Here we go! It’s time for some Goth Horror Blues in a truly unique style. We are so happy to have the chance to chat to the enigmatic KK Hammond about her new album (at the time of putting up this feature it is #1 in the itunes blues chart and #12 in the US main chart. So it is making the impact we hoped it would!
Invoking the spirit of old American blues, folk songs and murder ballads, Death Roll Blues faces mortality and amorality squarely, in all their aspects from horror to humour. From the political pessimism of Anhedonia to the murderous whimsy of ‘Til Death. From a tribute to concept artist Allan Bridge, aka ‘Mr Apology’ who set up an answerphone where criminals could anonymously confess – to the epic showdown with Haitian Vodou God, Baron Samedi in Memento Mori, KK Hammond’s deceptively pure yet haunting voice matches her keening, seductive guitars.
She is obsessed with Resonator guitars and has a collection of unique, National and Mule Resophonics. She plays slide in less usual open tunings and often uses baritone strings on standard scale resonator guitars. K.K. is also a big horror film aficionado and makes her own music videos and blues themed shorts. K.K has had several plays on Cerys Matthews’ BBC Radio 2 Blues Show and from Huey Morgan as well as many other radio stations worldwide. But right now, it’s on with the show, and time for some questions.
When she was talking to us Shirley King (daughter to BB King) said that if you scratch the surface of any great song you will find the blues. We asked if KK Hammond agreed.
K K Hammond- I do, absolutely wholeheartedly! If you listen to early roots and blues and follow the trail of how music subsequently evolved and metamorphosized over the years, it is very easy to put your finger on many of the elements of early blues in other genres going forward: jazz, soul, rock and R&B are excellent examples. Even contemporary genres like hip-hop, pop and and EDM bear the hallmarks of the blues. So many 60s acts fall under the wider umbrella of blues: The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and so on. Even their lyrics paid unabashed homage to the bluesfolk of yesteryear. Later, as grunge and metal developed, the blues elements still stayed true. The 12-bar blues format forms the backbone of so many popular songs if you listen close. Without a shadow of a doubt, the blues represents a fundamental cornerstone of most of all modern music.
We reviewed the album “Death Roll Blues” last week, you can download it here, and we had to start by asking about the album cover, it really suits the mood of the piece and did you have an input into that, or trust an outside artist to deliver?
K K Hammond- The album art was created by an amazing artist called Sabrina Cintron of The Stardazed Trail. Sabrina is a great blues musician herself and has designed the album art for a multitude of modern day blues acts. She is one of the most incredible artists I have worked with in that you describe what you want in a few sentences, and, somehow, she is able to pluck that exact idea from your mind’s eye and translate it seamlessly to a beautiful drawing! I’m already envisioning the artwork for future music that is little more than a seed of an idea in my mind as I’m so excited to be able to commission Sabrina again!
You are obviously a storyteller. Do you begin with an interesting idea/lyric first and then put the music to it?
K K Hammond- I don’t have any set rules of how my songs are put together. They are often inspired by a certain mood which pushes me to express my feelings via music. Frequently, I come up with a catchy riff which plays in my head for hours, and, in place of just humming the melody, a few random words will work their way in to play on a loop instead! I have written entire songs spider-webbing off of two words that stick in my head. Mister Apology was one! I wasn’t actually feeling guilty about anything, Haha! “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” just popped into my head out of the blue and fit nicely in the chorus. I then went seeking a story about an apology and randomly happened across the true story of Allan Bridge, Aka Mr. Apology, an American conceptual artist who created an anonymous apology hotline and the song came to fruition!
“Till Death” was the favourite of our reviewer Lorraine – “the Hatchet deals the final blow.” It has very dark subject matter – but Lorraine described it as “whimsical.” I guess very dark songs almost need a lighter touch sometimes (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer for example) – how did you approach that one?
K K Hammond- There is an old saying that “if you don’t laugh, you cry” which I’ve always liked. I feel a little humour can diffuse the darkest situations and help us process them. I have a very dark sense of humour and wanted to write an incredibly sweet sounding song that presented as a typical, cheesy love ballad, and then pull the cheekiest of bait-and-switches to slap my unsuspecting listeners in the face with a surprise straight out of the left field! My intension was for it to be incredibly typical of a vintage style love song, so saccharine sweet that it would initially just about induce an eye roll in listeners….until the culmination of the first lyric line! I gave it a 1950s cheesecake-cum-hawaiian vibe with the guitar and vocal approach to add even more twee character to it (whilst paying homage to the Hawaiian slide guitar and pedal steel style.) Then, I unleash my dark humour on my listeners by delivering the punchline in the first verse, completely changing the whole meaning and mood of the song! The track rapidly twists from this almost uncomfortably tender love song to an incredibly brutal, tongue-in-cheek murder ballad!
