Interview: Jan Hammer on Seasons Pt. 1 - EMusician

Interview: Jan Hammer on Seasons Pt. 1

"I kept returning to certain things that were haunting me. I’ve wanted to do it for a few years now"
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“A big thing that’s still with me is the leftover feelings from doing Miami Vice and that electronic, instrumental kind of pop music. So over the years I had sketches that I knew I was going to finish, and I finally went back and finished them.”

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Fans of Jan Hammer’s work from that era and later, like Beyond the Mind’s Eye (1992) and Drive (1994) will surely be thankful that new album, Seasons Pt. 1, hit shelves earlier this year. Jan has been pretty quiet over the last 18 years, mostly re-releasing catalog material, so all-new music is a big deal.

Jan Hammer is one of the pioneering musicians who embraced the Minimoog as a lead instrument and helped define the vocabulary and performance techniques that shaped the role of the synthesizer in fusion, rock, and pop genres. His work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, The Jan Hammer Group, Schon & Hammer, among others is legendary.

(From right) Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jan Hammer: The Jan Hammer Group toured with Jeff Beck in the mid-1970s.

(From right) Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jan Hammer: The Jan Hammer Group toured with Jeff Beck in the mid-1970s.

No doubt some fans would like him to stay in that space, dueling toe-to-toe with many of the best guitarists on the planet. But if you look over his career it is clear that Jan has expanded and moved on in his timbral and musical tastes. His work on Miami Vice was hugely influential and showcased his ability to create vignettes and scores that conveyed a wide range of moods.

And that is the Hammer that we get to enjoy on this new release. I spoke with Jan from his home studio to dig into the inspiration and tools he used to create Seasons Pt. 1.

I was told that this project combines new writing with sketches you’ve done over time and then expanded. Can you tell us more about how Seasons Pt. 1 came about?

Well, it is like working on a painting, musically you do sketches — they sometimes will lie around in a drawer — and I kept returning to certain things that were haunting me. I’ve wanted to do it for a few years now; it’s not like I just decided this year, “I’m going to do a new record”, you know? It was something I’ve been collecting and working on over a few years.

Take me through your studio and technology these days.

As far as hardware I think it’s pretty close to when you came here [Note: I visited Jan’s studio back in 2003.] I used to have an old analog Sound Workshop console, and I’ve replaced that with a Yamaha DM 2000 digital board, which sounds great and works beautifully as a control surface for Pro Tools. My main keyboard/controller is a [Korg] Triton Extreme 76-key model. I still have a lot of hardware synths that I’ve collected over the years.

What’s really changed is my adoption of virtual instruments. I’ve gotten into a lot of the Native Instruments stuff, and I use some of the synths from within Reason. Both have some really great synths and sound libraries. For example, in Kontakt I found this beautiful cimbalom sound that you can hear in “Miami Nights” and in “Winter Solstice.” That’s a sound from my corner of the world, a Hungarian/Slovak instrument. I’ve always been looking for that sound and the one in Kontakt is so beautiful.

Do you record MIDI or go straight to audio?

I always record MIDI first and then bounce individual tracks to audio for maximum synchronization. I edit the MIDI to help shape the expression, and then I work on each audio track to EQ, add some effects, and make it fit right in the mix. All my signal processing is now in the box as well. I use things like [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig, and [Avid] Eleven, and also the beautiful Reverb One and ReVibe II that can be used with Pro Tools. All my EQ, limiting, compression comes from within Pro Tools.

Do you work alone, or with an engineer or another set of hands?

No, I’ve always worked alone. The only time I had an engineer in here is when I had my group [The Jan Hammer Group] up here recording, many years ago.

