Friday, November 22, 2019

Stephen Hamm, Theremin Man: of space-age rabbitholes, gentle idealists, meditation and plus-sized clothing (an interview)

There are few local musicians whose careers have spanned the range that Stephen Hamm's has. From the raucous proto-grunge of Slow and Tankhog, to the genre-defying goofiness of Canned Hamm (or the more genre-friendly but still strange world of the Evaporators), to the mature rock sophistication of Sunday Morning (whose singer, note, I did a huge interview with here), Hamm's presence guarantees that a project will be interesting, but doesn't really reveal much as to what the music will sound like. With the Vancouver album release of his new solo album Theremin Man set for Saturday, Hamm took time to do an Alienated interview, talking Theremin, Tangerine Dream, and what seems a fairly benign UFO religion, the Unarius Academy of Science, whose presence informs a couple of the songs on Theremin Man. If you haven't heard it yet, check out the lead single from the album, "Space Sister," here. (And check out this video, narrated by said space sister, Ruth Norman, if you want to take the next step...).

Stephen Hamm, photo by Angela Hubbard   

Does what you were doing in Canned Hamm have any sonic bearing on Theremin Man? 

Ya, Theremin Man has many connections to Canned Hamm. Canned Hamm is when I first started making pre-recorded backing tracks. Karazma, Canned Hamm’s debut, was basically the first backing tracks I made with us singing over them. It also marks the start of my fascination with synthesizers and digital recording. Pro Tools had just launched its first consumer recording interface so I jumped on that pretty fast. Two years later we made Erotic Thriller which had some pretty highly evolved synth sounds going on. The cool thing is that in the early 2000’s old analogue gear was relatively cheap so I started buying synths from the 80’s. You can hear a couple of them on the new Theremin Man album.

Do you know the Melodic Energy Commission (interview here) or their Theremin player, George McDonald? He wanted to know how you fell down the Theremin rabbithole…?

I know George from when he played guitar in Jim Bescott’s band the Americons, who Slow played with a lot at the Smiling Buddha in the early eighties. I didn’t make the connections with the Melodic Energy Commission until George came out to see me play.

I guess I fell down the Theremin Rabbit hole as a continuation of my exploration of electronic music. It’s hard to miss. I was drawn to it because nothing else sounds like a Theremin and nothing else looks like a Theremin being played. For an instrument that you don’t physically touch, there’s a very ephemeral quality to playing it. George has taken this to the next, next level with some of his contraptions. We’ve been threatening to meet up.

George, I’m guessing, is further down the Theremin rabbithole than you – since he has a basement room devoted to custom Theremins he has designed himself – but then again, I’ve been in George’s basement, but not yours... a
lso: do you feel like you’re part of a Theremin community? Do you correspond with, interact with, seek feedback from, or play Theremin with other Theremin players? 

The nice thing about the Theremin is there is a community. It’s pretty small and it’s spread all over the world. There’s a bunch of folks in Europe who do Theremin Academies. I attended one a few years ago in Colmar, France put on by Thierry Frenkel. He’s an engineer and has done a lot design wise, to expand the abilities of the Theremin. He’s my go to when I have technical difficulties with the instrument. I took lessons there with Carolina Eyck, who’s probably the best Theremin player going right now. She gave me a good grounding in a technique that takes much of the guesswork out of playing the instrument. I’ve done some Skype lessons with her and hope to do more in the future. In Comar, Thierry and Carolyna led workshops, as well as one on one lessons, and I got to meet and befriend a lot of people from all over Europe many who I’ve stayed in touch with. I’m planning a trip to Germany in the spring and I’m going to do a show with another of Academy members, Trautonia Capra in Hamburg, and I will be visiting with many of my friends from the Academy. I’ve also befriended people in Cuba, the U.S.A and South America.

When I mentioned that the new album reminds me at time of Tangerine Dream, it was mostly the Sorcerer soundtrack I was reminded of. You familiar with that one?

Ya that’s a great one!

Tell me about your involvement with the Unarius Academy of Science. Do you have their books? Which have you read/ which do you recommend? Have you been in contact with them? The “Space Sister” is Ruth Norman?

