The trials of being Ed Hamell

He thrashes his battered guitar and sings about De Niro and Bill Hicks. But he's lucky to be alive, following a car accident for which he needed 52 staples in his head. Andy Gill meets a very untypical folk singer
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The Independent Online

A loud noise emanates from a basement in London's Soho. It's the unusual sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed uncommonly hard, uncommonly fast, punctuated by screams and huge guffaws of laughter. The source of the commotion in the packed Borderline Club is a chunky bald bloke with a head like a sockful of billiard balls and a manner to match, sweating profusely as he barrels around the stage like a pinball, thrashing away at a battered black guitar. Now and then he returns to the microphone at the front of the stage and screams. The crowd screams back. When the song is over, he mops his head with a tissue proferred from the audience – after first pointedly checking its virginal status – and tells a joke of such colossal obscenity it couldn't possibly be repeated here.

It's a tableaux of contradictions: the guitar says "folk", but everything else says "folk that!". It's as if the John Belushi character from Animal House, instead of smashing up the earnest folk-singer's guitar, had learned how to play it and decided to terrorise unsuspecting folkies with his unsavoury tales of sleazy smalltown lowlife. This is Hamell On Trial, a rock'n'roll band trapped in the body of a single man, whose recent Choochtown album is one of the year's most idiosyncratic entertainments. A collection of splenetic diatribes, Chandler-esque gumshoe stories and vivid narratives featuring a cast of hustlers, drug dealers and bohemian scufflers, it opens with a hilarious Robert De Niro parody, "Go Fuck Yourself" (sample verse: "Hey, you/I haven't got the balls to tell you to your face/Your taste is in your ass/Please don't show me your paintings/Please don't talk to me about books/You're an asshole/Go fuck yourself"), and closes with a heartfelt tribute to Bill Hicks that manages to be both touching and funny: "I wish Bill Hicks had survived/But as Bill would be the first to answer, this is the real world/And he had cancer".

With his mix of devastating satiric bile, unvarnished truth and side-splitting comedy, Bill Hicks is an obvious role model for Hamell – an influence which, apparently, sets the singer apart from 99% of the American populace, who despite Hicks' HBO special and his eleven appearances on David Letterman's show, still have no idea who he was. At the London show, mention of the late comedian is greeted with unanimous whoops of approval, but at his American shows, Hamell reveals, only an isolated voice or two is raised in support. "It's very frustrating," he sighs. "You like to believe that people who make great art are going to get recognition – even if only posthumously, like Van Gogh." And if a renegade talent like Hicks can be ignored, what price an obstreperous outsider like Hamell, a man who by his own admission is forever On Trial?

"The stock answer is that I feel persecuted," he says when asked about his stage name, "but the real reason is to differentiate my solo work from standard folk music." For years, Ed Hamell had been going nowhere fast with The Works, a Syracuse, New York, bar band he likens to Dr Feelgood, before he was asked to play a solo set at a memorial show for a friend who had died. "To distinguish myself from the James Taylor type of folk music, I decided to call myself Hamell On Trial," he explains. "Then after the show, someone came up and offered me the chance to make records. I played for years in a band with no interest, then after my first solo gig, I get an offer!"

One thing led to another, and after a few small-label releases, Hamell was signed by Mercury, who put out a couple of albums (Big As Life and The Chord Is Mightier Than The Sword) before dropping him. Like most promoters, the label seemed uncertain as to how to categorise him, and it gave up trying in the end. "I can bitch and moan about my experience with a major label," he reflects, "but actually it was good for me, because at the time I was living in Austin, and the acoustic clubs would say, 'You're too high testosterone for us', and the rock clubs would say, 'Well, you don't have a bass player or a drummer', so I couldn't get a gig. But once I got signed, a lot of people took chances and booked me."

By April 2000, Hamell's diary was full, and he was driving himself around the US from gig to gig, doing between 200 and 250 shows a year, when his schedule was brought to an abrupt halt by a car accident. "Somebody forced me off the road, the car flipped, and they had to cut the top off and helicopter me to hospital," he recounts matter-of-factly. "I broke three vertebrae and my wrist, and had 52 staples in my head. I was in an upper body brace for four months, and then another six months of recovery. So this year I've only done about 25 dates. I'm trying to do what everybody's trying to do, which is work less and make more money!"

Fortunately, he had already recorded the songs that make up Choochtown, which he released on his own Such-A-Punch Records. Drawing on his love of crime writers like Chandler and Elmore Leonard, he transformed the scuzzy antics of his old Syracuse chums into three-minute thrillers of a decidedly downbeat cast, and came up with his most popular album so far.

"Many of those songs took place in Syracuse," he confirms. "I tended bar for a few years in, like, a drug bar – it was blue-collar guys during the day, then they would score drugs at night. At the time, I felt like, 'Oh my god, what am I doing here?' But in retrospect, it's provided me with a wealth of material." Changing names to protect the guilty, Hamell constructed his own little world populated by characters like the eponymous private dick Chooch and the loose-cannon drug-dealer Bobby, who upon being challenged over a vomiting incident in a local diner, comes straight back with the rejoinder, "Well, I wasn't sick until I ate here!". "Some people consider my songs misanthropic," reflects Hamell, "but I hope I provide a compassionate voice for these people. As my wife says, 'You've paraded so many near-felons in front of me!' – but really, they were good guys. Kinda doomed, but aren't we all?"

Now fully recovered, with only the bumpy topography of his pate remaining as evidence of his accident, Hamell's back on the road again, albeit more infrequently. Sometimes he hankers after working with a band again, but ultimately he prefers the simplicity of solo work. "The best part of the solo thing is that at rehearsals, we all turn up on time, and we're all sober, and we all agree on the material!" he laughs. "I know it's a tough sell: if you said to me, 'Hey, let's go see this bald guy who plays acoustic guitar and screams at the audience', I'd say, 'Nah, maybe not today'; but once I saw it, I'd continue to go back."

Despite everything, Hamell retains an admirably level-headed, no-bullshit grasp of his place in the pop firmament. Cynical and suspicious of pop stars who talk grandly of their "art", he likens himself more to a door-to-door brush salesman. "If you're doing 200 dates a year," he explains, "driving to Minneapolis or Fargo to draw 150 people, and you sell product afterwards, then figure out your hotel and gas expenses before you go on to the next town, then you're building accounts, just like brush salesmen do! My wife used to get mad when I said that, she thought it disparaged my art, but that's really what it was, I was building accounts. And I was very proud of my brushes!" And presumably you were cleaning up with your act? "Hey, you're killing me! I was sweeping the nation!"

Hamell On Trial appears tonight and tomorrow night at the Reading Festival. His album 'Choochtown' is available now on Evangeline Records