Friday, 15 July 2011

Interview With Stu Hamm

TR: First of all, I wanted to thank you for putting this album out. I’ve been reading other people’s reviews - the more technical type of “insider” reviews, and the professionals all seem to agree that this is your best work.

SH: Well, I think it’s my most mature work and that’s nice to hear. Obviously, you hope that everything you do gets better and continues to improve. I certainly hope I continue to improve as a bass player, musician, composer, and producer as well.

TR: Was this just the right time for an album based on “Normal"?

SH: I think so. It took a really long time to do, though. I can get bogged down by professionalism and having things be exactly right. I envy people who can put out more records than I do.
I started the record in early 2008, and then got a late call from Satriani to do his tour that year, so the whole thing got pushed back.
In the age of digital recording, it’s just such a different process. When you’re doing it the modern way, the record can end up feeling like it will never be done. There’s no concrete deadline. You’re writing at home and sending files to have other musicians do their parts. I almost think that for the next record, I’m just going to book a week in the studio and just bring in the musicians in and record it.

TR: Roy Vogt has also mentioned that the business of recording is quite different today. You just send people samples of songs and ask them to lay down their track and then they email it back to you.

SH: I do that, too.

TR: Are you embracing the changing technologies?

SH: Mostly. What I really want is to get a good performance out of people, so there are some instances where I really prefer to be there to provide inspiration, and to nudge them in the direction I want them to go. But that isn’t always possible with people’s busy schedules. For example, getting Satriani to play on a couple of the songs meant I was kind of at the mercy of his schedule. In the end, technology is great if you use it as a tool and not a crutch.

TR: Do you write a lot of lyrics that are not used in songs, or are you not into the writing of lyrics?

SH: The majority of my songs are instrumental. I can’t remember who said it, but it was, “Words can be misinterpreted, but music itself can be interpreted in many ways.” Also, that’s not really my main skill - writing lyrics. The lyrics I write are the music.

TR: For “Going to California,” you made the bass into the voice of the lyrics. You got the message across without words.

SH: The bass’s main role is a supportive one, (and for grooving), but having grown up in an era where I saw Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, and Percy Jones, and Chris Squire, and Jeff Berlin playing bass more melodically, I paid attention. I learned how to play more lyrically. When recording my records, I’m very particular about the phrasing of the melodies that I write, which is why I end up doing so many of them myself. So instead of singing it, someone is playing the melody.

TR: Then you’re a perfectionist.

SH: I’m working hard not to be. That’s why you have a producer. That’s why I have my good friend and engineer, James Boblak co-produce the records for me. It’s that old line, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Sometimes, you can get so wrapped up in the technical details - sounds or fret noise from the strings and so on - that you end up missing the overall sense and feel of the music, which is essentially what you’re trying to capture.

TR: Tell us about Malika Alaoui, the singer on the last song, “Lucidity.”

SH: She’s a French woman I met while on tour with Satriani. We were in Chile, and went to see Cirque Du Soleil, and I just thought her voice was fantastic. I’d been wanting to write a song with lyrics about this book that I’d been reading, and when I heard her voice, it just matched perfectly with this core progression I had, and this track that Robert Fripp had given me, that I had been kicking around for about a year. So in the space of about 30 minutes, what the song was going to be just came together, and then I just had to eliminate those parts that weren’t working. After that, it became pretty easy to finish.

TR: It’s a wonderful closing song for the album. You start with something lively, “The Obligatory Boogie,” and then you bring it down into a real personal trip at the end.

SH: Well, I loved the review, and that was certainly what I attempted to do. I want this record to be a 50 minute journey - for people who aren’t necessarily just listening for bass “chops”. You just put it on and have an interesting aural odyssey.

TR: Did you make the album for regular listeners like me? Or for yourself? Or for professional musicians who will understand the more technical aspects? Did you think about that?

SH: Oh, I don’t think I worried abut that at all. My earlier records were more rock oriented. When I was playing with Satriani and saw how many records he was selling, there might have been a subconscious attempt to make music in the same vein - the hope being that more of the people who bought his records would buy my records. To make money, you know?
But seeing how that didn’t happen, I had no predispositions or illusions with this one. I just tried to make a record of the music I was hearing in my head. It’s a recording of what I was writing and playing right around the year 2010. If I did want to sell out, I don’t know how I could do that now! Unless I turned into a hot looking, 20 year old woman, but I don’t see that happening, so...

