Stu Hamm Interview
Talks New Album, Career, And Playing In Cleveland
Legendary bassist Stu Hamm has played with a "who’s who" of modern guitarists. After meeting Steve Vai at the Berklee School of Music, Vai soon introduced Hamm to another guitarist, Joe Satriani. Hamm eventually played on Vai’s Flex-able and Passion and Warfare albums and later worked on Satriani’s LPs Dreaming #11 and Flying in a Blue Dream, among others.
Hamm quickly became the go-to bassist, as he has worked with several other artists both in the studio and on stage.
Hamm is currently on the road supporting his recently released album The Diary of Patrick Xavier and will be making a stop at Wilberts in Cleveland on March 8th.
We recently spoke with Stu to talk about his career, his current album and the upcoming show in Cleveland.
Greg Drugan: Hey Stu, thanks for taking the time with me today.
Stu Hamm: No problem. So where are you today?
GD: I’m in Northeastern Ohio, on a gray winter day, but at least it’s not snowing!
SH: I love northeast Ohio, it’s a beautiful area.
GD: I had the chance to listen to your new album The Diary of Patrick Xavier, and I think it’s great. Can you tell me what it’s about both musically and as a concept?
SH: Well, I don’t know where they come from, but I get ideas. I’ve been thinking about what I was going to do on the next record. In 2015, my life was sort of thrown into a blender so I traveled a lot and tried to figure things out. Fortunately I stayed at a little hotel in a seaside town in Italy and I went into the library looking for books written in English. I noticed a book written in English and it was a diary of this guy that lived there. I started to read this diary, and he had completely different experiences from what I was going through, but then in some ways similar. Then, I had the great idea that I wanted to do this solo bass record and I wanted to write things about his journey and my journey and how to put them into musical terms.
GD: That’s interesting. I don’t think something like that has ever been done before.
SH: (laughs) I think people have made solo instrumental records. It’s supposed to be a record of nice music to put on. There’s a great Pat Metheny record called One Quiet Evening; it’s something that you put on in the background to have nice music going on. I listen to a lot of mellow music, there’s a great series called Hearts Of Space, that plays slow music for fast times...it’s kind of ambient music. There’s a movement in classical music called "Postmodernism Minimalism," that’s music that’s supposed to occupy a long period of time and have a soothing effect on your mind and body. Part of what I wanted to do was a diary of two years of my life, writing songs about my experiences traveling around the world and being on the road.
GD: Can you tell me what “Smoke Break” is about? I believe it’s the only song on the new album that has words in it.
SH: I have to protect the name of the guy who wrote the diary. His name wasn’t Patrick Xavier. It seems so obvious to me, but some people aren’t catching on. Anyway, it seems like this guy spent some time locked up for some reason and the only time that he was able to go outside was four times a day when they had a smoke break. They could go outside and get some fresh air, even if you smoked or not. There was that release of happiness of going outside when you’ve had your freedoms taken away from you.
GD: What’s your favorite track on the new record?
SH: Man! I’m really pleased with the whole thing. From sitting in this little room in this seaside town in Italy, to have the idea and it happened 100% because I had the will to make it happen. I’d have to say the song called “The City” because it wrote itself so quickly. It’s just subtle how I’m able to lift some strings in certain ways.
GD: Looking back on your career, what inspired you to start playing music and what attracted you to the bass?
SH: I come from a whole family of musicians. My father was a very famous musicologist, he was the president of The American Musicology Association. He actually started the academic study of popular music. My mom was an opera singer and I have a brother who is six years older than me who was listening to Miles Davis, Cream, and Pink Floyd, then switched to Bach. We listened to all kinds of music imaginable. As for the bass, as a kid growing up in Illinois I saw a rock band setting up on a tennis court and the bass player had a cool looking green bass with a matching headstock and a white board that was plugged into one of those custom amps. I thought that was one of the coolest things that I had ever seen in my life. Plus, I was a Danny Bonaduce fan because I was that pudgy, 12 year old, red-headed geek, kinda like he was.
GD: Do you remember the first record that you ever bought?
