The most striking thing about Hammer No More the Fingers, which is back with a new record for the first time in 11 years, is how little the band has changed.
The Durham trio of Duncan Webster, Joe Hall, and Jeff Stickley is still defined by colorfully muscular guitar and bass and lithe drumming that wind around each other with a deft and energetic chemistry that could only come from musicians who have a close bond as both friends and collaborators. Their music still exists somewhere in the ether between fist-pumping radio rock, digested by fans of such titans as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, and cerebral indie rock complexities, befitting a band that originally emerged, back in 2007 with a self-titled EP, just as Triangle luminaries like Superchunk and Polvo were returning after their own long absences.
The group’s vibe is still fanciful, carefree, and somewhat jock-ish—reflected by the title of new album Silver Zebra and a graphic released ahead of it that features a basketballing zebra with six balls and six arms. Naturally, it wears a jersey bedecked with the trio’s long-standing hammer-and-hand crest.
The band’s lyrics also still find a way to balance that approachably offbeat aesthetic with the looming specter of more serious feelings.
“Stacks of smoke are swallowing the air,” Webster, the bassist, murmurs to open “Motorcycle Man.” “The old district stands above my lair / I fell into the Lucky Strike tower / On a punji stick on raw power.” There’s a sense of dread and recoiling at the changing landscape of Durham here, lending menace to the mirth as the band ramps up and wonders if there is “madness in the eye of Motorcycle Man.”
That Hammer reemerges without missing a beat, presenting a more honed version of the fun and impactful rock band they were before, makes sense when you consider how the band got here: they stopped making music when it stopped being fun, and returned to recording when the fun finally returned.
Sitting on Webster’s porch, sipping bourbon on an early fall evening, they remember how a particularly disastrous out-of-town run pointed them toward stopping the band at the height of its original powers.
From 2009 to 2012, they were as hot as any act in the Triangle, following up the all-killer, no-filler debut full-length Looking for Bruce with the more evolved Black Shark in 2011 and the more psyched-out EP Pink Worm a year later. They pushed themselves on the road, too, frequently filling the majority of their weeks with out-of-town runs, trying to link up with like-minded bands that could help them build a network and audience.
But like many popular local groups, Hammer didn’t enjoy the same rapturous reception out on the road that it received at home.
“It was specifically a weekend of shows we played in Atlanta and Athens, and each show had a total of two people,” Webster recalls. “We were playing in Atlanta, and there were some people in the room, and they walked out.”
The band returned to Durham. Initially, they tried to resume their grind of practicing often and getting back on the road, but when it came time to rehearse, their hearts weren’t in it. Drummer Stickley suggested that maybe they should take a beat to consider whether all the road-dogging was worth it.
“I was pissed at first,” guitarist Hall says. “I was upset to slow it down. But then, like the next day—‘Yep, that sounds right.’”
The band didn’t entirely go absent, continuing to play sporadic local gigs, sometimes in back-to-back spurts. Hammer will return to that two-night release celebration format this week, playing an “Underwater Party Museum”–themed Friday show at Durham’s Rubies on Five Points and returning to the venue on Saturday for a “Metallic Safari” outing.
In the last decade and change, band members settled into regular jobs and less nomadic lives (as the group discussed the new album with me recently, Webster’s two little girls were inside the house). They also moved on to other musical projects—Webster at the fore with the indie-pop duo Beauty World and lending support in the band Organos, and Stickley backing Hall as the guitarist wrote and sang his own songs as Blanko Basnet.
The last couple years, Hammer started to feel renewed momentum in its local gigs, pulling healthy crowds with an enthusiasm they felt might even outstrip the excitement of their initial run. They decided to use their show at the Pinhook this spring as a chance to work on and debut new music. Their spark rekindled, and the material came together quickly, with the band playing seven of the 10 songs that ended up on Silver Zebra that night.
The remarkable concision of the album is one aspect that does point to Hammer’s time away from releasing music. The grooves and verses are wound tighter and punchier than ever, with the trio getting in and out of each song quickly and efficiently before snapping into the next. Opener “Underwater Party Museum” is a scant 1:23 and no song lasts longer than 2:57, resulting in a brisk 22-minute run time.
The time away from making music as a group sharpened their perspective on what was necessary and what wasn’t. The result is as thrilling as any music Hammer has released.
“Do we need to repeat that? Do we need to repeat anything?” Stickley recounts of the writing process. “Let’s not prolong. Let’s not bore anything. If the point gets across, then there’s no need to make anything one beat longer than it needs to be.”
Hammer, which has always been in a somewhat tenuous position as to which audience to market itself due to its existence between traditional rock worlds, doesn’t have plans to return furiously to the road. Nor are they all that concerned with being experts on new music and how they fit within it—when the INDY points to how the new album’s brevity, rock-for-rock’s-sake approach, and silly-but-heartfelt vibe could put them in line with 100 gecs and other similar acts, they say they aren’t aware of the ascendant Missouri duo but they’re excited to check them out.
“I would love personally to keep this energy that we have currently going so that we can do another record before the next 11 years,” Hall says. “It’s still fun to think about playing some bigger stage, so to speak. But that, personally for me, is not the driving motivator.”
“We’re fighting,” he says, “to stay together and play and have fun and be friends and enjoy everything.
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