Ed Hamell Interview

When it comes to Ed Hamell, I really have what must be termed an unfair advantage over every other writer and interviewer in Syracuse and Central New York.

You see, I knew Ed when everybody called him Eddie.

We go back to the old Guitar Studio on Woodbine Ave. in Eastwood. That is where I first became aware of who Ed Hamell was, in the year 1966. I was taking guitar lessons there under the instruction of Bill Smith and I believe Ed was taking lessons from Guitar Studio owner Bill Dunadee.

Fast-forward to the year 1980, December thirteenth, to be exact. I walk into the new Guitar Studio on James Street, after a seven year absence to say hello to Bill Smith. I tell Mr. Smith I'm a writer and I'm interviewing famous people now, like Johnny Mathis, Z.Z. Top and Wolfman Jack.

He looks at me and says, "Have you ever interviewed Ed Hamell of The Works? He's pretty famous."

So, 17 years later I find myself interviewing Ed Hamell in support of his latest CD. "The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword".

Q. So, Ed, how does it feel to be famous?
A. I'll let you know when it happens. (Laughs).

Q. Hey, Bill Smith thought you were famous way back when.
A. Well, he was being a sweetheart. He was a nice guy. Just let it be known that Bill Smith was a visionary, wasn't he.

Q. I guess he was.
A. It's fun. I love playing, and I love making records. I have a really good life. I have a wonderful wife. I know that I'm very, very lucky. It was a lot of years that were lean, I mean spiritually lean. I did everything. I painted boats. I delivered pizzas. In many respects I'm glad it happened the way it happened, because I don't take anything for granted. I cherish each and every gig. I loved playing with The Works, and when it broke up, it was really tough for me. I wanted to keep on playing. I love to play 'live'. I'm lucky to have found a job I love. And yet, I wanted to maintain my dignity when I played. I looked at Muddy Waters and said I gotta get on the next level if I'm gonna be able to keep on doing it. So, there's been sacrifices. Last year, I did 187 gigs, sixty thousand miles. I spent some time away from my wife. I don't like to be away from my wife, I gotta be honest. So, it's a trade-off. I think if I was 15 years younger and I was partyin' and hanging out with women, it would probably be a different ballgame. But, it is fun, my life is very fun.

Q. Why do you bill yourself as Hamell on Trial? Why isn't it just Ed Hamell?
A. You know, that started back in Syracuse, There was a photographer in town who took pictures of all the bands. He was dying of cancer. Greg Spencer from Blue Wave Records threw a benefit for him. I didn't have a band at the time, although I did have every intention of putting a band together. Greg said, 'Well, just go up there Ed and do it solo.' I'd never done it before. So, I did it solo, nervous as heck, and really just as a joke, thinking I was gonna be sort of scrutinized by my peer group, 'cause all the bands were playing that day, I called myself Hamell on Trial. Oddly enough, when I got done, Greg said, 'Let's do a record.' I did one gig as a solo and got offered a record deal. Even as stupid as I am, I could figure out that was the sign. So, I kept the name, and it's been working for me ever since.

Q. Were you a huge Springsteen fan?
A. Yeah, I really love the guy.

Q. Is that who you would like to pattern yourself after?
A. No, Not at all now. I definitely do an entirely different thing; Syracuse in many respects is a blue-collar town. There's a work ethic there that I definitely adhere to. A lot of the bands that I love, The Stooges, the MC5, any of those Detroit bands, I sort of have an affinity for. The Who were another band I loved. They went out. They played great songs. They smashed their instruments. Somebody died. It was a good show, you know? (Laughs). I liked the hard working ethic of Springsteen, like I liked James Brown. I was a big James Brown fan. The only parallel now between me and him is that I try to give a hundred and ten percent every time I play.

Q. I find myself listening very carefully to the words of your songs. Do you get that from other writers as well?
A. Yeah. Definitely. I listen to as much comedy and spoken word and Bob Dylan. The stuff I like is definitely lyrically based. I'm a big Lou Reed fan. I find that in my audience, I got just as many spoken word enthusiasts. The place that I kind of broke out of in Austin, Texas had at the beginning of the night, film and theatre, and spoken word, and at the end of the night they had alternative bands. I was sort of the transitional guy. That's how I made my mark. So definitely the slant is on the lyric.

