Matt Hammon, “Silver Suitcase”, album review and interview

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Photo by Anthony Rathbun

Matt Hammon is an exceptional drummer, singer and songwriter that has been in the music business for decades. He has played with such incredible musicians as Bob Mould and the band Verbow, and has always been a steady and well-respected drummer. In addition, Matt has always been a songwriter. Over the years he has written and stored away literally hundreds of songs, knowing, somehow, that eventually he would find a way to release those that meant the most to him.

Matt spent some time finding himself and who he wanted to be in this world, and after some personal struggles he overcame, finding some humanitarian  causes he was passionate about and finally, having received and beaten a cancer diagnosis, he realized who he was and what he needed to do in this life. Making this record no longer seemed to be an option, but a necessity.

Silver Suitcase is the result of taking the enormous song collection he had amassed over 20 years, narrowing it down to his top 10 favorites, and then completely re-crafting these songs until he felt they were good enough to be released in a way he was proud of. To say he has accomplished an album worthy of pride is an understatement. Silver Suitcase is a stunningly beautiful album and one that is worthy of all of the years it took to finally come to fruition.

Hammon has written, arranged, mastered and performed every song on this album, giving him complete creative and musical control. This is such an extremely difficult and complicated task that it makes the album even better when you understand the sheer talent this man possesses.

A captivating blend of alternative, americana, pop and straight forward rock and roll, the songs on this album are haunting, melodic and lyrically divine. In addition to that, they are extraordinarily radio friendly and catchy. This is a rare combination and one that deserves a listen by fans of almost any genre. The album encompasses a real story, an autobiographical picture of the artist and his journey through life that really captures your heart, mind and spirit as you listen. The album is not to be taken lightly. It is richly layered, yet incredible melodic, relatable and accessible.

Stand-outs for me, include Pictures, Sleeper’s Town and my favorite, Out Of Touch. That being said, I don’t think there is a song on the album that isn’t worth a listen.

Matt is  currently using the crowd funding resource, Indiegogo, to help him get this album out and promoted in the way it deserves to be. Please help us support our gifted musicians and storytellers. Their voices need to be heard, now more than ever, in this world where we all need a little more beautiful music. The links are at the end of the interview.

J. The new record is really amazing. Can you share with us how you put it together and what your inspirations were?

M.H. First of all, thank you so much for spending so much time with the record! It literally means the world to me that complete strangers are finally connecting with the music after all these years! It’s very encouraging, to say the least. So thank you.

Inspirations? Well, for starters all the records I’ve ever been a part of have inspired me to keep making records. It’s where I feel the most piqued sense of belonging – in the studio with my head between the speakers and a guitar in my hand. Sound itself inspires me, good stories inspire me…opposition inspires me, too. There was a tremendous amount of opposition – both real and imagined – in the making of this album. It’s a definite thread throughout the album, lyrically.

In the lead-up to my daughter being born 10 years ago I really got the itch to finish a solo record and get it out there, not knowing whether or not I would ever have the time and energy to commit to such a self-indulgent enterprise ever again. The record I made during that time kind of ended up being the “demos” of Silver Suitcase. Lots of the same songs but the drums were programmed and the vocals never really got off the ground. I printed up a few copies of 5 songs from that time to sell at shows, but I intentionally never “released” that work. “As A Child” used to be called “Letting Go”, which was on that EP and had some very time-specific lyrics that I just didn’t mean anymore, so I re-wrote most of the lyrics for that one when I was tracking the final vocal on it for Silver Suitcase.

I tracked drums at my friend Jay Snider’s home studio in Houston – I think I traded a compressor for a day of studio time…I tracked the lead vocal at my friend Ty Robins’ home studio. Everything else I did at my place – guitars, bass, keys, harmonies…all of it, including the mix. For “As A Child” I went up to Austin and had my buddy David Rice play bass, Hammond B-3 organ and that haunting electric piano. I think of that song as more “round”, and having David add some elegance to it really helped smooth out the rough edges that I went for on the other tracks.

In general though, I start with a scratch guitar track and a click track and record final drums to that and build from there. It’s very architectural in nature.

J. What is the songwriting process like for you?

M.H. Well for me there have been two different processes that have emerged since I got going as a teenager. One process I refer to as the “purge”, where it all comes out at the same time – the chords, the melody, the lyric, the form…that process always feels more like channeling than writing. The title track, “Silver Suitcase” came to me in like 10 minutes, soup to nuts, so did “Pictures” and “Sleeper’s Town”. The other process is far more laborious – usually sitting around jacking with the guitar and landing on something that sounds new or different and “composing” a piece of music that I then carry the burden of lyrics for over time. “Out Of Touch” was like that – I had really hit a wall with the lyrics on that one but was fortunate enough to spend a week in Santa Fe at a retreat with Over The Rhine…long story short – the two of them really dug the tune but challenged me to dig deeper with the lyric, which I did, or at least I hope I did J. That song went through 3 entire sets of lyrics until I uttered the word “California” in the chorus. I needed a strong 4 syllable word that I could anchor the chorus on…I wrote the first incarnation of that song when my wife took a trip to L.A. to hang with her brother Alex…giving that song a location – California – totally unlocked and focused the entire song.

