Pink Worm, Hammer no More the Fingers' new EP, would have been right at home on '90s alt-rock radio. It has the energy and punch that was in demand in the post-grunge years, while maintaining the same lightweight, often goofy, sincerity which made Weezer's Rivers Cuomo a post-angst top-40 star.
Duncan Webster, Hammer No More the Fingers' bassist and vocalist, says the Durham trio sounds like a '90s band because it is one. It's an unlikely statement coming from a 28-year-old. After all, members of surviving '90s bands tend to be 10 years or more his senior.
"We have been doing the same exact thing, we've been playing together since middle school in the same instrumentation," he says. And though the project hasn't always been named Hammer, the constituent parts of many songs have been around since high school and before. Webster, guitarist Joe Hall and drummer Jeff Stickley have even been playing many of the same instruments.
"A lot of people say we sound like a '90s rock sort of thing," Webster says. "And I'm like, 'we don't sound like '90s rock, we are '90s rock.'" Webster met Hall and Stickley, who had been friends for several years already, in 1997. The three seventh-graders soon started playing music together, and Webster says the current Hammer sound is a continuation of what they've been doing for 15 years.
The trio knows each other's moves, he says, and it's easy to get together and work out new songs quickly. The Hammer formula — high-octane rock bursts that are catchy, but not necessarily serious — has produced two LPs — 2001's Black Shark and Looking for Bruce, released in 2009 — and two EPs — Pink Worm and its eponymous debut in 2007. Hammer No More the Fingers will celebrate Pink Worm's release with a show at Snug Harbor on July 13.
Webster says the music can be a bit limiting. "To find these other things we're looking for, we have to go outside of Hammer," he says. Webster and his girlfriend, former Lost in the Trees cellist Leah Gibson, have a sweetheart acoustic duo, Pripyat. Hall makes electronic music at home and Stickley plays more bluegrass gigs than he does with Hammer.
But the Pink Worm EP tells a different story — one of a band finally able to embrace its own central paradox. The songs are another tightening of the already whip-smart Hammer formula, yet the production is slicker than what they've done before. It's radio-ready, which is surprisingly new for a band that's always had that vibe at its core. And, unlike previous records released by Durham's Churchkey Records and produced by Jawbox's J. Robbins, Pink Worm was a purely DIY project. From the recording session in Stickley's living room to the self-release and self-promotion, Hammer kept it simple this time around.
The results are unexpectedly solid and professional — belying Pink Worm's homegrown nature. But Webster is happy to have done everything in-house. "I think this is the most smooth release we've ever had," he says. "There were no middlemen. It was easy." With Pink Worm, there's no one to split profits with and the band members only have themselves to answer to if they, say, give a bad interview. In 2011, Joseph Chapman of UNC's Daily Tar Heel quoted the trio bashing Churchkey, which resulted in a minor Triangle music press firestorm.
"We are nice people, but if we think someone's not taking us seriously we can get defensive or something," he says. Now that the band is handling everything, though, "we can be as pushy as we want to be and not have to worry about somebody else looking bad. If anyone looks bad, it's us." At this point, Webster's most concerned about music being fun.
Sitting on the back patio of the Pinhook, a downtown Durham bar and venue, he looks across a parking lot at the sleek, ultra-modern Durham Performing Arts Center. It dominates the view, lights up the June night and this season alone features top-tier acts including Bonnie Raitt and Crosby, Stills and Nash. It wasn't here in the '90s; none of this was, yet Webster has grown with his town. He's not as frustrated with the national music press for overlooking his band as he once was. He says that kind of worrying got in the way of the fun, but it may be an inescapable part of any public creative endeavor. And maybe that realization is enough.
"I started brewing beer and it's fun as hell to do. It's always an experiment and you always are trying to brew the next big batch," he says, drawing a parallel. He gets frustrated when he puts a ton of work in, just to have people take a sip or two, or leave half-finished bottles around.
"It's very much like that," Webster says of brewing beer — and of making music. "If it's good, who cares? It's beer. If it's bad, who cares? It's beer. It's an enjoyable thing to do."
Hammer No More the Fingers. July 13. 9 p.m. $5. Snug Harbor. www.snugrock.com.