ED HAMELL: Tuesday the 7th of February, on Righteous Babe Records. The name of the CD is, “Songs for Parents who Enjoy Drugs”. You know, obviously inspired by my four- year-old son and maybe the state of the nature. And levity. There is a lot of humor in it because although I’m probably pretty angry, disgruntled, and pessimistic, I try to remain optimistic through humor. I guess that’s the best way to describe it.
AD: This is your second release with Ani Difranco?
EH: It is my second release, yeah.
AD: How has working with Ani affected your song writing?
EH: I wouldn’t say that the songwriting has really changed, so much as she’s given me the courage to write them. At least no matter what I write, I know I have a place where it is going to be presented to the public. Unlike before, when I was doing it myself, you are completely independent; you think who is going to hear this. So that seeming futility is daunting sometimes, creatively. So I guess the answer to your question is, it’s been inspiring to know that anything that I write, is going to get out.
And she is very, very supportive of any of the subversive stuff that I do. Unlike most labels, who might say, well we need something that is going to get radio play, her attitude is, you’re never going to get radio play so write what you want to write and don’t be afraid of saying what you want to say. Be it about the administration, be it obscene, be it about religion, you have a venue here which you can do anything your heart desires. So in that respect it’s been very freeing. I’ve always written these kinds of songs but it’s been very freeing to know that these kinds of songs will get out, you know? That people will hear them. And it’s going to get distributed and promoted. And that’s the thing, they never got distributed or promoted before with the exception of out of the back of my car. Well Mercury had, but never before have I had this kind of freedom. And as a producer, you know she’s my producer, and she’s pushing me to push boundaries.
AD: So, did Mercury actually decide what songs you should and shouldn’t put on there?
EH: Well no. My experience with Mercury was a very positive one because of this: we both had realistic expectations that I was not going to sell Madonna numbers. I was very, very happy because prior to being on Mercury I was living in Austin and it was difficult for me to get out of Austin. When I would try to get gigs, even in Houston and Dallas, Oklahoma City, they’d be like, “we don’t get this”. “You’re very aggressive”. The folk clubs wouldn’t take me and the rock clubs wouldn’t take me. Once I got signed to a major, a lot of those avenues opened up for me. I was able to tour far more. And I knew this major label thing was only going to last x amount of time, so I shouldn’t burn any bridges. That was nine years ago I was on Mercury. And a lot of those places I’m still playing. San Francisco, Portland… you know I was able to make a living. That started me.
And I think for a lot of artists, particularly if you’re in a band, they think the end of the road is the major label but for me it was the beginning. I knew that I was in it for the long haul. I was going to be doing this for 15 years.
AD: Is there a Hamell On Trial DVD in the works?
EH: You know, maybe. What’s happening is this tour culminates in 6 nights at the Knitting Factory where I’m more of a one-man show. It’s not that different than what I normally do but it is unquestionably geared towards the theater crowd. And if what I hope to happen, happens-the press or whatever-we’ll go up from there.
AD: What’s a Hamell On Trial show like for people who have no idea what they are in for?
EH: Well it’s the same. I had a great manager one time, and she had managed a lot of esoteric artists, and she said, “You play in front of a hundred people, you do what you do and you may offend ninety of them. But the ten that stay are going to tell their friends, ‘You got to go see this guy.”
So I don’t ever pull any punches. I do what I do.
But now, you know, I’ve toured for nine years and a lot of what happens is the, “You’ve got to so see this guy, “Thank God, so they are not going in there completely blind. I mean they know it’s going to be blasphemous, he’s going to say he wants to shoot the president through the head-all that stuff that makes my show, my show.
AD: I guess in some ways it must be kind of a compliment that your career is following in a Bill Hicks direction in that you are more popular in the UK and Ireland than here.
EH: There is no two ways about it, Bill is a great inspiration to me. There were some years that I was very discouraged because people didn’t really know who he was here. And now, little by little, I definitely sense more people know about Bill Hicks over here than they ever did. When it’s genius like Bill, you want to see it rewarded at least posthumously. I want his mother and his father to know what a genius he was. I don’t know why, but I do. It was really discouraging but now when I say something about Bill Hicks from the stage, you hear the crowd.
And you know, no matter how bad a venue that you have to play, comedy clubs are the fucking worst. Those people, what are they there for? And he would go and do what he did. So I just think he was the bravest, courageous, most brilliant guy. Some nights, if I have a bad gig, and it’s not too often, but it happens, I just ride back home from the gig with him in the CD player. Any time there is any minor-ist parallel of me to him, I’m completely flattered. I’m totally in awe of him.
AD: Is there a particular venue over in Ireland or the UK that is the Hamell On Trial capital of the world?
EH: I do very well in London and I do very well in Dublin because those are kind of the capitals, you know? Not really.
I’ve been focusing on Americans. I’ve got an American agent now so I’ve really been trying to lay a lot of groundwork in this country. I haven’t been to Europe in about a year and a half. And I’m looking for a new label for the new record so when it happens I’ll do an extensive tour. I really want to get better known in this country.
AD: Can you tell us a little bit about your name?
