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An Interview with Hammock, Stargazers Extraordinaire

Andrew and Marc from Hammock
22 August 2012

I first heard Nashville’s Hammock a number of years ago, and nothing I’ve heard since then has come remotely close to what they achieve with only two members, Marc Byrd (MB) and Andrew Thompson (AT). Pulling ambient textures into the mix with swirls of electronic beats and droning instrumentation, they create an impossibly gorgeous and cerebral mélange of post-rock, chamber pop, and more straightforward rock (“Asleep in the Downlights” with Steve Kilbey comes to mind). Perhaps the astronomer in me is responding to the majestic splendor of these Southern stargazers, but I think anyone can find something to love in their work. Thank you to the band’s manager, Johnny Pleasant, for setting this up, and to Hammock for this interview.

Your music is vast and cinematic. How does the creative process work to get the ideas from your heads onto a sonic canvas?

MB: There’s no definitive way. Sometimes it starts with building a soundscape or a loop, and then waiting and hoping that some inspiration might come from it. Sometimes it’s finding a new alternate tuning and building a song structure with it. Occasionally one of us will play bass while the other plays melodic lines and sometimes it’s just getting a new piece of gear to work with.

AT: It varies from song to song and album to album. We make a very conscious effort to approach each piece without falling back on a template or formula. Some songs develop from a particular sound or sonic texture, others from a deliberate guitar or piano melody. It just depends on the piece and the inspiration on the day.

Do you consider yourselves post rockers, shoegazers, or does the term Southern Ambient still apply?

MB: We’re probably a bit of all those genres. Not sure though. Honestly, I really don’t like genre titles because people have preconceived ideas of what certain genres are “supposed” to sound like. I would say we’re stargazers from the South that enjoy listening to and creating emotional, moody music. Call it what you like.

AT: Stargazing, Southern Ambient. That about does it, right?

Do you need to immerse yourself in nature or some other medium to draw inspiration for your music?

AT: I run every day on the Nashville greenway system. No iPod, no headphones, just immersion in the sights and sounds of the moment. That time unburdened from the trappings of technology provides both inspiration and peace of mind.

MB: It’s not always necessary for me, but it helps. Once a year, I try to get a cabin in the mountains and spend a few days in isolation. I usually don’t bring my guitar. It’s a bit of a silent retreat for me. Silence is the key. Poetry is also another great source of inspiration for me.

Your music has a definite sense of place, perhaps where you’ve grown up or live now has colored the music with a special patina. Can you speak a bit about that?

AT: We are both Southern born and bred. I think having that common background in the South, with all of its grandeur and undeniable flaws, pretty much permeates everything we do.

MB: The South is definitely the common denominator between us. For me, the past and the nostalgia that lingers are a serious emotional influence and struggle in my life. I grew up in a small southern town in Arkansas, and I was a bit of a “head in the sky” kind of kid. I experienced a lot of friends dying young, strange southern style religion, and lots of family drama. Now when I go back there, the landscape and change of scenery is drastic. There are no jobs, people seem stuck, and I find myself carrying around a deep sense of melancholy while simultaneously relieved that I don’t live there anymore, although I still make my home in the South.

Is Studio 37 still your go to place for recording?

MB: Well, it’s in Andrew’s basement, so the majority of all past and present albums have been recorded there. I’m in the process of building a studio in my basement right now, so we’ll see where the future recordings are given birth.

AT: It is my place, but we have used a few different studios here in Nashville for additional drums, strings, and horns.

What music speaks to you the most out of the sheer volume and music types that exist out there?

MB: Hmmm…that’s a difficult question. Really, this is for real; we just love music. We believe in it, almost in a religious way. You have to search for good music, and usually it’s worth the dig.

Marc’s annual album lists are located here

Things I’ve read about your Kenotic era only list Thompson and Byrd. Who played what in those days, and did you bring guests on board to flesh out the sound?

AT: I think we brought in Matt Slocum on cello, Marc’s wife, Christine on vocals, and Julian Kindred on some additional keyboards. Other than that, it was all us. We both play a few different instruments, so there really is no standard “set” of instruments that either of us play exclusively in the studio.

MB: We also had Skye McCaskey (my dear friend and roommate for three years) mix Kenotic, the Stranded EP, and the Raising Your Voice full length.

