Hammer No More The Fingers guitarist Joe Hall lives in a quiet Durham neighborhood near North Carolina Central University with members of fellow Bull City bands The Beast and Orquesta GarDel. Predictably scattered with instrument cases and amps, the house even uses a bass rig for a TV stand. The quarters also serve as Hammer's rehearsal space, making it a musician's pad through and through.
The rest of Hall's band—bassist/ vocalist Duncan Webster and drummer Jeff Stickley—have gathered after a practice and photo shoot a week before the release of Black Shark, Hammer's second full-length, which is rooted in the debut's bouncy alt-rock quirks and crunch but stretches its anthems and gives each instrument more space. "We were just happy being a rock band, but now we want to be something more," offers Stickley. The trio talked about those impulses—plus its love of bad pop and bluegrass badasses and a surprising lack of influence from indie rock idols—at the Hammer house.
JOE HALL: For as many comparisons as we get to these guys, I never listen to them. I've heard them, but I've never owned a record by them.
DUNCAN WEBSTER: I have one record by them that I've listened to a couple times, but I just never got into them.
JEFF STICKLEY: I guess we just grew up in a very specific gap of time where there was something new going on and we just didn't get into them.
JH: What we were doing and the bands we were into and we were going to see were definitely influenced by them, but I don't think any of us got into them. I remember it was either Superchunk or Pavement that my sister bought the album and came home one day and we listened to it to hear what all the fuss was about. I tried to listen to it and I just wasn't that into it.
DW: I definitely have memories of going to see these guys once and Archers of Loaf a couple times and having to do chores around the house to get to go to the show. I think we were kind of too young when these guys were at their peak, although they're still around and I hear the new album's great.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What about the Archers cover that you guys did back when you first started playing together? It's mentioned in just about every story about you.
JH: We put that in our bio and that was the thing that stood out. What was that song?
DW: "Web in Front."
JH: Yeah, that was actually Duncan and two other friends who were called Slippery Chicken. I joined Slippery Chicken when I met Duncan in the eighth grade but we didn't cover that Archers song.
DW: I guess we thought it would be a funny thing to put in the bio, but it's kind of dictated our story. It was kind of a mistake, but it seemed like a good idea.
JS: They're an incredible band. They have an awesome edge to them.
DW: I'm still a huge fan of them and I'll always be. They're definitely an influence, but Superchunk, not so much. I always considered [Superchunk] kind of three-chord pop-punk. There's no darkness to them.
JH: This is one of my favorite songs of all time. Oh man, these drums ... [Pete Moffett] is one of the best drummers.
DW: Such a good guitar line, too.
JH: This is the guy, J. Robbins, that we recorded Looking for Bruce and Black Shark with. This three-piece does the three-piece exactly right. They do three part harmonies right where they need to be and they're just so tight and they're all so good at finding space.
DW: Everybody's playing pretty fancy parts, but it's not overkill. It's the perfect amount of dissonance and melody, plus it's groovy as hell. And the bridge reminds me of The Critic theme song.
JH: I got to see these guys at the Cradle a couple times before they broke up. The first time I saw them, I went to see The Promise Ring and Burning Airlines was opening but I didn't even know who they were. I didn't even care about seeing The Promise Ring after [Burning Airlines] went on. I went and bought all their merch.
What was it like recording with J. Robbins? Obviously, you guys knew of him beforehand.
JH: The first day we went into the studio for Looking for Bruce was the day we met him, so it was kind of like, "Holy shit, it's J. Robbins!" But that passed pretty quickly.
JS: His studio is legit. He obviously was big time, recording at Inner Ear Studios in D.C., in the '90s. He built a studio off his knowledge of that. It's a really awesome environment, and it's really professional without having any gloss to it. He's super smart and just a driven dude.
JH: He just lets us do our thing and occasionally he'll come up with an idea and pitch it. He picks his spots, but any time he pitches something, it's awesome. So the last one we did, Black Shark, we already had established a good communication so we kind of picked up where we left off.
JS: He's on Black Shark singing, playing guitar and playing percussion. It's pretty cool.
JS: I love Jimmy Martin. He's actually one of my favorite bluegrass musicians. He's one of the best rhythm guitar players. He just brought this whole swagger and creates his own timing that his band follows. It's not just four beats per measure, it's, "When I sing this next line, that's when we'll do it." He's an incredible singer and musician. He played in the Grand Ole Opry hundreds of times but they wouldn't let him in as a member because they disagreed with his lifestyle. They never let him in and it's sort of sad, because he's been such a big part of bluegrass music.
I was surprised when I heard about you playing in local bluegrass collective Mason's Apron. Have you always been into bluegrass?
JS: My uncle is kind of our gateway to music instruments. He worked at this shop in Greensboro and worked on a lot of guitars and he got us our first guitars. He was good friends with Acoustic Syndicate. We got into them and our friend who we went to school with [Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon] played banjo, too. He's one of the best in the nation now. It just kind of stuck, you know. I don't know how I got into it, I just realized it was actually cool and just ran with it and it never stopped.
DW: I've never heard this without watching the video. I can see the video in my head right now.
JS: I bought it on iTunes.
JH: I watched the video once because Jeff showed us during a band practice, then I sat down and watched it again. The song got stuck in my head and now I find myself singing it.
DW: We had practice one night last week and Jeff was like, "Dudes, have you guys seen the video for that 'Friday' song?" We stopped having practice and went and watched this thing. Jeff had done some research about Rebecca Black and the whole thing behind this song and the company Ark, so we watched all those videos and then went back to practicing again. But as much as this sucks, it makes me so happy.
JH: Man, this was such a cool band.
JS: Yeah, they kind of broke the mold as we knew it, I'd say.
DW: I was such a big fan of this record. They didn't have a bass player, but he turned his guitar way down low and both of them played four-string guitars. The drummer just had a bass drum and a snare drum and high-hats. That was their band. It was so minimal but so tight. Cool songs with a lot of humor.
JH: The "Peaches" video is a classic, with the ninjas walking around and stuff.
DW: I think these guys will come back in style. They had some really dumb stuff, but I think it'll be hip again in a couple years.
JS: If I liked The White Stripes, this is what they'd sound like.
DW: These guys have been, for all of us, one of our favorite bands that are out doing stuff right now, touring and putting records out.
JH: They're very prolific. They put out a lot of stuff and they're always on the road.
DW: Their show is so different from their albums. Their albums have so many weird little sounds going on and it's a delicate kind of thing, but their live show is balls-to-the-wall rocking. Now they're a four-piece with two guitar players and they're each doing totally different things, but it meets up and they're like the best two-guitar band. There's not a lead guitar.
DW: I got their first album recently, Slanted & Enchanted. It's so lo-fi and so smartass. The first time I heard it, I was like, "This is crap!" But I slowly got into it and could hear the melodies and words. I got into them because I got into Phish kind of recently, and Trey Anastasio is a huge Pavement fan. I was like, "I've got to check it out now if Phish is into it." I don't hear the resemblance at all, but his lyrics are really cryptic and that's definitely made me feel like it's OK to not make sense all the time.
JS: It's awesome music, but what we're trying to do now is in a different direction. We like the raw sound that they have, but it's kind of lackadaisical.
DW: I think when I go back and hear our early stuff, I hear more indie influence. I feel like we're more groove-oriented now and trying to be really tight and interesting. But, at the same time, we still play those old songs.
JH: And we're still really into those old songs: They're just tighter now.
JS: We were just happy being a rock band, but now we want to be something more. Yeah, we were playing rock music and it kicked ass, but what we're trying to do now is bigger than that.