Artist Dropbox

INTERVIEW: Murry Hammond of the Old 97s

I always wind up sounding sort of awed and breathless when I post interviews like this. I don’t mean to. It’s an unfortunate side effect of talking to strangers who mean something to you. The Old 97s have been one of my most important musical influences over the last few years. It took leaving Texas for me to understand how they would fit into my life: I could be home other places, but the Old 97s would always be there to fill the Texas void. I don’t know how to explain that Hitchhike to Rhome feels like Dallas, Too Far to Care feels like Denton– so I don’t.

But I do listen to them all. the. time. I have a special CD carrier for my 97s discs so that I can get to them easily on road trips. And last year, I had the special experience of seeing them live at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas, TX.– where their new album was rehearsed.
The Grand Theatre Volume 1 comes out next Tuesday, which is part of why it’s so awesome that Murry Hammond, esteemed bassist, writer, backup and lead vocalist for the band would take time out of his week and respond to some questions. (There’s that breathless, fan thing I always promise I won’t do. Can’t help it!)

If you want to hear some of the new album (and download a free track, “The Grand Theatre”), stop by their Facebook page. Without further adieu– Murry Hammond!

I‘ve heard that you guys don’t actually rehearse the live shows, but I’ve been to one, and they are straight-up ridiculous awesome energy. Do you really not rehearse, at least conventionally?

MH: We really *don’t* rehearse! We don’t need to. We know each other too well, so new stuff gets polished up quicker than you can imagine, and the rest is just sheer familiarity from playing our butts off.

You yodel and play harmonium, both of which are rare and cool. How did you learn to play harmonium? How did you become interested in those?

MH: Anyone can play harmonium. :p It’s just pumping with one hand and playing basic piano chords with the other — but I guess there is some finesse in making the chords sort of “swell” up and down in volume, which gives it some spooky component. It helps to have drony material to play on it, too. It sounds like a church organ anyway, so if you’re singing something kind of spiritual, and droning it, it’s a very nice effect.

Another “I’m not sure if this is true or not,” but I’ve read that you still sing in a church choir when you’re not on the road. Is that true? Is that still fulfilling? How is it different?

MH: Not nowadays. I was the sole music singer for our Wednesday nights, but I dropped out indefinitely — I got very busy with the 97s and also hit a sort of emotional valley that sort of took the wind out of my sails. The valley is behind me so now I’m contemplating doing something musically connected with the church or one of its missions… still chewing on what to do, though…

“The Grand Theatre” is going to be released in two parts. Why not release it as a double album?

MH: We actually finished it as a double album of about 20 songs — may have been 21, I can’t remember now. But once we got all 21 on the player, it just felt like it was too much. Since we loved all the material, we hit upon the idea to add even *more* songs to the pile and release two 12 songers. It’s a great idea, because we’ve had an unusually good crop of good songs this past couple of years, and if we’re ever going to do such a thing – two records back to back – this is the time and the crop of songs to do it with.

You guys are working with Salim Nourallah again (which makes me really happy, because Blame It On the Gravity was so solid). He just seems to know how the 97s sound. How do you guys work together to achieve the sounds you do?

MH: First good thing about Salim is he has known us individually in one form or another since the 80′s, so yeah, he knows us and gets us. He respects our family sound, but also likes to push us a bit to experiment, and consider tweaking the formula. I’m pretty comfortable with our sound, so I don’t welcome all experimenting, but Salim has a sort of 1960′s and mod approach that is right up my alley – I mean he likes psychedelic and British invasion music like I do – so when he asks me to do something I just try it without questioning it *too* much – though I do have a mouth on me. It’s worked out pretty well so far and I imagine we’ll be working with him for some time.

What was the recording process like for this album?

MH: Very live, more so than we’ve ever done. We’ve sat in a circle in a room for many, many records, getting basics — I think most bands do that — but on this one we had an indordinate amount of takes that were just plain live – right down to the lead vocal. I was shocked at how good some of it sounded, too — I mean, we know our instruments and the music, but we also know each other, and that chemistry is the thing that adds that indefineable mojo. We didn’t have it quite like this in the early days — it’s something that has seasoned over time. It’s red hot right now, and seamless. It’s very nice to experience from inside the band. But anyway – you asked about the process – it was just throw all the mikes up for a particular song, set the guitars and GO! If a vocal needed to be recut, fine, we’d do it after, but the instruments on the record tended to be what we heard going down as we played it. And it was one song after another like that — I love the raw sound of a live band in a studio, and we caught it. Lightning in a bottle, y’know?

What’s the best part of the new album?

MH: I love the psychedelic parts. “Love is What You Are” going into “Please Hold On While the Train is Moving.” Those two show up like our version of an Oasis 45. Or a Beatles moment… “Train” is our “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Who is your biggest influence as a musician? And specifically, as a bassist?

MH: As a musician overall, by far, Johnny Cash. It’s his whole humanity, his incredible place and affect on music. The honesty and spirituality contained in it. Honesty in music and in life is a biggy with me. For bass, certainly both Paul McCartney early Beatles R&B style and his later psychedelic sound… and Noel Redding, who was Jimi Hendrix’s bass player for that same other-worldly thing.

