Local Metal Lifer John Cobbett on Surviving San Francisco's Tech Booms: "No Real Art Happens at $300 a Square Foot"
We haven't actually done the math, but 99 percent of metal musicians give up "the dream" and get real on the day job front before they go grey, insane, or broke. Half of that remaining 1 percent consists of bands like Metallica. The other half consists of hard-working blue-collar artists like John Cobbett, whose classic heavy style is equal parts Thin Lizzy, Emperor, and Diamond Head. Cobbett has been holding down the distorted six-string since before the first tech boom, most notably with Hammers of Misfortune and (the now-defunct) Ludicra.
John Cobbett of Hammers of Misfortune and Ludicra
In that time he's watched S.F. morph from a bohemian haven to a sun-dappled playground for the upper-middle-class to the pre-gated community that it seems to be at the moment. Of course, he's got some good stories about negotiating that familiar dance of livelihood and art, including one big break that had an eye-opening fallout. Ahead of the Hammers of Misfortune show Oct. 10 at the SF Eagle, Cobbett was kind enough to share some of these for this installment of 2 Minutes to Midnight.
What is your current day job/music split? Would you do music full-time if you could?
Ah, an interesting question. For most serious musicians I know, it's the Big Question. There's been so much breathless prognostication by the digerati about how great it's going to be for artists now that the Internet is our new master. It's tempting to break out the calculator and refute tech industry propaganda point by point, but that would sound like complaining, and musicians aren't supposed to complain! The people I know who spend the better part of each year on the road -- and make a significant chunk of their income that way -- still have to find work when they get home.
The question is, what kind of job allows you to take months off every year to tour, record, write, and rehearse, yet still pays the bills at the end of the month? If you're serious about creating original content, you understand that time and privacy must be jealously guarded. It can be done, with some creativity and luck. Everyone has their own way of dealing with it. The ideal answer is probably illegal. Like so many others, I work in the service industry. I've been working in bars and nightclubs for most of my life. I also do odd jobs, freelance stuff, and session work occasionally. A few other lucky breaks are rent control (I've been living in the same flat since before the first tech boom), and Healthy San Francisco (government health care!) I can live on very little for months at a time if I have to, and can usually pick up extra shifts at the bar when the need arises.
You once produced songs with a full band for a video game. How did you get that gig?
This was at a time when the technology had just gotten fast enough to play MP3 quality music in-game. The game in question needed music, and a friend of mine worked in the audio department. They reached out to a bunch of independent musicians and producers. It was great. Eventually the major labels took over (enter the Black Eyed Peas), but it was fun while it lasted!
If I recall correctly, you had an interesting time getting your pay for that job into the bank. Care to share that story?
Yeah. I got a check for a lot of money. I've never seen anything like it in my life! I thought I had it made. Anyway, in those days my bank account was at the Wells Fargo on 22nd and Mission. There are banners all over the walls about how much they care about people and the community. Previously, I'd attempted to get loans and stuff from these guys, and they basically treated me like a criminal. The security guard would watch me when I went in there.
I had to deposit this huge check, so I acted natural. I'd been up late drinking and writing for several nights, and hadn't showered or changed clothes for a while. I was at the height of the creative cycle; sunken-eyed, obsessed, half out of my head. So I go in there, stinking of sweat and stale whiskey, and plop this fat check down on the counter. The reaction was priceless.
The teller called over his manager, who called over her manager, who called in his supervisor. I had the whole branch looking at this check, and then back at me, and then back at the check. After a while they figured out that it was legit. [Then] they started calling me "Sir" and "Mr. Cobbett" and offering me platinum rewards checking accounts and gold diamond preferred credit cards. All with way better rates and lower fees than the "little guy" gets. This was an eye opener. I realized I'd been getting charged extra for being poor all along.
The San Francisco metal community still mourns the loss of Ludicra, who were outspoken critics of gentrification. Was the cost of living here (both metaphorical and literal) a factor in the break-up?
The breakup was not directly related to gentrification. However, the idea of a "metal community" in San Francisco is anachronistic. It's simply too expensive here for a real artistic community to flourish. No real art happens at $300 a square foot. Almost all of my friends in the music scene have moved away.
I'm very tired of the topic of gentrification. In the Mission district, where I've lived most of my life, it's been going like crazy for so long. Hammers Of Misfortune tackled this topic once and for all in "The Day The City Died" (above). You have to accept that the easygoing, freewheeling San Francisco that we used to love is gone. I still like it here, but [now] I feel like a spy from another world. I had some sorority tech transplant give me a dirty look the other day. It was a "Who let the freaks into San Francisco?" dirty look. I'm used to this look in the South, or the suburban Midwest, but in S.F.? I was quite struck by this. People used to move here to get away from the judgmental pinch-faced Muggles. Oh well.
Last we spoke, you were taking a break from playing live and focusing on recording with Hammers of Misfortune. Is that still your present status? What can we look forward to in terms of your projects?
Hammers has a few shows coming up [including Thursday, October 10, at SF Eagle]. Our other band VHÖL just did a run up the West Coast, and both bands plan on playing more gigs in the future. I'm deep into the process of writing the next albums for both bands. I have riffs coming out of my ears at the moment.