When bass guitar phenomenon Stuart “Stu” Hamm returns to Cleveland next week…he’ll have a couple familiar guitar heroes along for the ride.
Hamm—famous for his fast finger work on rock guitar albums by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai—is now touring behind his latest solo effort, The Book of Lies. A string of East Coast dates finds the four-string superstar joining forces with guitarist Alex Skolnick (Testament, Savatage) and drummer Joel Taylor (Al Di Meola) in his own Stu Hamm Band, then playing rhythm man in Jane Getter’s All-Star Premonition progressive rock ensemble.
The good news for Clevelanders is that the big switch occurs here in town, at the very same venue: Stu’s trio performs at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights on December 7th, then he and Skolnick join Getter the following evening at the club.
We first saw Hamm live in concert on Joe Satriani’s Surfing With the Alien tour at Peabody’s Down Under in The Flats. Hamm didn’t play on that album, but he certainly put his own stamp on Satriani’s music with his percussive slap-bass style and propulsive grooves. He went on to back Joe on Flying in a Blue Dream (1989), Time Machine (1993), and Crystal Planet (1998).
Hamm’s resume also includes stints with shredder Steve Vai (David Lee Roth, Whitesnake), with credits on Vai’s Flex-Able (1984), Passion and Warfare (1990), and Fire Garden (1996).
Hamm accompanied Satriani and Vai on the inaugural (1996) G3 Tour, which also featured Texas guitar titan Eric Johnson—who’d lent his considerable skills to the Hamm composition “Lone Star” (The Urge) five years prior.
The Illinois native enjoyed modest success with solo albums like Radio Free Albemuth (1988), Kings of Sleep (1989), and The Urge (1991), recorded and released between stints authoring instructional videos (Slap, Pop & Tap for Bass, Deeper Inside the Bass), hosting bass clinics, and writing columns for guitar mags.
Stu has also backed Frank Gambale, Steve Smith, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Kotzen, and Adrian Legg, to name a few. He teamed with fellow bass legends Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan for a short-lived Bx3 Tour in 2006, and has served as chair of the Bass Program at Musician’s Institute in California.
The bassist told us during a recent phone conversation that surrounding himself with such otherworldly guitar and drum talent keeps him interested…and motivated. The new disc, The Book of Lies, is Hamm’s first since 2010’s Just Outside of Normal—but it features the same smorgasbord of Calypso kookiness (“Book of Lies,” “Back to Shaballala”), classical cool (“Open Note Aria,” “Etude #1”), pretty instrumental ballads (“Te Extrano,” “Chordally Yours”), and flamboyant funk (“Slap Happy”) as his earlier efforts.
It also boasts an epic, album-capping run through Sgt. Pepper smash “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Stu discussed the influence of Bach and The Beatles during our post-Thanksgiving chat, and recalled his coming up in an age when chops were du rigor, and musical audacity was practically the norm.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Stu! Happy belated Turkey Day from Cleveland.
STU HAMM: Happy Turkey Day! So what’s the weather like in Cleveland? What am I going to be getting myself into as we head toward Ohio?
EXAMINER: It’s unseasonably warm today. Drizzling, but warm—and there’s no snow. Hopefully it’ll stay warm for you guys next week. Your tour schedule says you’re somewhere in Utah now; a show tonight at Booth Brothers PAC in Spanish Fork?
STU HAMM: That’s correct. It’s a great little tour we’ve organized! We started out in L.A., and last night we stopped in Mesquite, Nevada, right on the border of Utah. And from there it was on to Salt Lake. It’s solo gigs in Salt Lake City and Denver and St. Louis, and then I join up with the boys in the band—Alex Skolnick from Testament and Joel Taylor from Al DiMeola—and we do a night in Dayton to start our Midwestern dates. We play December 7th in Cleveland, and then the next night I start another tour with progressive rock guitarist Jane Getter at the very same club (Nighttown) in Cleveland! Then we continue on for about ten days with that band. So over the course of three weeks I’ve got solo dates, Stu Hamm Band dates, and then I get to play in a kick-ass prog rock band. So, good times!
EXAMINER: Tell us a bit about the new record. Like previous releases, it’s got a bit of everything. There’s solo bass bits, some classical stuff…even some horns. But I was wondering if there’s any underlying concept. With Radio Free Albemuth, for example, it was partly inspired by sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick. What’s the meaning—if any—behind the title. Why Book of Lies as opposed to, say, Book of Truth or Book of Joy?