J. Are you planning on touring to support the record?

M.H. Yes! I am planning on doing some efficient solo acoustic touring this summer in the big markets to help generate some visibility and just general activity surrounding the record and getting myself back “out there” after a pretty long break. I’ll be playing in the TX triangle (Austin/Dallas/Houston) throughout the year. Touring has really changed since I was last at it full-time. It’s a lot easier to get the word out, gas is cheaper, you can stay in 4-star hotels for 2-star prices, there’s espresso and healthy food options everywhere…I’m really looking forward to it.

J. Please tell us about Olivette music and mission? I find it beautiful, what you’ve done with this project. How did it begin?

M.H.  Ok. Here it goes. This is essentially answering the “Where have you been all these years, Matt?” question that I’ve been getting a lot of emails about lately. The short answer is that my wife and I made a trip to Budapest, Hungary in the summer of 2007 that fundamentally changed both of us forever. We saw things that we can’t un-see. We heard true stories that we can’t un-hear. We dreamed dreams we can’t un-dream.

The long story goes like this: We are both products of the Cold War, and I even got a degree in economics and political science that I geared toward post-communist transition in Eastern Europe. I was 16 when the Berlin Wall came down. I was getting my first band going as the first elections were occurring behind the Iron Curtain – I was utterly distracted as the world was changing. However, those images, those newsreels were in my mind somewhere, and something rattled the core of my own sense of generational identity as I pounded the pavement in a previously communist country searching for answers as to why I was told – by the authority figures in my youth – these people hated me because I was an American. It appeared to me that very little had changed in the 20 plus years since the collapse of communism in Europe, and I heard as much from the locals.

So we were in the subway one day and noticed a girl – couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13, a gypsy girl–being gripped by a police officer, flanked by a throng of older men and women trying to sell some homemade wares beside her. I turned to one of my Hungarian friends and asked if he thought that scene looked a little shady… he essentially said that she was likely in the middle of being sold by her family; that it is very prevalent throughout the former communist countries in Europe, especially amongst the Gypsy population who have no protection.

 

I had written papers in college about sex trafficking in Southeast Asia but was under the impression (false) that things were turning around in the former communist bloc in terms of organized crime, etc… I spent the next year absorbing all the information I could about the new Eastern Europe, and we spent 3 months in Budapest in the summer of ’08. In fact we almost sold everything and moved there, but for myriad reasons didn’t.

As time went on we had an opportunity to go to the former soviet Republic of Moldova and visit some orphanages and schools and get a sense of what the Soviet Union was like. Moldova is a country where the vast majority of people were actually far better off under communism, from a simple standard of living / food on the table perspective.

On that trip we met about 1000 kids under the age of 15 whose parents had left them behind as they themselves migrated – often illegally – to Western Europe for work. The stories are horrendous; the parents hardly ever come back for their kids, the orphanage staff often work as brokers for human traffickers, it is the sickest stuff on planet earth…no running water, scattered electricity, food insecurity, physical abuse…and the kids get kicked out when they turn 15 – no education, no money, no family. They’re sitting ducks for traffickers; some even volunteer in some kind of a neo-indentured servitude agreement. The problem is that over 80% of these kids are sexually exploited for years and years, and less than 1% ever escape. Their life expectancy is less than 30 years. 400,000 people have disappeared from Moldova alone since the fall of the communism (10% of the population has been trafficked). Moldova is by far the least developed nation in Europe and other than Afghanistan and Haiti is the least developed country on earth that is not in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was once a major breadbasket for the entire Soviet Union. It should be one of the worlds most prolific wine exporting countries. The people are eager for a better life, but most have given up hope entirely – suicide rates are off the chart, the population is declining at an alarming rate…its questionable whether or not it is even a sustainable country at all…and there’s a civil war going on next door in Ukraine that many Moldovans want the eastern separatists to win. Very complicated stuff. Romania did not want Moldova back after Ceausescu was executed and the Soviet Union fell apart. They call Moldova “a country without a nation”.

All that said, we had this idea to bring awareness of human trafficking amongst the orphan population of Moldova to the attention of ordinary, relatively safe Americans. As we live in the Bible Belt, the churches were an obvious place to get traction for support and that’s where we started.

