Hammer Strikes Out!
In an exclusive interview, this longstanding keyboard hero and Miami Vice music maestro discusses keyboard technique, and what it’s like to achieve mass recognition after years of obscurity. Annabel Scott takes note.
Jan Hammer has been the idol of a whole generation of keyboard players for years, but only with the success of Miami Vice, the TV cop show phenomenon for which he scores the soundtrack music, has he gained the commercial recognition he deserves.
Amazement, relief, an almost infinite amount of pleasure. Jan Hammer's reactions to the phenomenal success of Miami Vice, due in no small part to his own musical contributions to the show, are refreshingly human. In talking to the man himself (if only over the tenuous link of a transatlantic telephone line), it becomes clear that his success is very much down to hard work, that it is simply just reward for years of toiling on the fringes of musical innovation and experimentation.
It's difficult to appreciate that there are many people, even within the worlds of music, film and TV, to whom the face of Jan Hammer is completely new. Maybe this is because much of the man's background is in none of these fields, nor in pop or electronic music, but in the more esoteric areas of jazz-rock and live improvisation. Hammer's so-called 'new musical style', the searing synth guitar melodies, sequenced electro patterns and full-frontal drums package he developed for the Miami Vice series, is in fact no more than the latest extension of what he's been doing, in various bands, for the last 20 years.
Hammer's pedigree reads like a Who's Who of the modern jazz world. His first band, formed at school in Prague, was a trio that included Weather Report founder Miroslav Vitous. In 1966, Jan and Miroslav gained scholarships to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, Hammer decided to become a US citizen. Early in 1970 Hammer joined the Sarah Vaughan Trio as composer, arranger, conductor and keyboard player, and in 1971 he began to play in New York with John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman, Billy Cobham and Rick Laird.
Eventually this group evolved into the phenomenon known as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and it's interesting to note how each of the musicians involved in it experimented in stretching the boundaries of jazz, using electronics. British guitarist McLaughlin was one of the first musicians to use guitar synthesisers extensively, starting with the 360 Systems polyphonic unit (on 'Inner Worlds', for instance); Cobham experimented with electronic percussion and often modulated his drum sound through digital effects on his solo albums; and Goodman (who recently re-emerged on ex-Tangerine Dream man Peter Baumann's new American label) created some of the strangest sounds anyone has ever heard emanating from an electric violin.
Hammer's role in Mahavishnu was demanding — an up-front, often improvising lead synthesist with staggering technique, he developed a shoulder-slung keyboard to allow him to move around on stage. After two studio albums and a live release. Hammer left Mahavishnu to record the impressive Like Children album with Goodman, and then to form a new band, The Jan Hammer Group. At this stage, Hammer built the studio which has been the venue for all his recordings to date: Red Gate Studio, located in a farmhouse in upstate New York.
After a second JHG album, Oh Yeah, Hammer toured and recorded with guitarist Jeff Beck and went on to release Melodies, and then a solo effort — Black Sheep — on which he played keyboards, drums, guitar and an astonishing lead guitar synth patch.
A new band was formed for the self-titled album Hammer, after which the player went back to the guitar world for two collaborative LPs with Journey's Neal Schon. These albums, coupled with some film work, were profitable enough to help Hammer buy a Fairlight for his studio, and in 1982 he began a collaboration with guitarist Al DiMeola which resulted in the albums Electric Rendezvous, Tour de Force and Scenario.
But Hammer's recent history, as far as his climb to TV fame is concerned, begins in 1983 when he scored the films A Night In Heaven and Gimme An F. Although neither film was widely distributed, they did give Hammer an opportunity to express his feeling for the visual aspects of music, a discipline which comes to the fore in each style-soaked episode of Miami Vice, the TV Cop genre's answer to L'Uomo Vogue. How did Hammer become involved with the series in the first place?
'It's quite simple really. The series was directed by Michael Mann (who had already used Tangerine Dream for his feature films Thief and The Keep), and I met him through a mutual friend around the time he was working on the music. I happened to have a couple of tapes with me which I played to him, and they went so well with one of the scenes that we eventually used them virtually unchanged in the pilot episode. After that I began to turn out up to 20 minutes of music for each episode.'
Producing that quantity of carefully synchronised and stylised music every week for a whole season can't be easy, but Hammer says his Fairlight has been an enormous help.
'I first saw the Fairlight around 1981/82 and the price was prohibitive, but the movie soundtracks raised the money and it soon paid for itself. It allows you to work very quickly and to come up with all sorts of styles, from classical to old-fashioned jazz. Before that time I'd used an Oberheim DS1 digital sequencer and the Sequential Polysequencer, but this was something completely new. Obviously it took some time to learn how to use it — it didn't come easily — but I had a voracious appetite for the thing and there are really only a few major commands.'
Hammer clearly feels at ease with electronics now, but what gave him the first impetus to take up electronic keyboards and stride around the stage with them?
'Years of frustration at not being able to jump into what rock 'n' roll is all about, which is having fun! It makes an enormous difference if you can just come forward to the edge of the stage — so in 1976 we started experimenting with a modified keyboard from a Moog modular system, with left-hand controllers added.
'Then we had something called the Powell Probe, which was designed by Roger Powell initially but which has been very much modified by Jeremy Hill to make the unit I now use. It's got a four-octave keyboard which is really the ideal length — five octaves is just silly — and similar electronics, but better controllers including a Stratocaster tremolo bar. There are two or three about, but it's not an easy instrument to play; you really have to learn how to use it. I'm about to have MIDI fitted to it, though I've been able to transmit MIDI from it in all sorts of roundabout ways for a while.
'Of course I use the Probe for live work, but I also use it in the studio because it makes you play in a different way, rather like Chuck Berry. I can take any sound, even a flute sound, and using the Probe I can give it a certain inflection which would make any listener think that it was a guitar playing.'
But as our history of the man's progress shows, his technological armoury hasn't always been anything like this comprehensive. Yet although he has struggled, like most keyboardists, against primitive gear, Hammer's constant search for hardware innovation has brought him rich rewards, not least in the form of a retrospective equipment checklist that makes interesting reading...
'From 1975 to 1980, with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, we all used Acoustic Control amps and I started by creating a makeshift polysynth with a Fender Rhodes piano and a frequency shifter. Then we had all the usual things like the Polymoog, which had that stupid pitchbend ribbon which some people still use, and the Jupiter 8. After that I had the Probe connected to a modular Oberheim system, and now I use it in the studio with a custom Oberheim six-voice synth. Later I had a MemoryMoog, then around 1982 came the Fairlight.'
Undeniably, Hammer's jazz background gives him a degree of keyboard technique uncommon amongst pop musicians — but does this mean he never has to use hi-tech aids like sequencers?
'I love sequencers! In fact, I don't think my technique is as sharp now as it was with Mahavishnu, but the point is that a sequencer has a relentless feel to it — the repetition has a merciless effect which can be very 21st Century.
'I can humanise sequencer passages by synchronising them to tape and treating the sync tone with a digital delay, or I can program a Fairlight voice to act as a sync tone in various ways. I also use the random arpeggiator on the Jupiter 8, which is a wonderful facility and creates some great delays as it tries to catch up with incoming MIDI information through an MD8 interface.'
After some initial resistance on his own part, Hammer has now made the Yamaha DX7 a firm favourite. Like many keyboard players, he's aware that the machine's FM presets have been plundered until there is no more originality to be gained from using them, but at the same time, he acknowledges he'd now be lost without a DX of some kind.
'There were cliched analogue sounds, there are certainly cliched Fairlight sounds, and there are cliched DX7 sounds. But it's by far my favourite-feeling performance instrument at the moment, particularly because of the way the upper harmonics pop up as you use the keyboard velocity. I use an Apple micro with a visual editing system to create sounds because that's much more spontaneous than having to keep lots of parameters in your head.
'As for Fairlight sounds, I've kept Orch 5, for instance, but used by itself it's a dead giveaway now. I use it pretty sparsely, and through MIDI layering it's OK. It's when you use these sounds subtly and collage them together that you start to have unexpected effects coming up.'
Aside from his keyboard adventures, Hammer also has a long history as a drummer, and though he doesn't play acoustic drums much these days, his percussion sounds have some unique qualities. And many of them, it seems, start life in a perfectly standard LinnDrum.
