Although Matt Hammon has decades under his belt as a professional rock drummer, it wasn’t until October of 2017 that he self-released his debut solo effort, Silver Suitcase, a cathartic collection of songs from his own catalog.
Armed with lessons learned from playing with the legendary Bob Mould on Last Dog and Pony Show and Body of Song, Chicago’s Verbow, and his formative years as a founding member of the iconic Austin bands Mineral and—later—The Gloria Record, the Houston born, bred, and based Hammon synthesizes the energy of post-punk and college rock with the drama of late Cold War U.K. arena bands, all the while clinging to the lyrical intimacy inherent to the American singer-songwriter tradition.
Silver Suitcase is a true solo album: Hammon wrote, arranged, and performed nearly all the instruments, and the record was mixed entirely by the artist himself. The result is 10 anthemic tracks punctuated by guitar, synth, bass, and Hammon’s signature drumming.
Hammon recently spoke about the record—which is 25 years in the making—his fondest memories from decades of touring, and what’s next.
When did you first begin writing the material for Silver Suitcase? Have these songs been around for a while, or are they pretty new?
Yeah, these songs span the last 25 years of writing for me. It’s my attempt at a self-curated anthology of what would have been the likely highlights from several records in the ‘90s that I never got around to making.
Is there a cohesive theme to the tracks? Or is it more a collection of songs?
What’s crazy is that there is [a theme]! There is a definite, coherent thread despite the fact that these songs were all written at different times, in different cities, in varying degrees of sobriety or stupor. You know, there was a moment in time when I had to decide if I was a “band guy” or a freelancer. I chose the latter and had some absolutely incredible experiences playing all over the world in some truly great rock bands and with some wonderful singer-songwriters.
There was just no way my chronic depression would let me sit around Austin and work a temp job to keep the bills paid and bide time until the next show, or next session or next rehearsal or whatever. That would have been the end of me, maybe even literally. Instead, I set out some achievable goals for myself and for my music—really just a blue-collar, music-only existence, which panned out fairly well, and that was plenty for me—until it wasn’t.
There was no balance in my life at all. I mean, I started writing songs with my buddy Mike when we were, like, 12 or something ridiculous. They were simple little things, inspired by Paul Simon more than anyone else, but the music in our heads and our hearts was massive—like Simple Minds massive, like Big Country massive. I took to the drums pretty quick and really just “followed the favor” that seemed to keep coming.
In terms of my own work, it took a lot of years and a lot of failure to get to a place where I could appreciate my own stuff with enough objectivity to feel confident in saying that I would listen to this music even if I hadn’t made it.
So, this record is really about that process, that journey through the sideman underworld and the songs I would write when I got home from playing drums on a tour or producing a record out of town, or whatever the case may have been. The Silver Suitcase is ultimately a metaphor for the place in my head [and] heart where I stowed these songs away for safekeeping. It’s about the things you give up to do the thing you love, and then getting to the point where you really want those things back. When you join the circus, you commit a lot of “sins of omission”: neglecting relationships that matter, neglecting your health, neglecting the clock that keeps ticking faster and faster with each passing year. Some of those things I was able to restore. Others I’ve had to let go of, maybe forever. And that’s OK too.
Is Silver Suitcase your debut release?
Yes. This is my first record as a solo artist. I pressed up some demos in the mid ‘90s to get some solo gigs with, which is how I met Bob Mould, but I never released them to the public and certainly don’t consider them to be “records.” “Recordings of songs” and “records” are two very different things to me.
You’ve played with so many influential acts of the ‘90s. Do you have any fond memories that stick out to you from those days?
The good ol’ days! Yes, the memories are endless. If I had to single out some highlights, I’d have to say the way we wrote the first Gloria Record EP [in 1998] was a very, very special process for me. I had never truly collaborated with anyone before, and here we were, brothers from childhood, in this tiny rehearsal space in South Austin once or twice a week, literally writing songs in the room together at full volume after 10-hour days at temp jobs that were killing us. There was a lot of change going on with us personally and even professionally, and I think that sense of lament and endlessness really defined that record. Those songs are gold, and those boys are brothers to me.
Every night playing behind Bob Mould was incredibly special, especially in some of his bigger markets: New York City, Minneapolis, London… I can’t really find the words to describe to you how special it was for me. We did a two-night stand at First Avenue in Minneapolis at the very beginning of that tour [in 1998]. The morning of day-two, Bob drove me around town and gave me “the tour”—the places that really informed an entire generation of songs. It was life to me. The [Last] Dog And Pony Tour was billed as his last electric lap around the world, and if you knew Bob in the late ‘90s, then you know that he really meant it at that time. I didn’t know if [The Last] Dog and Pony [Tour] was going to be a one-off experience or if he would change his mind after some time off, so I played every show as if it might be my last, hoping that it wouldn’t be.