I became fascinated by the Unarius movement when was in L.A. a few years back. My friend Jodie Wille who made The Source Family documentary was curating a showing of some of Unarius’ films and a bunch of their costumes and props at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. I saw their opus The Arrival [not to be confused with the recent Hollywood film of the same name] and a bunch of the cable access movies they made about their past lives. Also on display was a bunch of their costumes and the flying saucer from the movie. Archangel Uriel aka Ruth Norman’s Cadillac was there, and a bunch of members, as well as Jello Biafra, who’s a big fan of Unarius.

The Unarians appear to be full-blown idealists, who take themselves entirely seriously, despite, say, posing for photos in costumes that make them look like they’re the white chapter of the Sun Ra Arkestra. I am assuming there is also a Unarius rabbithole, so to speak. Are you down that rabbithole, and if so how far… or are you just an outside observer? Apparently there is a division in the group between people who are waiting for the UFOs and people who are more interested in spiritual evolution… are you invested enough on the group to pick a side?

I’m an outside observer and not invested enough to pick a side. The whole idea was that beings from 33 planets around the galaxy were going to land on a piece of desert which Ruth had purchased. Their ships were going to stack one on top of another and form a giant campus so that humans could learn wisdom from these aliens or ‘space brothers’. This was supposed to happen in 2001 and of course it didn’t. It threw the organization into crisis, but its higher purpose, which is spiritual evolution through science and art, I think brought relevance to those who earnestly follow Unarius teachings. I haven’t gone deep down the rabbithole of Unarius but what I do love about them is that they preach the virtues of art, love and community as a way to heal one’s soul. Which is a simple and powerful message. At the Silent Movie Theatre show they held a workshop on discovering your past life and how to heal it through drawing and colouring. I wasn’t able to attend but I’m hoping to visit their headquarters in El Cajon this winter and do some colouring with the Unarius. I think that would be nice.

Tell me about the album cover art and the artist. Did you commission the piece? Did you give directions to the artist? What are you wearing on the album cover? (It looks like a really comfy, plush bathrobe).

Erin Green did the artwork.  I love her Gouache paintings of plants and commissioned her to do the cover. She’s into space, nature, science, art and I knew she’d get what I was doing. She suggested the robe, I was thinking of wearing a robe in show so there was some synchronicity there. Her robe is more bathroby, mine is more Church Choir. I like comfortable clothing. We worked on the idea together. She came up with the alien planet creatures that I’m playing on the cover. It inspired me to write the song Creatures which is on the Theremin Man album. Which then inspired Clancy Dennehy to make the video for Creatures which is quite other worldly. The whole thing is cooperative and collaborative which I love.

By the way, from one big guy to another, where do you get your clothes? They’re super cool but they look expensive, or possibly designed for you. (I am told Burlington in the States is a place I need to check out for cheap clothes, but the guy who says that seems to favour hip hop fashion. I like this one, though).

Thanks! A lot of it just comes to me. J.C. Penny online is pretty good too but this stuff is definitely more stylish!

What is the pendant you have on in the “Space Sister” video?

I got that from the Bay. It’s a crescent moon. It represents the union between magic and the universe, wisdom, womanhood. These things appeal to me.

I know people who are really interested in channeled teachings, but for me, while they’re definitely an interesting phenomenon, they’re kind of on the far side of a line I prefer not to cross, if you know what I mean: there are things that I know I could get into that I have kept myself from getting into because they threaten my sense of self. Rabbitholes, I guess. You know what I mean? Does anything about the Unarians make you uneasy?

What I love about Unarius - and this is from an outsider perspective - is they seem truly harmless and benevolent. Ruth Norman spent her real estate fortune helpling wayward people reclaim their lives through the making of past life psychodramas and art. Although it’s not a clinical practice the people I met that are involved Unarius have had amazing life experiences because of the organization which is made up of volunteers, not followers. That being said I think Ruth (who passed away in 1993), did have a couple of affairs with some of the male participants!

Is “Another Planet” based on anything from Unarius?

