lauantai 19. marraskuuta 2011

Hammers of Misfortune - War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

In October, Hammers of Misfortune, the US ambassadors of unique metal - a less-than-innovative label Shadow Kingdom Records threw at my good friends Garden of Worm - released their fifth album. In fact, 17th Street would be the band's sixth record if you count the somewhat disappointing Fields / Church of Broken Glass double-thingy as two separate albums. In this interview from 2007, John Cobbett stated the band were "officially unsigned and rather proud of it," but three years later the band were proud to sign with metal heavyweight Metal Blade Records.

Our discussion back in 2007 focused on the band's third album, The Locust Years, as well as the then-current political situation of the US of A. While the president's no longer a guy named Bush, fundamentally the Western world is still trapped in the glossary of war. In Angela Merkel's words: This is, huh, war (featured on the anticipated album "Europe's toughest hour since World War II").

So, to celebrate one of this year's best metal albums, 17th Street, let's listen to the modern-day Brian May from San Fran.

"War is a Force t
hat Gives Us Meaning"
An interview with John C
obbett of Hammers Of Misfortune.
Originally published in The Serpent Bearer I, March 2008.

In the course of conducting intervi
ews for this zine, I’ve seen some bands get on their hind legs upon introducing the word and concept “ideology.” Often it’s used as an umbrella term for discussing a variety of topics related to religion, politics and beliefs in general. To think discussing spiritual beliefs makes you an incurable religionist, or expressing prejudices against any group of people labels you as a racist, is plain stupid. I even had one artist stating that, to begin with, lyrics aren’t meant to be about expressing your personal beliefs. What they are about, I never got around to ask.

“The fifth trumpet announces the coming of locusts that will torment men with a sting like a scorpion’s.” (Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose)

Luckily I also found people like John Cobbett of Hammers Of Misfortune who are prone to further discuss the topics introduced in their lyrics. At the time of the interview the band was, according to Cobbett, “officially unsigned and rather proud of it.” In January 2008, however, Canada’s Profound Lore Records announced that they’ll be releasing a new double album from Hammers of Misfortune, hopefully in autumn later this year. Hammers’ latest album from 2006, The Locust Years, has been out well over a year now, but the band’s interesting take on contemporary US politics, and yet more interesting music, well deserve the attention the band is given herein. The Locust Years isn’t only about war and politics, though. In Cobbett’s own words it’s more about the effect war has on culture and language. It’s about the mythology of lies, the hand-carved truth handed out to people to make sense of the world around them.

– The situation is infuriating, but so far no-one’s broken down my front door and hauled me off to a political prison. After reading enough history and war correspondence I’ve come to realize that I’m extremely lucky in this regard. There are many in history and alive right now who aren’t so lucky. They would be – and are – tortured, jailed, starved and murdered for doing what we take for granted.

All Cobbett’s trying to do is open people’s eyes to a truer truth. So John, when you read newspapers and follow the media, do you feel saddened or infuriated? What about your initial reactions to 9/11 – was it patriotic rage towards the terrorists or more like directing your anger towards your own government, like, “what did we do to deserve this”?
– As I said above, I feel lucky. I live in a safe place with enough food to eat so I can laugh at the world, think and write about it. My initial reaction to 9/11 was utter shock. We’ve had many generations of peace on American soil, so it was pretty crazy to be attacked. I also thought “what took so long?” as I’d been expecting a disaster of this magnitude since I was 14 years old: you can’t have a history like ours and not get fucked with eventually, he reflects.
– Of course violence is nothing new in America, but this was different from the usual mass murder, gang violence or domestic terrorism. I wasn’t angry with my own government until they started lying about it to advance their own unrelated agenda.

Cobbett relates that he, as well as many of his friends, grew up with the hardcore punk scene of the west coast. Interestingly, the west coast scene has produced an almost unstoppable cavalcade of interesting metal bands in the recent years, Slough Feg, Asunder, Wolves in the Throne Room and Weakling among them. Although not an element in their music, the attitude of punk is one of the things that drives Hammers: think for yourself, make your own rules, question authority... By the time he was nine years old John had been kicked out of Sunday School for arguing with the teacher about evolution.

It’s fairly easy to read the lyrics of The Locust Years politically, and as drawing allegories with war. It’s also too easy to dismiss political subject matter in music as irrelevant, misplaced or downright boring, because any band nowadays can ride on the wave of the pseudo-in-your-face ‘hang Bush’ blabber and say they’re politically conscious.