EH: Hamell on Trial. I played in bands for years and it became increasingly difficult to play in bands financially, spiritually. And I took a couple of years off, although always assuming that I would make my living playing music. And I was tending bar and I got a phone call from a guy who was putting on a benefit. There was a guy that used to take all the pictures of bands in the area I grew up, Syracuse, New York, and he was dying of cancer. So they asked me if I would play along with many other bands–he was a fan of all the bands I had been in-at a benefit. And I said I would like to, but I don’t have a band. And they said, “Well what are you doing”? And I said, well I’m writing songs for what I anticipate my band to be. And he said, “Well would you consider playing those songs on acoustic guitar, solo?” And I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar and I was like, I don’t know. It seemed petrifying to me to play solo. And he said, “You know the guy is dying.” So I said, sure.
As a joke, because all the bands in town are going to be there scrutinizing my very amateurish performance, I called it Hamell On Trial. And I got done and a local label came up and said, “Hey, you want to do a record?” It was the first time I ever did a show as a solo, I had played years in a band and no one had asked me to record and I was like, holy shit, I’m on to something. And so it stuck.
Very organic. I mean it was a joke. I assumed it was going to be a one-time thing but I also thought it differentiated me from the James Taylor’s of the world. I didn’t really listen to folk music, you know?
AD: Tell me about Austin. What has been your experience about Austin? I know you lived here awhile ago.
EH: Yeah, I lived here in ’96. ’97.
AD: What made you leave?
EH: It was a couple of things. I came here because the label that I got signed with did the best he could but his resources were limited and he thought they would really like me in Austin. I wasn’t getting anywhere in Upstate New York doing what I did. And he goes, “I think they would really embrace what you do in Austin.” So my wife and I had been together for 22 years, we had been married for 18 years, 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago, so we kind of made a deal. It was a three-year deal. She wasn’t itching to move to Texas by any stretch of the imagination but for my career we said we’d do a three-year thing. So I came down here and worked my butt off.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Austin. And they were great memories.
Austin was incredibly embracing. And the cool thing about Austin, and I always say this, they are very reverential of the old guard, you know, the Jimmy Dale Gilmores, but they are also very embracing of the new. I was very idiosyncratic and very weird and they were like, “We love this.” And I was telling people back home in New York about Austin and they were saying, “You mean like, Willie Nelson.” And I would say, “yeah, Willie Nelson, but also Gibby Haines from the Butthole Surfaces too.” I mean this is a weird f**king town, you know? In a good way.
So I came down here and worked my butt off. It was a period of time when you could work six open mics in four days. You could go down to the Chicago House and Cactus Café on a Monday and do those two and then Tuesday you could go to the Austin Outhouse and do one there and then on Wednesday, back to the Chicago House…so you could really get your name around. And then, as serendipity would happen, once again very organically, the Electric Lounge opened just as I hit town. Electric Lounge had a big spoken word scene and film scene that would happen around seven or eight o’clock at night and they would have all these grunge alternative rock bands that would happen at the end. And I thought, well Jesus, if I could get in here once a week every Friday night, I would be the perfect transitional person between the spoken word shit and this rock shit. And once I got that, it really exploded for me. It really opened up for me.
But then, going back to your initial question, I got signed to Mercury Records which was based out of New York and my wife was really itching to get back to New York. You know, she had family there and what not and she’s now the assistant dean at Pace University so she really wanted to get back to the East Coast education/administration. So I only stayed two years. I got signed to Mercury and she said we should go. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do. It’s very difficult to tour out of Austin. You go three hours and you’re only in Dallas. Whereas where I live now, in New York, I can play Washington DC and be home that night. I can play Philadelphia, be home that night. I can play Boston and be home that night. So I mean, in terms of making money and a career and supporting my family and being with my family, I can play a lot of areas and still be home at night. Where as in Austin, you went out and two months later, you came home. It’s in the middle of f**king nowhere. And yet I love this town.
AD: What is your take on the Alex Jones and Greg Palast style conspiracy theories involving the Bush family?
EH: You know I’m skeptical of conspiracy theories. That having been said, this is what I think:
My brother-in-law is a chef and he works for a family and it’s a private thing. They are wine distributors-any wine that comes into this country they have a hand in. They are so rich.
And the Bush Administration, do I think that they are a crime family? I absolutely think that they are a crime family. But do I think there are a bunch of people in a room all huddled over them? No. You know I saw a great thing on the Daily Show with John Stewart and they showed a press conference where a woman in the audience, a reporter, asks President Bush, “How many Iraqi civilians do you think we have killed over there?” And he said, “About 30,000.” And they flash back to John Stewart who says, “I wish he would at least make an effort to appear compassionate instead of counting beans in a jar.” And I think that these people are so in their own world that it’s almost insanity. And you know that those sons of bitches are so wrapped up in power that they don’t see it.
So there is a conspiracy in terms of cronyism and hey we have to make this deal happen. And it’s going to benefit 100,000 people so if 10,000 die–f*ck it.
It’s a conspiracy of delusion.
AD: How are you enjoying the Folk Alliance?
EH: I’m enjoying it. I was skeptical coming into it; I got to be honest with you. I’m very, very different than everyone here. But I wear that as a badge of honor. Everybody has been real nice and I’ve seen some great music and I’ve been hanging out with a lot of really cool people.
And hey, thanks. You guys are doing righteous work.