STU HAMM: Well, on the cover of the album there’s a picture of a tour booklet. And what that refers to is, when you go on tour, they give you an itinerary. It’s supposed to tell you what’s going on, like, “Today we’re going to drive to another town. We’ll get there at about 1:00pm, and the hotel room should be ready…” and so forth. But it’s all lies! If it says you’ll get there at 1:00pm, then that usually means 4:00pm. And if the hotel is right next to the venue, it doesn’t matter; that just means something else will go wrong! So The Book of Lies is our itinerary. And I took a pretty live approach to the record. I’d been playing with Carl Verheyen (guitar) and Jason Harrison Smith (drums), and as soon as we got off the road, we went into a studio in Sweetwater and recorded “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” We went back to record some overdubs, only to find that the more overdubs we did, the worse it got. So I just decided to leave it like a live trio playing. And that’s what I did for a lot of the other songs, too, like “Book of Lies” and “Back to Shaballala.” It’s just a real live, no B.S. sound—just people playing music together, with the big part being the seven-piece suite for solo electric bass.
EXAMINER: I love that it’s a diverse listen. You get some island rhythms at the beginning, some Latino feel—but then there are a couple nice classical bits for solo bass, some signature pop / slap funk, and then a mind-blowing cover. You go from Beethoven to Beatles, so to speak. It’s very musical, and the “stunt” musicianship isn’t forced. Is covering that kind of range on record a conscious decision?
STU HAMM: Well, it’s a record of the way I was playing bass, and the songs I was writing at the beginning of 2015 and end of 2014, you know? I guess when I was younger, I was trying harder to appeal a little more to the Satriani and Vai and Victor Wooten crowd, and that whole thing. But after you turn 50, you just don’t care as much about that sort of thing! So I’m just writing the music that I’m hearing and feeling, and decided to put it out.
EXAMINER: Would you mind sharing how you picked up bass, as opposed to any other instrument?
STU HAMM: I grew up mostly in Champaign, Illinois. My dad was at the University of East Illinois, so I was always around the music. One of my dad’s buddies was the avant-garde composer John Cage, so I picked up on that weird classical and eclectic music. My brother played guitar, and he was into John McLaughlin and Miles Davis and Pink Floyd and Sun Ra, all that kind of weird stuff. I was in the boy’s choir, so I was in the little operas and plays. I played piano from a very early age. And I started playing bass because, as a pudgy thirteen-year old red-haired kid in the Midwest, I was very much like Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family! Seriously though, the jazz bands were a big thing growing up in the Midwest. I was in high school at Champaign Central, and they were state champions in Illinois. So I started playing bass because I really wanted to be in the band. I started playing upright bass, and got into the Big Band. Then I heard Yes’ “Roundabout” on the radio one day, and went out and bought Fragile, and decided I was going to be a bass player. So Chris Squire was a big influence, and guys like John Entwistle of The Who—they had a very melodic approach to bass. I also had the good fortune of being a teenager in the greatest era for bass players. That was when Stanley Clarke came out, and Jaco (Pastorius) came out, and they influenced everybody’s lives.
EXAMINER: I’m a huge Yes fan. I was so bummed when Chris Squire passed away this summer. How’d he influence you as a bassist? How did you evolve from your typical bass man into one of the few guys who essentially turn the bass into a lead instrument?
STU HAMM: Well, you never know that this is the moment when you’re in the moment. When I was sixteen I moved to a smaller town in Vermont, and at that time I didn’t have a band to play in. So I was forced to play in Top 40 bands and fraternity bands and wedding bands. That was all pop music, but I was listening to Weather Report and classical music. Then I went to Berklee College of Music in 1978, and you had Victor Bailey there, and Steve Vai. And suddenly I was among my ilk. You had these guys all trying to push the boundaries. And that’s when fusion wasn’t a bad word: It really was a fusion of the improvisation of jazz with the attitude of rock. I remember the day Heavy Weather (Weather Report) came out. I saw Jaco when he toured with them. There was just this spirit of music in the air, with Mahavishnu Orchestra. People experimenting and pushing the boundaries.