Q. Playboy reviewed your first CD., "Big As Life" and said, "Hamell on Trial invents a new way to play guitar thrash folk." That's a new term. Is that how you would describe your music?
A. No. That was a great review. They were very nice to me. However, I definitely interpret myself as a rock 'n' roll act.

Q. There's always a lot of talk about the Syracuse music scene. I know there are bars. I know there are bands. But is there a scene?
A. No.

Q. That's what I thought you would say, 'cause if there was a scene you would foe in Syracuse, wouldn't you?
A. Yeah.

Q. How does the Austin music scene differ from Syracuse?
A. You have no idea what it's like in Austin, Texas. It's a music town. On any given night there's 300 bands playing. All different kinds of bands. Blues bands. Rock bands. Alternative bands. Jazz bands. There's streets where there's just bar after bar after bar. Because of the fact that Silicon Valley has moved to Austin, Texas, then you've got a lot of people with a lot of money that love music. It's a very internally supportive scene. You can maintain your dignity. Syracuse is a sports town. A nice town. A lot of people that I love very, very dearly there. It has no music scene there.

Q. Penny J. Pullus left Syracuse for Austin and she's finding out it's not so easy to get a gig there.
A. Yeah, well there's some very, very talented people there. I think Penny is very, very talented so I think ultimately Penny is going to do very well. I think what it's gonna force her to do is be distinctive. She's gonna find herself. I just saw Penny. I played South By Southwest (Music Convention). I could just tell by things that she was telling me and things she was learning and people she was hanging around with that she's starting to get it. You know, when I went to Austin, you could play six open mike nights in four days. I used to do two on a Monday night, one on a Tuesday, two on a Wednesday, and one on a Thursday, I played anywhere and everywhere I could. I played on the street. Anything I could do to play. The cool thing is I think Penny is starting to feel that way too. You've got opportunities there. You're not selling sand in the desert. There's plenty of places to play there. I very carefully want to word this; this is absolutely no dis to any other city in the world, but if you're gonna be a casino gambler, you've got to go to Atlantic City or Las Vegas. If you want to be in a dog sled you gotta go to Alaska. I don't know what it is, but the point being is, you gotta go to New York or L.A. or Minneapolis, or Athens, or Austin where there's music scenes. It really helps to have a university that's interactive with a town. S.U. was not interactive with Syracuse for whatever reason. I miss the Italian food in Syracuse, (Laughs), but it just isn't a music town.

Q. George Rossi just went on t.v. recently and said the way the music business is today, you can promote yourself in any city. So, he's got an office and a personal computer. Do you think he'd be better off in a big city?
A. I don't know. I don't know what he wants to do. It depends what he wants to do. If he's happy and he's making a good living, good for him.

Q. You have this song called "The Vines" on your latest CD., where you talk about working a temporary job "weeding." Is that true?
A. Actually, when I first moved to Austin, I was doing food stamp reconciliation for the State of Texas. 'The Vines' I think is a metaphor for the amount of paperwork I was in. It was crazy the amount of paperwork we had. You never got any further and I was looking at my life, and you might notice the number 40 pops up there pretty prevalently. I definitely was thinking is this where I'm gonna end up, working as a state worker in Texas? I definitely got nervous. Matter of fact I quit the job and started delivering pizzas, just 'cause I hated it so much. It was just a metaphor for being buried in the heap of this vine like sort of bureaucracy.

Q. Let's go back to 1966. Bill Dunadee, the original owner of The Guitar Studio...
A. Wonderful guy.

Q. Moved to California with the intention of "making it" and ended up as a mailman.
A. Yeah.

Q. Chuck Cavallaro buys the Guitar Studio from him and enjoyed some success in the early 70's with "Carnage," but nothing much happened after that.
A. I don't think Chuck was looking to be a performer. He's an excellent businessman. Chuck was a wonderful friend of mine and really acted as a Big Brother to me. Very, very helpful to me. A real aggressive acoustic guitar player too. Definitely influential on my style. Just a wonderful guy. Chuck has done very, very well, for himself. He owns several planes. He collects Corvettes. He owns a little airport and has 3 or 4 planes. He's building some kind of vintage, weird plane now. A very, very intelligent businessman.

