Hammer No More The Fingers plays rock for rock’s sake
By Corbie Hill
It’s a Thursday night at the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, and the weather is just on the tolerable side of chilly. The air feels wet but there is no rain, and on Cameron Avenue, cars honk and whip by each other in a hurry to pass the traffic in front of the Uiversity’s historic Playmakers Theater.
Inside, Hammer No More the Fingers is revving into its second song. The Durham trio’s party rock resonates with the college-age audience. A dozen or more fans rush the front of the house where they lean on the stage and dance. Ushers quickly drive them back to their seats and hover like Border Collies, keeping the crowd fenced and hassling photographers.
The constantly-shifting balance of power between attendees and attendants is almost as entertaining as the show itself. Live, Hammer doesn’t keep still. The act communicates shameless excitement. This is rock for its own sake, and the audience responds with a surprising knowledge of Hammer’s lyrics. Quite a few seem to know every single word, even to tracks from the not-yet-released LP, Black Shark. It raises the question exactly how mum the band has been with this record — which won’t technically be released until early April.
But no one ever accused these guys of being self-serious. People who take themselves too seriously don’t typically put 20 people on the guest list at a 240-capacity venue, trade outfits between sets, or sing “my name is Leroy, motherfucker!” with a straight face.
“I feel like we have this, not alter-ego really, but this ironic pride,” bassist and singer Duncan Webster says, several weeks prior to the Playmakers gig. He shares a booth with his bandmates at Bull McCabe’s, a little Irish pub in their hometown. “We act like we’re badasses, but it’s kind of a joke.”
Drummer Jeff Stickley and guitarist Joe Hall — who also share vocal duties — agree. Part of the fun of being in Hammer, they say, is letting the audience in on the act. Rock & roll has a long history of performance bravado, from Chuck Berry’s duckwalking to Manowar’s outfits, which is often lost in the world of self-conscious indie rock.
Yet Webster revels in self-referential lines like “Hammer, you have come to save us all.” Ironic pride, if that’s what this is called, is more common to hip-hop spheres. Of rockers, Weezer perhaps strikes a similar balance between irony and strut. And it may be an appropriate comparison; Black Shark opener “Atlas of an Eye” echoes “My Name is Jonas.” But where Rivers Cuomo and company get downright neurotic, Hammer’s approach is more happy-go-lucky, often silly. If Method Man and Beck gave songwriting lessons to Interpol, it might come out like this.
Hammer lets the audience in on the fun by making this tongue-in-cheekiness transparent. And when it works, when the crowd plays along, what ensues is more party than performance. The crowd at Playmakers knows this. One dude shouts “let us dance!” between songs, but the stage blockade holds firm.
Hammer typically works to break down such barriers. Most notably, the band released their last album, 2009’s Looking for Bruce, with a weekend’s worth of faux-meatheadedness they called Viking Storm. A ton of bands played. There was a theme song (“Heave! / Ho! / Heave! / Ho!”), specially brewed beer, and many fans came dressed for battle (to say nothing of the band itself, which arrived with a stage-length wooden Viking ship).
But the band doesn’t release records every day, and big events like Viking Storm take serious time and effort to put together. So Hammer seeks the balance between surviving as a band and sharing the fun. One end of this equation means playing a 160-year-old theater and letting ushers hassle the more enthusiastic audience members. Student unions have deeper pockets than rock clubs, and college shows can be dream gigs for bands of this size. Besides the obvious financial incentive, though, something in Hammer’s jubilant party rock speaks to this largely-undergrad crowd. Small packs repeatedly surge forward, dance ban be damned. Even though, as one girl can be overhead telling a friend, “They’re old. Like, 30.”
She quickly adds that Hammer — actually made up of three 27-year-olds — rocks.
The trio seems aware that its music is more conducive to youthful exuberance than the crossed-arms analysis typically associated, rightly or wrongly, with indie acts. Yet what’s indicated here is the misconception that Hammer would, by virtue of its local nature, automatically identify as “indie.”
Case in point: the “Hammer Jammer.” “It was a hot mess,” laughs Webster. “It was?” Hall cuts in, defending the open jam the band led at Motorco Music Hall — a Durham venue co-owned by Webster’s parents. “The way it was set up, it was going to have disastrous moments,” Stickley explains, taking an optimistic middle ground. “It didn’t matter if you knew how to play or not, and some people who didn’t know how to play anything got up there.”
The Jammer, rather than encouraging Widespread Panic-style noodling, was meant to give people who haven’t been in bands the feel of a good practice. Like many acts, Hammer writes new songs by riffing back and forth, often ad-libbing entire rehearsals. This band is in a position where quite a few people jump at the chance to get onstage at a proper venue and jam with them. It sounds perfectly egalitarian, but Motorco — a sizeable venue — has struggled to get on the radar of touring national acts or other big-draw bands. Hammer brings people in the door, especially in Durham.
Yet on that late-January night, a theater predating the Civil War shakes not only with Stickley’s bass drum, but also with the bounce of dancing college kids. Per a compromise with the ushers, they’re now allowed to dance in their “seat areas.” When they do, the floor moves. Many of the people have given themselves over to the experience, shouting until they’re hoarse. Hammer’s manager trots to the front of the room and lets fly a double-handful of glow sticks. A few dozen hands go up in the neon plastic rain, and the band plays on.