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Interview: Hamell on Trial


When Ed Hamell decided he was done with bands, picked up a battered acoustic guitar, and decided to go it alone, he called himself Hamell on Trial. And whether he meant to or not, he set the scene for over two decades of confessional, confrontational, and apocalyptic music. Make no bones about it, when he gets on the stage, Ed Hamell is on trial. And we’re judge, jury, and executioner.

With numerous brushes with mainstream acclaim under his belt, the New Yorker has managed to keep in underground for most of his career, but that acerbic style, calling to mind Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks with a guitar, has found him taking potshots at the establishment, regardless of whom the establishment happen to be.

Lest it need stating, he’s also pretty damn funny too, and in the last few years he’s undergone a natural evolution, treading the boards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, whilst still popping up in dingy bars where the faithful gather to hear his sermons.

And as the world prepares to spin off its axis, this preacher has plenty to say.

Words by Steven Rainey

Hello Ed! Your last album was called The Happiest Man in Man in the World. How are you feeling at the moment?

Very good, thanks. When I wrote The Happiest Man In The World, if truth be told, I was far from happy but there was no irony in the title, I was hoping it would be a self fulfilling prophesy, and, thankfully, it was. It’s a good life for me now.

So how is your current Irish tour going?

Only three dates in but they’ve been wonderful. I love coming here.

When you look at the world we currently live in, how does it make you feel? Is the rise of extremism (in every sense – political, personal, ‘reasonable’ people seem in short supply… – is that something that feeds into your songwriting? Do people expect you to have answers to the big and the small problems that we encounter on a daily basis?

Frankly, in light of your very well-defined question, it’s incredibly discouraging. Regardless of how far Trump gets, and I take NOTHING for granted, it has brought out a horrible side to the country, one that I certainly was aware of, I’m hardly naive but its enormity is disillusioning. Particularly after the Obama administration. One wonders if there has been any progress really… intellectually?  Certainly not spiritually? I’m skeptical. But I’m riding in the car to Limerick tonight with Clive Barnes and he’s promised to tell me all the good America has done and I’m anxious to hear.

In at least some sense of the term, are you a protest singer? Does that phrase actually have any currency anymore?

If I’m a protest singer there sure ain’t many of us out there. I don’t flatter the craft to think that songs are changing the world, or ever have for that matter…but people change it, for better or worse, and my songs might provide fuel for a certain kind of person to get the energy to accomplish the task at hand, in this case talking truth to power. If I had any genuine leverage in that I’d feel satisfied.

In a world where Donald Trump has a legitimate shot at becoming president, where do you stand?

I stand at the abyss and stare into a hellish void of existential flaming hatred. Sipping a cappuccino.

Is it possible to be reasonable about these things and look on it as a reaction from a public disenfranchised by politics, or are we all so polarised that extreme reactions are all we have left?

I think that’s a very accurate depiction of how the disenfranchised poor southern white feel in my country. They’re tired of having college educated white liberals tell them what they can and can not say. So now Trump is giving them an opportunity to scream back. A giant Jerry Springer show. Cynicism run rampant. And the comments on Facebook and social media?  There’s very little rational dialogue, let only, (here we go…) dignity, or integrity or KINDNESS. All ‘me, me, me. I GET MY SAY NOW!’ And my anger inspired, uneducated opinion is just as valid as yours because I can yell louder… and I carry a gun.

You have a cult of fans all over the globe who will rhapsodise about your live shows and albums. But in this world of social media and youtube, do you find it easier to spread the word about what you do? As we move further away from the old way of doing things, are you able to reap the benefits?

To some extent yes. And I think like a lot of people, Bukowski, Burroughs, Kerouac, my larger audience is potentially younger but I have yet to make that larger social media crossover to that generation, although I’m confident it will happen. I have a 14 year old boy who will say things to me.when I ask about a certain YouTube video, “how many hits?” And he’ll say, “they ONLY have 2 million” Ha! I don’t think there’s an Eminem video of one of his hit songs with less than half a billion hits. Andy Warhol sure called it.

Was taking your show to the Edinburgh Fringe a natural evolution of what you do, or was there a sense of trepidation?

Natural. I thought I might make the jump to theaters and, although I still do them, I really really missed sweaty punk rock clubs.


Having seen you live, there were moments where I remember the stuff between the songs as much as the songs themselves. How important is it for you to build up a dialogue with your audience, one that has nothing to do with music?

Well it’s important to ME, because it’s very organic and natural and when I DON’T do it, I’m editing and that’s no fun. If what I do, despite the fact that it’s one guy with an acoustic guitar, is my definition of, let’s say, “rock and roll “, then that’s a very broad term for me that encompasses art, film, literature, poetry, comedy as well as music. So Quentin  Tarantino and Bill Hicks are rock and roll in my world and maybe Bon Jovi isn’t. So it’s just what I do, it’s the total thing. Lenny Bruce one said, “I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.” I’m not a songwriter, although I work hard at them, they hold up and I’ll defend them until the end but I’m Hamell.

For a long time, Hamell on Trial has been one man with a voice and an acoustic guitar…but what music do you actually listen to? Would people be surprised by your music tastes?

Hmm, not surprised. I mean if I’m listening to Sleaford Mods or The Birthday Party they shouldn’t be surprised. Aesop Rock and Killer Mike and Underground hip hop they shouldn’t be surprised. And there was a lot of Riot Grrrl stuff I kinda missed – not particularly surprising. That I put the first Oasis record on every once in a while probably would be surprising.

is the co-editor / photo editor. She also contributes photos and illustrations to The Thin Air print magazine.