by Josh Spilker
Last December Durham showed Wilmington a thing or two about live shows by way of the band Hammer No More The Fingers (HNMTF). Three playful, and by all accounts, sedate young musicians began their show at Reggie’s 42nd Street tavern and gradually lit a fuse to an invisible bomb. The trio created a monster of music wrought from early Nineties indie rock and bouncing fury. By close, the set erupted in a beautiful collision of vibrant music and fan proximity.
Hours before the show HNMTF’s Duncan Webster (bass, vocals), Jeff Stickley (drums) and Joe Hall (guitar, vocals) sat at a table in the dark while people played pool and Reggie’s filled with cigarette smoke. They were affable, precocious and kind.
The evening, and show, was comprised of Durham bands and the majority of the crowd was Durham folk as well. No one stood around as the bands played; they playfully taunted them and absolutely cheered them on, becoming part of the show. As HNMTF took the stage it was a wonderful melee, a party. The energy was unmistakable and unavoidable. The feeling was that everyone was watching something unique and blissfully wild.
Duncan stood alone, far left of the concrete floor level stage, with his bass like a sword in a white and orange windbreaker that was a fashion statement fifteen years ago. They were playing arguably their most popular song, “O.R.G.Y.” with its grinding guitar that soon becomes punching notes that make you want to jump up and down. It’s a brief song lyrically but long on raw funk and sass. “Friday, Eleven Thirty, Meet in your parents den…The soundtrack’s for love makin,” Duncan sings with gentlemanly bravado and disco wailing on the chorus.
The crowd knew the words and began a little jig around the band, becoming congenial mayhem, as they dance and bounce against one another. Finally they’re finally dancing among the band members themselves. Joe and Duncan are getting knocked about as someone jumps off of amps and speakers. The crowd isn’t huge, maybe fifty, but everyone is into it. To describe the scene as high energy is an understatement; it was more like a pulse, the realization that music could unifying.
During the close of the show the band attacked a long jam session, resulting in Duncan and Joe writhing on the floor and Jeff being tackled behind the drum set by about four different people. It was like relief from exhaustion that was also pleasing. Duncan sat on the floor shirtless and a crowd member was wearing his fashionable windbreaker. Jeff fell over his drum kit and people stood around, smiling and yelling praise. People could be overheard saying they’d never seen anything like that. Bar owner Matt Hearn stood by the soundboard himself in disbelief.
The set did not in end in band destruction and anger, but with communion and wild interaction. Slowly invading the stage area and the crowd gleefully mobbed the band. Someone gripped drummer Jeff Stickley as if playing him like a marionette. People were in Joe’s face while his face seemed painted with a wide smile as he focused adroitly on playing. Joe tends to lean back a lot while playing and the habit came in handy as people crowded him and he tried to remain standing and play.
HMNTF’s songs are full of cheeky references countered by a throwback to grunge and 90s alt-rock, based somewhat on the bands that grew from the Chapel Hill scene at the time. But HMNTF are proudly Durham.
“The scenes are definitely different. Like the Bull City Headquarters is this dirty little place in a bad part of town, and then Duke Coffeehouse, and that’s pretty much it,” Joe said before the show. “There aren’t too many venues in Durham. You don’t take them for granted. You party really hard at them and then they close down.”
They all agree that Chapel Hill is more college rock, while Durham fosters more hard rock bands, with a dose of grittier attitude. It also has to continually build its scene, fostering a closer geniality.
“In Durham, there are only a certain number of places to hang out, and you see the same people. Somebody from a band will be waiting tables,” Joe said.
Going to work early at a restaurant is how Duncan first saw a homeless guy named Concrete, who has a song named after him – “Black Harmony.”
“I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to explain. He’s kind of like this mysterious guy. He walks everywhere. He wears coats in the summertime. He’s homeless and doesn’t really talk,” Duncan said.
“When I had to go to work at 6:30 in the morning, I’d bike to work and see him out there on Ninth Street. And then I’d get off work at night, and drive by Ninth Street and he’d still be there. He’s a little hard to figure out.”
The hard thing to figure out about HNMTF was the transformation of Duncan. In our conversation before the show, he is completely unassuming, perhaps shy. He says “I don’t know” a lot as if he is nervous, and is coy in revealing too many details, not because he’s not forthcoming, but because he doesn’t know if it’s important or interesting.
During the show, all of the guys seem to transform, but especially Duncan as he is cracking jokes and calling out to audience members. The change is astonishing, like a humble preacher taking the stage to deliver a passionate message. There is little braggadocio in HNMTF, just normal guys that don’t put on an act, merely a good time. Part of that good time emanates from a band HNMTF started in high school called Dead by Dawn – an Evil Dead tribute full of Bruce Campbell quotes and the movie being played at their shows.
“We had one more guy in it. Whenever people came home from college, we would start the band back up again…always around Christmas time. Christmas time two years in a row,” Duncan said.
“When I think back on it people dug the hell out of this,” Jeff said, kind of incredulously.
“I had a lot of fun,” Joe added.
Joe and Jeff had been playing together since middle school, and then Duncan was added in during high school. They had quite a few band members come and go, but are pretty set on now on HNMTF being a trio, citing the ease they can fit everything into their car or SUV.
“We all use really small amps,” Duncan explains. “We can barely fit.”
But Joe explains that it works well from a musical standpoint as well.
“We all have the same amount of influence. We all respect one another’s input,” Joe said. “And we have a unique approach to songs that plays off one another.”
No doubt the band has an unusual name. The story is that they found it hunting around in a relatives’ garage and found the strange English configuration.
“Actually, it’s a product made in china I believe. And it’s a little piece of plastic that would hold a nail when you’re hammering. And it’s got instructions with it, but it’s all in broken English, because it was made in China,” Joe said. “The catchphrase was ‘To be hammered no more of the fingers,’ and I think Duncan remembered it as ‘Hammer No More the Fingers.’”
Together since January 2007, they estimates they played over 100 shows that year alone while also holding full time jobs. They’ve been to New York a few times, have been featured on Stereogum as a “Band to Watch,” and have booked stereo time in Baltimore with J. Robbins (Jawbreaker). Currently they are on Power Team Records, which is run by Red Collar’s Andrew Blass and also situated in Durham. Though a lot of bands find themselves in record label hellholes, HNMTF has nothing but good news about Power Team.
“Our relationship with the record label is the best thing. They have us over all the time just to shoot the shit. They are the most supportive and friendliest and most motivated,” Jeff said. “They’re almost as excited about the music as we are.”
Their sound is something they hope to put Durham and Chapel Hill on the map again. They rattle off a long list of band names that they asked me not to print for fear they would leave somebody out. Nevertheless, it’s a long list of bands they like.
“When we were growing up in Durham, every weekend there was always an awesome show somewhere, you know, down in Chapel Hill. Now, it’s just getting there. It’s definitely on the rise. A lot of stuff going on,” Joe said.
“More people are coming out to shows that aren’t in bands. I don’t know, people that were coming out to shows were just band people, but now everybody is coming out to shows,” Duncan said.
There is something stirring in Durham and everybody is definitely coming out to see. As HNMTF played during the Helping Hands concert last January at the Soapbox the question lingered as to whether the same party would go down onstage. It did, it was just more difficult to get at the band.
Hammer No More The Fingers is performing again at Reggie’s on April 12 and
May 24 as part of the Durham Stage as part of W.E. Fest