Another Planet came to me when I was listening to an interview with a scientist on Quirks and Quarks (CBC) and his thing was if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos who sink billions of dollars into building rockets that they think will one day transport humanity to Mars, really wanted to do something to benefit humanity, they would take that money, buy up the Amazon and turn it into a natural reserve. But instead they’re spending all this money on self-congratulatory ego-gratifying projects that benefit them and really no one else. I thought what if Elon or Jeff were just conspiracy-minded schmos living in their mom’s basement going down conspiracy rabbitholes on the internet what might they think about building a rocket ship and heading to another planet and just saying fuck it to this one. I guess at some point this character goes down the Unarius rabbithole as well because he’s been communing with the Space Brothers.

Do the Unarians have a theory of music, out of curiosity? Is music “fourth dimensional?”

From what I gather their favourite song is "Roll Out The Barrel." If that is a fourth dimensional song that’s pretty cool.

Do you have any interest in occult theories of music? One local electronics guy I interviewed, Harlow McFarlane, talked about channeling influences through his music, sort of – being attuned to other frequencies of being, and being a sort of passageway through which they express themselves musically. (He’s definitely on a darker plane than you, though).

Not really. I would like to try channeling. I think I touch on it sometimes when meditating. I do like the idea that certain frequencies can have a calming effect on the brain. I’ve used a lot of Beta sound wave recordings for meditation. I find them to be revitalizing. They help me to ground and focus.

How often do you meditate? Is there a practice you follow? Do you use sound when meditating? Did you ever do that ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat? (I know someone who told me he would never, ever try that, out of rabbithole fear: “they’d find me and I’d be… gone,” was his comment.)

Ha! I try to do a minimum of ten minutes a day. For grounding and calming myself after a big cup of coffee mostly! I did the ten day Vipassana retreat a number of years ago. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. You really have a chance to confront your anxieties and fears and you can either leave of sit through them. I decided to sit. It was hard at first to live in silence. Especially when you’re in close quarters with 30 other people. At the end of the ten days they do a meta meditation to bring you back to the speaking world and immediately after, a lot of people, mostly the women, started chatting uncontrollably. I felt sadness because I really became accustomed to the silence. It’s one of the reasons I like to sit in silence now.

Just some random names I want to throw at you, to know if they’re an influence or inspiration or at least someone you know: Nathan Holiday of Tunnel Canary? (Definitely down a rabbithole of his own, but a very nice guy, and also very interested in channeled teachings). Hawkwind? (They share a member with the Melodic Energy Commission, note). Robert Anton Wilson? (Past rabbithole of mine). Jacques Vallee?

Thanks these are all rabbitholes I’ll go down.

Why is there a dog barking in “Volcano?”

That’s my dog Dexter. He decided to chime in when I was doing vocals. He passed a while ago so I left him in as kind of a memorial. He’s the only other singer on the album.

Final question: I know from having seen you at a lot of the same movies that you have a real interest in cinema. What films were you thinking of when you and Rd Cane made the “Space Sister” video? (It reminds me a little of Panos Cosmatos, who I know is a fellow fan of Saul Bass’ film Phase IV, but I don’t know if you’re a fan of Panos’ cinema, and I don’t know if you’ve seen Phase IV (you should!).

I just watched Phase IV. That’s a pretty fucked up movie. Haunting. Feels like Silent Running or A Boy and His Dog. Great soundtrack and visuals. I’ve been meaning to watch Beyond the Black Rainbow for a while now. Jeremy Fisher from Black Mountain did the soundtrack. I always like Jeremy’s work.

Do you have favourite film soundtracks, much? Is it something you’re interested in doing yourself?

Well sure: James Bond - You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me. Giorgio Moroder's score for Midnight Express, Air's The Virgin Suicides, I could go on. John Williams. That Star Wars original score is a masterpiece!

I’ve done a couple of indie films; David Young’s Down, I scored that. I did the soundtrack for some commercials, and for a reality T.V. show called Gotta Grudge? where people who have a bone to pick get in the boxing ring and duke it out. It played one season on the Score Channel. I did a lot of sound effects editing for some local productions for a while. I’d like to do more of that work especially composing for film.

Theremin Man is definitely a “headphones record.” Do you have other favourite headphones records? 

First one that comes to mind is The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips. There’s so much great headphone music out there these days!

Stephen Hamm's website, with samples of his music and much more, is here. For more on the Saturday show at Lanalou's, see the Facebook event page, here

Thanks to George McDonald for suggesting the concept of rabbitholes, which proved pretty useful...

No comments: