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Interview with Doug Hammer, December 2011
Interview with Doug Hammer, image 1
Doug Hammer recently released an incredible double album called Travels, which contains a whopping thirty-nine songs and 2 1/2 hours of music. This solo piano album will definitely be on my Favorites list for 2011, and I’m sure it will be on many other lists as well. Doug has released four other solo piano albums since 2007 and also runs a production and design studio with his wife, Emmanuelle Le Gal. We did this interview via email in mid-December 2011, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know Doug a little better as much as I did!

KP: Hey Doug! How are things in the Northeast today?

DH: They’re good! Finally getting colder here. We had quite a warm spell in November and part of December. We got spoiled and since then the cold is returning...

KP: You recently released a double album called Travels. It’s getting great reviews and has already been nominated for several awards. Congratulations on all of that! Travels is very likely to be on my “Best of 2011” list, too. Tell us a bit about the album.

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Click on album covers to read Kathy's reviews
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DH: Well first off, thanks Kathy, for making Travels a Top Pick! I am also pleased to announce that Reviews New Age just made Travels “Album Of The Month” for November! And it is up for “Album Of The Year” on both Reviews New Age and SoloPiano.com. Travels covers a broad landscape of moods and feelings, places and times. Some of it is about me and some of it I just made up. I found that even the stuff I made up was quite connected to me in some sense. The album has thirty-nine tracks on two discs. I didn’t intend to release such a big double album, but it led me there, so I needed to listen and follow.

KP: I am really impressed with the mix of musical styles on Travels - especially the bluesier and ragtime pieces. I think you stretched out and really showed what a broad musical range you have on this album. Tell us a bit about your musical background.

DH: I’ve had a number of wonderful piano teachers over the years, ranging from contemporary to classical to jazz. All these different genres really helped to stretch my abilities. I used to play in piano bars, hotels, and restaurants and I’d go through all these fake books - literally thousands of songs. I learned a lot of standards that way. Later, I became a composer of many styles doing jingles and soundtrack work and those challenges stretched my abilities as well. My musical tastes are quite diverse and so I like bouncing around many different styles and genres. In my studio, I may work with a classical artist in the morning, and pop or jazz in the afternoon. It keeps me on my toes!

KP: I was also surprised that Disc 2 of Travels is completely improvised and love that you called Disc 2 Travels: Detour. Were those tracks recorded over a period of time, or were they all recorded during the time you were recording the composed pieces of Disc 1?

DH: They were all recorded during the making of Travels. Twelve of the cuts on Detour came from a project I did in November of 2010. I set out to create a bunch of mood pieces (to license) and recorded thirty piano pieces in two days, each of them in one take. Later, as I was putting Travels together, I realized that I had too much material to fit on one CD. I revisited those mood pieces and realized that many of them fit with the theme of Travels. The irony is that I was working on Travels without realizing it. I also improvised a number of pieces while recording Travels. I have learned that if one feels like the creative juices are not flowing, do something else. That “something else” turned into a number of songs that were originally just ideas named with a date, and upon later listening, I discovered they were finished and fit the theme of Travels. That’s when I decided to come out with a second disc called Travels: Detour.

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KP: With a total of thirty-nine pieces and 2 1/2 hours of music, this was a really huge project. How long did you work on it?

DH: I like to say it was forty-three years in the making! Two songs, “Maine Morning” and “Reflections Of A Distant Past,” were composed back in 1988 so that makes them twenty-three years old! When I finished Solace in 2007, I had a few songs that couldn’t fit on the CD (I seem to have that problem a lot!). They were “Maine Morning,” “Country Road,” and “City Of Dreams.” I knew they were going to go on the next album and I realized I had a theme. These songs were all about places and that’s how Travels came about (in 2008). As I was working on it, more songs bubbled up, but they had more to do with time. Also, life happened, and I went through quite a rough patch with some loved ones either sick or dying. Most made it and we moved on. I obviously pulled from all of those experiences and they are clearly there on this album.

KP: The quality of all of the music on Travels is so high. It’s really an impressive project! You released your first solo piano album, Solace, in 2007. That album maintained a quiet, thoughtful mood throughout, as did the two Baby Music (2008) albums, which were each 78-minute improvisations. Was much of Solace improvised?

