Bob Jacks knows what's important, and what's important isn't carrying high-interest revolving credit debt on his back.
In fact, Jacks doesn't carry much at all. The Hammertoes guitarist and self-described "American gypsy" understands that enjoying the freedom of moving at a moment's notice means denying himself material goods some consider essential. If a fire struck his rented house, Jacks wouldn't find himself half-naked in the yard clutching a family photo album in one arm and the family pet in the other, staring mournfully into the flames while his tax records turned to ash along with the rest of his worldly possessions.
"We just moved," says Jacks. "In about 15 minutes, I was totally cleared out of our house. My backpack, my guitars, my camera."
This minimalist philosophy doesn't exactly carry over into the "gypsy jazz" sound of Jacks' band, the Hammertoes. The eight-piece Tempe juggernaut brims with complex orchestration that includes classical guitar, clarinet, tuba, violin and saw (as in carpentry-tool-turned-ghostly-wavering-sound-effect in the hands of vocalist Casey Wade). Drawing inspiration from artists like Tom Waits, the Hammertoes' multi-instrumental approach to songwriting tosses around sound like juggling pins in an Old World carnival. This eclectic blend could easily descend into cacophony were the band not smart enough to control the voices haunting its jazzy aural landscapes.
"Learning when not to play is as important as knowing when to play," says David Cosme, responsible for trumpet and tuba on the Hammertoes' recently released self-titled debut.
"It's only natural that everyone wants to play the song, but to have eight people playing all-out on any one song would be insane," adds Wade. "When we started, that's how it was, and we just said, 'Wow, this is too chaotic. Let's spread it out a bit.'"
Wade, along with Jacks, started the Hammertoes last October after the two dropped the curtain on their previous band, the Sticmen. Tired of what Jacks describes as a rock 'n' roll syndrome--"seeing the same four white guys on stage"--Wade and Jacks may have set a record by launching a fresh band in under a month. The two, who have essentially lived out of a backpack for the past five years, had shows booked even before putting the finishing touches on the Hammertoes' lineup and repertoire. Then, after concluding a preliminary spate of local gigs, the band went into the studio to record its debut, a handsomely packaged release that showcases a crew tough enough to tackle Waits' "Yesterday" in between quasi-nostalgic originals with titles like "Martini," "New Bossanova" and "Gypsy Curse."
The Hammertoes' penchant for taking ethnic sounds, including Slavic folk influences, and twisting them into a more poppy format sets the band apart from the crowd while affording it considerable creative latitude.
"Our music sticks to the truth of our lives," Jacks says. "Even the rhythms, the whole chaotic nature of the band, the lyrics; it all expresses this crazy life we live."
How popular this experiment will prove remains to be seen, but the musicians apparently aren't sitting on their hands waiting to find out. Currently recording their next CD for Tortuga Records in a studio outside Tucson--"It's a shack, a sweatshop," Wade says, laughing--the Hammertoes have begun tinkering with their sound by incorporating more Latin and bossa nova elements. "Real Spanish stuff, like 'toro, toro,'" the singer explains.
Surprisingly, band members had little previous experience playing this sort of music. Drawing individuals from all walks of musical life, the Hammertoes' roster features a former speed-metal drummer (percussionist Scott White, who has also performed with Bombshelter DJs), power-pop queen (drummer Kimber Lanning), and classical students (violinist Nancy Kuo and guitarist Michelle Sutherland). Johnny Butler brings his bass talents into the mix, too. Lately, there's talk of including a bassoon player and an accordionist, although so far it's remained just talk.
"We did get some guy to lay down vibes [vibraphone] for our current CD," Jacks says.
Besides their musical diversity, what sets the Hammertoes apart from many bands is their ability to express themselves in other art forms. Several 'Toes are photographers, and Cosme is a painter. In fact, the tuba player only recently rediscovered his musical ability after letting it languish.
"I met Casey's uncle at Long Wong's," Cosme says, his voice filled with intensity and enthusiasm that are contagious. "It had been years, maybe 10, since I played music. I was a painter, right? I had heard stories about the Sticmen. They'd been in Japan; these guys were stars. They came down and Casey's uncle asks me, 'You play an instrument?' I go, 'I got a tuba at home.' He's like, 'You wanna play?' I told him, 'Get outta here!' Then Casey called me every single day until my brother was like, 'Would you just get over there?' I figured I'd go there, play, they're gonna see how terrible I am, they'll never call me back again. I came down and played and Casey's all, 'Dude, you wanna be in a band?'"
Cosme is the sort of rounded artist Wade and Jacks hoped to discover in Phoenix. Before migrating to Arizona from their previous addresses in Chicago and New York, the duo researched the Valley art scene to ensure that it was the right setting for their new project. They didn't want their next home to feel too big and established like Los Angeles, or too small and fragmented. From their experiences with the Sticmen, both Wade and Jacks knew how a large city could kill a fledgling band with pressures of competition and high cost of living. Phoenix looked promising, a place that had plenty of potential waiting to be tapped.
"We have such a wealth of artists here," says Butler. "I came from San Francisco, and there was a lot going on in the Bay, but there's so much more happening here on a real savage level. I was surprised."
Butler insists the community needs to "hype the painters, photographers, artists in general." Right now he and others in the band feel there's not enough media attention given to homegrown talent. It's hard to argue with him.
"Pretty soon they're going to make it so you can just sit home and some other entity will go live your life for you," Jacks says. Still, Butler remains optimistic. "People are starting to back [the arts]," he claims. "It's coming and it's going to be a monster when it all comes together."
A key to creating a vital arts scene in Phoenix, according to band members, is changing some of the laws that limit artistic freedom. Jacks cites policies in Tempe that ban street musicians and foster a homogenized, sterile downtown planned to make it easy to patronize local merchants but difficult to experience much else.
"We're not going to get a bunch of sticks and attack the Mill Avenue Merchants Association," says Wade, "but maybe we should. Where are the young people? Our generation isn't saying anything. It's our ethical obligation to change this stuff."
Lanning, herself a merchant who owns Stinkweeds Records, agrees. "Local government wants to reap the rewards of having 45,000 students here, but then they want everyone to go to bed at nine o'clock. Remember that councilwoman who wanted to bus out the homeless? They want to create this community that just isn't going to exist, and they keep squishing out the arts, unless it's upscale, controlled, very conservative art."
Wade says the Hammertoes' next CD, due by October, isn't overtly political, but it does address topics of freedom and artistic expression, two principal elements in the gypsy lifestyle whose spirit the band has adopted.
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"We're talking about credit cards, an obvious evil," the big 'Toe says. "We rack up huge credit-card bills, we have to go to work. America has figured out a way to legalize indentured slavery on a mass level."
In the end, the message the Hammertoes really want their audience to understand is what they already understand: the importance of pursuing the individual dream despite the risk of poverty or failure.
"When things are going really well and you look around on stage at the people you've been going through all this with," says Butler, "you realize you couldn't get a credit card with a high enough limit to buy that. There's no buying that. You have something priceless.