SH: There used to be a little shop in Champaign, Illinois where they used to take the used 45s from jukeboxes and they would have them in big bins. So we would buy loads of those. But I remember the turning point in my life was listening to the FM radio station and “Roundabout” came on. It had that cool-ass bass line and at that point I picked up my cigar box where I kept my lawn mowing money and went to Kmart and bought Fragile. There was Chris Squire wearing a cape and playing a Rickenbacker and I thought, I’m sold!
GD: That’s a great first record to get! Besides Yes, who were some of your musical influences?
SH: I played piano at a fairly early age. I played flute for many years and I played oboe. As far as bass players go, it wasn’t until I got a little older when I realized what a brilliant bass player Paul McCartney was. Then I started to mature, it was Chris Squire and John Entwistle. Guys that were playing bass but still had a distinct tone and played a little bit more melodically and were advancing the instrument.
GD: Who was the first person or group that you saw in concert and how did that affect you?
SH: John Cage, the avant garde classical composer used to come over to the house and my best friend, Chris Johnson’s father, Ben Johnson would come over and play the piano. So I was exposed to really experimental 20th century music. I was getting dragged to operas by my mother. I got dragged to see Frank Zappa, I got dragged to see Sun Ra as well as many, many classical concerts.
GD: When you went to Berklee, how did you end up meeting Steve Vai?
SH: I think it was a party that I went to maybe the second or third week I was there and he was playing. I introduced myself. He was playing with another phenomenal bass player and I eventually took over for him. Steve eventually moved to LA and worked with Frank Zappa and I went on the road for a year and a half playing with an Elvis impersonator. I eventually went to LA and auditioned to play for Zappa but that didn’t work out. A few months later, Steve called me and said he was working on this record called Flex-able and asked if I wanted to come out. So I got on a bus with my bass and a suitcase and we did Flex-able.
GD: What did you think of “For The Love Of God” the first time you heard it?
SH: Gosh, which one was that one? It was kinda like a power ballad, right? Yeah. I remember so many things but I wish I could remember that recording, but it escapes me. Those were great times and the flow from Passion and Warfare was great! Steve’s music is always really challenging and really demanding and he’s a tough guy to work for; which I appreciate. He makes you raise your game. It was so much fun to go back in the studio and record the Modern Primitive album and re-record stuff that didn’t make it on to Passion and Warfare.
GD: Do you have any memories of playing in Cleveland back in the day?
SH: I have many, many, many memories! I remember playing with my band at a place down in the Flats. I remember playing at some big warehouse with Joe. We played Wilberts with Billy Sheehan and we played Nighttown many times. We’ve had a lot of fun in Cleveland.
GD: You’ve worked with a lot of artists throughout your career; is there an artist that you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
SH: Sure! I would have loved to play with Miles Davis but that’s not going to happen. I would love to play with Steely Dan. It’s funny, besides me being Stu Hamm, I’m also just a bass player named Stewart. I play here in LA where everything is image. I auditioned for a couple of bands and then someone says “Oh he’s the guy that plays “Moonlight Sonata” on the bass.” Then all of a sudden, you're over-qualified or they think you’d be bored playing pop music, so you’re not asked to do it again. How’s that? I would also love to play with Jeff Beck. But currently he’s only hiring attractive female bass players, so that’s not gonna happen. (laughs)
GD: Yeah, you don't quite fit that description.
SH: Nah, not really. I am who I am.
GD: You will be playing in Cleveland in a few weeks, what can we expect from your show?
SH: It’s so funny. I spent so much of my life trying to convince people that I know what I’m doing. It’s a solo bass show and people ask: Well, how can that be interesting? I don’t play to a backing track, there’s one song where I do use a looper. But I talk and I tell stories. It’s entertaining and hopefully the idea is that every song that I write is about something. I try to make people feel things. Whether the song is funny or sad or nostalgic or hopeful, I try to get that across. It masks the fact that the shit I play is incredibly difficult. (laughs)
GD: Stu, I wish you all the best with your new album and tour. I look forward to seeing you on March 8th.
SH: Awesome dude! We’ll see you soon!
Check out Stu Hamm's latest record The Diary Of Patrick Xavier.
For more information on Stu Hamm, click here.
Be sure to check out Stu at Wilbert's on March 8. Click here for tickets.
Interview by Greg Drugan