TR: Well, it would get you a whole new audience.

SH: That’s true. Ah, I’m just trying to make music, really. I do it for the love of it.

TR: Was there anything on the books at the beginning of the project that ended up on the cutting room floor?

SH: Well, I constantly have songs that I’m working on, but these were the nine songs I felt complemented the best of what we were doing, so no, I don’t think anything was left out. Maybe if something great had come up when we were recording...

TR: What changed along the as the project took shape?

SH: I had been playing “Going to California” live for some time, and then right at the time we were recording, I made a game-time decision to play the tempo a bit faster than I had been playing it - to give it a different feel - and I’m glad it happened.
The way I had written “Big Roller” was straight ahead swing - like Louie Bellson’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but then Stanton Moore sent me his second line - drumming on it - and it threw me for a loop, because it wasn’t the way I’d heard it or written it. But how could I not use it? It was so brilliant.
I had written “Windsor Mews” for another guitar player, and when he was unable to play it, I sent it to Joe Satriani and asked if he knew somebody who could play on it. He said he would do it, and while I like the way he played it, it was certainly much different from the way I had written the song.
So these are just some of the magical mistakes that happen when you do a record, and that’s the good stuff about the whole thing.

TR: When you write it all up, do you write specific music for all the instruments, or let them show you what they have in mind? How they might interpret it?

SH: It depends. I know enough good musicians to be able to pick and choose who would be good for a song, and I write songs knowing I can count on these people to add some of their own flavour to it. So everything doesn’t have to be completely written out. Obviously the melody and things like the four parts in “Big Roller” are written out. Occasionally, I’ll hand out sheet music, but in the rock world, there’s not much sheet music, so I might send a demo of me playing the melody on my piccolo bass.

TR: As a writer, if inspiration hits me when I’m out-and-about, I take out a note pad and jot things down. How does it work with a musician when inspiration hits you away from home?

SH: I have a pretty good memory, and - of course - I’ll try to get to a bass as soon as I can. Occasionally, I jot things down, too. Mostly, though, I guess it’s just old-school...using my brain.

TR: Obviously, I’m thinking from the vantage point of an amateur musician. You professionals probably know exactly where to store the mental inspirations when you’re away from the instrument.

SH: I have a whole cache of ideas in my studio. Little bits and pieces that I record or jot down as I practice. They’re just exercises until I come up with the name of the song, or decide what it’s going to be about. When that happens, it becomes a living, breathing piece of music, and not just a finger exercise.

TR: You were at the London Bass guitar Show. What was that like?

SH: It was good fun. I met a few bass players that I hadn’t met before. Lawrence Cottle was there, and I saw my buddy, T.M. Stevens - that was a good performance. About six months before that, I had done the “Bass Day UK” in Manchester and that was great because Billy Sheehan was there, as well as Victor Bailey, who I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was fantastic to see those guys again. The whole bass community is very non-competitive and supportive of each other. I’m such a fan of bass, and any time I get to hear other bass players, I’m extremely pleased.

TR: Did you meet up with Dave Marks at the London Show?

SH: Oh yeah. I know Dave really well. He’s awesome. I met Dave for the first time about four or five years ago at a festival I teach in Bath, England every few years. He had full Wolverine hair and sideburns when I first met him. He’s a great player. We both write for Bass Guitar Magazine in the UK. He’s a great guy. We got to know each other pretty well.

TR: He has so much energy. Performing, recording, teaching, online lessons...

SH: I think everyone has to do that. You might have heard there’s a recession on, and it certainly hits the performing arts and musicians very hard. With everyone I know, I think the standard line is that we have to work twice as hard to make half the money as we did two years ago. But it’s what we do, so it pays to be multi-faceted - to be able to do many things in order to make a living.

TR: The current costs of fuel and travel must cut into things, too.

