Ed Hamell talks like he sings and plays guitar -- fast. It's a necessity for him; he has much to say and little time. He tells true stories that other songwriters couldn't make up to save their souls or secure a record contract. He's seen both sides: Hamell had the overnight-success record deal that took decades to get, and delivered pizzas in Austin to college kids and cowboy bureaucrats. And most important, he mixed drinks and poured beers for small-time gangsters and high-end drug dealers at a bar in upstate New York where the crack in bags outnumbered the cracks in the bathroom floor.
"I tended bar for two years," he says. "I hated it. I liked the people. I liked the money. In retrospect, it provided me with a lot of material, but at the time I thought, 'What am I doing?' Now it's the main inspiration. It's crazy. My life now is six days, six gigs, 2,000 miles, so it's really valuable. You can't really write about touring."
At the bar, he met Piccolo Joe, Bobby, Joe Brush, Chooch, and various others who popped up on songs from his two Mercury Records albums (1995's Big as Life and 1997's The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword) and are also featured on Choochtown, Hamell on Trial's first non-Mercury album, which he released on his own Such-A-Punch Media label last year. He played in a band while he was tending bar, but it wasn't going anywhere. The economy was bad, and the music scene was worse. A friend told him he should move to Austin because people there would respect his music, so he and his wife, Linda, moved there.
Hamell on Trial
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
Asphalt the Recorder and Cavedweller open
"I really didn't know much about Austin, just Willie Nelson and the Butthole Surfers," he says. "I'd been battered around and underappreciated for several years. I came to Austin at the same time the Electric Lounge was getting started. They were really open to all sorts of things. They were doing plays, having shows, art, open-mike. It was really idiosyncratic. I knew it was going to be pivotal, and I wanted to be part of this."
The Electric Lounge's owner, who is now Hamell's manager, let him play. At shows he sold tapes of a song he wrote as a letter to a friend back home. A copy landed in the hands of Jeff Cole, who was just starting Doolittle Records. ASCAP and BMI asked Cole to set up a singer-songwriter showcase for the 1994 South by Southwest Music Festival, and Cole asked Hamell to play. "He asked what I was doing and I said, honestly, 'I'm looking for a record deal. What are you doing?' Jeff said, 'I'm starting a record label.' I said, 'Good deal,'" Hamell says. "I battled obscurity for four years before that, and I told my wife that the first person who approaches me for a record deal, I don't care who it is, I'm taking it. Jeff came to the show the next night, and we talked."
Someone from Mercury Records took notice of Hamell at SXSW, and true to his word, he signed on. A team of studio musicians augmented his guy-and-a-guitar sound on Big as Life, adding harpsichord flourishes, samples, and nifty special effects. Somewhere under it all was Hamell, if you could find him. A soundtrack-like background was added to the stunning spoken-word piece "Piccolo Joe," where silence would have been more devastating. At least Mercury got him booked at clubs. "When I started out, people had a hard time accepting me," he says. "Acoustic clubs were reluctant to book me because I'm so aggressive. Rock clubs didn't know what to think since I didn't have a bass player and a drummer. Mercury really opened doors for me."
The Butcher Brothers (also known as producers Joe and Phil Nicolo) were brought in to produce The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword, and once again the recorded Hamell was just a shadow of the live Hamell. On stage, he played to wear the shine of the strings, more powerful alone than most quartets are at full volume. He cracked jokes between (and sometimes during) songs, and his lyrics stood on their own -- no loops, violins, or horns needed. Unfortunately, no one knew what to do with him in the studio. Mercury released the album, but the label's work stopped there. It didn't promote it at all. Then the label went out of business.
"I knew Mercury was folding," he says. "I wasn't stupid. I knew I didn't sell a million records and that they were dropping bands since they were folding." He wasn't disappointed when they dropped him; Mercury had made the introductions, but he made connections at clubs and with bookers himself. He was also well known in the towns he played. He filled up Denton's Argo whenever he came through town. "I think that when I got dropped from Mercury, my feelings were 'How can I make the best of this?' Many people would think of it as a devastating blow, but I took it as a good thing. I do wish they had been more supportive of me, but it did open up a lot of doors. I started my own label. Since I was touring all the time, I knew it wasn't going to be a problem. I got a great manager and a great agent."
By this time he had moved back to New York. It was a better base camp; he could hit shows from Maine to Washington, D.C., and still sleep in his own bed that night. Touring is his full-time job now. He doesn't need to tend bars or push pizzas, but the consequence is that the tour never really ends. "I never stop playing, but I spend more time at home than you would think by looking at my schedule, because I can go home after some shows," he says. "I'm away four weeks and home for three weeks, but during those three weeks I may play in New York or somewhere close."
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When he was at home in New York City, he recorded Choochtown; it took a year and a half. "Starting the record, I was completely open," he says. "I was back to square one, and I just had to do what would please me. I could make the records that I would want to be hearing. Records that were like my shows. Less budget sometimes dictates a better thing. That's the way I interpreted it." His friends and contacts offered him studio time and equipment. He started off at the Butcher Brothers' studio. He used his friends' 16- and 18-track studios. He recorded on a four-track in his basement. Finally he recorded straight to a boom box. "The Butcher Brothers' 24-track was the first way I did it," he says. "It was apparent when I came home that it wasn't what I really wanted. I just decided that this album would be like my résumé, and if I wanted my résumé to be hot shit I would have to spend some time on it and get the sound right."
Hamell wrote the songs while he was recording. Some took months; others took minutes. As Choochtown came together he realized that the songs were mostly about the people back at the crack bar. They became like characters, recurring ones who made the album like a short story about a neighborhood. He became a character himself, since he was part of that time. There were dealers, Nancy and her parade of boyfriends, thieves, and a woman who poisons enemies with her boyfriend's strychnine-cut ashes. This time the album was as raw as the emotions in it and as spirited as Hamell on Trial performances. "I play such energetic shows that I really wanted to make an album that was truly indicative of what I do live," he says. "If there were too many ballads, then I tried to add some rock songs. I wrote 'Nancy' because I thought I needed a song like that to pump the blood. I don't care how I get there as long as I get there."
It may have taken hundreds of cuts and nearly two years, but he finally had the album he had always been capable of making. Hamell did on a boom box with friends who brought over their trumpets and drums what no one had done with the big budgets and label support. He decided to release it himself and formed Such-A-Punch, which he plans to use one day as a publishing company and record label for other authors and musicians.
"I never planned on putting it out myself," he says. "I've made so many contacts that I knew something would come out of it. I have a friend named Michael Halsband. He did the pictures for my second album. When I was dropped from Mercury, he said 'Good, now you won't make records that people won't pay attention to.' He did fashion photography, but he wanted to do music. He just devoted himself to the craft and let everyone else like his manager worry about everything else. That was really inspirational to me. He told me to go produce the best thing I could and let my manager and everyone else worry about the rest. And I'm very proud of what I've done. That makes it easier for me to hawk it from the stage."