“I’ve dedicated my life to mastering the theremin,” Stephen Hamm declares over the phone, his voice tinged with just a hint of irony.
Before the Thanksgiving long weekend, the musician/entertainer has decamped to Pender Island, away from the hustle and bustle in Vancouver. It’s a crisp Friday morning, and Hamm is enjoying eggnog French toast—a breakfast more suited for Christmastime, but which nonetheless falls in line with Hamm’s forward-thinking personality.
A seminal figure in Vancouver’s music scene, Hamm has been a member of some of the city’s most legendary and unconventional music groups, including Slow, The Evaporators, Canned Hamm and Tankhog. Slow is widely hailed as proto-grunge; the tongue-in-cheek Canned Hamm released an electronic dance album entitled Erotic Thriller years before EDM exploded into the mainstream. In short, Hamm knows a thing or two about staying ahead of the curve.
“I can’t tell whether I’m three years ahead or seven years behind everyone else,” he laughs. “I guess I’ve always been drawn to things that are a bit curious or off the beaten path.”
It only makes sense that “Big Hamm” would eventually take up an instrument as esoteric as the theremin. The father of weird instruments, the theremin is a box with two antennas. The player moves his or her hands in the air through invisible electromagnetic fields, producing ethereal, lingering sounds. The effect is eerie, and the performance is unlike any other.
Just ask Hamm. He first encountered the theremin at age fourteen, when he saw Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same at the now-defunct Ridge Theatre in Vancouver. “It’s a terrible movie,” he remembers. “But I was really fascinated by this long, dramatic performance where Jimmy Page was playing with the echo effect on his guitar while playing something called a theremin at the same time. Since then it has always been sitting at the back of my mind.”
Cut to 2019, and Hamm is still mesmerized by the instrument, so much so that he received his theremin training in Paris (“it was basically a nerd fest,” he notes) and in San Francisco. His upcoming solo release is aptly named Theremin Man and presents a new side of Hamm’s talents. In the past, onstage antics, coordinated outfits, and bizarre dance moves populated many of Hamm’s live performances with his various bands. But Hamm points out that the instrumentation on Theremin Man lends itself to a more atmospheric experience.
“In Slow and Canned Hamm especially, we were all over the place, literally. But when you’re playing the theremin you almost have to be statuesque, so it’s really up to you to draw your audience in. It’s a shift from what I’m used to, but it’s still really cool.” He quickly adds, “That said, I still love dressing up in costumes.”
This light-heartedness has served Hamm well over the years, and it accounts for his popularity and staying power in the Vancouver music scene. But his positive influence extends even beyond that: his day job entails working with the Downtown East Side community. “You got to find the joy in things or else you’ll lose your mind,” he advises. It’s a sentiment Hamm has carried throughout his long music career.
“With Canned Hamm, Robert [Dayton] and I used to say, ‘turn your emotional scars upside down.’ We tried to see our emotional scars as happy faces,” he says, cackling. “The human experience is full of tragic moments and suffering, but through it all we tried to figure out how to make joy out of it. We probably weren’t even conscious of it at the time, but that was our thing: joy through suffering.”
Stephen Hamm performs Nov. 15 at White Room (Nanaimo), Nov. 16 at Subspace (Victoria) and Nov.23 at Lana Lou’s (Vancouver).