– I agree. Politics is usually really annoying in music. I felt strongly enough to do it, but it had to be done in a certain way, not didactic or literal. There is room for interpretation in all the songs. Mainly the goal is to evoke an idea, not nail it on the head. I’m not interested in converting anyone to a political point of view. I’m interested in stealing “reality” – whatever twisted view of reality you are being threatened with at the moment – breaking it and twisting it into music, which is its own reality.
– Keep in mind that all the lyrics can be taken as insights into normal everyday life as well. This is an important point because all politics and war are a bigger reflection of the petty disputes and intrigues of mundane, everyday life. Hopefully our lyrics are malleable enough to be broken and twisted by the listener into whatever meaning works for them.

As said, war is an important concept on The Locust Years. But what is Cobbett’s personal relationship with war – is he pacifist, antiwar, realist or something else? What about his opinion of the USA intervening in most politically or financially meaningful military conflicts, playing the part of the global police?

– I’m not a pacifist. I think that you’d sooner stop people from picking their noses than stopping war. It’s just something that people do, as natural as taking a shit, Cobbett compresses before opting for a more elaborate approach.
– As for the US and its self-appointed status as “globocop,” that’s a much more complicated issue. First of all, the US doesn’t get involved in every military conflict going on. All the genocide that’s been happening in Africa, the US won’t touch that – even though the human cost is staggering beyond belief. No nation acts militarily out of the goodness of its heart. Even when the Clinton Administration got involved in The Bosnian War you could call it self-interest because the crisis had gotten so much attention that to ignore it would be considered reprehensible. This isn’t to say that our part in that war was bad – far from it. The point is that governments always act in their own perceived self-interest.
– Prior to both world wars, the US had a strong isolationist stance, and has in fact been criticised for not getting involved soon enough. At the end of World War II, however, two new military superpowers had been created, the US and the USSR. Now the “military industrial complex” (MIC) is firmly in control of US policy. It’s run from a different perception of national self-interest than most citizens would hold. Many would argue that poverty, education and healthcare are our primary national interests. The MIC has different priorities and couldn’t care less about domestic issues and the welfare of the public. It plays politics, manipulates the media and influences elections as much as it has to and then goes on its merry way. For these reasons the US won’t be able to go back to its isolationist ways anytime soon, especially now that we have opened the Pandora’s box of long-term military involvement in the Middle East.

As said, it has become fashionable to criticise the Bush Administration, but what some people don’t see is that there is more than meets the eye, quite literally, going on in the cabinets; more than one dazed puppet of a President calling all the shots. In all likelihood, therefore, the USA would’ve landed pretty much in the same position in the hands of, say, Al Gore or John Kerry.

– I have to disagree with you. Of course George W. Bush is just a figurehead. His administration, the real “men behind the throne” are the same guys that ran Nixon and Reagan’s cabinets during the cold war, Vietnam etc. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and those guys are real hardcore MIC types, corrupt to the core. Kerry or Gore wouldn’t have been saintly by any means, but at least we wouldn’t have these old chicken-hawks from the Vietnam era running everything, counters Cobbett.
– You must realize that these guys had an agenda of advancing American hegemony through unilateral military power since the 90s (look up the PNAC – Project for a New American Century – they made their intent very clear in ’97, starting with Iraq, and their membership reads like a who’s who of the Bush Administration). 9/11 was their big ticket.
– The days following 9/11 are key. What they did was immediately try and associate the attacks with Saddam Hussein and use fear tactics to bully the media and the public into compliance. They used 9/11 as an excuse to pursue an unrelated war with an old enemy of the Bush family, predicated on utterly false claims. The Bush’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family can’t be ignored either – you might have noticed that Saddam has been hanged and Bin Laden is still at large. If there had been a different president, I hope that we would have gone after the real culprits and not gotten needlessly diverted into an unrelated disaster like Iraq. Maybe then we would have Bin Laden in custody. I’m certainly not the only American that finds it outrageous that we went after Iraq instead of the guys who actually attacked New York. It’s a disgrace. The Bush Administration will go down in history as the worst in American history, unless their ideological descendants rewrite it, concludes Cobbett in a near-Michael Moorean fashion.

Like most Americans, Cobbett didn’t vote for anybody, he voted against Bush.


On the first two albums especially, Hammers Of Misfortune came across as a rather concept-driven band. Of course Cobbett himself would state that Hammers are both song-oriented and concept-driven. On The Locust Years the band edges nearer to the more typical song-oriented structure and approach, as there is no linear storyline this time around.