When I did my first solo album, The First Seven Days, if you listen to the multitrack you can hear me starting the tape machine and then running across the room to the drum kit and starting to play! Working here in my studio, which is located in a barn behind my house makes for some funny moments. I remember I was working on a record here with my friend Dave Johnson, and while he was recording a vocal my big German Shepard dog walked into the room. And on the record you can hear Dave ask, “Whose dog is that?” We decided to leave that in…

One thing I noticed is you didn’t use any of your signature lead synth sounds. No Moog, no Oberheim SEM, none of those iconic timbres. Why was that?

Hammer's moog solos helped popularise the use of electronic synthesizers as
 performance instruments.

Hammer's moog solos helped popularise the use of electronic synthesizers as performance instruments.

I don’t know, I sort of have outgrown those sounds. Originally the Moog was great; I did all of the First Seven Days stuff with my Minimoog. During the Miami Vice years I was using a Memorymoog through various guitar amps, along with an MXR flanger, which I needed to make the waveform move a little. Ultimately I was gravitating towards something that would actually have more of a lead guitar “bite” and articulation. The only way to do that for me was to work with samples. And that’s where I’m at now, although I’ve gone through a lot of iterations to get here.

When I moved off the synths I used the Kurzweil 1000GX Guitar Expander module for a few years. Then I moved to Korg instruments like the O1/W and then the Trinity; those sounds really get to my heart, and they respond so well to my playing. A few of the guitar sounds on the recording come from a Reason library that I ran through Guitar Rig. Mostly some Strat sounds.

The touch and response of an instrument has always seemed to be important to you. I’ve read many interviews where you talk about the value of that.

Hammer onstage with Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s.

Hammer onstage with Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s.

Yes, that’s the bottom line for me. If something doesn’t happen for me emotionally when I play a sound, then nothing happens. It has to play like an instrument, not just be a sound that I trigger. And that’s why I eventually grew out of playing just a basic synth sound for my solos. It was good in the beginning, for Mahavishnu and when I was playing with Jeff [Beck], but over the years it became too limiting. I needed something that basically burst with expression.

If you think about it, all those classic sounds that we chase and try, time after time to emulate, none of those instruments were even velocity sensitive.

Exactly, I can’t even believe it looking back now. All I had was a volume pedal. Well, the way the sound hit the amp gave you some variety and feedback, so that helped some.

I have seen you live and in clips where you get your signature sync oscillator lead sound from a Korg Triton Extreme, probably using the MOSS board add-on

That’s right. Over the years I had gotten a really good version of that sync oscillator sound using that MOSS board.

Let’s go through the new album and get some details from you. “Miami Nights” sounds just like your cues from the TV series. Did you move your sounds from the Fairlight to a more modern platform? The drums sound spot on.

You will be surprised… those drums come from Native Instruments Battery. I found the kit and it completely knocked my socks off. All the drums on the original Miami Vice theme were my own drum kit that I sampled. I also really like Native Instrument’s Massive. There’s some great bass stuff, and I used a harp-like plucked sound for the second lead section.

And the lead guitar sound?

The Korg O1/W and the Trinity are my go-to instruments to get a lead guitar sound. I think that one came from the Trinity. I printed it straight out of the keyboard and then did some post-processing using Guitar Rig and some limiting within Pro Tools.

The piano in “68 Reasons” sounded a bit older, more like an upright than your grand in the studio.

That sound is one I keep coming back to over the years; it comes from a Kurzweil rack [1000PX], not my real piano. It just talks to me and responds well to my touch. So the piano was the Kurzweil, the bass comes from Spectrasonics Trillian, and the guitar is from the Trinity. The title of that tune comes from the fact that it is played in 6/8 time. It’s very bluesy: I have a couple more things that didn’t make it to this record that I’ll get to when we do Part 2. I really want to do some straight blues; sometimes just a really good blues is needed.

What about “Ocean Drive”?

After the first two heavier tunes I thought the album needed something lighter to cleanse your palette. The thing that stands out is the bubbling Wavestation comp underneath. That’s such a wonderful instrument. The nylon guitar comes from my Fairlight — it still works! I look at it and think it should have a chimney coming out of it… it’s very steam punk!

