Hammer No More the Fingers are Bad Boys For Life

Sam Goblin (Mister Goblin) talks Silver Zebra with frontman Duncan Webster.

Hammer No More the Fingers (or HNMTF for the sake of word count) are one of those bands that can sort of fold time and bring you close to people more quickly than you thought possible. Forget all that protracted get-to-know-you water cooler astrology shit; if we both find out we’re into Hammer, we ride together and we die together

HNMTF have been a fixture throughout the arc of my life and the lives of many close friends over the years. I have vivid memories of fumbling with my CD player and headphones so I could jam “Vodka Grasshopper” while mowing my grandfather’s lawn, singing along to Pink Worm in the van with my old bandmates, waking up every day for a week with “It’s About Caring,” stuck in my head — I could go on and on. On a long enough timeline, some bands become a shorthand for a certain understanding. Whenever I meet anyone who loves Hammer No More the Fingers the way I do, all of that history rears up to meet whatever theirs looks like, and there we are — bonded at the altar of the Silver Zebra

Why, I hear you ask? The short version is because they rule. They’re a trio with grooves too deep and melodies too soulful for me to want to call it “indie rock.” They have a compact, portable sonic presentation, but their hooks could easily ring out across FM radio given half a chance. Their arrangements function like pistons, with parts fitted closely together but never scraping the sides of the other elements at work. 

The long version is harder to articulate. It might sound hyperbolic, but there’s something magical about this band that gives them the adhesive to stick people together in the way they do. It’s as ineffable as the chemistry between Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, but perhaps it has something to with the fact that (as you’ll see in my conversation with bassist/main vocalist Duncan Webster) the band actually are Bad Boys For Life.

Sam Goblin: So how are you, man?

Duncan Webster: Doing well! Things are good. I have two kids now. I think the last time I saw you was at the Pinhook pre-COVID, at that show with Pet Fox and Mister Goblin. I think at that point, I only had one kid.

Sam: Yeah! I remember that was a new development at the time. So how old is the newest one?

Duncan: 16 months. I can’t compare it to anything, it’s like every cliché but two times as extreme as they say it is. Also very fun and exciting.

Sam: Oof, I’m sure. That’s awesome, man. So, one thing I wanted to ask you actually: I remember at that show at the Pinhook one of you guys said you all had a whole record written that you were going to record eventually. Is that what Silver Zebra is? 

Duncan: I would say no. This thing actually came together real quickly. After that show, COVID came and all that, and we really didn’t think about the band for a long time. Then we played a really awesome local show, which was our first in two years. Kind of got us excited about it again, but that’s pretty much all it did. Then we had another show about a year later and we wrote one song and played it at the show, and then next thing you know, we had seven songs

Sam: Shit!

Duncan: Then we ended up practicing two or three times a week, which we hadn’t done since the old days in 2005 or so. We just got really pumped, so we booked the studio time with J. Robbins up in Baltimore a few months later as motivation to finish it. It all came together about a week before we went in. We made a bunch of demos and spent a lot of time just dialing up the good parts and taking out anything we didn’t like. We wanted to keep it real minimal; I think there are just three mics on the drums. We really wanted it to follow a theme of quick and dirty.

Sam: Yeah, it does feel like the whole thing is really tightly constructed.

Duncan: We worked really hard to trim any unnecessary parts, kind of took it to the extreme in some cases. Just as streamlined as possible. I sent it to my cousin who’s really into Phish and stuff and he was like, “As soon as I figure out what’s going on, the song is over!”

Sam: That’s why you run it back!

Duncan: For the last song of the album, J. hit rewind and then we tracked what ended up being the best take, but somehow the rewinding sound was left on the song. We thought it somehow symbolized like, bringing it back to the front of the album.

Sam: So you were just talking about having a family and all — what’s it like writing this stuff now compared to back in the day?

Duncan: We’re all inching toward 40 now, which is great because we don’t have as much free time and we really maximize it. We also have no choice but to get along. Our time is limited with each other and we know that. I feel like back in the day, we would have gotten in so many arguments working toward something so quickly. This time we only got in one argument, and it was actually really productive! Another thing we’ve been doing a lot together is disc golf.

Sam: Disc golf?

Duncan: Yeah, like with frisbees. We’ll play every weekend. It’s been great just kicking it. The music stuff has been really relaxed but still focused. We’re just looking forward to doing it all again. We’re just better communicators. I have to be a better communicator with my kids and that’s helped me be really patient and more to the point.

Sam: Right, I’m sure that’s good for when Joe is shitting everywhere and running around, too. Well so — you guys always felt like a band where everybody’s contributing and everything that’s happening is really important. I kind of always assumed because of that, that you guys were thick as thieves, but I remember at that Pinhook show one of you saying that you used to like, get in fist fights and shit?

Duncan: [Laughs.] Still thick as thieves though! It feels so dumb now, looking back. I mean, there was a time where we were consciously trying to “make it” in music around 2008-2012. We were going on these self-booked tours that were awful. Sleeping in cat pee. I mean, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but after a while playing to three people who don’t give a shit on a Monday night just wears on you. I think that was the big contributing factor to getting in fights and all. Spending a lot of time together in a really small car, getting sick of each other.

Sam: So if I’m kind of dissecting your sound, not that there needs to be an explanation for everything, but you guys are just so… funky? I don’t know another way to put it. Where does that come from? Is that just natural?

Duncan: I think going to Durham public schools. We just grew up listening to a lot of hip hop — that’s as much of an influence as anything else. Growing up in the ‘90s, it was just a funky time. Sometimes you just feel the funk. It is something we consciously work on, making the bass and the kick drum match up and stuff. Some of that is taken from Burning Airlines too, if you’ve ever listened.

Sam: Oh yeah, love them.

Duncan: Yeah, I mean a lot of that Dischord kind of stuff, focusing around the space between notes. Honestly though, some of the biggest musical influences these days are playing jock jams for my kids while they run around in the living room. I’m like, “Dude, jock jams are the shit.” Like, that’s a hook.

Sam Goblin currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.