Hamell on Trial

by Roger Catlin

Edward James Hamell began hitting the road as Hamell on Trial more than a quarter century ago, bringing punk fervor to the acoustic guitar with a live show that relies on spoken word and comedy along with his angry and often funny songs. In recent years, he's been aided on the road by his teenage son, Detroit, who puts a few minutes of jokes in the set.

After a long stint on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, Hamell moved in recent years to New West, where he recorded 2014's The Happiest Man in the World and released his Tackle Box in August. He spoke from the highway on his summer tour, talking about the new record, the new administration, empathy for cops, and how he doubled his income on tour.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): Where am I catching you?

Hammel: I'm about 40 miles into Arkansas from Texas, heading East. The battle plan is to stay in Little Rock tonight and then bring my son to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis tomorrow. We played Dallas last night and then I just drove. We'll check into a motel crazy early for us today, like 2 in the afternoon. He's doing some blogs about the tour for a magazine and I'll have to paint.

Songfacts: So you're fitting in some tourism as well as performing.

Hammel: Yeah. We do it every year. I've been bringing him out for the summer trips. He's probably done 100,000 miles. He's been coming with me since he was about seven, when my wife and I split up. He enjoys the touring. Now he comes up and tells jokes. He does this little bit in the middle. He does this comedic schtick that goes over pretty well. He has good timing. And we have a ball.

And what do we do? We always go to the Mall of America when we're in Minneapolis; we always go to Cedar Point, the amusement park. I brought him to Niagara Falls, that was different this year. And I've brought him to the Grand Canyon and the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil in Vegas. We've done Comic-Con. He's a gamer too.

Songfacts: How old is he now?

Hammel: He's 15 now. I got him driving some of the back roads, just out in Alabama. But nothing on the highways. He can't drive yet, but he wants to. He unquestionably has the passion for it, I can tell you.

Songfacts: Sometimes kids that age rebel against their parents even if their parents do something cool. But he enjoys what his dad does, it seems.

Hammel: Yes. He would be the first to say this. I know this sounds weird, but we're unquestionably best friends. We have been best friends.

Songfacts: Tell me how the latest record came together.

Hammel: Well, it came about sort of either organically or desperately. I have a good relationship with the label New West. The guy who owns the label is a dear friend of mine. The second label I ever signed to in Austin was a label called Dolittle, which he owned at that time, my friend George Fontaine, and he signed me. And within six months, it got pumped up to a major so he went to Mercury/Universal. But we maintained our friendship through all the years there. And now he owns New West. I was on Ani DiFranco's label for 12 years and she's a dear friend. But they were sort of downsizing and I asked her if I could get off the label.

I had done this album The Happiest Man in the World. I brought it to New West, and they took it. And the next thing I thought I was going to do was a live album. That's what I was going to do for this release. I had gone and recorded a couple of places, intending initially to cherry pick what I thought were going to be the best songs, but I ended up doing the last one with my friend Phil "The Butcher" Nicolo, the producer, and did it in his studio with a live audience. So I brought it to the label, and they had a new president. I had a meeting with the president and he said, "We'll put it out." But I did not detect the enthusiasm that I had hoped it would get. I think their thing was that a live album is pretty much going to be primarily for your dedicated fans, there's no new material on there, though there is actually. I went back and called my buddy who owns the label and said, "What would I need to do?" I had about 70 percent of a studio album done at my house. What would it take?

And this was the day before the elections. Because I had the meeting with those guys in Nashville and then drove to Washington to see the results of the election with some friends in a bar. I called him and said, in order to have this August 11 release date for a studio album, how early would I have to present it to you? He said February 20. And then I went back, and Trump became president, so it wasn't hard to fill up with other 30 percent, if you're me with my big mouth, to have a studio album in February. Then the battle plan was, hey, you buy the studio record, we'll throw in the live record for free.

Songfacts: What made you come to Washington to see the results? They do televise these things.

Hammel: I was going back to New York anyway. I have a friend there, a dear friend, and we talk politics and whatnot and I was driving through anyway. Little did I know. I thought it would be memorable to watch it there.

Either way it was going to be historical. Obviously, any presidential election would be. But either Trump would get elected and that would be historical, bordering on hysterical, or she would get elected and obviously that would be historical as a woman. I didn't know. I had a sneaking suspicion.

