Listening at the Edge of the Expanse: Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson of Hammock

Listening at the Edge of the Expanse: Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson of Hammock

Hammock Stranded Under An Endless Skyby Brent

You almost get the feeling that the next release from Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson will be a recording of a winter wind blowing over a stark icy landscape. With the way their recent releases as space-ambient group Hammock (and their previous incarnation as part of the space-rock group Common Children) have gone, slinking ever closer to nothingness with wispy and breezy guitar lines, such a minimalist release of field recordings would not seem out of place. And, given their impressive back catalogue of inspiring ambient music, chances are these artists could somehow pull off recording the sound of wind in such a way as to make it sound so emotional and beautiful.

Do you realize, We’re floating in space?
Do you realize,
That everyone you know,
Someday, will die?
(“Do You Realize?” by the Flaming Lips)

Hammock KenoticIn a time span of only one year (which seems short given the eternal nature of Hammock’s compositions), Hammock has released three critically acclaimed and well-loved CD’s: a full-length, Kenotic, an EP, Stranded Under Endless Sky (released both as a CD and a vinyl album), and The Sleepover Series [Volume One], a full-length attributed to Byrd, but also featuring substantial contributions from Thompson. Byrd and Thompson have dazzled listeners with these three releases of organic ethereal music. Songs with existential titles such as “Dawn Begins to Creep”, “Always Wishing You Were Somewhere Else”, and “Dropping Off” slowly metamorphose like the seasons of the earth, while somehow striking at the very core of the listener.

Who can pretend
That there’s a beginning without an end
It ain’t contrived
All this magic in our lives
Comes down like a storm
Then drizzles,
Then dies…
(“Smokey” by Red House Painters)

With such profound music pouring so freely from the pores of Hammock, and so relatively little being written of these men over the last year, the question begs to be asked: “Just WHO IS Hammock?” And, what makes their particularly ethereal music so special and encompassing for the listener? To the first question, Byrd almost sheepishly replies, “There’s only two of us, Andrew Thompson and me.” This
Sleepover Series 1response, simple though it may be, reveals the obvious but potentially overlooked fact that Byrd and Thompson are individuals with real histories and lives before Hammock. What culminated in 2005 as Hammock found its genesis in, not surprisingly, that curious combination of travel and music some years prior. As Byrd describes it, “The way it started was with my former band Common Children. Andrew was playing guitar in a band that was on tour with us. We were on the same bus so naturally we got to hang out together. After that, Andrew played several gigs with Common Children. When Common Children started our third record Andrew became a full member. That’s when we really connected—that’s why that record has so many spacey guitars—there were a lot of hours that Andrew and I worked alone on that record.” That third record Byrd mentions, The Inbetween Time, is seen by many fans as a prototype for the Hammock sound, only incorporating more structured songs laced with Byrd’s world-weary lyrics. Throughout the release, the untamed echoes and strains of delay that are the main feature of Hammock caress the listener from the distance, barely kept under control by the songs. From this beginning, the dreamy music of Hammock was born from jam sessions between the two musicians. Byrd summarizes this beginning by simply stating, “It felt like a natural progression to go from (The Inbetween Time) to Hammock.”

A simple recounting of the band’s history, though, still evades the question as to how these two men from the South can harness the experiences of humanity into music so skillfully. For Byrd, the iHammocknspiration to create music begins, paradoxically, in silence, solitude, and reflection: “I like the mountains. Once a year I rent a cabin in the mountains and try to have a silent retreat for a few days. I love to swing in my Hammock and watch the stars. I also read a lot of poetry.” This approach to seeking inspiration in such solitude runs counter to so much that our society holds dear, and strikes a chord with listeners weary of the mundane “requirements” of day-to-day existence. Not coincidentally, the resultant art that Hammock offers the listener as a result of their inspiration in solitude offers a similar experience in solitude and reflection for the listener. In Hammock’s relatively short time as a musical entity, stories have abounded as to the inspiration that their music provides for listeners. One music fan listened to The Sleepover Series [Volume One] on repeat with headphones one night while he wrote in solitude, effortlessly spending hours in the creative process. Another listener, after a particularly intense counseling session with broken and hurting First Nations teenagers in Northern Quebec, took a drive through the dark boreal forest to process his experience while listening to Kenotic. A listener listened to The Inbetween Time on headphones as he rumbled through a Kenyan contryside in the back of a Land Rover. The stories have even reached the ears of the band: “One listener said that the world seems more alive when he goes out for a walk with Hammock playing on his headphones.” It’s almost as if the listener, while listening to Hammock’s music, soaks in the same sense of inspiration that Byrd and Thompson find in their solitude in the mountains or gazing at the sky.