A few years later, Bob, David Barbe, and I spent a week tracking a ton of songs in Athens, Georgia, a handful of which made it on to [2005’s] Body of Song, which I was honored to contribute to.
When I was with Verbow—Jason Narducy’s ‘90s band—in Chicago, we got a week of dates opening for Morrissey around the Midwest in the dead of winter. The Chicago Theatre was super rad, as was the pop-up show at Metro, when they announced the show at 5:00 p.m. the day of. Actually, that Metro show was a real highlight, as well as my last Verbow gig at Schubas [Tavern] in Chicago. I still remember that show as if it happened last night. At that moment in time, Verbow was the best rock band in the world, hands down.
I had an opportunity to produce Alex Dezen right when he graduated from college. Those sessions in the Lower East Side brought a lot of legit New York City music folks sniffing around Alex, which was incredibly exciting and led to the formation of The Damnwells and a brilliant career. A couple of years later, I married his sister.
Did any of your former bandmates contribute to Silver Suitcase? Or is this truly a solo effort?
I really struggled with whether or not to bring other people into the process, mostly out of fairness to them. I would have had exactly zero room for external opinions on this, so I steered around that by playing everything myself and mixing it at home on headphones.
Now, on “As a Child,” my longtime collaborator and dear friend David Rice really helped pry that song open—the lid was still on it, the suitcase was locked. I was stuck. It’s a different song than the others, and it needed a spirit on it that wasn’t mine but was exactly in tune with mine and totally committed to the full potential of the track.
I wrote that song in David’s house in 1995 when I was housesitting and studio-sitting while he was recording his major label debut, Greenelectric, for Columbia Records at Peter Gabriel’s studio in England. I just had to have his soul on this record somewhere, and the bass and keys he played on that song really locked that one into place.
Speaking of the ‘90s, some of these songs—“Pictures” in particular—really harks back to the heyday. Is the subject matter of that song about looking back at those days?
“Pictures” is a song that really harks back to my earlier comments regarding what this record is “about.” I accumulated a rather large arsenal of film from that time that I could never bring myself to get developed; I literally kept this bag of rolls and rolls of undeveloped film in my sock drawer. I guess I was afraid of what might have been on them—I had a really nasty drinking problem on and off throughout the ‘90s—and I just didn’t know what was lurking behind the grey lids of those plastic black cartons.
My favorite line from that song is actually kind of silly: “Why is it we only get the smiles and not the sins?” Why don’t we take pictures of our worst moments: the drag-out fights, the days on end staring at the wall? I wish I had some shots of those times, but I guess memories and songs will have to suffice.
What artists are you listening to these days? Any Houston favs we should know about?
Houston music is in a really good place right now. There are a few gatekeepers that seem to really have the artist’s best interest in mind. New venues, resurrected old venues, huge festivals—Day For Night festival is garnering serious international attention, [and] Nine Inch Nails and Thom Yorke [played the 2017 fest].
We have a great band here called The Suffers that’s doing well all over the country and even in Europe. There’s obviously a super diesel rap music industry here, and the Texas country thing is huge here as well. I love, love, love a Houston band called Wild Moccasins. They hung the moon, as far as I’m concerned, and toured with Stars.
There’s a great solo electronic artist that goes by Miers, and she’s tremendous. Buxton is great. John Egan is legend. The classical music in this town is unparalleled anywhere other than NYC. There are truly great DJs all over town every night. You see Billy Gibbons around town and just have to go blast some ZZ Top at once. Lyle Lovett, of course, is a Houstonian—one of my biggest influences. Tons of young bands with clever names putting great songs together in little rehearsal spaces…
What’s next for Matt Hammon? Videos, touring, more solo albums?
After Houston gets some more space from Hurricane Harvey, I’ll get back on a video production schedule. Definitely for “Never Say So,” and I’d like to do full videos for “Pictures” and “Out of Touch” as well.
Touring? Summer 2018. […] I’m interested in touring smarter and more efficiently, using different bands to back me up in their parts of the country. I will definitely not be dragging my own band around America and racking up all those costs. It’s just not that necessary. I’d rather do four or five one-week runs in the summer and hit the major music cities in the country. With that said, I also love solo acoustic house shows, which often pop up in some out-of-the-way places, which can be super fun.
There are two more records sketched out at this moment, the first of which is completely written and should flow pretty quickly. I’ll probably do the one-man-band thing again on that one. Record number three has really good bones, 10 pieces of anthem rock, and I’m filling in lyrics as they come. That one could be a full-band record—I think.
Top photo by Anthony Rathbun