It pleases me to no end when people burst out laughing when listening to that song and many fans have responded in exactly the way I hoped: from feeling like skipping it, and wondering where the hell K.K. Hammond went to, it becoming an instant favourite!
Lorraine described this as “almost a concept album.” Did you set out to create a unifying concept in the piece or not?
K K Hammond- Ironically, I didn’t set out to write a concept album at all but when I had completed all the songs and named the album, I realised I had in fact undeniably written a concept album, so I willingly submitted to that fact! Death is a theme that visits us in some fashion on every song on Death Roll Blues. In the closing song, “Memento Mori” (Remember Death), Baron Samedi, the Haitian Loa of the dead, comes to visit me to collect my soul, but I cheat him and escape his plan under the guise of being an incredibly polite hostess! I ply him with rum, cigars, and illicit substances until he is so inebriated he gladly welcomes my suggestion of “we can do this another time.” I guess this is another song in which humorous overtones are applied to a very dark subject matter! When I think about it, this album is not meant to be a depressing, sullen, and gloomy lament about death, but rather a message that it comes for us all in the end, and the best way to process such a frightening and morose fact is to have a bit of a laugh about it and make peace with it as best as we can!
Are you really a hermit (lol)?
K K Hammond- Being a hermit living in the back woods sound like such a convenient characterisation of a “Horror Blues” (as some have dubbed me) musician, but yet, yes! I actually am as close to a hermit as one could be! I live on a remote farm that backs onto hundreds of acres of thick woodland, and am a die-hard introvert who loves my own company, I always have since I was very young. Ironically, I’ve never been satisfied that anywhere I live is remote enough from the general public! That is not to say that I don’t have great friends, but I prefer to keep my inner circle small and close and can sometimes be a tad aloof with new people until I’ve sussed them out. I’m an extremely private person and often find myself at odds with that when navigating my music career!
Horror is clearly a major influence in your music, did you grow up as a lover of the old Hammer House movies etc, or the Victorian Gothic of Bram Stoker etc? Where did the love of horror develop?
K K Hammond- When I was really a bit too young to see such a movie, a friend turned up to a sleepover with a copy of The Exorcist they had pilfered from their unsuspecting parents! I remember thinking how much fun it was to “safely” experience fear, all of the adrenaline but none of the danger! (the excitement was greatly compounded by the illicit element of watching a movie we were not supposed to be watching!) From that point on I developed an interest in horror and spent my life searching for films that were truly viscerally scary! This is a constant project for a horror fanatic as, for every great movie, there are 1000 crap ones!
Many of the people I formed friendships with as I got older had the same interest, and we searched endlessly for the next iconic film. I think I was most delighted when I discovered the dark comedy genre and splatter movies, something that most certainly influenced the development of my dark humour, which spills over into my lyrics! Whilst most people think of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy when they think of director Peter Jackson, I think of his far lesser known and rather surprising early career creating splatter movies and dark comedies such as Brain Dead (known as Dead Alive in North America!) I absolutely love Tarantino and Rob Zombie movies, and themes inspired by their films often make it into my music. I am working on a fun western-themed song and music video coming up later this year and am so excited for that! We are trying to figure out how to engineer a dramatically over-the-top Tarantino-inspired gun battle! Haha!
Often your music is stripped down to the absolute basic sound, do you bring in session musicians as required or do you have a group of friends you use for recording and shows?
K K Hammond- In the vast majority of my songs I play all the instruments and layer multiple tracks when recording for a ‘rhythm and lead’ slide guitar package. I also add my own percussion and basslines. I have, however, collaborated with my friend “David & the Devil” on several of my tracks, including the title track on my album, “Death Roll Blues.” Also my vocals featured on one of his tracks “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die,” a Charlie Patton cover song reimagined for the modern day with a lofi beat. David is a sensational bluesman with a hilarious sense of humour and it is always an absolute honour to work with him.
However, the trend recently changed which is something I am extremely excited about! I have started playing more frequently with some good friends of mine: Kaspar “Berry” Rapkin – a fellow blues artist and basically my adopted little brother, and Ian Davidson – an excellent classical cellist with a foot firmly in the blues. We recently recorded a cover of Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box for release as a single and are going to be working on an accompanying music video to be released this summer. We also create videos of ourselves playing various cover songs for social media styled as three somewhat disconcerting hillbillies in scary vintage style burlap, horned and straw masks! Several of these have gone viral, with a cover of “Nothing Else Matters” being loved and shared by Metallica themselves on their Tiktok page, which blew our minds!