EXAMINER: Was there a sense of camaraderie back then, with you playing on Vai’s early records like Flex-Able and Western Vacation at Stucco Blue, and later with Joe—and other dudes playing on your records? A sense of ‘I’m going to help this guy be the best he can be on his project, and he’ll probably return the favor for me?’
STU HAMM: Sure. I was so happy to play with Vai, and through him I met Joe Satriani. You look back, and it was important to bring back instrumental music, and it was great to be a part of that wave of instrumental rock music. And clearly it was something I was destined to do.
EXAMINER: Can fans look forward to hearing a bit of the new album along with some of your older songs, like “Terminal Beach,” “Country Music: A Night in Hell,” and so forth? Stuff from Kings of Sleep and The Urge?
STU HAMM: All that stuff. We do covers of songs that people know. We certainly play songs from all my records, all my career. We tell some funny stories. Alex Skolnick was with Testament, then he went back to school to study jazz. Back in 1990, ’91, I had a sort of closet hit that I did with Eric Johnson called “Lone Star,” and Alex was my guitarist on that tour. Now, twenty-some years later, we’re back. And we’re better musicians, better people. We’ve survived, and we’re playing better than ever. And my drummer Joel Taylor and I have played a lot together. So we’re just three people who enjoy playing together. I give those guys a lot of room to express themselves, so they won’t mind the crappy pay and shitty hotels and long drives [laughs]! But yes, new stuff and old stuff and some interesting covers. And certainly, the best crowds are the ones that come in with no expectations other than to enjoy themselves!
EXAMINER: You play Nighttown in Cleveland on December 7th, then the very next night you’re on again with Jennifer Getter in a band situation. It’ll be nice seeing the two sides of Stu during one stop in C-Town.
STU HAMM: Well, that’s the super-fun part about this. I love doing all the different things. I love the solo bass playing, and the live compositions. And the cool thing about this tour with Jane Getter is, guess who’s playing guitar? Alex Skolnick! And I’ve got my buddy John Mader, who plays on Book of Lies, and he’s on the tour. So it’s very cool to be a side guy in the rhythm section with my favorite guitar player and drummer, and just function as a regular bass player and not necessarily have to be out front. I can just hold down the bottom. That’s awesome, man!
Watch Stu Hamm perform live with Alex Skolnick: http://tinyurl.com/h7kmam3
EXAMINER: You’ve been known to drop jaws with your one and two-handed interpretations of both classical bits, and pop culture pieces like Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts theme, the Star Trek theme, and so forth. Do you have other little tricks up your sleeve?
STU HAMM: Sure! I mean, I’ve got a repertoire of a million little melodies and hints and little musical asides. We do some of that with the band, do a couple versions of things you’ll recognize.
EXAMINER: Are you a science fiction fan?
STU HAMM: Big time, of course!
EXAMINER: I mean, what with the Star Trek and Philip K. Dick…and I saw the Captain America sticker on your Warwick.
STU HAMM: Absolutely. I’m a total geek, that’s for sure. I’m kind of bummed out, but I actually had for December 18th some tickets for the opening day of the Star Wars movie at the Cinemadrome in Hollywood. Second row center balcony, 3-D! And I had to give ‘em away because it’s the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare, and Steve Vai has invited me and Chris Frasier and Tommy Mars to come back in the studio and record a couple tracks for the album that we never got around to. So what can I say?
EXAMINER: Well, if there’s a short list of good reasons to miss the opening day of Force Awakens, a gig like that would top mine. I couldn’t score opening day tickets. I’ll be seeing it that weekend with the kids.
STU HAMM: I’m not necessarily a Star Wars guy, but I’m into it—the excitement and the fans; I wanted to be on geek patrol! I just happened to be online the second tickets went on sale. But yes, it’s the perfect excuse to miss it. That’s for sure!
Stu Hamm Band (Stu Hamm, Alex Skolnick, Joel Taylor). Monday, December 7, 2015 at Nighttown (12383 Cedar Rd, Cleveland, OH 44106). Tickets $20. Doors at 7:00pm. http://tinyurl.com/pbuejfj
Jane Getter All-Star Premonition (with Stu Hamm, Alex Skolnick, Adam Holzman, John Mader). Tuesday, December 8, 2015 at Nighttown (12383 Cedar Rd, Cleveland, OH 44106). Tickets $20. Doors at 7:00pm. http://tinyurl.com/q852w7l