Ham Steak: I Think Therefore I Ham

[29 June 2003]

By Patrick Schabe

When I was in high school, there was a guy named Greg Gibb (no relation to the Bee Gees) who loved to make music. He was a quiet guy with long hair, a few assorted instruments, a bedroom and either a rough 4-track recorder or a couple of boom boxes and a lot of time on his hands. Every once in a blue moon he would approach a friend of mine who knew him fairly well and hand him a cassette tape packaged with a Xeroxed collage and filled with bizarre musical compositions. I still remember one passed-around tape called Kicking Priests in the Groin. The songs were paste-up jobs, sometimes completely unlistenable, and always rough. He graduated a few years ahead of me and I have no clue whether or not the guy went on to join a band or make more polished music.

I can’t help but imagine George Hakkila, AKA Ham Steak, as being pretty much the same deal. The lore holds out. Hakkila seems to have taken up music as a college student, and stuck with it in the same kind of drunken dorm room fashion ever since. I don’t want to presume to guess, but even the first listen to I Think Therefore I Ham had me picturing “that guy”, the one who always seemed to have his acoustic guitar handy, and who was fond of picking out warped melodies and making up songs about particularly noxious farts or last night’s bender. And it reminded me of the long-lost classmate of Kicking Priests in the Groin “fame” for the first time in years.

You could call it lo-fi, indie, folk, pop, even outsider art, but all of these seem to miss an essential element. There’s certainly a “novelty” aspect to the songs, but this is a far cry from Weird “Al” or Spike Jones. Ham Steak shares something in common with underground icon Wesley Willis, but they’re not really all that similar. In the liner notes, Michael Moore compatriot Ben Hamper labels Ham Steak as “schmoe-fi”, and damned if that isn’t about as close as it gets to hitting the nail on the head. Ham Steak is truly an Americana Everyman, so down to earth that he probably has roots. I Think Therefore I Ham includes songs about doing car repairs (“Preventative Maintenance”), not having many job skills (“The Mechanic”), farts (“Gastr Del Fart”), beer (“Rob’s Beer”), and even an answering machine message.

The problem with all this, if you want to call it a problem, is that most of these songs are more or less just doodles. Despite being 19 songs long, many of the tracks on I Think Therefore I Ham clock in at under a minute. Even the songs that push for standard pop lengths amble and have little structure. It truly sounds like, and probably is, the recordings of someone who’s just fucking around at home making silly ditties. As a result, Ham Steak will probably turn off most listeners in a hurry. In some respects, he defies musical conventions, which is generally considered to be a positive, but really it’s all very trivial and pointless. There’s really not very much to recommend I Think Therefore I Ham other than its novelty. On the other hand, it’s music at a very primal and democratic level, and therefore maintains a certain charm.

You can take or leave Ham Steak and it probably wouldn’t change much. Hakkila will go on operating on the fringe, recording random thoughts and bizarrely image-rich songs about everyday life, and Ham Steak will be a quirk in a long history of basement tapes. Somehow I get the feeling, especially after reading his website, that Hakkila is pretty happy with the whole arrangement.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hamsteak-ithink/