In “Suite European” the string pad behind the piano sounds so rich and gorgeous. What’s that coming from?

That’s strings from the O1/W layered with some chamber strings from the Trinity. I add expression using the ribbon on the Trinity; I love how they open up using the ribbon. I think there might be one more string layer from the Kurzweil K2000, a darker, thick, syrupy string sound that helps the three tracks to gel together.

I love the piano interlude, the harmony is wonderfully “tart”, and it’s a great flavor for the piece.

Thanks! Those were actually separate pieces that I had sketched out at different times, and then I tried laying them together and they just fell into place. I didn’t intend them to be part of the same composition at first, but it worked to bring them together.

In “April” what synth plays the opening line?

It comes from a bank of alternate sounds I found for the Kurzweil K2000 — that whole intro, rhythm and all, is K2000. It’s a great example of how much synthesis you can do with that keyboard; it’s not just sample-playback.

“Winter Solstice” seems to draw on your classical influences. I know you studied in your youth. Who are some of the main influences that still resonate for you today?

Overall I would say for piano music that Chopin speaks to me the most. And I can never get enough Bach. But then again there’s always something good to be had from Miles, and from Coltrane. And I’ve been listening a lot to the complete Bill Evans Trio At The Village Vanguard from 1961 [The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961] with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. It’s mind-blowing beauty.

Agreed. Back to technology: “New World II”?

That opening wave-sequence groove is of course the Wavestation. And then I built up more parts, again using some of those K2000 sounds we talked about earlier.

“Sanctuary” seems like another nod to the Miami Vice vocabulary. Would you say this rings true?

I guess so; the drums certainly have that attitude. The organ patch came from the O1/W, and it combines an organ sound with a nice sustaining bell-like quality. The sound was called Sanctuary so I decided that’s what the tune would be called. The soft plucked sound is that Massive patch again. It’s very gentle-sounding and really responds to your touch and expression. And the lead guitar is once again the Trinity.

Is this true for “Suite Latin” too?

“Suite Latin” came together much like the other suite did. I had a couple of different sketches and I brought them together, edging closer until they met, and it worked. It again features my favorite Fairlight nylon guitar.

“Causeway Bridge” obviously sounds Miami-related.

Yeah, it’s just a heavy, haunting theme that I just had to get out of my system. I heard the whole piece at once; it just came to me fully formed. It was a really wonderful experience. I played it on piano right through and then arranged and produced over that. It’s that same O1/W and Trinity string combination.

What is the drum loop used on “Cyclone”?

It’s funny, that was just some older sampling CD I had lying around the studio. I decided to see what was on it, and this loop stood out as just what I needed. And it was royalty free, so there you go! The really in-your-face guitar parts all came from the O1/W.

What about “It’s Time”?

That electric guitar sound came from an old Korg X3. I’ve used it on lots of things over the years. It really lends itself to mournful, bluesy playing.

The last time you played with Jeff Beck was in 2016 at the Hollywood Bowl, right?

Yes, it was part of his 50th anniversary of rocking out, and it was an incredible experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the DVD from that gig, but we played a tune of mine called “Star Cycle” and they synchronized the lighting, these concentric circles at the edge of the bowl, to the sequenced riff of the tune. Oh my God it was amazing! That was the last time I played on a stage.

Playing a live show is a pretty rare thing for you.

Yes, at this point in my life, getting a band together, dealing with all the gear, the travelling… it’s not going to happen. I did it to death.

Do you write all the time? Some people consistently work at the craft to keep up their chops, others only work when they are facing a deadline. How is it for you?

I never calculate or pre-think it like that. An idea comes to me, it gets born and then I say, “Ah, that’s what this wants to be.” The music tells me.

Are you already working on assembling more stuff, thinking toward Seasons Pt 2?

Sure. There are already a couple of things that are finished, that just didn’t make the cut. But I’m not going to rush it. I want to see how people respond to this music. Hopefully it will be positive.