Brad Hamers is a visionary man; he creates beautiful and nostalgic atmospheres out of nowhere, sometimes inspired by literature, harsh words and images of a daily life interlaced with surreal images. His debut solo album was one of the first hip-hop works I got hooked to, listening to it from beginning to end in loops. I managed to catch him in-between sessions (a short interview which turned into a long, long conversation) to ask him about his influences, art, society and of course his new album, due for release on Token Recluse Recordings this spring.
What music / scene did you grow up with?
My first true love was hip hop, beginning circa 1991, although we are now divorced – but of course her name is still tattooed all over me. I left her around 2001 although I started to move my things out a bit earlier. I also left some part of me there with her – sometimes she follows me around claiming I took her shit, but for the most part we are pretty disconnected now and rarely see each other. I guess I seriously began writing “poetry” around 1996 and became involved with the slam scene in NYC around 1999, through the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. There I met good folk like Celena Glenn, Greg Purnell, and Ainsley Burrows, who published my first book through his small press BurrowsInk in 2000. I pretty much stopped slamming around 2002, maybe even late 2001 and shortly after I started recording music with Slomoshun as Phlegm. (I did record a couple of pretty terrible raps songs when I was still in high school, around 1998, but Phlegm is pretty much where the music-making began.)
It’s been almost five years since „The Cut-Ups of a Paper Woman“, which came out 2005 if I’m not mistaken. What have you been doing since?
Yes, the Cut-Ups album came out early 2005. As far as what I’ve been doing since… Well…
A whole lot of writing… always writing… a bunch of collaging… a lot of leaving… a lot of arriving… Much music making, interacting… Not interacting enough… Mythologizing… Falling into debt, loving, criticizing, dreaming, and forgetting…
I’ve moved back and forth between New York and Portland, Oregon three times in the last three years (2006-2009) …there’s been a lot of flailing, a lot of figuring out, a lot of fingers on buttons and open flames. PZ (Big Pauper) and I started molding the Sloth around 2005, attaching its eyes and nose and head around 2006. He moved to Portland some months before I did; when I arrived we continued Slothing it… I also then put together and released my spoken word album Ligature. Around that time, Big Pauper and I released a 7-inch single for School Play from a Cloud’s Left Lung and also a free online LP: Two Ton Sloth Loves Broadcast. We toured a bit of Europe in 2007, made some tour CDs and one of a kind art/poetry books called Only Children for the tour and the shows following. In 2007, we also shot a video on 16mm, which has yet to be released in full. Then upon arriving home from tour in January 2008 we finally released our debut full-length LP Two Ton Sloth.
During the course of that entire time period (since 2006, just before moving to Portland) I began working on my new solo album Post No Dreams. It started as a handful of keyboard (and drum) sketches when I first started playing the keys and I’ve been slowly working on it since… A lot of time was focused on the Sloth and freaking out upon arriving in Portland… So really, much of the solo album has been assembled in 2008/2009 and I am very near completion and feel very good about this project, it is definitely the most coherent thing I’ve done, musically at least, and lyrically for me as well. I also finished another book a couple of years ago called Brand Name Yachay but haven’t yet shopped it around for publishing. I’ve been recording songs for Communiqués here and there for the last couple of years, that will most likely come out for free sometime around the release of Post No Dreams on Token Recluse Recordings. I’ve recently started a couple of blogs as well, Heck Horse Zero for my own writing, art and audio, and much of my time over these last few years, the last decade really, has been spent with and working with The New Police – a collective of artists and friends (family).
Yeah, I’ve seen some of your collages at the blog. I like them a lot, I think they reflect your lyrics and writing very much. Can you tell me a bit more about the new album? Where was it recorded, and it what way do you feel it evolved from Cut-Ups..?
Yeah, collaging has become another healthy activity for me. It is definitely a good outlet for expressing myself and I find it very similar to writing, it’s all about assembling images and establishing meaning. The keyboard/piano also became a powerful tool for me to express myself with, that first happened in the Spring of 2006 and that’s really when my new solo project began. I was living in New York at the time (same apartment the Cut-Ups album was created in and much of the self titled Sloth album) – I wrote the keyboard parts for 5 out of the 13 songs for Post No Dreams in the months before moving across the country to Portland. some of the lyrics were written during that time as well. The first year in Portland was pretty much all time spent on Two Ton Sloth, while working on some of the solo songs here and there, so I’d say in the beginning of 2008 I really started putting in work on my album; then of course there was another hiatus when I moved back to NYC. I didn’t have a permanent residence, so no place to set up my studio and mess with music; instead I was working on a lot of art and writing for the album and other projects, and then when I returned to Portland about 6 months later I set up shop and really, really got down.
