Schmilsson.
On the subject of oldies, your Facebook page is full of oldies videos. Is that primarily what you listen to? Any contemporaries you especially like?
There was one night, I was doing all these—it was sad song night on Facebook. As for contemporaries, I listen to a lot of Nick Cave. I’m not a big fan of alt-country and it bothers me because I listen to these radio stations and it’s just soft rock and people think this is intelligent because it’s real soft and it really makes me want to listen to the Stooges really loud.
I tour constantly so I often end up playing between two bands and during the grunge period I was always stuck between two grunge bands. Now I’m always stuck between two bands with a banjo. I like the banjo, but c’mon. Now everybody has a banjo. And they’ve got long hair and beards and they think they look really cool and there’s going to be another wave and people are going to say I don’t want to look like that, they look goofy. There’s this band called Strypes, and they’re like 16 years old, and it’s really wild these little kids are doing it. Maybe they’ll be part of the next wave.
Last question: “Mom’s Hot” off the new album is very beautiful. Who’s the kid who keeps saying, “Your mom’s hot!”? It’s totally funny and brilliant.
That’s my son, Detroit.
Tell him for me he has a future in show business.
He’s a ham, definitely.
Okay, real last question. How does somebody end up naming a kid Detroit? Was Camden, New Jersey taken?
People ask, “How’d you get your wife to go along with that?” It’s easy. I told her I’d like to name my son either Detroit or Thelonious. Besides, Detroit is a great rock town.
We proceed to spend the next twenty minutes talking about our respective failed marriages. And what Ed Hamell says to me is so empathetic and wise that when I finally hang up the phone, I’m practically in tears. Seriously. I can’t believe it. I try to imagine something like that happening with, say, Sting. No fucking way. But Ed Hamell? He’s a swell guy, an extraordinary guy. Buy his new album. Go see him play. You’ll see.
Hamell on Trial’s The Happiest Man in the World arrives on store shelves today, February 25, 2014 via New West. On vinyl.