Hammers of Misfortune - Holy Wars

Interview by Dr. Abner Mality

Something magical is going on in San Francisco. No, I'm not talking about the birth of gay pride. Instead, I refer to a heavy metal scene which quality-wise ranks with the greatest of anytime, anywhere. That includes the same S.F. 20 years ago, when it was the hotbed of the then-young thrash metal movement.

At the heart of Frisco's metal scene, you will find an "axis of metal" composed of three exceptional bands. Slough Feg, Ludicra and the subject of this little tete a tete, Hammers of Misfortune.If you are interested in brilliant, melodic and classical heavy metal, you owe it to yourself to listen to all of them.

All three have something besides their city of origin in common: the involvement of John Cobbett, as close to a Renaissance man as you're liable to get these days. Cobbett has now left Slough Feg but he still lends his genius to both Ludicra and Hammers of Misfortune (as well as the haunting, non-metal Amber Asylum). The latest Hammers masterpiece, "The Locust Years", is a soaring triumph of melodic heavy metal, full of memorable songs and exceptional performances. It will rank high in my top 10 list this year.

As you might expect, Mr. Cobbett is plenty busy, but recently I hooked up with him to check in on Hammers of Misfortune and his other numerous projects. Here is the result...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: First, I want to clarify something about "The Locust Years". Is it a stand-alone album or is it tied into "The August Engine" and "The Bastard"? If it's all the same story, what's the theme that runs through them all?

JOHN COBBETT: Our albums are stand-alone affairs and none of them are related. However, all our albums are political in one way or another. I’ve never, nor shall I ever, write stuff that's just fantasy-based entertainment. It would be pretty hard for me to write anything good unless it had some bearing on day-to-day life....

WC: What does "The Locust Years" actually mean? What is it a metaphor for?

JC: Some say the phrase was coined by Winston Churchill to describe an economic crisis in Britain, after "the years that the locust hath eaten" from the Bible, [Joel 2:25.]

Basically, the Locust Years means years of crisis or deprivation of one sort or another.

WC: The album has a harsher tone lyrically than "The August Engine" or so it seems to me. It's very political. What was it that tipped you in this direction?

JC: September 11th, 2001.

WC: The lyrics on "Trot Out the Dead" are so brilliant and bitter. Though we never hear his name mentioned, we all know who the lyrics are about. Or do we? Can the song be applied to more than just Bush and his cronies?

JC: Yeah, I'm sure those words could be applied to many people throughout history. The words are designed to be appreciated by future generations as well. I'm sure they'll have use for them...

WC: The album seems to revolve around conflict in "The Holy Land", which right now is raging out of control. A lot of Hammer's lyrics have a "medieval" feel to them though they deal with contemporary issues. Are the "holy wars" of today any different than the Crusades of old?

JC: "The Holy Land" could be anywhere, it just depends what you consider "Holy". A whole lot of wackos consider the US to be very sacred ground and blessed by their god - including the president.

WC: I love the male-female vocal set-up of the band, which harkens back to an earlier time. What's your theory of vocals as it pertains to Hammers?

JC: The theory is really simple: write some words and a good melody, and then hand it to whatever singer or combination of singers works best. If it wants a harmony, give it a harmony. If it wants 4 or 5 voices, so be it.

WC: I've described the music of Hammers as being the best combination of classic metal like Maiden, Purple and Priest with 70's prog rock. Would you agree with that description or are there more influences yet?

JC: I guess I would agree, if that's what it sounds like to you. Maiden, Priest and Deep Purple are great but aren't a direct influence on anything I write. From a producer's standpoint, I had to study a lot of music that used Hammond organ in order to learn how to best use it in an arrangement, what kind of tones to look for, how to mix it etc. So you could say as a producer I'm listening to stuff like that for tones and sound quality, but definitely not as a songwriter.

When it comes to writing I try not to be influenced by bands at all. If anything, I admire well-written songs. Most of the time these have nothing to do with our sound. It could be Simon and Garfunkel, a movie theme or a pop song or whatever. Of course, I've been influenced in the past by all kinds of stuff, but I feel at this point we have our sound and our creative process down. I don't think we need influences as such any more. With so many bands ripping off other bands or wearing their influences on their sleeve the only thing that makes sense to me is to reject the whole idea of "influence" period. While it's impossible to "un-influence" yourself completely, I think it a worthy cause at this point.

To address the 70s part of your question, the only real resemblance to 70s rock is the sound of the ancient keyboards and amps we use. Those are very "70s" sounding tones, but nobody was writing riffs like ours in the 70s. Everything was way more blues-based back then.

WC: A lot of bands are trying to recreate the feeling of 70's rock but seem to be failing. What's Hammers' secret to creating a timeless sound yet still sounding fresh?