Most songs were conceived out of an unshaven and woolly keyboard with its heavy heart caught in an amplifier, rotted and humming, and recorded onto a computer from the last ice age with buboes, layered with shit-drums and cassette fuzz… Almost all of the album’s 13 tracks evolved out of keyboard parts that have been getting thrown around over the last 3 years and then grew new body parts and extra clothes from there… It is sooty and astral… It is lo-fi and fizzes… It is for the pensive and headsick, for the sleepless and the sleeping, for the mythless and the mixed up…
For me the album occupies an entirely different space than Cut-Ups – and so do I. The entire creation process and inspiration for it was much different. The Cut-Ups of a Paper Woman was almost entirely made on an MPC2000xl and then dumped onto a Roland 16track. The new album is much less sample-based (I don’t think there are really any loops) and other than all the drums and percussive noises, the MPC wasn’t used much; whereas cut-ups was mostly all samples and was entirely sequenced on the MPC. Post No Dreams utilizes more live instrumentation and everything was recorded into AcidPro on a shitty computer (much of it through shitty tape first) – I guess I could say this album is also much less hip-hop to me (a friend of mine calls it ‘ghost-hop’). [laughs]
The writing is also very different – thematically – for sure.
You’re a bit more ‘active’ on the internet these days, but a few years ago it was close to impossible finding out much about you. In what ways do you feel the internet is important (or not) for your music, in terms of promotion, distribution, but also social networking?
The internet has become as important as having a nervous system it seems… I’d be out of touch, even with myself, without it. These days that same importance applies to attempting to get one’s music out and into the world, but its trajectory stretches much further than – although returning directly back to – music. In my opinion, the internet/computer, the point to which technology in general has evolved, is as important a step or “discovery” as fire or the alphabet for humans. The implications it has on our ability to transmit… receive… store, photocopy, and process information, and the way in which we apprehend and value that information itself and what it means to us is huge… Extremely profound. All the implications that has on our value system, our culture, our art and mythology (by mythology, I mean the narratives we tell ourselves in order to relate to/and find meaning in the world around us and that we are a part of, and of course the effects it has on the persons themselves trying to speak those narratives)… As a result, communication is shifting, language is shifting, hence symbol and meaning are shifting… The human (psychologically at least) is not what he/she once was, even just 50 years ago… And declaring it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is besides the point I think.
..but back to music; technology has and still is completely changing the face of the music industry…maybe even removing (or replacing) some of its body parts all together. And this becomes hard to pin down as being absolutely good or absolutely bad, it has its positive and negative results. When I first began releasing music it was around the time Napster started. The internet has helped me network and book tours, get my music out there, but then again almost no one is paying for that music anymore. Most of me says, “fuck money and the way it plays music”… Money has nothing to do with the impulse or the reason I create any art, although this badge, this precept or battle cry may eventually kill me… but what won’t? (rightfully and handsomely so)
I’m very, very curious to hear in what way the new album is shifting – I always referred to your music as ‘melancholic hip-hop’ because that’s what it felt like to me. And if you say the word “ghost” I immediately had to think of the samples in “Cut-Ups”.. It’s Bukowski, right? Does literature play a big part as inspiration for your music?
yes, I did use an excerpt of Bukowski for a track on Cut-Ups. There’s also some lines sampled from an audio book of “White Noise” by Don Delillo in one of those songs as well. I would say ‘melancholic’ is still an accurate word to associate with the new album, and like all of my music I feel Post No Dreams is meant to be listened to while alone.. in headphones.. and most importantly while reading along..
Literature does play a part in my music in the sense that it revolves heavily around the lyrics.. I was writing before I was making music; I was first drawn to music when I was young because of the lyrics and I would say all of my art is inspired by writers and writing (language in general) just as much as it is by music and other musicians.
As you said, “fuck money”. I think a lot of artists who truly believe in and love what they do feel the same way these days. To what extent do you think it’s possible today for an artist or a musician to make a living with music and art while still sticking to his/her ideals?
Artists are and have always been the ones who write the new myths, who inspire and offer new or different perspectives and ways to see, relate to, and experience the world. “God is dead”, myth is dead, the American dream is really a coma. This system smothers creativity (which is inherent in all of us). Capitalism inevitably turns everything into a commodity – even life/death itself. When expression, art and even the artist himself, become a commodity, myth becomes commodity. And than must eat itself, for sustenance, until of course there’s nothing left. Which is exactly the way our money functions; literally created out of thin air, out of the void of itself: money is debt. When our dollar literally equates to nothing by design, what then becomes of our values? Our culture can no longer reciprocate anything meaningful back to us so we chew on our Barbie’s legs pouring placebo sugar pills in our coffees, wearing our outsourced shirts like slightly too big smiles, shedding our imagination in the name of natural selection. I will allow this culture to kill me before I allow it to completely destroy and remove my ‘animal’, my wonderment and creativity. Every fiber of my spirit refuses to do more of someone else’s work than my own in order to survive, slaving myself out for money (shelter and food).