I would love to hear about your collaboration with *Jonsi Birgisson* (Sigur Ros) and Alex Somers in Riceboy Sleeps.

MB: Well, it’s pretty simple. When MySpace was still popular, I sent a message to Riceboy Sleeps to express how much I loved their marriage of music and visuals. I got a message back saying, “You’ve got it. Best thing I’ve heard on MySpace. Right combination of soundscapes with melody. Hugs, Jonsi…” Well, I didn’t know it was THAT Jonsi. Then they wanted to present their visual artwork in the States, and at the time our friend Josh Varnedore had a gallery and invited them to come to Hot Springs, AR to show their work (I lived there for almost seven years). Chuck Dodson, who I knew from Hot Springs suggested to Josh that we play our first gig at the after party that Chuck was putting together. They ran it by Jonsi and Alex, and they were thrilled about the idea. At first it was going to be a private event, but the night of the performance Jonsi and Alex insisted that everyone be allowed to come in. It was amazing. Jonsi was walking around with a bottle of Jagermeister, and toasted the both of us in the middle of the show. We wrote all new material for the event. Material that just the two of us could perform using only our loop pedals, etc. After the performance, we went back to Nashville and ended up recording a record strictly based on the music we wrote for the show. We added strings, etc. and then asked Riceboy if we could name our record after one of their pieces in their exhibit. They said, “Yes”, and then they offered to design the artwork for Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow. That was a great first gig.

Jonsi and Alex of Riceboy Sleeps
Jonsi and Alex of Riceboy Sleeps

Jonsi Birgisson of Riceboy Sleeps and Sigur Ros
Jonsi Birgisson

Marc and Christy Byrd
Marc and Christy Byrd

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson

The rest of the Riceboy Sleeps After Party Photos are here.

Cover of Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow
Album art by Jonsi and Alex.

How did you come to work with Steve Kilbey of The Church on “No Agenda”?

MB: That happened because we asked timEbandit Powles from The Church to mix Chasing After Shadows…Living With the Ghosts. He also mixed our new album, Departure Songs. We bonded quickly with Tim, so he got Steve Kilbey, lead singer of The Church to contribute lyrics and vocals on one of our tracks. The Church are a legendary band from Australia (Starfish is one of my favorite albums), and Kilbey is one of our all time favorite singers. Anyway, he came in to sing, and really liked our music. It took about a year to get back to work on the piece. Since so much time had passed, we didn’t know if Kilbey would even remember singing on the song. After Kilbey heard it, he said he was knocked off his chair by the finished track. We hope to collaborate more in the future.

Hammock, Asleep In The Downlights front cover

You’ve received a lot of recognition from many different quarters. What among of all of this has meant the most to you?

AT: Having Jonsi’s and Alex’s stamp of approval was pretty mind blowing…still is. It’s the same with Steve Kilbey. Who would have imagined that would happen? It just seems surreal sometimes.

MB: The respect of our peers is especially meaningful. Jonsi and Alex, Brian and Adam from Stars of the Lid, the guys from The Church, Taylor Deupree, Keith Kenniff; their opinion matters more to us than critics. I still read reviews, but it seems that some reviews are more about how clever the reviewer can be than about the music itself.

Please tell us about your upcoming double album, _Departure Songs. What inspired its creation, and how is this recording different from your earlier releases?

AT: We approached this record with the intention of keeping people awake for a change. There’s a lot more drums and vocals than in our past recordings. There’s a deliberate sense of bombast and bigness that we have not attempted before on previous recordings. It is a very purpose-driven record in that way, because we know that our next release, which we are currently recording, will have the exact opposite approach.

MB: This is our most epic record in regards to the sonics of the recording, but it’s married to a very personal theme which is based on loss and death. Loss in the midst of the absurd. Presence—Absence—Emptiness—Fullness…Reality.

Hammock, Departure Songs front cover
Hammock, Departure Songs back cover

I absolutely loved your cover of Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic”. Would you consider working with Rob Dickinson, because I think his lovely voice and your gorgeous music would be a wonderful mix.

AT: Absolutely! We are both big Catherine Wheel fans from way back. It would be an honor to work with Rob, unreal actually. We have been working on more collaborations as of late, so it would definitely be something we would be up for.

Your live performances have been limited. Do you see that ever changing in scope?

MB: Yes.

AT: Yes.

All photo credits: Thomas Petillo.

All videos directed by David Altobelli.


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