The short sound montage that starts the album and takes us into the piece (reminded us of how Paul McCartney used a quick sound montage to introduce the station for his album “Egypt Station”) – how did you envisage that? And how does it contribute to the feel of the piece as a whole?
K K Hammond- I have always really loved the use of ambient sound to conjure up an image in the mind’s eye and transport listeners deep into the mood, spirit and energy of the song. My intention is to plunge you straight into the heart of the deep south by opening Death Roll Blues with the sounds of the swamp! I have always found the sound of crickets and frogs at night the most comforting and relaxing Death Roll Blues opens with said swamp ambiance under the title of “Swamp Thing” and closes with it again as “Swamp Thing Returns,” as if to say a parting goodbye to my listeners as I disappear back away into the swampy undergrowth after our time together. The swamp ambiance is pretty special as it’s not just a sound I found online and slapped on the album, all the individual components were mixed together by myself. I layered together the sound of cicadas, crickets, frogs at night, bellowing alligators and chirping baby gators with their cute almost ray-gun like calls. I am a keen herpetology hobbyist in my spare time and went to visit a facility where I was able to get up close and personal with crocodilians and even watched as some beautiful little caiman hatched out of their eggs! I recorded some of their sounds to add to Swamp Thing and Swamp Thing Returns.
I snuck these tracks in along with the sound of rain and rumbling thunder in “What’s the Weatherman Done?” to satisfy a weird little whim I had and expected fans to raise a bit of an eyebrow to them! However, I have been surprised by how many fans have told me they love the ambiance tracks and wish they were longer!
Don’t know if you have read our review? I’ll give you a chance to reply (I’d be interested in your response to the Lead Belly comparison she made at one point)! How useful do you find reviews, do they help beyond the marketing exercise, are they a necessary evil? Do you even read reviews?
K K Hammond- I have indeed and I am so very grateful! Thank you Lorraine! I was tremendously flattered by the comparison though am not worthy of being compared to such a great artist as Lead Belly! Though I have worked hard to carve out my own contemporary blues sound, I listen to roots blues almost exclusively and taught myself to play slide guitar from that. I feel a little of this influence is going to inevitably creep into my music. Some of my songs feature similar progressions and phrasing to my favourite old bluesman Skip James, though I think you have to have a keen ear to pick up on these as they are fairly subtle. I am very mindful about approaching the blues respectfully and do not aim to directly replicate or emulate the roots bluesmen. More so than anything else because it is impossible to even try to touch upon such genius and nuance. My intention is to considerately pay homage to them whilst doing things my own way without attempts of direct mimicry or characterisation.
I will be absolutely honest and admit I don’t read album reviews all too often, if a band I like brings out a new album or track I tend to just listen to them off the bat. I glance at movies reviews to help me prevent wasting my time watching an absolute flop, but I still always take them with a pinch of salt because a few of my favourite films got notoriously terrible reviews! When it comes to music reviews, if there is a reviewer who has proven to have tastes in line with mine in the past, I will have a listen to an album they review positively. I think the take home is that taste is such a personal and subjective thing. For every person who has touted a song of mine as their favourite on the album, there will always be another person who doesn’t particularly warm to it compared to some of the others.
And your plans in 2023 – promoting the album, obviously – but what else is out there? Some live performances perhaps?
K K Hammond- I am not at all a fan of playing live, it’s that inner hermit at play again! I have done so in the past but never much enjoyed it. I feel that the advent of social media offers small independent musicians an audience of unprecedented size and my dream is for people to listen to and enjoy my music while I remain to be a ghost of sorts skulking round in the shadows of the back woods! Haha!! I know this goes against the grain and I was dubious of whether this would work at first but with the vinyl and CD run of Death Roll Blues having sold out before the album was even released, plus a string of iTunes blues charts number 1s under my belt (having most recently broken through into the mainstream iTunes charts with a number 12 in the US for Death Roll Blues) I am feeling a lot more enthused and optimistic! Blues is a genre that was historically steeped in a lot of mystery and legend and my natural inclination towards hermitdom may have caused me to tap into that element and inadvertedly build mystique around myself. This seems to peak the interest of new fans so who knows, I may never play live!
This year I have lots of fun stuff planned! The aforementioned cover of Heart Shaped Box in collaboration with Kaspar and Ian coming out this summer, along with a music video of the largest scale we have attempted so far! The new track and music video with a Western theme will come thereafter, that will be called “Walk With me Through the Fire.” I’ve got another really risqué blues track steeped with dark humour tucked up my sleeve too! I am in my element when in my studio working on new music and really can’t wait to get that underway!
By Lorraine Foley
Mark C. Chambers
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