'As far as the percussion goes, the LinnDrum does the basics and the Fairlight does the funny stuff. My technician Andy Topeka makes new Linn chips for me using a Commodore EPROM blower, and I sample a lot of percussion sounds off my old multitrack master tapes. I've lots of tapes of different drum kits — the snare on the Miami Vice theme, for instance, is an old Ludwig metal-rimmed snare being hit cleanly on the rim with gated reverb. I use quite a lot of effects on samples, sometimes while they're playing back, but often as I'm taking them so they have built-in ambience. I don't think it matters how you get the effect, as long as it sounds the way you want it!'
So how does Hammer build up the basic track for a typical Miami Vice piece?
'A single sound, perhaps an exotic Eastern sample or a drum sound, dictates the feel of the piece, and the drums, congas and occasional bass are all sequenced on the Fairlight's Page R, linked via MIDI to other instruments. Occasionally I use the Fairlight's simpler Page 9 real-time sequencer, or the MemoryMoog's built-in polyphonic sequencer via its MIDI output.'
Hammer has controversial views on the MemoryMoog. While so much of the keyboard-playing fraternity regards Moog's last polysynth as a pale reflection on what the original, monophonic MiniMoog was capable of, Hammer puts faith in it because, in practical terms, it beats its forebear hands down...
'Who wants to struggle with unstable MiniMoogs when you can have a stable, polyphonic version with MIDI and a sequencer? I've kept two of my old MiniMoogs, but only for sentimental reasons — though I do sample off them occasionally.'
After laying down the sequenced tracks, Hammer adds solos and chordal work, often through a Sundown valve amp and MXR flanger for the dirty, distortion effect that is one of his sonic hallmarks. All his tape machines are now synchronised to video, though in the first days of Miami Vice he was playing blind and synchronising purely by ear. A Lynx Timeline synchroniser now allows him to do 'more funny stuff and tighter scoring', and his current studio setup also includes an automated Sound Workshops Series 34B console, complete with independent level and mute programming and 24 busses.
Asked how Miami Vice has changed his working methods. Hammer responds with hearty, unrestrained laughter. 'I didn't have to change anything! I've been working this way for seven years and I was resentful that I wasn't having that much recognition. I was definitely moving towards a more rock 'n' roll feel though, and now I have lots of film offers to work in that style and I'm having to turn a lot of them down. But A Night In Heaven is still in the can as far as I know, and Secret Admirer, which was my best soundtrack, is coming out on video and being shown on Cable TV in the States.'
Let's change the question, then. Now that Hammer's had a degree of success which should allow him to do anything he likes with his home studio, what changes is he likely to make?
'Well, I've been using an IBM PC computer for sequencing and for automation, using a system called DiscMix. I'll probably be using that a lot more, and Commodore want to give me an Amiga as well. I'm working on some songs with Colin Hodgkinson and I'll wordprocess the lyrics for those, though of course you can also wordprocess on the Fairlight. Also I have Roger Powell and Cherry Lane Technologies coming over to show me some new software sequencing packages.
'One problem is that I do miss playing real drums, but it's hard to bash about with two kids in the house! I'm a professional keyboard player, a very rudimentary rhythm guitar player — just good enough to get away with it in the studio — and a drummer just for fun. Like a lot of people who sing in the shower, I'm a much better drummer in my head than I am in real life, but the Fairlight allows me to realise what's in my head perfectly.
'So I'll probably be updating the Fairlight to Series III eventually, though at the moment the software isn't debugged and my Series IIX has most of its advantages, apart from the 16-bit sampling.'
And as the next series of Miami Vice goes into production, what plans are there for the future?
'Well, I don't intend doing Miami Vice after the second season. The album and the single have both been at Number 1 and that gave me a feeling I can't describe — it was like winning the World Cup. I can do some more films, possibly including a Miami Vice film, and I'd like to do a second album of the music and take some of it on the road. I'd probably use the Fairlight to play sequences, the drummer would have to play along from a click, and I'd probably take a bass player as well.'
Jan Hammer on stage in the UK would be quite an event (he's already appeared on Top Of The Pops, which he describes cryptically as 'a good gig'), but for those who can't wait, there's the prospect of soaking up more of his devastating guitar impersonations, 'rude drum sounds' and Fairlight pyrotechnics in the second series of Miami Vice.
Look out for an onslaught of Hammer film soundtracks as well, and keep in mind that, as the man's long and winding background proves, this sort of success is all based on long, hard work. As Hammer himself concludes, 'the last year has been great for me — after so long in the business, all this has been like an unspoken dream come true'.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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