[9 June 2014]
“One night, we got stuck out in the snow and ice and we had to spend the night in the parking lot in our van with all of our equipment out in the middle of Iowa,” recalls Murry Hammond, who has been the bass player in a punk-country-rock band known as the Old 97s for about a quarter of a century. “The roads were hopeless. Couldn’t drive on them. Truck stop parking lot was overflowing. Motels were filled up. We were stuck, and we had this old bottle of whiskey. It was some cheap whiskey, and it tasted terrible so even though we were drinkers we couldn’t even finish it.
“We spent the night trying to sleep, running the engine, panicking because the engine was running, and we were afraid of carbon monoxide. And turning the engine off and freezing and turning the engine back on and taking swigs off this whiskey bottle,” he continues. “It was a bonding moment for us. That’s why bands need to get on the road together, because nothing will glue you together better than traveling.”
Hammond speaks by phone from LA, where 20-plus years on from this formative experience, he is waiting for his seven-year-old son to come home from school. (He arrives mid-way through the interview.) The self-confessed hardcore punk rocker and committed bluegrass and country aficionado is as comfortable with his quiet home life as he is with the wild times he and his band have had (and continue to have) on the road. The Old 97s are gearing up for yet another tour as we talk, this one supporting their 10th album—the sublimely rowdy, literately rambunctious Most Messed Up—and Hammond seems unphased. After all, he and his mates have been “doing this longer than you’ve been alive.”
Hammond admits that it wasn’t always a given that the Old 97s would persevere, particularly during a period about ten years ago when Miller started his solo career. “He didn’t really know how to do that yet and be in the band,” Hammond explained. “He didn’t know if the record companies were going to let him. And we didn’t know what choice he would make during that time. It was a scary time for us, because we had put so much of our lives ... we had put so much aside to do the band and we had so much time together and there was so much invested.” But, fortunately that interval lasted less than a year. Since then Miller has pursued his solo career, but also made time for the band.
Hammond says he was never really worried. “I knew it would always last if we were nice to each other. I knew it would always depend on how we treated each other,” he says. “There’s no reason why this band couldn’t and will not last forever as long as we have the same values as each other. If we value each other, we will always be a band.”
Present and Honest
On Most Messed Up, the Old 97s are as tight and cohesive as ever. “This is really what the band always sounds like with the right batch of songs,” says Hammond. “The special thing about the record is that Rhett wrote very honestly. When Rhett is writing honestly and when he’s writing funny, that’s Rhett at his best. When he’s trying to do anything else besides that, he doesn’t come up to his own high bar.”
Hammond says that the album had “its own weird mojo” but won’t specify what was going on behind the scenes. Whatever it was, he says, it only made the band pull together harder. “When there’s adversity in the project itself, there’s a sense that there’s something weird and cool going on. So, yeah, so I think there was no way this record was not going to be loose and honest and thus very fresh and very present. That’s the first word that jumps out to me when I heard the record, when I started hearing the mixes, the sheer presence of it. I haven’t really heard this band be this present in a while.”
Most Messed Up was engineered by Salim Nourallah, who has worked on the last four Old 97s albums, and if it’s a little rowdier than usual, lay that down to guest artists and former Replacement Tommy Stinson who ups the mayhem quotient in “Intervention”, “Wasted”, and the title track. Sensing a theme?
“Rhett was a good friend of Tommy’s over the years. Rhett probably did a benefit a few years ago with him, and they got to be drinking buddies,” says Hammond. “We really brought Tommy in to be a bit of a vibe guy. We knew we had a rambunctious record.”
Hammond himself stepped back a bit on this album, singing lead only on the Clash-like “Ex of All You See”, instead of his normal two tracks per album. “I kept it to one song really because it felt like Rhett’s voice on this record—and by voice I mean what he’s writing—it needed more of a longer unbroken arc to say what he’s saying. It was just a moment to let Rhett step forward.”
A Secret Librarian
Hammond seems about as comfortable and happy in his band as any musician I’ve interviewed, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when I ask him what he’d do if he weren’t in the Old 97s—and he has a fairly detailed, well-thought-out answer ready.
“You know, if I was flat out not in the Old 97s, I’ve always wanted to work in a library. It’s the great unrequited love of my life,” he admits. “I’d love to be a library archivist, working in special collections, working with preservation. I’m privately passionate about things like digitalization, conversion. Libraries, I love them. I spend a lot of time visiting them when I’m traveling with the band.”
For instance, the break between shows in San Francisco and Seattle on the last tour, Hammond flew out a day early, just so that he could spend more time in the Seattle public library, which had some archival materials he was interested in. “When I travel to Washington, I go to the National Archives,” he added. “Yeah, I’m a library nut. I love libraries. I love the way they feel inside, I love the way they are and what they do in our culture and society. I’m a big fan.”
The Curse of All Bands is Starting to Explain Yourself
Hammond would probably make a great librarian, but for now, he’s fully committed playing bass for the Old 97s. I ask him if there’s anything about his main outlet that people don’t understand, or think they understand and get wrong, “If they get anything wrong about us, they tend to get too distracted by the roots part of it,” says Hammond. “We’re extremely energetic live. We’re out there. We’re a punk band. But because of that, the hard core roots people, we’re a little bit too much for them. And the rockers they read a little bit about us, and they don’t get why they should listen to this country band.”
“I have a feeling we will always be explaining ourselves somewhat,” he continues. “Once you get in the door you see it, or you don’t get it. So yeah, we will always be auditioning for the world a bit. That’s going to keep us on the road probably for the rest of our lives. But that’s okay. We like being on the road.”
“It’s the curse of all bands,” he adds ruefully. “Starting to explain yourself.”
A One-Way Dart to the Heart
Since we’re on the topic of explaining, I ask Hammond to explain to me what makes a great song great, and he wrestles with the question briefly before answering, “It absolutely makes a one-way dart through your heart and your mind.”
The key, he says, is honesty. “I think the world’s greatest songs are written by people who are not self-conscious. They’re not aware of themselves. They’re just channeling something. But they’re not thinking about themselves,” he says. Hammond cites Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”, Johnny Cash’s late Rick Rubin material, and a Subhumans song called “From the Cradle to the Grave” as prime examples, and then he ventures a little closer to home ...
“The first time Rhett played me, “Nightclub” off of Too Far to Care was in Cleveland. He was sitting on the stage and he was really depressed. It was about his girlfriend at the time. And I knew the girl, and I knew what was going on,” Hammond remembers. “He played it for me, and that song never ever sounded as beautiful as it did when he first played it on that stage that night. It was written completely unselfconsciously, completely real, the heart was bleeding and that was what was making that beautiful music.”
More recently Hammond and Old 97s guitarist Ken Bethea have been floored by “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, the album’s first track, a funny, self-deprecating, completely honest look at a few decades worth of musical endeavor. Still, Hammond says that unless you’re a 97, you can’t love the song in exactly the same way as he and his bandmates do. “When I hear the song, I’m in that van with that whiskey bottle freezing to death with these three guys. I feel the bridges between us when I hear that song,” he says. “I feel the things that bind us together when I hear that song.”