Supernormal Nocturnes: Hammock Interviewed

The Nashville duo on ‘Oblivion Hymns’…
Hammock

Cut through Alex Turner’s ceremony-closing acceptance speech at this year’s BRITs, and there’s a core concern to be addressed. Not that rock is dead, nor that it’s ever been in any threat of relegation from the mainstream. But that we, as listeners and critics, buyers and sellers, creators and curators, are too keen to put the music that we want to transcend pragmatic functionality into pigeonholes. By so tightly holding onto the idea of one form of music or another, we risk strangling the very life from it.

“I tend to dislike genres,” says Marc Byrd, one-half of Nashville’s boundaries-free (mostly) instrumental pair Hammock. I appreciate that, just then, I’ve placed this wonderful band into a box of sorts: no doubt, to the inexperienced approaching them for the first time, beside the likes of Explosions In The Sky or Stars Of The Lid. But I do so knowing that this band’s sound needn’t be restricted to any single style, any one modus operandi – a very different attitude to anyone desperate to preserve the ‘authenticity’ of whatever’s allegedly at risk.

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‘I Could Hear The Water At The Edge Of All Things’, from the album ‘Oblivion Hymns’ (2013)

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Bryd goes on: “Truth be told, when we started recording the music that became Hammock, we didn’t know what post-rock was. We knew of Mogwai, and Explosions In The Sky, but we didn’t know there was a genre name for what they were doing. The name Hammock came to me while lying in my back yard, listening to music, in my hammock while staring at the stars. But does that mean we have to make quasi-new age fluff? No… but our music probably should create some space for reflection. And what that space looks like will be different for everyone.”

Since forming in 2004, Byrd and bandmate Andrew Thompson have quietly gone about making music that can feel special to anyone, with everyone feeling its impression in unique ways. Theirs is music that can comprise the ideal soundtrack to the everyday or the extraordinary alike, accentuating the beauty in the mundane or accelerating fantastical happenings into never-forget memories.

Post-rock is, probably, the easiest way to summarise Hammock to the beginner – but spend a while with their six-albums-deep catalogue and it’s clear that this doesn’t build simply slowly to a crescendo with visions of wide horizons on its mind. It’s more intimate than that, and yet expansive at the same time. “It’s best to stay open to the inspiration and let that guide you, as opposed to an external pre-expectation,” says Thompson of the band’s usual writing process.

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‘Breathturn’, from the album ‘Chasing After Shadows… Living With The Ghosts (2010)

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“Music is losing a demand for attention and time, and the art of listening to music is less important [today],” says Byrd. “[But] the balance of subtlety and immediacy in music is essential. Ebb and flow, light and shade, peaks and valleys have to be present in our style of music. As far as comparisons – we’ve been called the Barry White of ambient music. We love that!” 

Even positioning Hammock as an ambient band, though, presents some obstacles, as there’s drama to their records that ensures the listener is never completely entranced – at least, not in the sense that they lose perception of the details, swept away by the overall tone alone. Nevertheless, it is the grander designs of nature that have proved influential to the pair.

“I think that both of us growing up in the rural South has had a huge influence on our music,” says Thompson. “The wide open spaces, the solitude, the grittiness, it’s all there in spite of ourselves. Couple that with a steady diet of English ‘sad boy’ music and Hammock is what you get.” That the band acknowledges British inspiration is perhaps expected, given their profile first grew on this side of the Atlantic, rather than back home. “We were popular in Europe before we were known in Nashville, and I like that,” says Byrd, before adding: “As far as surroundings, I can tell you that I am deeply affected by nature. Being raised in the Deep South, I was always in the woods, exploring.”

Hammock’s latest long-play collection, drawing together these foundational stimuli into a coherent whole, is ‘Oblivion Hymns’. It continues its makers’ fine reputation for emotion-heavy atmospheres and starry guitars, as gorgeous as established audiences have come to expect and perfectly accessible for those yet to be charmed. But it’s also a set of progression, of change, as it features a rare instance of ‘proper’ vocals on its closing song, ‘Tres Dominé’.

“Having that pretty discernable and emotional vocal part was intentional,” says Thompson. “Having [Strand Of Oaks singer] Timothy Showalter’s voice front and centre on the last song gave us the immediacy and intimacy we needed to close a grand and sweeping record.” Grand and sweeping: those descriptors stick easily enough. But nothing begins with the biggest intentions, songs forming in organic fashion, like mighty trees from the smallest seeds.

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‘Cold Front’, from the album ‘Departure Songs’ (2012)

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“When we write together, it is a very organic process, with no egos involved whatsoever,” says Thompson. “Whatever serves the song in its creation is what we do. We don’t have a set instrument or sound that we start with. It just depends on the song as to how we approach it.” Adds Byrd: “Sometimes we’ll write a piece, something we’ve spent days on, and decide to only use the out section.  We spend a lot of time sculpting sound. We’ve also destroyed pieces we’ve worked on in editing and running them through a ton of effects.”

Which might imply a rather haphazard way of going about the band’s studio time – but, really, this is a band driven by feel than anything else. If something needs to be scrapped, the slate cleared for fresh perspective, that’s the way it’s going to play. There’s no point settling for second best, because a half-realised recording would stand out against Hammock’s vast catalogue of quality material – a catalogue already expanding beyond ‘Oblivion Hymns’.

“We used to work more at night, but now we kinda work all the time when we’re up for it, and not working with other people,” says Byrd. “We work with some folks around Nashville, and we’ve got a complete album finished that we haven’t released yet, that we did with Matthew Ryan, and right now we’re collaborating with Matthew Perryman Jones. We live in a town filled with storytellers, where some of the greatest songs in music have been written and recorded.  Matthew Ryan is one of my favourite songwriters, so it was really cool to get to write some lyrics with him.”

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‘Mono No Aware’, from the album ‘Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow’ (2008, reissued 2013)

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And yet, much of Hammock’s material features no clear lyrics, choir-sized voices used as components of an instrumental rather than sitting atop the mix (as on 'I Could Hear The Water...', video above). Why not more songs like ‘Tres Dominé’? Says Byrd: “I think with Hammock – and I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious – the music is the story.  We stand out in Nashville because of our aesthetic. I don’t think anyone in this town who knew of us from the beginning thought we would still be doing this 10 years later.”

But here they are in 2014, making loose plans to bring ‘Oblivion Hymns’ to British venues, branching into soundtrack work – “We do have something in the works later on this year in the soundtrack realm,” says Thompson, “and it is definitely something we would love to do a lot more of” – and continuing to inspire journeys from one’s own place of rest into their mind and soul, as well as furthering their own creative strengths.

“We had a vision of what we wanted ‘Oblivion Hymns’ to be, and that required us to really stretch ourselves into the realm of proper arranging and scoring,” says Thompson. “It was a matter of accepting the scope of the record, embracing it and then figuring out how in hell’s bells we were going to accomplish it.”

“I think there is a strong sense of nostalgia in our music – a need and a wish that parts of our lives would just last,” says Byrd. “A lot of people have said that when they listen to our music while doing ‘normal’ things, they notice those things in a new way.” Perhaps that’s because what you’re doing isn’t completely normal, guys. Why settle for a glass ceiling when you can sail to the stars.

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Words: Mike Diver

‘Oblivion Hymns’ is out now on Hammock Music. Clash premiered its stream in late 2013, which can still be heard here. Head here to listen to a pair of bonus tracks, 'Sleep' and 'Cathedral'. Find the band online here.

Marc Byrd recently underwent neck surgery, and his first sketch since recovery, titled 'Baritone Recovery', is available as a free download.

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