Q. What did you do differently than any other musicians in Syracuse who tried to "make it," but didn't "make it"?
A. I've learned as I've gotten older, that it depends on how bad you want it. I unquestionably had to put myself in situations where other people would have felt humiliated, in those situations. Maybe at a later age, getting a temp job or a line level position, taking orders from somebody who's 10 or 15 years younger than you; there's a lot of people I know that, that would've messed with their dignity. Luckily for me, it's always been about music for me and luckily I have a wonderful wife who's extremely supportive in my dreams. I'm very lucky and I know that. I have some dear friends that were supportive of me as well. I wish my parents could've been alive to see some of the things that are happening and are about to happen for me as well. There was a time in my life where I played in bands with people and because they didn't want to go any further that used to frustrate me.

Now I realize everyone has to find their own level of success and happiness. If you're home and you're happy, that's all that matters, you know? Really, what I did is every time I got belted to the mat, I got up with bloody gums and did it again. There is no guarantee in this business.

Consequently, I understand it when some people just say 'screw it man, I'm not going to do this anymore.' I understand that now. For me I really want to go a lot further than I've already gone. I think I'm gonna meet even more disappointments along the way, but I'm gonna keep on going because for some reason it seems to be my fate. It's my calling. But, I don't begrudge anybody anything. I hope everybody's happy. If they want to go further in music, I would say keep trying. There's a lot of things that Syracuse has to offer that are really good things in terms of music. I've been around the planet now and I'll tell you Greg Spencer and Blue Wave Records is a great independent label. He really cares and nurtures his artists. You're not gonna get that quality, intelligent treatment in a lot of indies. Believe me, I've had experience with indies, and I know. Another thing I'll say about Syracuse and that whole upstate scene is that production quality is there. The roadies, the soundmen. Mike Konkol who is a soundman in Syracuse is the best soundman. I've been around the United States five times now. He's the best soundman I've ever worked with in my life. It's the truth. He's incredible.

The tech people, the light men, the sound guys are amazing guys. I just think it's very tough to nurture a distinctive musical talent in a scene that isn't really a particularly supportive music scene, and I don't know why that is.

Q. Yet, the city screams for entertainment and then doesn't support it.
A. Yeah, and I don't know why that is. A lot of the talent has moved out of the town. I think Joe Whiting is one of the greatest artists in the world. I genuinely do. Joe Whiting is a world class talent. But, it depends on what Joe wants to do with his life. Joe was a great influence on me. I consider him one of the worlds most talented and wonderful people I've ever met in my life. But Joe may very well be happy doing what he's doing. Am I any more successful than him? I don't think so.

Q. You've spent a lot of time singing and talking about growing up in Syracuse on your first CD. and now this latest CD. Where does that leave you when it comes time to record the third CD.? You got enough material?
A. (Laughs). I don't know. We'll see. I've been writing tunes. I got a bunch of tunes in the can. But, I got another year. We'll see what happens. I'll always have stuff. I've got a story or two in me.

Q. I can relate to what you're saying about in "Blood of the Wolf" on your first CD. 'cause I remember that incident. I can relate to your "John Lennon" song on this latest CD. 'cause I remember seeing Lennon at the Everson Museum. What kind of reaction do you get when you perform this material to an audience outside of Syracuse?
A. Extremely positive. I was reading authors like Jack Kerovac or a James Joyce that were writing specifically about their hometown. Any successful writer will tell you write about what you know. Don't write about what you don't know 'cause people will see through you. That's what unquestionably made me distinctive right off of the bat is, I started to write about my hometown. Nobody else had, at that point that I know of, that would specifically mention it by name, a small town like that. I was talking to a guy before you about the Lennon song, and he said everybody faces rejection in their life. That's a rejection from your idol John Lennon. That songs a little about rejection, a little about fame. Guns and murder show up in this record a lot. I hope people interpret this record as a record of hope, and redemption. That's what it's supposed to be about.

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