SH: It’s just everything. You know, at a certain point for most people, music becomes a luxury. The arts in general are one of the first things to lose out when people don’t have disposable income.
As a bass player, you can make a living if you’re versatile and can play many styles of music. That’s what it’s all about - the working. Unless, of course, you’re one of those guys who wins the lottery and joins a band when you’re 20, and then becomes a big pop success. Me? I enjoy the work and that’s why I continue to do it.

TR: I heard Roy Vogt quote the song, “Nashville Cats” - the part about there being “Thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville.” He was talking about the fact that the competition for jobs can be rough, and you have to make sure you’re skilled in many styles, and that you’re out there, getting your name known.

SH: Absolutely. have to be smart with the social media, too. Just keep up with the times, I think.

TR: You started as a bass player in the ’80s.

SH: Yeah. I’ve been making my living doing this since about 1980. I graduated high school in 1978, and went to the Berklee College of Music for about two years, and then went on the road with an Elvis Presley impersonator for a couple of years, then moved back to Boston. I had a couple of odd jobs at McDonalds and things like that, but I was gigging and teaching. Then, in about 1983, I moved to California to record the record “Flex-Able” with Steve Vai, and I’ve just been scraping out a living - tooth and nail - playing bass since then.

TR: Do you remember your first gig?

SH: My first gig was playing drums when I was about six years old at my parents’ New Year’s Eve party. No...that’s wrong. It was when I was in kindergarten and it was my brother’s second grade talent show. We dressed up as World War I aces and played the Royal Guardsmen song, “Snoopy and the Red Baron.”
My first gig on bass was about 1973, when I started playing in my Junior High School Jazz band. We had a lot of State Jazz Band competitions. My first real playing gig was at the Centennial High School in Champagne, Illinois. The first time I played in Middle School bands.

TR: What about your first bass guitar?

SH: My first bass was a red “Pawn Shop Special.” I wish I still had it. I think the name of the company was “Alvarez.” It was a bass my parents bought for me for Christmas in 1973. It was kind of a Les Paul double-cutaway, square head kind of a thing. In ’75, when my parents saw I was serious, I got a white Jazz bass.

TR: You’re playing Washburns now.

SH: I am. Just about a week ago, I got a new bass that Terry Atkins, the master builder at the Washburn Custom Shop built for me. It’s wonderful. I worked closely with Rob Turner from EMG to get a piezo on the bridge and some different sounding pickups. It’s a lighter bass. I’ve been having some physical issues with Repetitive Stress Syndrome from playing the same Fender basses for 25 years. This new bass is more ergonomically designed so I’m not using the exact same muscles. It’s exciting. It’s a beautiful bass. We’re just waiting for the import models to come in from overseas. I think by the end of the year, at the NAMM show, it’s going to be a big splash with all four lines being debuted.

TR: I don’t know if you know it, but the majority of the students taking the TMBG course are over 45.

SH: Oh, really?

TR: We’ve really been paying attention to your videos on ergonomics.

SH: It’s something that’s so important. In all my teaching and clinics now, I always start out with a segment on stretching and ergonomics, and the importance of being relaxed while you play. I’m actually writing some programs and courses that incorporate that, because even though nobody wants to hear it when they’re 19 or 20 years old, eventually, they are going to get older. When you’re 20 years old, you think it’s okay to pick up an SVP and hold it over your head, but it’s not going to last forever. It’s something that - if you think about it when you’re younger - can be prevented in the future.

TR: It’s maintenance.

SH: Yeah. It’s maintenance. I try to get people thinking about it.

TR: I have one last question for you before we close up. What advice can you give to people who are picking up the bass for the first time?

SH: My advice is to join a lot of bands. Don’t just look at YouTube and cop licks, and play only one style of music. Join a wedding band, or a polka band, folk band, punk band, rock band. Just get out there and play music. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to make perfect music. You’ll meet people who are making music, and hiring musicians, and that will be the fun of it.
It’s not just about the chops. It doesn’t have to the perfect gig, doesn’t have to pay a ton of money. Just get out there and play music with other people and for other people. Experience what it’s all about.

TR: Great advice. Thank you Stuart.

SH: You're very welcome.

© 2011 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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