For a long time now I’ve wondered what happened in my brain to where I’ve veered from loving the singer/songwriter to being almost exclusively a fan of instrumental music. I mean, from 16 or 17 years old until about 5 years ago I was all about great songs. The Beatles to the Kinks to Brian Wilson to the Brill Building; then onto Wilco, Spoon, the Stones, Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Adrian Belew, Lindsey Buckingham, and so many more. I was so inspired by the process of songwriting and the emotions evoked from a great song that I blindly bought a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder at 19 and started writing songs myself. Those first couple years were tedious, but I finally found a voice and became a pretty damn good songwriter.
I wrote by myself, with others, and finally in the late 90s recorded a 4-song EP with two of my cousins. We ended up finding a drummer and toured dumps across Northeast Indiana throughout 1998. In 1999 that band dissolved like an Alka Seltzer tablet in water. A series of musical misadventures began between 1999 and 2011. First was a collaborative record with a cousin, then from 2006 to 2011 I wrote, recorded, engineered, performed, and self-released 5 albums under the name Goodbyewave(with the help of a drummer.) I then recorded two records of lo-fi, all 4-track cassette garage pop under the name sunnydaymassacre in 2011 and 2012, followed by an album of ambient guitar loops I recorded as Dream District. Then there was 3 solo albums under my own name of mainly singer/songwriter fare and one analog synth record.
Throughout all of this the songwriting process; melodies to chords to rhythms to words to laying them all down into a permanent stream of zeros and ones was everything I looked forward to. But in 2013 something changed in my brain. A vivid memory of watching Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery came back to me. In-particular, it was the Walter Rizzati score of that film. I remembered sitting on my parent’s couch one balmsy summer evening and watching that movie by myself. The movie left a mark, but the score was burnt into my brain. Nearly 30 years later I was recalling that music, and thanks to this little record label in the UK called Death Waltz Recording Company I could own that soundtrack on vinyl.
From that purchase everything changed for me. While I still loved a good song, my true music fulfillment lied with instrumental music. All kinds; scores, heavy synth records, modern classical, electronic, and 70s Krautrock. There was still the usual indie rock purchase, but I was seeking the instrumental stuff out. I wasn’t as excited about the new Wilco record as I was at the thought of a new Boards of Canada. That’s just how my head was working those days.
Why? Where did things change for me? It wasn’t that I didn’t want to love the idea of just an acoustic guitar and someone writing on it. You know, putting pen to paper, heart and mind to tape and laying it all out. But it seemed as if 30 years of loving music one way had taken its course and I had started a new one.
Then last week I had an urge to look up Stuart Hamm. Who? Stuart Hamm is a bass playing genius who in the 80s I learned about because I was a fan of guitarist Joe Satriani. As a struggling 14-year old guitar student Satriani was a breath of fresh air. No spandex or songs about T&A from this guy. He was writing instrumental guitar music inspired by science fiction, man. His Surfing With The Alien was a nod to Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer(with the SS even on the cover of his record.) “Ice 9”, one of my favorite songs on that record, was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Satriani was basically a comic book/sci fi nerd that could play guitar better than anyone I’d ever heard. He put out a mini-EP called Dreaming #11 not long after Surfing and I quickly bought it. Side one was a new track called “The Crush of Love”(Satriani at his best), and side two was three live tracks featuring drummer Jonathan Mover and bassist Stuart Hamm.
This is where Stu entered my world.
Stuart Hamm, like Satriani, came across like a sci fi guy that happened to be a virtuosic musician. He studied bass and piano at Berklee and played in all kinds of bands and styles until in 1987 he was hooked up with Satriani through Relativity Records. This led to touring and playing on Satriani’s 1990 record Flying In A Blue Dream. But before that, Hamm released his debut solo album with Relativity called Radio Free Albemuth. It was an odd and beautiful album. I never thought of bass as a lead instrument before. I admired great players in rock like Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Lemmy, but they were still in the context of playing as part of a single unit. The rock unit. Stuart Hamm was being backed by guitar, drum, and synth on his album. Backed because bass was the main course. He was finger tapping, playing chords, arpeggios, and pretty much anything you could think of. But it didn’t come off as showy. It was like the bass was being played like a new instrument. He played it a lot like how you’d play a piano. He could also play some seriously funky slap bass, too. Hamm was an all around amazing player/composer.
But Radio Free Albemuth was a whole new musical world. From fusion-powered prog to quietly contemplative solo pieces to goofy country-tinged showy pieces to classical covers, Hamm did it all. He also paid tribute to sci fi writing master Philip K. Dick by naming the album after one of Dick’s posthumous novels. Tracks like “Flow My Tears”, “Simple Dreams”, and his cover of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” soundtracked many late nights in my parents living room as I contemplated the mysteries of the opposite sex and how to get them to not see me as a complete dork. “Radio Free Albemuth” showed off Hamm’s bass-playing dexterity, as did his cover of “Dr. Gradus ad Parnasum”.
It was such a different musical world for me, and one that opened my relatively simple 15-year old brain to new ways of thinking. Like Satriani before him, and then countless instrumental records I’d buy afterwards thru Relativity Records, Shrapnel Records, and even a slew of Andres Segovia CDs a couple years later, the wordless world of instrumental music left a spot for me to fill in the emotional blanks myself. I wasn’t being told necessarily what to think or what that song was about, but I was given general directions through melody, movement, and mood. A song like “Simple Dreams” made my head and heart realign like nothing had before. And the baroque, melancholy approach Stuart Hamm took to reimagine Beethoven’s classic sadsack ode to loss would haunt me for years to come.
Revisiting this album got me on the interweb which led to me finding a pristine copy of Radio Free Albemuth on vinyl for $4. I’ve been listening to it nonstop for 4 days now and it’s still not getting old. Revisiting Stuart Hamm also answered the question I’ve been trying to answer since 2013 when an obscure soundtrack to a Lucio Fulci film seemed to rewire my brain to prefer instrumental music:
I’ve been wired for instrumental music since I was 15 years old. I’ve just finally found my way back to it.