Hamell On Trial: Square Peg, Round Hole

Photo Credit Martin Radigan

After a six-year layoff, Hamell on Trial (aka Edward Hamell) made an explosive return with his 2014 album ‘The Happiest Man in the World.’ The album, which was Hamell’s debut on his new label New West Records, found the punk troubadour breathing fire and healing wounds to critical and fan praise.

Still firing like an 8-cylinder engine, the poet and anti-folk punk hero capitalized on his momentum and quickly got back to writing and recording for his latest effort ‘Tackle Box.’ Co-produced by the Grammy award-winning producer Phil “The Butcher” Niccolo, ‘Tackle Box’ finds the New York-based musician pointing the red hot spotlight directly on the sensitive issues of today — would you expect anything less from this self-proclaimed loud mouth? From the police gunning down innocent victims on “Not Aretha’s Respect, (Cops),” to our worthless President with “Safe,” falling in love with an outspoken Australian woman on “Mouthy B,” and a sex romp with a woman who shakes it like a bowl of soup “She Ride It.”

With the biting wit of Bill Hicks, the intelligence of Nick Tosches and the punk ethos of Joe Strummer, nothing is off limits with this one-man musical hurricane called Hamell. In what has become somewhat of a tradition, Innocent Words sat down with Hamell on Trial to catch up on all things and talk about the phenomenal new album ‘Tickle Box’ (New West Records).

Innocent Words: You had to open the album with a Trump quote, didn’t you? Now in 10 years when I go back to listen to ‘Tackle Box’ I will be reminded what a clusterfuck he was.

Edward Hamell: I think hell is a good word for it. It is a weird ass time in the world right now. But yeah, that is Trump, straight from the assholes mouth. I do all the voices on this record, except for that one line at the beginning. That’s Trump. Trump and I on an album together, who would have thought?

That line is from a campaign rally where he was saying he’d like to punch a protester in the face. His supporters cheered. I thought I’d kickstart the album making people aware that, should they disagree with that attitude, should they find his actions deplorable, his lies, his vanity, his lack of grace and intellect, his pandering to the lowest common denominator, his inciting violence towards minorities and the disenfranchised, they could find safety here at a Hamell show, from a Hamell song. Let us remember that he did not win the popular vote, his supporters are in the minority and I will treat them with all the respect they show minorities. The first voice you hear on the album is Donald Trump. ALL other voices you hear on the album, in firm and resolute opposition, are mine.

Innocent Words: You rise as a parent with “The More You Know” seeking answers to question for parents and kids. How do you explain the classlessness of this administration? Have you found the right answer…any answers?

Edward Hamell: I will tell you something, something weird happened. My son, Detroit, was a huge Bernie supporter and he gravitated to Bernie on his own. His mom, who is an intelligent woman, who is a feminist, for her it was Hillary or nothing. I never had a conversation with Detroit about it. I know he butted heads with her about it, he couldn’t understand why she was so adamant about Hillary.

Then, I had this minor epiphany. We were riding in the car, Bernie just won his fifth primary in a row, he was growing like a rock star and the media wasn’t covering it. I was taking to Detroit to school listing to NPR and the pundit and host were talking about two candidates — Clinton and Trump. It was insane, they were not giving Bernie any promotion and I turned to Detroit and said Trump was going to be President and Detroit was incredulous about it.

Let’s not forget, this country was built on genocide and slavery. We’ve done horrible, terrible things to innocent people Africa, Vietnam, the Middle East, and it goes on and on. Trump appealed to peoples’ fears and it got him the election. Fear is a big selling point to people who don’t pay attention. Ask any of those Trump supporters why we are fighting wars and they don’t know, they couldn’t even point to these countries on a map. But they have bought into that they (Muslims) were going to attack us.

I will tell you what, in my opinion, it’s going to happen. Trump is going to do something disastrous, probably with Korea and China, he is going to be sitting back waiting for the idiot to make his move and China will be Numero Uno when he fucks up. We are going to be bombed on our own shores and we’ve never seen that except for 9/11 and when that happens, Trump will use that to get reelected.

Innocent Words: Ok, now you’re scaring the shit out of me. Did you put a target on your back if cops hear “Not Aretha’s Respect, (Cops)?”

Edward Hamell: You know, someone’s got to say something, someone’s got to speak up. It’s like you said with a Facebook post. “What happened to the musicians speaking out about politics, injustice and war?” I was so vocal back on my albums ‘Tough Love’ and ‘Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs’ because I just fucking hated the Bush administration and I felt like I was the only one.

I will give you an example. I was playing Folk Alliance International conference where they rent out a hotel, like the Holiday Inn or something and invite 1,000 folk performers to play. It’s really cool and I have nothing but great things to say about the Folk Alliance, they bring in so many different types of folk musicians and these people perform in rooms. All the doors on the floors are open and someone is playing and you walk down the halls and go see all these different performers, you meet them, shake hands, kiss babies, do the whole routine. What I noticed about these 1,000 musicians and I might be underestimating here, I am not kidding, there were so many people. But not one, not one of these acts were singing protest songs. I went two years in a row and didn’t hear one damn protest song.