JC: Well, we weren't trying to recreate 70s rock. We do use some old instruments and amps. We record to 2" analog tape. We play through an entire take of each song from start to finish during recording (which gives the songs a more organic feel, as it's an actual performance in the studio). I don't play very many barre chords at all. We use 7th and 9th chords and stuff.

I think the real secret is that we're not really trying to be anything or imitate anyone. We actually don't worry much about what people are going to say about it. We aren't getting paid for this, so we just do whatever we want.

It seems like bands these days decide what genre they want to be and who they want to sound like before they even form. It's gotta be tough to do anything original if you approach things that way. Most of the time you can tell exactly who a band wants to be right away. There are exceptions, and usually those are the bands that stand out.

WC: In the song "Chastity Rides", who is "Chastity" and what does she represent? The lyrics in that track sound pretty symbolic and surreal.



1. The condition or quality of being pure or chaste.

2. Virginity.

3. Virtuous character.

4. Celibacy.


1. holiness, saintliness, or godliness.

2. sacred or hallowed character: the inviolable sanctity of the temple.

3. a sacred thing.

WC: What is the status of some of the other projects you are involved with, like Ludrica, Amber Asylum and Slough Feg (and any others I may have forgotten)?

JC: Ludicra is doing very well. Our next album, "Fex Urbis, Lex Orbis" was recorded on the heels of "The Locust years" and in the same studio. I think it came out great. It should be out by the time most people read this.

I only play in Amber Asylum occasionally. They are doing fine. I toured with Jarboe (Swans) earlier this year, which was awesome. It's been a few years since I've played in Slough Feg, but they are doing very well also.

WC: I get a kick out of a lot of the band photographs, like the one on the back of "Locust Years". What's your inspiration for some of these fanciful pics and do you have a favorite?

JC: If you think about band pictures for a second you realize that they are often really bad. I wanted a really great shot; good enough to incorporate as part of the album cover art. My twin brother and excellent professional photographer, Aaron Cobbett, took the pair of photographs on the album during the same photo shoot.

My favorite shot of us is definitely the "tux shot" on the back of "The Locust Years". We didn't want to look like a band; we wanted to look like a weird family portrait or political action committee or something. I think it came out fantastic.

WC: How do you see the music of Hammers of Misfortune evolving in the future?

JC: It depends on how the new line up shapes up. New people in the band always bring their own influences. Sometimes I think it would be cool to do more improvisation and heavy spaced-out stuff, and then I think it would be cool to get harder and more technical. I don't know, we'll see. The one thing that always stays consistent is the focus on lyrics and song writing.

WC: If you could ask any three musicians in history to dinner, who would they be and why?

JC: That's a tough question. I would say Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, but the conversation would be way over my head. Going to dinner with the Beatles would be fun, or maybe Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett and Lou Reed or something. Can I ask philosophers or writers to dinner instead?

WC: Could you ever see synthesizers or symphonic elements like actual choirs being involved in Hammers' music?

JC: I don't think we'll ever use synths in Hammers. Same with symphonies and choirs. That stuff usually sounds contrived to me, like people use it just so they can say they did it. I mean, I'll bring in a violin and a cello if necessary, or layer some vocal harmonies, but the symphony thing would only happen if the song really called out for it. It works in "A Day In A Life" by The Beatles; they used a symphony in a totally unexpected, brilliant way. Metallica, on the other hand, with "S&M", it just sounded like strings slopped all over songs that didn't need it. I have to say I prefer Apocalyptica's string quartet approach to their songs.

With a few guitar tracks, drums, bass, organ, piano and 4 voices, you're already looking at a small orchestra. I don't know that we'd have room for all that stuff. Your brain can only pick out so many distinct sounds at the same time. Arranging it would be fun, but I'd hate to have to mix the damn thing...

WC: What was the last CD you picked up for your own entertainment?

JC: I recently picked up Coroner "No More Color" and "Punishment For Decadence" - on vinyl though...

WC: What was the last gig you caught because you wanted to see it?

JC: Nurse With Wound, or maybe Asunder and Om.

WC: Is there any "Spinal Tap" moment in the history of the band that you'd care to share with our readers?

JC: Well, there was the time I woke up in our leaky tour van - soaking wet from a torrential rainstorm - to find the van being towed. There was the time Mike jumped off stage and started pounding on some kid mid-song (I still don't know why). There was the time in Texas where these drunk redneck-punks were shooting bottle rockets and fireworks at our heads while we were playing (that sucked). There was the time we forgot to lock our trailer and drove a hundred miles through the night, unaware that our gear was falling out on to the highway as we drove. (We got some of it back, but not all of it.)