If decades on the frontlines of Vancouver’s indie-music scene have taught Stephen Hamm anything, it’s that there’s no sense toning things down for people who’ve been conditioned to appreciate a spectacle.
It’s no accident, then, that the cover art for his new solo album, Theremin Man, shows an illustrated Hamm standing in front of a star-studded black sky, looking resplendent in a low-cut red velvet robe while surrounded by Adventure Time–like neon flora. Recent Instagram live-show shots, meanwhile, have left the curious wondering whether he’s a card-carrying member of the Church of Gibborim, an escapee from the Polyphonic Spree, or a man deeply inspired by the fabled Trundholm Sun Chariot.
Reached in Vancouver, which he’s about to leave for a series of concerts on Vancouver Island, Hamm reveals that he’s put a lot of thought into positioning himself as Vancouver’s emerging king of the theremin. Sometimes it’s about style as well as substance.
“Every good rock ’n’ roll band, at its best, has a duty to look pretty great,” he says with a laugh. “That’s how I’ve always seen things—I’ve always believed that if you’re going to put on a show, you put on a show. So don’t picture me wearing flannel pyjamas while I was making the record. I was wearing a cape.”
Whether that contention is fact or fiction is irrelevant. All that matters is that Theremin Man sounds like the work of someone with an endless appreciation for the world’s most out-there musical instrument.
Invented by Russian physicist Léon Theremin in the 1920s, the theremin is the only instrument you play without touching it; hands are waved in front of metal antennas, one of which controls the volume and the other the pitch.
The only time most of us hear the instrument is on Halloween or while watching any sci-fi B-movie filmed in the 1950s. On Theremin Man Hamm does a smart and admirable job of moving the theremin into the 21st century. So as much as he’s happy to embrace its soothingly eerie and ghostly side on “Inner Space” and “Cosmic Generator”, the home-recorded album is more than a great excuse to fire up the bong and gaze at the stars. “Another Planet” is techno-tinted disco for deep-space nightclubs, “Space Sister” channels the glam-tastic spirit of the immortal Ziggy Stardust, and “Mountains R Heavy” gives postpunk a lethal shot of deep-dish soul.
Hamm notes that the theremin first hit his radar during a viewing of the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same, in which guitarist Jimmy Page ditches his Les Paul for a space-age solo in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love”.
“I remember going to see it at a pivotal age, at the Ridge, for a buddy’s 12th or 13th birthday,” he says. “We freaking walked out. Then, a couple of years later, when we’d started smoking weed, we went and saw it again, and it was like, ‘Woooaaaah.’ It was still a terrible movie—an absolutely awful movie—but that was the first time I remember seeing a theremin being played, and wondering ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ”
Hamm was inspired to find out for himself years later, after stints playing bass in bands like Slow, the Evaporators, Tankhog, Jungle, and too many others to list here had made him a local legend.
Being a lifelong sci-fi nerd had ensured regular exposure to the instrument. (“It was like, ‘That’s the thing in The Day the Earth Stood Still.’ ”) But a 2010 appearance by Nick Cave’s Grinderman at the Commodore led to a revelation. As the opening act, theremin player Armen Ra provided the calm before a shitstorm, making magic out of songs like “Ave Maria”.
“There was this guy, up there by himself with the theremin, playing it melodically—it was haunting and beautiful,” Hamm recalls. “It blew my mind. I left that show with the heck inspired out of me. So that’s when I went out and bought a theremin.”
He promptly learned that while it looked easier to master than the violin, harp, or French horn, that wasn’t the case.
“It isn’t impossible to learn, but by yourself it’s almost impossible to figure it out,” Hamm offers.
As he worked from YouTube videos, progress was slow and frustrating. Finally, as part of a European vacation, he decided it was time to look for outside guidance.
“There are theremin academies, where people like Carolina Eyck—who’s probably the number one player in the world—teach lessons,” Hamm says. “So it was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to France, to Colmar and one of these academies, to hang out with some theremin people.’ I went in and realized that I knew nothing. Being Europeans and Germans and whatnot, people there quickly told me that I knew nothing. So I started with a week of basics—‘Here’s how we tune the instrument, here’s how you play a C. And here’s how you play a C and a B, which is what you’ll be doing for the next eight hours.’ ”
Quickly, he learned to appreciate that the theremin is all about precision and finesse, more so than fretted instruments like the bass or guitar. And as Hamm went all in, he started to make significant progress, even while accepting that he was nowhere near as proficient as he wished to be.
“I consider myself an intermediate player,” he says. “But it’s something that I intend to work on for the rest of my life.”
What he’s grown to love about the theremin is that it’s been part of his journey not only as a musician, but also as a person. Lyrically, Theremin Man touches on the idea of searching for a higher power on tracks like “Space Sister” and “Another Planet”. Instrumentals “Analogue Pluck” and “Stranger Friend”, meanwhile, have a distinctly meditative quality perfect for walking deserted beaches while contemplating one’s very existence.
Suggest there’s a spiritual side to Theremin Man, and Hamm doesn’t disagree.
“Nick Thomas from the Smugglers once told me after a few beers, ‘Hamm, you either have children or you become a Buddhist.’ I didn’t have children, and I didn’t become a Buddhist, but to find meaning in the world I had to look to see if there’s something greater than all of this out there. What I came up with—and maybe it’s growing up in B.C.—is that my spirituality is the natural world around us, which we’re blessed here to have so much access to.
“Vancouver, for all its beauty, can be a pretty miserable place if you go down the rabbit hole of ‘I can’t afford my rent’ or whatever,” Hamm continues. “So I do my meditation, and I’m from the West Coast, so I’ve dabbled in yoga. I like to go hiking and I spend a lot of time over on Pender Island doing my thing there. There’s a spirit world that’s all around us, and you can feel that. That’s very much a part of this record.”
Stephen Hamm plays a Theremin Man record-release party at LanaLou’s on Saturday (November 23).