Driving in Your car
Oh please don’t drop me home
Because it’s not my home,
It’s their home and I’m welcome no more…
And if a double-decker bus crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die…
(“There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths)

This effect isn’t far removed from Byrd’s personal views on society, too. Byrd explains, “I do think people need to slow down. Our need for fast and exciting entertainment has spilled over into every area of life—including places of worship. People can’t be silent for very long—it’s not easy. But I think that we have to make room for the sacred in our lives and the best way that I have found to do this is to be quiet, open myself up and make space for the sacred.”

Making sense for the sacred. Certainly for listeners of Hammock the theme of using music as a means to connect with the eternal, the spiritual, God, is a prevalent one. And, as Byrd mentions above, such Hammock 3music that causes the listener to pause and reflect is so contrary to what is portrayed as “religion” or “spiritual” in today’s world. Is this sense of spirituality in Hammock’s music intentional? Have Byrd and Thompson found a way to record the very music of heaven? “It’s not something we deliberately try for”, Byrd shrugs, “but we do get emails from people who have used our music for spiritual practice.”  In the end, the listener, while pausing and reflecting, is left to divinize his or her own meaning to the music, but the meditative, spiritual, or existential nature of Hammock’s music is hard to deny, whether or not Hammock’s goal in the music is to promote spirituality. One thing is certain: Hammock’s musical appeal to spiritually minded listeners is not found in the narrowing definition of a certain dogma, but in the way the music changes one’s perspective, releasing the listener to interact in an expansive world. Byrd puts it like this, “What we hear most from people is that they notice their surroundings in a different way –like the familiar things they pass by or see everyday become unfamiliar and kind of take on a newness.”

For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes…
(“Absence of Light” by Common Children)

So, if Hammock’s music is not blatantly spiritual (or, perhaps better put, religious or dogmatic) in nature, what would Byrd say Hammock’s message to music listeners really is? “We don’t have a
particular message. We just hope that people listen. You know REALLY listen. There are certain chord progressions that we use quite often—so when you hear them throughout the record it creates sort of a theme. People used to go to symphonies and the listeners’ ears were trained to pick out the themes running through the music, but now, instead of being patient with music we want an immediate quick fix. We want listeners to take time when listening to our Hammock_nyc_2008records because we don’t make singles—we make albums. So I guess our message is, ‘take time to listen’.”  The theme of slowing down and listening to the silence in our lives indeed is one that pervades through Hammock’s music. One cranes their neck to listen to the subtle shifts in sound on songs like “Just Before Breathing”, “An Empty Field”, and of course, “the Silence”. An inscription of prose written by T. S. Eliot is scribbled on the inside artwork of The Sleepover Series [Volume One] : “the light is still, at the still point of the turning world”. This quote aptly conveys the sense of wonder in Hammock’s music. To listen, though, to Hammock’s music is to wonder more: more about from which depths does this music emanate, seeing as it has touched listeners so intimately? The listener knows that the music is constructed with guitars, pedals, keyboards, field recordings, and the occasional cello or distant vocal, but the listener is also gripped with the obsession that here is something MORE in the music. Printed on the back of Kenotic is a quote attributed to Peter De Vries that reads, “Man is inconsolable, thanks to that eternal WHY?” Byrd describes it as, “mystery—that’s what I hope comes through in our music—a sense of mystery.” Through the lens of mystery, the music of this duo makes sense. The band is able to convey without words a validation and empathy of the dichotomies of life. Hammock is peaceful and unnerving, joyous and sullen, base and spiritual, ethereal and earthy. When asked what Hammock would like people to get out of their songs, Byrd answers, “My personal hope is that it helps them to see and feel both the beautiful and tragic in this life. Mystery…”

Love is watching someone die.
(“What Sarah Said” by Death Cab for Cutie)

And so, we’ve come full circle. The music of Hammock is mysterious, and an expose of the band and their creative process leads directly back to the notion of mystery. The music, conceived in silence, gives birth to an attitude of reflection and silence within the listener. The time Byrd spends listening to the sacred, the eternal, is diffused in his music which points to the same. And as Hammock veers ever closer to conveying this sense of mystery and dichotomy that is present in every person, it becomes more and more apparent that Byrd and Thompson are taking the same journey the listener is, only that they have taken the time to listen to the silence…

I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago,
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is—
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city…
(“Lament” by Rainer Maria Rilke)

(Passages of poetry and song lyrics selected by Marc Byrd as favourite examples of poetry, except for “Absence of Light”, selected by Brenton Diaz.)

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