I am hanging out today with a guy that basically lives in a permanent vacation. He resides down south telling stories and playing his guitar and is an artist that I highly suggest you listen to. He is a true storyteller and a genius with a guitar and I am happy to have him with me here today to talk a little bit about what keeps him going. I am happy to introduce to you Ben Hammond.
How long have you been playing the guitar?
I started banging around on the guitar when I was about 11. And I literally mean ‘banging’, I would lay my mom’s old Yamaha Classical guitar in my lap and hit the few remaining strings with a drumstick while my friends would accompany me on a tiny kid’s drumset and a Casio SK-1 keyboard. I actually still have some of the recordings amazingly enough! We trashed a lot of gear that way, but I think the experimentation was great for me as a little kid.
What is your first memory of the guitar?
Probably the story above. My parents sang a lot and we had an organ in my house (Hammond of course) but my older siblings both played woodwinds in school so I didn’t have much exposure to guitar until I started abusing the one I found in our attic.
Do you write all your own lyrics?
I do. The only song that is an exception is “Let’s Get Alone”, the first track off “[Reasonably] Honest” in which my friend Kweku raps a verse which he composed. I always tell people I don’t have a cool enough name (like Kweku) to write my own raps so I’ll just outsource them.
Where do you get inspiration for a new song?
Anywhere; listening to the news, meeting new people, listening to songs, playing bocce ball and occasionally while dreaming.
Have you ever forgotten the words to your own lyrics while on stage?
A better question would be: Have you ever once correctly sang all the lyrics to one of your own songs? For me a song is never finished, and I tend to improvise quite a bit with the melody, and sometimes even the chords and the lyrics. Having been immersed in the Jazz side of things for most of my music education I rarely perform something the same way twice. Of course, other times I just flat out mess them up, but play it off like I’m doing it on purpose. Most of my fans are not fooled, but they go easy on me.
What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you on stage?
I’m not sure if you know, but Florida’s population is…seasoned. You might assume that with age came wisdom and discretion, but once a bucket of beers is involved, the cougars come out to hunt. I have been physically molested on stage more than once, unfortunately they were the only ones with beer goggles on. But the rest of the crowd found it wildly entertaining.
What is like living in Florida?
Everyone is basically in vacation mode. Meaning they are ready to chill on the beach all day and then party all night, but also that they haven’t totally let go of their NYC/Chicago/Boston stressed-out ‘I’m important and in a hurry’ mentality.
The music scene is great here, with lot of great players and bars, but as a beach town (Sarasota) it’s definitely mostly focused on covers. Which is great, I play my originals and covers side by side 7 gigs a week and end up selling a bunch of Cds every night (just sold out of my first run of 1000 in a just under a year since the release). However, in terms of going out and hearing great original, progressive, or otherwise challenging music, or art in general, it’s not really the focus down here. That’s part of the reason I’m looking at doing the snowbird thing; living down here in the winter / busy season and then in a big city up north the rest of the time.
You get a nice tan in the sunshine down there?
I’m more into the swimming part of the beach than I am the sun-worshipping, but as long as I have something interesting to read or a frisbee I’m down.
What SPF do you use?
Um… I put my shirt over my face when I feel it start to cook? And I don’t really go out during the hottest parts of the day for too long…OK OK I know I should wear sunscreen. It’s in a basket at home with my bike helmet and my vitamin supplements.
Staying single while out on the road?
(Laughs) Why are you interested?
Where can I get some Ben Hammond merchandise?
Best place to buy stuff from any indie artist is of course at a live show so they keep the biggest share of the money, but for those from far away I keep links to all my merch up on www.benhammondmusic.com As I said above I have just sold out of my first 1,000 Cds and my first run of tee-shirts, but I will be printing new editions of both, and hopefully some snazzy stickers, guitar picks and singing dolls. OK, so maybe the dolls won’t happen.
Do you have any thoughts for a nation wide tour this year?
Well, last spring/summer was my first official tour (to promote “[Reasonably] Honest”), and included stops in (among other places) Toronto, Montreal, Boston, NYC and my hometown in Maine. This year I will probably be doing a small East coast tour of Boston, NYC, Philly and the Jersey Shore, but only for a month as I hope to be actually touring Australia starting in July. I was living in New Zealand for half the year in 2007 and wrote many of the songs that ended up on my record during that trip, so I’m sort of hoping for a repeat down under.
Do you have a job outside of music?
I am very proud and grateful to say no. I am gigging a lot down here (7-8 gigs a week), and although I do some web design and teaching on the side, music is definitely the lion’s share of my income. I am also slowly trying to tip the balance scales from the world of covers to the world of originals, and that is definitely happening. But no matter what, for me there is nothing more fun than playing music.
Where would you live if you could go anywhere in the world?
Besides Australia this summer? Well, long term I’m thinking California might be a good fit for me, musically, politically,climatically, culinarily, just-about-everything-ly. In fact, if it were closer to home and my family in Maine I would probably be there now.
Let’s get some pizza. What toppings?