I heard someone once quote Harriet Tubman: “when she was asked how she managed to save hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, ‘I could have saved thousands – if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’ ” in the grand sense, we work for the system ‘making’ – packaging and selling the products we need to survive and then buy those products straight back from them with the money earned working for them, helping them get more money in the process. Buying products to express our emotions, to find and use our own voices in the world, in the new global community, where myth struggles to be effective in such a large population and dominated by the “free market” capitalist system. If every single debt was to be paid off in this country, there would be no money left at all. So the idea of charging interest on debt is kind of outrageous, being that it’s money that literally doesn’t exist within the available currency; and that doesn’t mean you or I can’t get that money but it means that if we do we are always taking it from someone else. The system depends on the imbalance, it also depends on more and more useless products to be manufactured, bought and sold, and our ever-growing interest in them. There isn’t enough American Dream to go around, not everyone can achieve their true aspirations today but everyone must work to survive, to perpetuate the system, or else it will collapse. Without the 10th strip mall on the same block, most of us wouldn’t have jobs, meaning food and housing at the minimum and of course money to buy the next Madonna’s-fallen-out-pubic-hair, or a high quality picture of it at least. The current system discourages creativity from an early age and provides no outlet for the energy most people carry and have building up inside. Its only outlet is in distraction, delusion, or a pill bottle…
So can an artist (or anyone for that matter) maintain his or her ideals while living within the current system? Some think they can. Some claim they do. Some may actually do it… But I believe most of us are lost, at least with regards to that… What are ideals in a culture whose ideology functions like sugarless sugar? …Or like Žižek says: a chocolate laxative. We endlessly consume emptiness. “freedom is slavery”, war is big business, suicide bombing is peace, Obama is hope, sacrifice is justice, reality is hacked. Dreams are only taxing, dreams are only tax on citizenship. Sticking to our ideals while attempting to survive within this system is almost an oxymoron, unless you truly believe you can change it from the inside out. As for myself, I have faith in the protracted suicide which is already taking place – naturally. It will eat itself and my palette will enjoy every last second and every last taste of it – without any bitterness. I think it is important to say that although this system, this culture characteristically and artlessly destroys creativity and the artist’s ability to function as such within it, reduced to making ads for the companies selling back that very same culture which is destroying it in the first place or tap dancing in a mask of their own face for their white bread, it is the artistic spirit, the artists themselves who will create and provide the revelation for the New. So I celebrate artists who desecrate and reject the contemporary conventions and the value system it runs on; it needs to be broken down…
This said… In one of my favorite movies (Ghost World) one of the main characters says, „I can’t relate to 99% of humanity“. Looking at the youth of today, do you feel a similar way?
I’m not sure… I think it is possible to relate to more than 1%… I think we are all capable of communicating with each other, but breaking through the compounded layers of tint and posture, of political stripe and ignorance, is what’s hard. Becoming untrained to see past your own eyes…
However, there are many different ways and mediums by which to communicate an idea or feeling, and I believe relating to others is what living is all about. So I don’t want to (potentially) hinder myself by saying cut and dry that I can’t relate to 99% of humanity, although I can completely understand the place the statement comes from, and I do still consider the question worth looking at. It may be all of humanity that feels this way… Maybe because what it means to be human today is changing and has already changed; humanity can’t relate to itself. I think that’s what we are really talking about, most of us don’t even know we are living and rarely feel that we are actually alive… I think it’s best summed up with a quote from Joseph Campbell: “With the end, that is to say, of the mythological age, the mythological age did not actually end. It retired behind the screen of time and space. And there are those who can penetrate that screen and break into that timeless zone.”
I guess the only way to live is to actually relate yourself to others, even when you can’t seem to find any common ground. That works for me. And speaking of others, who are the most important people in your life?
All those who consider themselves New Police…
I’ve been wondering about this for a while. What does the tattoo on the inside of your right arm mean?
That’s my first tattoo, it’s over ten years old. It is a question mark with a single jig-saw puzzle piece substituted for the dot. I saw it as the most suitable symbol to brandish myself with at the time, and still do, I guess. It represents wonderment. Critical thinking. Questioning, science, myth, creativity. The question mark is definitely my favorite symbol and piece of punctuation. The question mark is a mark which replaces the ‘full stop’. It makes every sentence (every attempt at summing up the present tense) go on forever…
All Photos courtesy of Big Pauper, collage by Brad Hamers