Since the band’s founding in 2003, when Byrd and Thompson began collaborating on sound collages to escape their jobs in Nashville’s work-a-day songwriting circles, Hammock have released a litany of acclaimed full-lengths, singles, EPs, and ad hoc collaborations. The duo’s work has masterfully traced across sub-genres of modern classical, ambient, shoegaze, and post-rock, resulting in an oeuvre that’s as varied as it is incomparable.
In 2017, Hammock is regularly invoked in conversations alongside modern classical and ambient music’s most renowned acts, and Byrd and Thompson have befriended musicians they once considered heroes. In 2008, Hammock performed alongside Stars of the Lid in New York’s eminent Wordless Music series, and it only took two records to catch the attention of Jón Þór Birgisson, of Sigur Rós, and Alex Somers, before Hammock were invited to perform at the U.S. debut of their Riceboy Sleeps art exhibition, in 2007. Still, for all Hammock’s reach in left-of-center spaces — and the praise that’s been heaped on them by Pitchfork, the BBC, the Wire, NPR, John Diliberto, and Ricky Gervais — it’s worth remembering that Byrd and Thompson hail from, respectively, a small town in Arkansas and a 102-acre farm in Tennessee.
Initially the two weren’t sure they wanted to embrace that fact, seeing how many ‘experimental’ artists hail from cities like Berlin, Brooklyn, and Reykjavik. Despite having impressive songwriting credits in other musical spaces, far from left-of-center tastes, Byrd and Thompson don’t have conservatory pedigrees and they weren’t mentored by, say, a La Monte Young-ian fixture from New York’s legendary downtown scene. Hammock’s work has always represented a natural flow of emotional instincts and it has little intentional relationship to theory, much as it sounds as painstakingly molded as anything from the avant garde.
The instinct to be tight-lipped about the South wasn’t for lack of love of the region, with its gentle hills and contradictions. Both Byrd and Thompson are nostalgic for rural climes, and they get restless when they don’t spend dedicated time outside the neon-blur of Nashville. On the Thompson family farm, as a child, one couldn’t see the next neighbor’s home, isolated as they were on beautiful spits of cow pasture. And Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Byrd moved after his childhood in El Dorado, is a U.S. national park. For the South’s allure, however, Byrd and Thompson understandably wanted to avoid being associated with base stereotypes of Southern culture.
The fear was ultimately for naught: Early critics and listeners couldn’t help but luxuriate in the fever dreams of Southern beauty that Hammock inspired. If, earlier, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, and William Faulkner had transmitted the region’s shapeshifting ironies through pitch perfect characters in literature, Hammock conveyed the South’s towering melancholy by way of dazzling, impressionistic instrumentals. Hammock’s work is of a piece with visual artists such as Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin, evoking majesties through suggestion. It thrums from the deepest subconscious recesses.
‘We only wanted to make music that we’d like to listen to,” Byrd says now. “The test for those early records was me lying down in, of all places, a hammock, and I’d stare at the stars with our music in headphones. If it made me feel more connected to my environment, then it was good. If not, it was time to work on something else.”
Byrd and Thompson, like so many teenagers, primarily cut their teeth on rock music, and it was collectively through Pink Floyd, the Cure, King Crimson, and Brian Eno that the two discerned the possibilities inherent in elevating the guitar above its oft-assigned, purely technical role.
“All the sudden a light went on,” says Thompson, who studied art in Richmond, Virginia, before returning to Nashville. “The guitar doesn’t have to be the center of attention. It can be a compositional tool for cultivating textures and tones and colors. Where we’re from, the point of playing guitar was to play fast for the sake of it.”
It’s not as if Byrd and Thompson didn’t appreciate heavy music. Both liked Iron Maiden and Fugazi, among others, and the first trip they took as friends, in the late-’90s, was to see Bob Mould of the erstwhile punk act Hüsker Dü in Atlanta.
“Anger and emotional weight is so present, so close to the surface when you’re a teenager,” Byrd says. “So heavy music can give you this connection and freedom. It’s the same with the music we make now — especially with Mysterium — except it gives you the space to expand, to watch emotions shift.”
Mysterium represents another in a long line of gorgeous works that, aside from critical acclaim and blooming worldwide audiences, have led to licensing opportunities with NBC, CBS, ABC, the NFL, ESPN, CW, Warner Brothers Pictures, and Showtime. Hammock compositions have also appeared in international stage productions, feature films, and on benefit compilations to assist victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, in Japan, and Hurricane Sandy. Moreover, Hammock have produced remixes for BT and Helios, among myriad others, and the band will have work featured in Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts in 2017.
Despite the opportunities their work has afforded them, however, Byrd and Thompson remain surprised at the ineffable connections that flow from it.
“It's amazing that this inner dimension, the one we try to convey in music that’s mostly wordless, is experienced by other people as well,” Byrd says. “Our listeners aren’t following a narrative, but they can feel, to some extent, what we feel.”
“I’ve always said that Hammock is ‘what life sounds like,’” Byrd continues. “And, after everything we’ve been through to make Mysterium, everything my family endured, we’re honored to share a memorial — the sound of loved ones departed, yet inexplicably ‘here’ — in a way that connects to journeys our listeners have taken in recent years.”
Hammock’s eighth LP, Mysterium, arrives on the band’s label Hammock Music on August 25. In addition to the contributions of Bobby Shin, Francesco Donadello, and Roman Vinuesa, Byrd and Thompson collaborated with Slow Meadow’s Matt Kidd to write “When the Body Breaks,” and Kidd played all piano parts on Mysterium. Longtime Hammock collaborator Matt Slocum played cello on “This is Not Enough (Epilogue),” which also features drums and percussion by Ken Lewis. The track, Mysterium’s closer, was mixed by Peter Katis (The National, Interpol).
In Loving Memory of Clark Kern (June 29, 1995 - April 3, 2016)