Talks with Doug Hammer about Travels
©2011 Ambient Visions

Doug Hammer

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AV:  For those who don't really know that much about you, tell me how you got involved in music and specifically how you ended up playing the piano.

DH:  I was attracted to music at a very early age. My dad had a huge record collection and as a toddler, I would go up to it and just stand there, admiring them. My parents were  always playing records and there was one song in particular I was fascinated with and that was “The Green, Green Grass of Home” sung by Merle Haggard. Every time my parents would play that song, I would get mesmerized and just stop everything I was doing and sing along with it. It didn’t matter what records they would play, I would be fascinated with what I was hearing. We had a Wurlitzer spinet piano that my dad would play. Classical, standards, country. I started monkeying with the piano at around four and immediately gravitated towards it. I started formal lessons at the age of six.

AV:  How would you describe the style of music that you play now?

DH:  It’s an amalgamation of a lot of different styles. I have a very eclectic taste in music. A broad musical range of genres. I started piano with contemporary popular music. I also had a number of years of classical training. And then when I came out to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music, I got some jazz training. And so the combination of contemporary, classical and jazz really rounded out my musical sensibilities. I like so many different styles and am a bit of a musical chameleon.


For years when I was in college, I would support myself by playing in piano bars and I’d just go through all of the books and learn all the standards, show tunes, pop tunes and so forth. So I would call my style American contemporary. It’s a little jazz, pop, a little bit of classical, sometimes a little funk and sometimes all over the map.  

AV:  You've done lots of production work in other styles. Why did you choose to pursue more solo piano music than other genres you had been involved with?

DH:  I think because the piano is my core, it’s where I began. I had a lot of piano music in me that I wanted to get out and eventually release. I am planning on other kinds of albums that are multi-layered with percussion and maybe some singing or chanting with a combination of acoustic and electronic sounds. I have already released a film score, “75 Labels”, that is primarily marimba, accordion, flute and percussion. There is not one note of piano on that album! I very much enjoy production with a lot of different layers going on, with a fuller sound than “just” piano. But that said, I really enjoy the intimacy of just working on solo piano material. It’s very immediate for me to be able to sit at the piano and improvise something on the spot or work on an arrangement for a song. So the piano will always be my core but in the future I am looking forward to exploring some other avenues with different kinds of sound.

AV:  You have a brand new double album coming out called Travels. Why did you decide to call it Travels? 

DH:  Back in 2007 when I released “Solace”, it had sixteen tracks and I couldn’t fit any more on the CD. Some of the songs that didn’t make it onto “Solace” were “City of Dreams”, which at the time was called “Paris, City of Dreams”, “Maine Morning” and “Country Road”. They were going to go on the next piano album I did. I looked at these three songs and saw they all had something in common. “Travels” popped into my head and it started there. As I moved along in the project, I realized that “Travels” had less to do with places and more to do with time and the actual journeys. So it grew and morphed into something that I didn’t know it was going to, it kind of developed and unfolded as I was in the process of making it. It was a process of discovery.

AV:  How would you choose to describe the music that is on Travels overall?

DH:  Travels covers a broad range of musical styles. I would say it’s more active than “Solace”. There’s a lot more movement overall on the album because so much of it deals with movement, time and change. There are a lot of melodic songs, very pop-influenced, there’s a ragtime piece, gospel, funk and classical. There are some ethereal, meditative songs as well. Many songs have ostinato or repeating patterns and figures that slowly develop over time. I really wanted to explore movement and motion and change.

AV:  Are the songs connected by a theme that runs through them all?

DH:  Yes, and that theme is change. Journeying, moving, going to places. It’s really not about the destination but the getting there. It’s more about my relationship with time and how that’s changed over the years. How my perception of time has changed and my experience of it. So there’s a lot of reflection and looking back at things. Realizing where I am right now versus where I have been. A lot of it deals with the path I have taken. Travels was forty-three years in the making. It does go all the way back. It’s a broad landscape.

AV:  Most new albums are only single discs. Did you just have too many good songs to limit the selection to a single disc? Or was it planned as a double disc from the beginning? 

DH:  I really didn’t want to release a double album. While I was recording “Travels”, I ended up improvising more songs that fit with the album. It kept growing and growing, to the point where I had to release more than one CD. All of these songs fit together so I strongly felt they should be released together. At one point, I thought about releasing two single CD’s at the same time, “Travels” and “Travels: Detour”. I didn’t do that because they all needed to be together, they belonged together. So I decided to release a double CD because that was the only way it was going to work.