I like all food. Honestly. I am in love with every kind of food ever. Given my choice, something with lots of awesome vegetables and a thin crust. I’m a vegetarian at heart. But I really, really love meat too. I hope the animals understand it’s not that we don’t like them, it’s just they’re so damn tasty.
Ever shared the stage with someone famous?
The biggest name I’ve been involved with was Bobby McFerrin at Festival 500 in Newfoundland, but unfortunately we weren’t exactly sharing the stage. Well, we were, but there were probably a dozen other groups being conducted by him at the same time. I have collaborated with some regionally famous people that you’ve probably never heard of but I’ll name-drop anyway: I sang on Ranee Lee’s Juno nominated “Maple Groove” album, I performed at a sold-out Montreal International Jazz Festival show with Joel Miller and Mandala, and I opened solo at a Festival in New Hampshire for Boston’s Entrain.
What is the largest crowd you have ever played for?
I sang the Canadian National Anthem with a 7-person vocal group in Montreal in front of around 30,000 people. I don’t normally get nervous performing but there were definitely some butterflies in my stomach.
Hey, doing the music thing full time involves taking some less then glamorous gigs. There has definitely been a bar gig or two on an off-season weeknight when the bartender goes out for a smoke and its just me and then guitar. Great time to practice new songs!
What are your thoughts on MySpace?
Outgrown it’s usefulness. It’s so easy and cheap to setup a website now, so the press kit element of it is on the way out. As far as social networking, facebook is definitely my preference, although both give me a creepy vibe.
Are you on Twitter?
Yes, although I’m not exactly sure why. My user name is benhammondmusic.
Tell me about Peliguin Drop Records.
While putting the finishing touches on the record I was living here in Sarasota, FL with some friends and we would make frequent trips to the beach. Whenever you’re out there the pelicans are fishing and the fly way up in the air and then turn and drop headfirst into the water. My buddy decided that the phrase “Pelican…. DROP” sounded like something that a dub-reggae MC might yell mid-song. That got meshed up with my love of Penguins and we combined the two together and made our mini-label to release the CD under.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
In high school when I first started playing around with songwriting I would say Dave Matthews and John Mayer would be right at the top, however, since college I have really been drawing from a lot of different sources: Jazz Singer Kurt Elling, Stevie Wonder, Wilco, obviously the Beatles, and most recently Martin Sexton. Those are the artists who I suppose have directly influenced me the most. Other artists I’m really into include Bjork, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Bela Fleck, Hawksley Workman and Tom Waits. So many more, but I’ll stop there.
Where can I get a copy of your new album?
The first run of 1,000 sold pretty quickly, so I am reprinting and actually remixing some older tunes and tacking them on as bonus tracks. You can still buy it digitally from iTunes and Digstation, and if you are after hard copies the best bet is CDBaby.com You can also check www.benhammondmusic.com for a tour schedule and a growing list of local indie record shops that are carrying it.
Tell me about the recording process for this album.
After returning from a 7 month trip around New Zealand I had a bunch of new songs I was ready to put to disc. Most of my good friends from McGill Univerisity who are doing the professional music thing were then living in Toronto, so the decision to record up there was pretty easy. We rented out one of the top studios in town (Phase One Studios) which was actually where many of the hair-band 80’s tunes were recorded back in the day and recorded the drums, bass, acoustic guitars, piano / organ, and vocals all live off the floor (as opposed to overdubbing each instrument individually). We then went back to my producer’s smaller studio and did all the extra vocals, guitars, horns, etc and mixing. The loose, organic jazzy feel of the album lended itself to this type of recording, and although it was a bit more pressure up front, especially vocally, I was really happy with the result.
If you could tour with anyone in the industry right now whom would you choose?
Martin Sexton is my new hero. I hardly know his stuff, but what I’ve seen / heard of him has really impressed me and re-instilled my faith in pursuing a career of making music, and not just viewing pop music as an endless string of failed attempts at getting the next ‘hit’ single. If I can be doing a fraction of what he’s doing in 20 years I will be very content.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My goal is to keep getting my music in front of as many ears as possible, and to be playing more and more gigs focused on original material, ideally opening for some bigger names and perhaps pursuing an Indie Label deal and certainly some professional management. Of course, I may also end up in the Peace Corp. Who knows?
What do you want to be remembered for when this is all said and done?
Who says it will ever be all said and done? (Laughs) I’m banking on medical technology advancing enough for us to all live forever (cue maniacal laughter)
I always let the artist get the last word. Go.
OK OK I’ll be serious for the last answer. I think all of us (artists, politicians, teachers, parents, friends, everyone) have the ability to change our own lives, which in turn will affect the lives of those in our communities and eventually the entire world. It is up to us to choose whether this influence will be positive or negative. Each one of us can choose to be selfish and preoccupied with wealth and power, or ultimately focused on love, friendship, peace and of course, music. You asked what I hope to be remembered for when it’s all said and done, and I suppose that would be it; a positive influence for those around me via, at least in part, my compositions and performances.