DH: Many of the core songs on Solace came from a recording session done back in December of 2000. I had just built my studio (with my uncle and father) and just got my beautiful Schimmel piano. I recorded sixteen ideas off the top of my head, and they sat for quite awhile until I was working on Solace. The first track, “Unfolding,” was actually track one on the idea disc! I couldn’t replicate it or make it any better so I ended up using that. I also mined it again for Travels and lo and behold, more songs came out of that original session making a total of fourteen songs from Solace and Travels! In fact, one idea track contained the seeds of “The Castle,” “Lost City” and “Here With You.” I paid homage to that idea by keeping those three songs in their original order. So some of Solace and Travels were cut from the same cloth.

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KP: What was the inspiration for your three earlier albums?

DH: Solace had to do with my backyard, a very peaceful place with a pond that ducks come to every year. We had just moved into our house from an apartment in 1999 so it had to do with having a home and our own peaceful space. I love nature and there’s plenty of it in my backyard! Lots of trees and critters. Keeps me grounded. The Baby Music CD’s were for the births of my two boys. I wanted to create special music to help keep my wife relaxed during this process. I was on the sidelines and trying to do something to help! It was only later that I decided to release that music to the public.

KP: Noel (2008) has a mix of composed arrangements and improvisations in a variety of musical styles. How did you approach that album to keep it from becoming just “another Christmas CD”?

DH: Good question Kathy. The last thing I wanted was for it to sound like some “loungey” piano bar CD! The ironic thing is that some of those arrangements came from when I played at piano bars!

I’ve played these songs a lot, and instead of getting bored with them, I would dress them up in new arrangements. “We Three Kings” and “O Christmas Tree” were arranged that way, jazzy and kind of different. A lot of the album was improvised while recording. I like to keep things fresh and I usually don’t have everything worked out before I record. Things are on the edge that way, exciting! I never know exactly where I am going, so I would record a number of different takes a number of different ways. That’s why I have so much bonus material on my website for Noel. I had fun coming up with my own additions to the music, integrating them into these well-known tunes.

KP: Noel is still one of my favorite Christmas albums and I really like your arrangements. In addition to your music, you also have your own company, Dreamworld Production and Design. Tell us about that.

DH: It’s a small project studio and design company, and it’s just my wife and myself. Audio and visual. Her musical sense is not studied and my visual sense is nonexistent. That makes it perfect for us to bounce ideas off each other! I really enjoy working with a lot of different people, helping them to realize their own visions and getting them out in CD and digital form. I work with singers, composers and video producers who need music. My hats include composer, producer, arranger, orchestrator, engineer and musician. My wife does a lot of cover design and packaging and website design, including my own. She’s amazing with her style of typography, collage, design. She is also a painter and works with mixed media. We make a great team.

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KP: Your own releases are certainly a great advertisement for the quality of your work. Even the album covers are exceptional. Does your wife do those designs?

DH: Yes she does! She gets a sense of the project and starts working her magic. I don’t know how she does it. I’m lucky to have her! We are both into photography and are always taking pictures of interesting textures or nature. I want to get back into photography more at some point.

KP: I love photography, too! I wish there were a few more hours in each day to pursue all of these creative outlets! Do you record many other pianists?

DH: Yes I do, but more in the classical and jazz realms. I record groups as well.

KP: Let’s talk about you now. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

DH: I was born in Santa Monica and lived in Pasadena until I was six. My parents are originally from the Midwest so we moved there. So I grew up in a western suburb of Chicago in Brookfield. They have a world famous zoo there. I did not live in the zoo. I was always riding my bike everywhere. There’s a wonderful forest preserve and bike trail that I would explore for hours. I had a great upbringing.

KP: Are any of your family members musicians or musically-inclined?

DH: My dad used to play piano. Show tunes, classical pieces by Chopin. He likes to say he stopped piano when I passed him by during my piano lessons. We had a Wurlitzer spinet. Man, I learned “Rhapsody in Blue” on that thing! And all that ragtime too. And lots of classical music. Later it felt like a toy compared to my Schimmel. I’m spoiled now!