I had to ask, so I went up to one of the conference promoters or members, something like that and I say hey “why aren’t there any protest songs being played, isn’t that what folk was built on?” And the guy told me “you don’t understand, some of these artists are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and they don’t want to piss anyone off and lose that.”

I can’t be like that. I’ve never been like that. I could never look myself in the mirror.

Photo Credit Martin Radigan

Innocent Words: That is just depressing. As outspoken as you might come off, you also have a great deal of compassion, especially on “Ballad of Chris.”

Edward Hamell: She just came to mind one day. I was friends with her brother on Facebook and he told me she had passed away from cancer, so I wrote this song about her. Everything in the song is true. We used to get high as kids and get in trouble. But we lost touch over the years, you know how it goes. She smoked like a chimney, so I shouldn’t be surprised she died from cancer. I am older than you, so I don’t know if it’s the same, but I have a lost a lot of friends to cancer lately. It is really scary…yeah, I was missing her.

Innocent Words: You know, if “Dance Until the Sobbing Stops” gets in the right hands it could get remixed and be a huge hit in dance clubs.

Edward Hamell: It’s interesting you say that because I feel like something big is going to happen with this album. I don’t know if it will be a song in a TV show or in movie or someone remixing it like you said, but I do, I feel like something is going to happen with this record. And I hope it does, if for nothing else I got a kid who needs to go to college. He wants to go to film school at University of Southern California and I don’t want to disappoint him.

That’s why I was pulling for Bernie, he had a strong platform on affordable schooling, but you don’t hear the current administration talking about that. They don’t want anyone to go to school and be smarter than they are because then we will see the truth and they can’t have that.

Innocent Words: You wrote “Bodyguard Blanket” about one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard of. I remember when the bodyguard blanket idea came up after too many school shootings. I thought it was insanely ridiculous. Like trying to fix the Titanic with a Band Aid. It just shows how much power the NRA has in this country.

Edward Hamell: I know!!! And it is actually a thing now, you can buy them, I think they are like a hundred bucks for a kindergarten sized one or something. It’s one of those situations where the guy’s heart is pure, at least I hope so. He might not be an NRA guy, but he’s trying to protect kids. This is the insanity in this life time. Titanic with a Band Aid is the perfect analogy.

Innocent Words: The title ‘Tackle Box’ makes me think of you fishing, which seems so wrong. Why did this song get the title of the album?

Edward Hamell: It’s also in terms of visual imagery of tackling and boxing in the claustrophobic world we live in. You know, it’s a big fucking world, but social media has made it much much smaller and sometimes you feel boxed in.

It’s just not with the social media either. I recently took my son on our annual Father and Son Summer Tour, it’s our eighth one and I am a people person and I like to talk to people. It’s what I do, I am a writer. But I never talk about politics, religion, my music, or art usually unless someone asks. We go out on tour and go from New York down south and swing back up through Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and head back east.

It’s amazing going to these smaller towns, especially in the south, where you talk to people, ask the gas station worker how long they’ve been working or ask the waitress how her shifts going or what she does after work and they will tell you because they see someone who gets it. But, let me tell you, it can also turn on you.

Detroit and I were in Iowa eating at a café and I was chatting up the waitress. She’s a cute girl and Detroit notices, but she looks tired like she’s on a long shift. So, we make small talk and I ask her what’s she doing after work and she tells me throwing her boyfriend out for one reason or another and makes a derogatory comment about black people like it’s no big deal. Of course, she backs it up with “I’m not racist…” and I can see Detroit getting red in the face, not red as in he is mad, more like red in the face because he is embarrassed for America. Now, here’s the thing, Detroit’s girlfriend is black and he says Dad can we go right then and there and I say sure. For the next 100 miles in the car, that’s all we talked about.

I mean, I knew there was always racism in America, you’d be foolish not to think otherwise. But it seems so much bigger now, so much more in your face and the people don’t care. It makes you claustrophobic. And it pisses me off because I have to try and raise my son in a world like this.

“She Ride It”

Edward Hamell: With this video, I was looking for something other than the political slant most of the songs on the album contained. Something bipartisan. Maybe something Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell could, um, get behind. Although no one, NO ONE would want that mental image. Putting the creation in procreation, if you will.

“Not Aretha’s Respect, (Cops)?”

Edward Hamell: “COPS” is a song about parenting. My son is 15, I’m teaching him how to drive. I’m explaining, because he has the ability at home to explain his side of the story to me, that he might not have that chance when he’s in a situation with a police officer. Say ‘Yes sir, no sir’ and come home safe to me. The boss ain’t always right, but he’s always the boss. All four incidents in the song happened. I play all kinds of gigs, house concerts, theaters, diy punk rock rooms, and the kids love this song. It even has a chorus they can sing along to and rally behind. Last year I was touring across the country with my son and the day after we played Dallas, some cops got shot. I wish no violence on anyone. I preface my introduction to this song live now by saying I just wish the good cops would call out the bad cops. This ‘Code of Blue’ thing is helping no one. And if we don’t think it’s a race thing, well…”