In order to have that meeting with the record company in Nashville, I had booked a bunch of gigs on the way down there, the first of which was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When I went through Pennsylvania, it was brutally apparent. There were Trump signs everywhere. It didn't surprise me.

I did have an epiphany earlier. My son was actually a passionate Bernie supporter, as I was, but he even more so. And as I was driving him to school one day, we were listening to NPR, it was the day after Bernie had won five primaries. They hadn't determined who would be the Democratic candidate at that point but the two pundits on NPR weren't even mentioning Bernie's name.

And at that point, I thought Trump was going to be president. I'm not a New Agey guy and I'm not a conspiracy theory guy, but I am a karma guy. And I thought maybe the country would get the president it so richly deserves in light of the things the country had done. Slavery and genocide immediately come to mind. I just woke up, but I'm a little cynical.

Songfacts: Do you get less cynical during the day?

Hammel: I'm a realist. We just went through the South, where we've had a number of different experiences, one of which was there was a huge Confederate flag in a store we stopped into. I took a picture giving this big Confederate flag the finger and this woman behind the counter saw it and wouldn't wait on my son when he wanted a Snickers bar later. So that was eye-opening for him when that happened.

The biggest thing was later on that evening, after we played the gig, about 2 o'clock in the morning, we stopped at Denny's. My son's first girlfriend is an African American girl. Very sweet. And the waitress made a racist comment, something about how her boyfriend was with a black girl, and she said something like, "I got nothing against the race, but Jesus."

And my kid turned red. He wasn't red because he was mad, he was red because he was embarrassed at humanity. And that's truth. That's not a joke. We laughed. But we talked about it for the next 100 miles in the car.

Songfacts: The people in your audiences must be behind you in your point of view.

Hammel: Yeah. I'm very much under the radar. It's been a great tour. I'm very lucky, I'm very blessed. I have a lot of wonderful friends around the world. In Austin they started out as fans and they've become friends, and they're very zealous in their support. I don't kid myself to think that I'm changing lives. What I might do is be like the gas station: I might replenish people when they get down and think of how weird it is.

It's very sad, the meanness. The meanness that he has unveiled in the country is very sad. So I think consequently people like having me around, because I can make a joke. Like any of them, the Jon Stewarts, the Stephen Colberts, they provide some kind of intelligent, humorous, rational thing that just helps you get through the day sometimes.

I say to people all the time, he didn't win the popular vote. His supporters are in the minority. We must remember that. But treat them with the same respect they show us.

Songfacts: Respect is a theme of the single you released, "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)." Its video shows framed paintings of people who you say deserve respect, from the Dalai Lama to Bill Hicks.

Hammel: I don't know how this happened. Very organically. I've always painted. I had a friend, Alejandro Escovedo, we became pals in Austin. I sought him out as a mentor 20 years ago. But I went to his house and he had original art on the wall. And my wife and I at the time had prints framed. We thought, we had to get original art.

So we went gallery shopping and we couldn't afford anything, so I picked up a brush and canvases and filled my walls. It came to be naturally. Never intending to do a thing but fill my walls, and I had management.

I had a woman, Jane Friedman, who had managed Patti Smith and John Cale and a few other people. She was always like, "You gotta get a gallery show." And I was like, "They're already scrutinizing the music, I don't really want them to criticize the art."

But then I started selling them live. In this day and age, you really don't sell that many CDs anymore.

I would only do people I liked and people that inspired me. I'd do these 9x12 paintings, sell them for 50 bucks. I'd do Bill Hicks, and I'd do the Dalai Lama and I would do Iggy and Lou Reed and William Burroughs and Kerouac and even Harvey Pekar — obscure artists that I had a thing for.

It was kind of cool because it branded me as an idiosyncratic, renegade artist. I felt inspired by having these things around. People really purchased them. Now, when I go around, some have started a collection and get more. It's cool, but unquestionably, it has doubled my income at performances. No one is more surprised than me that I sell this stuff. But yeah, those are the people that are unquestionably deserving of respect.

I preface that song now. I play all kinds of gigs - I play a lot of house concerts. Half of this tour has been house concerts. I'll do bars and that kind of thing, but I open for bigger acts so I play large theaters when I'm on tour with a bigger act, and I play little punk rock shows with the kids. And of course, kids love that song. Then last year, when we played Dallas, the day after some police officers got shot. I preface the song now with, "I don't wish violence on anybody, and I wish the good cops would call out the bad cops."