We were able to raise a significant amount of money for a Moldovan non-profit we had partnered with to provide direct transitional housing between the orphanage and college / career. These people are the new Underground Railroad, saving the most vulnerable of people from literal slavery, and we thought we might be able to help out a bit in terms of putting some American money to work in a tangible human rights scenario.

So we started doing these long-form epic rock shows in mega-churches sounding the alarm at the idea of slavery and the necessity to advance human dignity wherever we can, even on the other side of the planet. We’re talking the ends of the earth here – the southern region of Moldova, where southeast Romania meets southwest Ukraine a puddle-jump from the Black Sea. It’s the middle of nowhere and there’s no reason to care about it other than that we are united with these people by our shared humanity. For us, that was enough of a reason to start Olivette as a non-profit and try to keep some kids out of the orphanage-to-brothel pipeline on the other side of the world.

J. Why do you think we, as Americans, are so uneducated about human trafficking and what can be done to change that?

M.H. In terms of America, we see what we want to see. We have equated ethics with emotions – “I’ll do this if it feels good…I won’t do this if it makes me feel uncomfortable…” The real issue with sex trafficking is the demand, and we all feed the demand for it when we objectify each other and uphold the idea that human beings can be diminished to possessions on par with cars and jewelry. Everything is so over-sexualized…it all feeds into a culture of sexual exploitation, and the most unprotected and vulnerable among us take the hit. There are 30 million slaves generating $150 Billion a year for the brokers who bring together the supply and demand for this horror.

J. You’ve been in the industry for such a long time. To what do you owe your longevity?

M.H. Honestly? I just really love rock music. I am thankful for it. It is a profound force in the world and I feel out of alignment if I’m not always working on a record, always thinking about actual songs and actual guitar and drum parts, always writing lyrics and phrasing vocals. It’s not a general interest – it is a specific application of a deep-seeded need to make rock music that I’ve had with me since I was 12 years old and saw U2 for the first time (Unforgettable Fire tour).

It means something different to me now than when I was a bit younger. Scarcity becomes more real; the clock seems to tick faster than it did. I was never any good at the industry side of being a professional musician. I’m an INFJ (google it), and dealing with people from the biz always made me shrink into a dark hole of inferiority and anxiety, and led to years of heavy drinking (I’ve been sober for nearly 13 years now).

J. You’ve played with so many artists, but never released an album of your own until now. What made now the right time?

M.H. Why now? About 5 years ago – just as we were getting our non-profit going – I was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully it was operable and non-invasive and I did not have to deal with radiation treatment or chemo. Emotionally, the damage had been done though. It was the line in the sand between my adolescence (that had already dragged on far past its shelf life) and full-on adulthood. I had to do a merciless inventory of my life, where I had been and where I still wanted / needed to go.

The immediate need was to find a stable line of work with excellent health care that still afforded long stretches of time off for my other pursuits. So I became a high school teacher, and I absolutely love it.

Teaching is not my “day job”. I consider myself bi-vocational, as in there are two halves to my career: I teach, and I rock, and there are seasons for both (I teach AP and IB Economics to High School seniors). Wendell Berry often remarks about the crop rotation of life – how over-farming one plot of land leads to barren land, and the better option is to have several plots of land that you work at different times, allowing the other plots to heal and regenerate so they are fertile ground when their number comes up in the rotation. I believe in that with all my heart.

The teaching work has taken a lot of the financial pressure off of my music “career”, whatever that is. So, unburdened by the need to make money playing other people’s music I guiltlessly dove headfirst into the record that became “Silver Suitcase”. I have pretty much let everything else go, at a pretty heavy cost, but a very necessary tradeoff I willingly make. I have to be much more selective about the music work I take now because my opportunity cost is more significant these days, with family and school.

J. Now for a purely self-indulgent question! Bob Mould is my favorite artist. Can you tell me what it was like working with him?

M.H. One word: LOUD!

Seriously, though. Bob Mould is a central figure in my life – even had I never met him and never played with him he still would have been a central figure in my life because his music is so meaningful to me. “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Too Far Down” fundamentally shifted my approach to songwriting, and I owe him a great debt for that. I saw him play solo acoustic in 1991 and in that moment I made a number of decisions, decisions that still drive me to this day, decisions about how I wanted to present my music when it was ready, about vulnerability in writing and performing, about truth…

Recording and touring with Bob in ‘98 was like getting a 4-year degree in leadership studies in a few months. There is never any doubt about who’s in charge, but there is a cavernous divide between leaders and managers. Leaders trust, managers don’t. Bob Mould is a leader, and extended to me a great deal of freedom in my playing. I felt very secure playing with Bob; he didn’t micro-manage me. He gave me the room I needed to nail that tour, and I made it to the end, hands in shreds, but a better man – and a better musician – for it.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/matt-hammon-silver-suitcase-full-length-album-music#/

and the website: http://www.matthammonmusic.com

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