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KP: Look at it this way - if you could play those pieces on a Wurlitzer, you could play them even better on any other kind of piano! When did you start playing the piano and how did you get interested in music?

DH: I gravitated towards piano around four or five, I’d say. I started lessons at six. My dad had a huge record collection that I was in awe of. My parents were always playing records and I was mesmerized. Show tunes, swing, classical, country. It was pretty clear to them (and later to me) what I would do with my life.

KP: Do you play other instruments?

DH: Yes. I used to play trumpet and cornet, and later baritone and trombone. Also, concert snare drum, tympani, xylophone and marimba and all sorts of percussion. I still play percussion and hand drums as I love the rhythm.

KP: Do you teach piano at all?

DH: I don’t have the patience for it. But I do have boatloads of patience for producing music. My parents are both amazing teachers, but I don’t have that ability.

KP: Patience is the key ingredient in a good piano teacher! Were you encouraged to compose or improvise by your teachers?

DH: Yes. I had a teacher who taught me how to play walking bass in the left hand. He also composed a lot of cool music and I wanted to be just like him. I was always messing with the notes though. I would get the sheet music to a song like “Dust In The Wind” or “Carry On My Wayward Son,” and I noticed that the notes were different from the recording. I would change the notes to match the recording.

KP: That’s what got me started proofing and editing sheet music! How old were you when you wrote your first piece?

DH: Hmm, I started writing pop tunes when I was sixteen or seventeen. Real syrupy stuff (laughs) about love and girls and dreaming and change. You know, teenager stuff. Actually, I’ve written quite a few pop tunes with lyrics over the years. My dad keeps nudging me to do something with them!

KP: You can always release them under a different name to test the water! Are your sons showing any interest in music?

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DH: They are six and eight and both taking piano lessons right now (not from me, though - I don’t have it in me!). I do help them practice a bit and that’s hard enough! My eight year old is into books and cars and robots, and my six year old is into adventures and art. Both are quite different but creative and they play so well together. They both love to build things.

KP: Who and what do you consider to be your biggest musical influences?

DH: Man, I have so many. I always wanted to be a pop star and have been heavily influenced by people like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, Kate Bush, Styx, Suzanne Vega, Mary Chapin Carpenter, ELO, Billy Joel, Deep Forest, Enigma, Everything But The Girl, The Blue Nile, The Police, Paul Simon, The Cars, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Prefab Sprout, Aaron Copland, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Mark Isham, and James Horner to name a few! And not in that order (except for Peter Gabriel and The Blue Nile). I love deep, passionate, emotional music. I’ll take emotion over technique any day of the week.

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KP: Agreed! I understand you recently scored a film, but that there was no piano in the score. What is that music like?

DH: It was for an independent film which unfortunately was never released. It takes place in Guatemala and I was able to borrow the director’s authentic flute and marimba. I sampled them and mainly played them from my keyboard! I got a CD of field music from Guatemala and soaked that in and incorporated my own flavors into it. It was a fun project, once again completely stepping outside what I normally do.

KP: Is film scoring something you’d like to do more of?

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KP: You obviously poured heart and soul into the music on Travels, and it shows! Have you done many Whisperings concerts?

DH: Not yet, but I am interested in being part of it. Whisperings is such a blessing. David is such a supporter of piano music and an inspiration. He has certainly inspired me. You, too, Kathy have been such a support for all of us!

KP: Thank you! If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

DH: That all children would be loved. And healthy. That’s it. The first one is within our power. The second one will be one day.

KP: What’s up next for you?

DH: That’s a good question, Kathy. Besides concerts to promote Travels, I have a few pots on the stove. I haven’t decided yet which one to pick up. Maybe the one called Earth. No, I don’t think the world will be ending in 2012! (laughs)

KP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

DH: I think that covers it for now Kathy. I want to thank for your questions and time. Music is my life and I have so much more to do. I can’t wait!
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Many thanks to Doug Hammer for taking the time to chat with us about his life and music. To learn more about Doug, please visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
December 2011