Because it's a pretty brutal song to the uninitiated, but with that preface I think everybody agrees that the good cops should call out the bad cops. That's fairly universal. Unless you're a bad cop.

Songfacts: So you have a responsibility as an artist to say that before that song.

Hammel: I'm human. Yeah. Shit. The majority of cops, they don't make any money, and they see the worst of humanity all the time. It's got to be brutal.

I was thinking about this when I was driving. It's been 107 degrees out. You drive down the highway and there's all these digital signs that might say yellow alert, we're looking for such and such a car. But the majority, almost all of the digital signs, said, "Don't leave a kid in a car by himself. If you see a kid left in a car while it's running call..."

So now I'm envisioning some cop has to go and unlock the car with a dead, baked kid. This is what cops see. I'm sure they see horrible shit. They go into domestic violence situations and they see horrible shit. It's got to erode their faith in humanity. I get it. It's a tough gig, man. I'm sure there's plenty of goods. But they're shooting black kids. It's crazy. And everybody's shrugging their shoulders.

It's Trump. I was talking to someone last night. If there's one thing that has divided this country, it's Fox News. They really went out to make money and make people scared and hateful. And Obama, I had problems with him for sure, but he never played the lower denominator card when he was campaigning. He really tried to bring out the best in all of us, and Trump really tried to bring out the worst in all of us. It's very sad. I don't think that's cynical, that's realistic.

Songfacts: And you have Trump's voice on your album.

Hammel: Yeah, it's the only other voice on the record other than me. It's me and Trump.

Songfacts: Have you always been a one-man operation?

Hammel: I played in bands for years. I always loved Woody Guthrie and I loved Lead Belly, but I really didn't listen to any singer-songwriters per se. But it became increasingly difficult as I was in my mid-30s to keep a band together, to keep the carrot in front of the horse. I started touring in the '90s, when that whole get-in-the-van philosophy could be your life philosophy. Now, I think they do it like golfing or skiing: Let's get in the band and and we'll play and we know it's going to cost us money, but we're going to have fun, we're going to rock. I don't know how they make money.

But it really isn't about money. I wanted to make music my life and I didn't want to depend on anybody to do it. And then I thought, Well, I love art and poetry and literature and film and comedy and politics, why can't I put those elements into my songs without having to tell the bass player I'm going to stop here and talk about shit. He's looking at me like, I just want to play the fuckin' song. It's just easy, and fun and inspiring. I'm really lucky. I really love my job.

Songfacts: Do you feel like you're part of that Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly tradition, touring armed only with a guitar?

Hammel: Yeah. I do. I want to, I aspire to. I hope this doesn't sound pretentious but I hope some of the stuff lasts and is immortal. There's a billion guys, men and women, that I find inspiring. The solo stuff does move me, I have to admit.

I love rock and roll and even hip-hop and country, but the solo stuff - I'll watch a Chris Rock special and think, Oh, my god, it's a guy and a mic and he's killing them. So yeah, that's the goal.

October 27, 2017
More info at hamellontrial.org
Photos: Kyle Cuneo

More Song Writing


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica)

Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica)Songwriter Interviews

The former Metallica bassist talks about his first time writing a song with James Hetfield, and how a hand-me-down iPad has changed his songwriting.

Which Restaurants Are Most Mentioned In Song Lyrics?

Which Restaurants Are Most Mentioned In Song Lyrics?Song Writing

Katy Perry mentions McDonald's, Beyoncé calls out Red Lobster, and Supertramp shouts out Taco Bell - we found the 10 restaurants most often mentioned in songs.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou HarrisSongwriter Interviews

She thinks of herself as a "song interpreter," but back in the '80s another country star convinced Emmylou to take a crack at songwriting.

Elton John

Elton JohnFact or Fiction

Does he have beef with Gaga? Is he Sean Lennon's godfather? See if you can tell fact from fiction in the Elton John edition.

Ben Kowalewicz of Billy Talent

Ben Kowalewicz of Billy TalentSongwriter Interviews

The frontman for one of Canada's most well-known punk rock bands talks about his Eddie Vedder encounter, Billy Talent's new album, and the importance of rock and roll.

Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins

Tom Bailey of Thompson TwinsSongwriter Interviews

Tom stopped performing Thompson Twins songs in 1987, in part because of their personal nature: "Hold Me Now" came after an argument with his bandmate/girlfriend Alannah Currie.