Band names can become exercises in arcana. In October 1983, the BBC broadcasted an episode of the courtroom drama Rumpole of the Bailey called "Rumpole and the Genuine Article." The gallant barrister, Rumpole, takes on an art forgery case, set into motion when he receives a visit from a complainant referred by a client with an unlikely name: Blanko Basnet.
Nearly three decades later, in July 2013, a self-titled album by a new band called Blanko Basnet joined the hundreds of thousands of releases already vying for attention on the digital distribution website Bandcamp. There was no fanfare, only 11 songs.
At the beginning of the first track, "Forest," a collage of pitch-shifted vocal samples from the show announces the band name before the tune glides into staccato guitar and syncopated drums. The fusion of prickly melody and modified disco evokes the more buoyant, less bruising side of Washington, D.C., post-punk: Dismemberment Plan and Q & Not U, rather than Fugazi and Jawbox.
In fact, you could almost mistake "Forest" for new music by Hammer No More the Fingers, a popular Durham trio that carries the torch for such distinctly '90s post-punk. While clearly not the rounded yelp of that band's Duncan Webster, the high, clear singing that tops "Forest" boasts a nagging familiarity. However, this is no forgery. Blanko Basnet is the new project of Joe Hall, the 29-year-old Hammer guitarist and backup singer. This is the sound of Hall simultaneously assuming new roles as frontman and songwriter.
"Hammer No More the Fingers is a kind of weird name. People always have trouble understanding it," Hall explains when asked about the introductory sample collage. He sits on the back porch of gourmet Durham grocer Parker and Otis. His long blond hair frames the angular planes of his face. "I'm afraid I did it again choosing 'Blanko Basnet,' so I wanted to drive the weird name into people's heads."
He shouldn't have worried, though. These precise, flexible and winding tunes are sticky enough under any name.
Hammer No More the Fingers formed at the end of 2006, when Hall and Webster—who had played together in a band called The Droogies while attending Durham School of the Arts—united with drummer Jeff Stickley. Hall had just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, so the time was right to give band life a try.
"We decided to see if we could make a career of it," Hall remembers, "and basically put all of ourselves into that writing. Any idea I had for a tune or lyric would be thrown into the mix of Hammer."
Though an early cover of Archers of Loaf's "Web in Front" earned the band long-lasting comparisons to the seminal Chapel Hill indie rockers, their music was more influenced by bands such as Burning Airlines—featuring former Jawbox leader J. Robbins, who went on to produce two of Hammer's albums. Hammer released a debut EP on short-lived area label Power Team before leapfrogging to Durham's Churchkey Records for its 2009 debut LP, Looking for Bruce. Their star was suddenly on the rise: That year, Spin named them as one of its Must-Hear Artists at the annual CMJ Festival, while their performance at SXSW in 2010 earned positive notice from The New York Times. Another LP, Black Shark, and a pair of EPs followed in 2011 and 2012.
But in the glow of critical kudos, Hammer started to feel like they needed to ease off the gas.
"We felt like we were hitting a wall commercially," Hall says. "Sometimes we'd come home from tour with as much money as we would have made at our day jobs, and sometimes we'd come home in the hole. The tours when you've just put a record out are always better than the ones in between—there's something for people to write about. We were putting out records every two years, so the math wasn't working out."
Hammer is far from finished; they plan to enter the studio this fall and release a new album in the spring. But the band is currently playing interesting local shows that come their way, such as performing with Cracker at the outdoor Oak City 7 concert series and at a recent farewell show by former indie darlings Annuals.
"The gigs are so fun now," Hall says, "and we have this new energy to put back into the band because we took this much-needed break. That's what allowed me to have the time to write and record this album."
Indeed, Hammer's slowed pace has allowed its troika to divert some of the ideas they'd always funneled into Hammer elsewhere. Webster now has an acoustic duo called Prypyat, while Stickley gigs as a bluegrass flat-picker. In fact, driving back into Durham at dawn after a Hammer show in Athens, Ga., inspired "Forest," the Blanko Basnet album opener. Hammer had already decided to take a break from touring; the song begins with oblique words of exhaustion but ends with the first inkling of Blanko Basnet: "Seed's been planted."
After recording a pair of tracks at producer Jon Le Sueur's house in Trinity Park, Hall considered traveling to Baltimore to work with Robbins again. Le Sueur, however, convinced him to make the record in Durham, at a slower pace and on a shoestring budget. It would take longer, after all: While Hammer writes and records by playing together in a room, Hall builds Blanko Basnet's songs one piece at a time. For Blanko Basnet, Hall recruited Stickley as a drummer but plays most everything else himself, except for a touch of cello and keyboards.
"This is the first project where I've taken full responsibility," he says. "With Hammer, every tune is collaborative and puzzled together."
Hall begins these new songs with a guitar line and builds parts around it, leaving the words for last. That's the struggle of being a new songwriter, he admits: "I usually just start with la-la-las, and then one word will come out that I think I can write around. But sometimes it takes forever to get to that starting point."
The starting points of these songs are often as strange and abstruse as the band name itself: The bright and slithering "Layabout" is based on a dream Hall had of wandering into a cabin in a swamp and getting a guitar lesson from a man standing on his head. The woozy, fracturing "Aleister" concerns occultist Aleister Crowley, whom Hall started exploring after the name simply got stuck in his head. Just like "Blanko Basnet," he was attracted to the texture of the language first before filling out its meaning.
And "Lost and Found," he says, "is about the feeling where everything is lining up and then suddenly, you have the complete opposite feeling—it's always that way with me and writing music, creative droughts and spurts."
For now, Blanko Basnet is in one such spurt. Though Hall recorded the album mostly by himself, he's put together a powerful band to play the material live. Blanko Basnet's first show was supposed to be in April, but Hall came down with the adenovirus and was out of commission for weeks. They made their debut at another Oak City 7 instead. He's excited to hear these songs in a room accustomed to rock.
"I'm looking forward to playing in an actual club rather than outdoors," he says, "and being able to really feel the bass rumble."
That is, to finally drive the strange name and its songs into people's heads.
Correction: The photo is by Ashlie White.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Domain name."