One of the best parts about the Old 97s is that the songs are clever, but they don’t seem like they are necessarily “supposed” to be clever. I think a lot of that is in the orchestration– you guys have a really direct, straightforward musical style. Part of what is great about the Old 97s is that it has been that way since the beginning. How do you guys remain constant when the bands that you were most often compared to either completely imploded or divided and became other things entirely?

MH: That’s a good question and requires a windy answer so bear with me. The 97′s are a funny mix of a general harmony among us, but also something of an interior tug-of-war that’s always going on. In many ways as individuals we are not on the same page at all philosophically, but in other ways we’re perfectly in step with each other — whether its a recording session or a business meeting. There’s always a basic stylisic debate going on — what’s too far out, what isn’t “97″ enough, what is and isn’t natural for us to do, or sometime what isn’t adventurous or experimental *enough*, that sort of thing. It’s a funny line we walk. Rhett is fortunate to have three good bullshit detectors for his songwriting, and same for me as a secondary songster, I enjoy that same BS detection, but we also are lucky that we all really care about the music, each and every song, and that we can often mine gold in places where it might not be obvious. We filter, tweak and transform things until we connect with it, and the result is a distinct flavor, our family sound. The sound might vary quite a bit, but it’s still family in its style. All of our members have come to respect that process over the years. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

And for my own benefit– what is “Crash on the Barrelhead” about– and is it in reference to “Cash on the Barrelhead”?

MH: Yes, it’s a cheeky reference to the title “Cash on the Barrelhead”, the old Louvins’ song. And sorry, can’t tell you who it’s about, but there is definitely a muse. Ha! I will say it’s *not* Ryan Adams — some have thought that — and it’s not one of us in the band. Although it could easily be about any of us nuts over here, it’s about someone else… :)

(*EDITOR’S NOTE: OK, a better question would have been, “Is it about Ryan Adams?” because that’s what I’d heard. Murry read my mind!)

No one sounds Texas like the Old 97s. I’m from Dallas, and even though I moved to the Midwest eight years ago, I can pop in your CDs and be home. Maybe the most evocative Texas song, at least for me, is a toss-up between “St. Ignatius” and “West Texas Teardrops.” Those are extremely different songs– which song of yours, in your opinion, is the most “Texas”, and why?

MH: Well now that we did “State of Texas” on the new record, I’d say that one has topped the others for Texas-ness. Texanness? Texyness? Textastic?

Like everyone else, I want to know if the Ranchero Brothers (Rhett & Murry’s side project) are ever releasing an album…? :)

MH: Was just talking about it today. One of these days we’re going to put together a live CD – a real fat one, too with a buttload of songs — out of our live collection. It was always supposed to be a live thing, not a studio thing. And I think we already have the record among the hundred or so hours of live recordings we have. It will come out – once Grand Theater Vol. 2 is done and I have a moment to go miscellaneous for awhile, I’ll pick it up and push it through.

You also help maintain the Texas Transportation Archive. Do you still? What’s that about?

That’s my little hobby run amock. Yeah, I do a history website that concentrates on Texas and Louisiana sawmills, railroads, stagecoaches, coal mining communities, etc. etc. Right now I have online 1500 photographs, over a thousand pages of manuscript material, hundreds of maps, articles, biographies… it’s completely out of hand. But I’m very proud of it, obviously. It appeals to nearly all genealogy people, family and local history hunters. It gives me something to do when touring, when everyone else is groaning about being bored waiting on something to happen, I always have something to do. It’s a life’s work for me. And gives me more eBay fun than you can imagine.

And finally, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way (Murry’s 2008 solo release) was a really strong album, too; are you ever planning on releasing another one?

MH: I got halfway through a second one when I just sort of stopped – recall my answer about the church music… I sort of hit a big pothole and just couldn’t do it… I’m waiting for inspiration to do it again in that way. In the meantime I’m quite happy to give the 97′s all my energy.

And I guess my last, catch-all question is usually “Is there anything you want to say that I didn’t ask about?”.

MH: I would say to everyone, know this: we are still hungry as artists to make real music and we refuse to stink it up, ever. :p

That last bit isn’t really any surprise to 97s fans: the band seems pathologically unable to produce crap. If you’d like to see the Old 97s on the road (and if you haven’t, I recommend you do!), here’s the schedule. (I’m hoping to catch the Nashville show.)

10/14 – Houston, TX – The Continental Club
12/2 – Oxford, MS – The Lyric
12/3 – Little Rock, AR – Revolution Music Room
12/4 – Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge
12/7 – Towson, MD – Recher Theatre
12/8 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
12/9 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
12/10 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg
12/11 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts
1/19 – San Diego, CA – Belly Up
1/20 – Santa Ana, CA – Galaxy Theater
1/21 – Los Angeles, CA – The Music Box at the Fonda
1/22 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
1/24 – Seattle, WA – Showbox
1/25 – Portland, OR – Wonder
1/27 – Boulder, CO – Boulder Theater
1/28 – Lawrence, KS – Bottleneck

And if you just want to keep up with the band, add them on Twitter or check out their website– it’s been revamped, and Rhett’s doing video blogs, now. Cool stuff.

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