AV:  How long have you been working on Travels?

DH:  It’s been forty-three years in the making. (laughs) But as far as the recording and composing and arranging goes, it has been four years on and off. There are a few songs on the album that go all the way back to 1988, “Reflections of a Distant Past” and “Maine Morning”. Those songs are twenty-three years old! While all of the songs on “Travels: Detour” are as new as last November 2010 and this year. So I have some very old songs and a lot of new songs. Some of the songs were seeded back in December of 2000 when I made an idea recording of sixteen tracks. These nuggets were later mined and turned into songs for both “Solace” and “Travels” including my popular song, “Sunrise”. I originally thought I was going to release it in 2009 as a single CD, but that didn’t happen. Life happened and the project grew.
I’m happy the project was delayed because it turned into something even deeper and better.

AV:  Since you are adept at studio and production work did you do the majority of the engineering and mixing for this new project? 

DH:  Yes, I run a recording studio and production company, Dreamworld Productions. I am very familiar and comfortable in the role of record producer (for those of you who remember records), music producer, and engineering and mixing. Once the mics are set up, it’s pretty much set it and forget it. I can then get on with the creative part of recording. Then the mixing is more left brain. I am able to separate the left brain stuff from the right brain stuff. I am pretty adept at flipping back and forth between those two.

AV:  Tell me how you feel about working with your music in the engineering and production stages. Do you have to take off your artist hat and put on your impartial engineering hat so that you can make good choices about the mix? Is that difficult?  

DH:  Because I’ve done so much of it, it isn’t that difficult. It’s easy for me to switch back and forth. When I’m doing artistic stuff, that’s all I’m thinking about. Some of the songs required a little bit of editing. Sometimes it wasn’t one full take, but two or three different takes stitched together. I try not to do too much of that. So there is a lot of artistic listening afterwards to find the best takes and the best bits. I just step outside of myself and pretend I’m working on someone else’s project. I try to be as objective as possible in the listening which of course I can’t be. I’m listening for emotion, I’m listening for passion, I’m listening for technical proficiency.  But the most important part is the emotional part, the connecting part. If it moves me, it will hopefully move someone else. And then when it comes to mixing, I know what sound I’m looking for and I dial it in, add the reverb and ambiance to it and make it a finished record.

AV:  What was the most enjoyable thing you remember about working on Travels?  

DH:  I’d say the most enjoyable moments working on it were the surprises and discoveries made in the improvisations that came out of nowhere. I sometimes reach a point during recording a particular song where it gets to be too technical (or not technical enough) or I’m not as emotionally connected as I’d like to be. Rather than bang my head against the wall or get more frustrated, I do something else. I may go to a different song. Or sometimes I would go to a new track and hit record and I’d feel some music in me and I’d just start playing. And on “Detour”, they were all born that way. Just one take, improvised, done. No editing. What came out, that’s what they are. And capturing those raw moments is just magical. There was no thought behind what I was doing. There’s no craft behind what I was doing. No practicing or preparation, just off the top of my head. Twelve of the tracks on “Detour” were recorded last November when my intention was to create moods and melodic pieces for another non-album project. I had no intention of releasing them. But going back over the thirty pieces I recorded (in two days), I found twelve that fit Travels and I was on my way to that double CD!

AV:  What do you consider to be the stand out songs that listeners should pay close attention to?  

DH:  (Sigh) They’re all my babies. All thirty-nine of them! That’s hard for me to answer. Even though there’s so many songs, I worked hard to make sure there was no filler on this album, believe it or not. There were a number of songs that didn’t make the grade, that I cut, that just weren’t good enough. So, I leave it to the listener to decide that. Different songs resonate with different people. With every album that I release, I always give away three songs. They are available at different websites where you can freely download them. Those three songs are the title track, “Travels”, “Jonathan’s Song” and  “Back In Your Arms”. They’re a good representation of the album.

AV:  All in all what you do you hope that listeners will take away from the experience of listening to Travels?  

DH:  I hope it moves them. Simple as that. 

AV:  Anything else that you'd like to tell the readers of AV about in regards to Travels and the musical experience they will find there?   

DH:  I was very connected to all of the music while I was composing it, recording it, producing it. But once I saw the body of work as a whole and kind of stepped outside of it, I realized how personal and intimate it was. How much it was telling my story. I have such a connection to all of these songs and this music will resonate with me for the rest of my life. And I really hope that it resonates with the listeners.

AV: Thanks for taking time out to talk to us about your new release coming out on Monday October 24, 2011 called Travels and I wish you much success with the new album and many more in the future.