– The first album, The Bastard, was all about the story. I have to say that it’s liberating never have to do a story-driven album again. I much prefer concentrating on songs. There’s still a basic thesis, or a set of ideas explored on our records, but each song should stand on it’s own. My goal is to make a great album, write great songs and have a lot of really cool music on a record. If the songs are good by themselves it’s not too hard to make a good album, but it helps to have the main idea in the back of your mind when working on a song so everything works together in context.

In a way the lyrics still are a backbone against which the song structured. According to Cobbett himself, if he ever finds himself at an impasse in the arranging of a song, the first question asked is “what’s going on in the lyrics during this part, what’s the song about?” This immediately brings to mind the song Famine’s Lamp from the band’s latest album. The lyrics are rather apocalyptic and musically the song is like a lullaby for the dying world. The melody, on the other hand, is pretty much in the nursery rhyme vein, which makes the whole song, in all its simplicity, a very enchanting and charming one.

– That song is a combination of hymn, nursery rhyme and funeral march. The melody is deliberately very simple and “monolithic,” as I like to say – in other words, it’s catchy. Being catchy, or charming as you put it, is important. A good song should get stuck in your head. Once you have the listener’s attention, you can get your point across with the lyrics. That song is mostly quiet and acoustic, which makes it much more menacing in my opinion, Cobbett readily enlightens.

For such place references as “above the holy land,” “upon the promised land,” “within the temple walls” and “in the highest tower,” the most readily available readings are USA and Israel. As expected, Cobbett neither concurs nor contradicts my reading of Famine’s Lamp.

– It can refer to any time in history and any place considered holy. Of course in our times it’s going to call to mind certain places. The location of “The Holy Land” depends on which religious lunatic you’re talking to. If you listen to assholes that call themselves clerics, religious leaders and evangelicals they use this kind of language all the time. The text just sounds religious. Part of the idea was to parody religious dogma and at the same time deliver a scary prophesy in its own language.

If anything, Famine’s Lamp goes to show how easy it actually is to play with the religious jargon and be convincing in what you say. Any person careful enough in one’s choice of words can make people see things from his perspective. As explained by Cobbett earlier, by creating an aura of fear, US politicians have convinced the majority of people to think the wars they fight on the other side of this planet help the US to preserve their way of life. Or serve a pre-emptive purpose. Or whatever they choose to call it that day. Why not just call the phenomenon by its real name, by the title of the Chris Hedges book that Cobbett cites, conceptually, as one of the most influential books in regard to The Locust Years: War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The book is roughly about the corruption of values, about creating a mythic narrative around war and about how, while not the underlying cause of the war, there’s an appeal to religious fundamentalism in times of war. “Sway through the air on strings straight from heaven,” as the Hammers song Chastity Rides has it.

– Fundamentalists are very scary people. As a rational person I can say that a fundamentalist has a right to his beliefs just as I have a right to mine. The fundamentalist isn’t fettered by rationality. In his view I’m a dead man walking, so killing me would just be making a long story short.
– Fundamentalism represents all that is worst about human nature. The arrogant, murderous, hateful impulses wrapped in self-righteousness and phoney goodwill. I know that fundamentalists do a lot of charitable work, but at the end of every breadline and toy drive there is a stern message: convert or perish.

The Bastard, the Hammers’ debut album, may have been propelled by a mythical story line including dragons, tyrant kings and the like, but the story also readily offers a rather simple environmentalist reading, not entirely dissimilar with that of the Isengard invasion by Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Then there’s The Locust Years, which keeps coming back to its main thesis of a falsely justified war on terrorism and the effects this has, via media, on the way people think about war in general.

For a metal musician, Cobbett seems uncommonly touched by humanitarian issues or, shall we say, uncommonly inclined to talk about this kind of ideas and feelings. In an interview with San Francisco Bay Guardian, Cobbett expressed his interest in writing about Hurricane Katrina – the perfect storm that wiped out half of New Orleans in just a few days. Cobbett now says that while very interesting, Hurricane Katrina is hardly subject matter for a concept album. His humanist inclinations he accounts for in the following terms.

– The fact is that you and I are humans, like it or not. This is what we have to deal with. The human condition is all we know and the filter through which we strain all perception of the world. It’s not a matter of faith; it’s a matter of fact. I’m not a huge fan of humanity; as the most virulently self-aware species that we know of, man is a rather disgusting creature. Anyway, we’ll be gone someday. There’s nothing we can, or should, do to change that. I just figure it’s pointless to deny that you’re a part of it. You eat, you breathe, you talk, you have friends and family, sorry, you’re a part of it. From there you can try to figure out how you feel about that, how to survive, whatever. I think that it’s around this point that the whole idea of “art” begins.

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