Interview By: Kevin Rolfe
Note from the interviewer:
Justin is a singer songwriter from Aptos, California. He has been performing in bands for years, but it’s only within the last decade that he’s taken to writing/ recording his own music and performing solo shows or with his band The Heavy Hand along the west coast. I’ve known Justin for over twenty years. These are questions and stories that I have wondered about and am now so happy to have answers to. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I had conducting it!
Utah Concert Review: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been involved with music, whether it be with your former band Moz Eizley, or your current band The Heavy Hand and of course your solo work as well. I guess I’ve never known where you got started with music. I know your dad plays a little guitar and is in a band right now. Is that how you got your start?
Justin Hambly: No. Well, when I was a kid my dad had a guitar but he didn’t really play. But when I was a kid I started playing drums in Junior High. Like in the Junior High Band. One day the drums started to get boring for me. Plus I couldn’t play past 9 o’clock at night because my parents would get upset. So I picked up the guitar and the first thing I learned was “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I can’t remember if my dad showed it to me, or if I just picked out the melody myself.
UCR: Is that song in the regular setlist rotation?
JH: (Laughing) I might be. I might have to expound on it a little though.
UCR: Maybe you can surprise fans by putting it in the encore or something.
JH: So that’s how I started with guitar. I played drums until 9th grade but continued playing guitar, and then I picked up the bass guitar. I don’t know why I chose to play the bass. Maybe I thought it was easier with only four strings. But I really wanted to learn how to play Megadeth “Symphony of Destruction”. So I learned that on the electric guitar. I was way into metal. Then the grunge stuff hit. So I was learning Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden stuff. What really got me into playing where I was like ‘This is what I want to do’ was I saw Neil Young on Saturday Night Live play “Harvest Moon”. I was like ‘Wait, you can be by yourself playing acoustic guitar and people will be into it?’. So from then on I picked up the acoustic and started playing and playing and playing because you can play at all hours. I play the electric guitar too but I play a lot of acoustic guitar because of Neil Young.
UCR: Now our paths crossed initially when you were in the Southern California based band Moz Eizley. I may or may not have been at your very first show.
JH: I think our first show was at Java Island in Simi Valley. That was a good show. We actually had a good sized crowd for a first show. No one knew who we were but they were very supportive.
UCR: I thought you guys had a pretty good run. I remember attending several of your shows on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. You gained a pretty large fan base. What was all that like?
JH: So when I started playing with Moz Eizley, well we weren’t called Moz Eizley then. We were just a couple of friends playing. The first few practices I brought my guitar. And Cary Judd, who was the principal singer-songwriter, we were just trying to figure things out, and Cary just wanted to play guitar initially so we were trying to find a singer. I think we were may have even talked to you about it at one point.
UCR: What could have been!! I’ll always wonder what could have happened if I had actually joined the Moz Eizley team!
JH: But being the songwriter it made a lot of sense for him to sing. I think he was just a little shy about it or doubted his skills, but I thought he did a great job.
UCR: I agree. He was definitely the right lead singer for the band. Much to my dismay!
JH: The songs were really fun from day one. We knew there was something special in the songs. One day we were saying “We need a bass player” and I said ‘Well I own a bass’. So I brought my bass and we were a three-piece for a long time. It was me, Cary and Donald Lundwall who we knew through our friends.
When Donald left the band we picked up another drummer named Ryan Gleason and a guitar player named Henry Flury who actually plays in the band Butcher Babies. We started to really push and that’s when we started to play the club scene. The music got bigger, fuller and we were at a higher quality. So we started to play bigger and bigger shows. We played all the major Hollywood clubs.
UCR: I remember some of those shows, and I won’t name the bands, but there were bands you were supposedly opening for, to where you had the bigger crowds. Most of the crowd would leave after you were done performing.
JH: Oh for sure! Several times. For not having the tools to promote ourselves. I mean, the internet was new, and social media didn’t exist. Myspace hadn’t even started. It was all word of mouth. At first, I would recognize all the faces in the crowd. But as things went along, I noticed new people showing up. We were starting to build a following. I would say it was because the music was so good. We had a really good time. We practiced really hard and played a lot of shows. And during that time for me and as a musician and a player, I really grew and it was how I learned what to do in a band situation. And a really good school for songwriting. It was a great way to learn how songs are written, developed and changed and how as a band we can shape an idea into a complete song.
UCR: So when did you start writing your own songs and performing on your own?
JH: After I my time ended with Moz Eizley, and film school, I started a small business in Santa Cruz, California. I played very little guitar for I’d say about three years. I would pick it up occasionally, but I was so busy with a new baby, and a new business and trying to manage all that that I didn’t really play. One day I was on my balcony and I had that feeling that I just needed to play some songs. So I was on my back deck and I was playing Neil Young’s “Old Man” and my neighbor Erich Hedrick popped his head over around the side of our balcony and he’s like “Hey you play guitar?”. So we struck up a conversation and it turned out he’s played with all kinds of people. Grew up in Memphis and had some large bands in the 80’s and 90’s metal scene. He was recording an album with a band called Soul Seeker. They opened for Dokken and bands like that. He asked me if I would play on about 12 tracks in a very short time. He was used to a professional level so he pushed me hard. He’d give me a song on a Thursday night, and he’d be like “Ok tomorrow we’re going to record this”. So I’d leave work, go home and just woodshed the song and write a part. And then the next evening I would go over into the studio and lay down the track. So there was this like, ‘Oh I can still do this. I still have some music in me’. It got me really inspired. It totally lit the fire again and I started playing guitar again. I fixed up my gear and I’ve always had an electric guitar. I have this one Stratocaster that I’ve had since I was 17. I always promised myself that I would never get rid of it. I sold gear when I got married, or when we moved, but I always kept that guitar. So I pulled it out and really started playing.
Then one day a friend of a friend said, “Hey there’s this guy Christian. He plays the guitar too.” He had just moved to the area, and we learned that we had similar taste in music. He came over and we played some covers and having a lot of fun. Then we invited a friend of ours Nathan who plays drums. Then we picked up a bass player and started a cover band with a singer named Tony. We started playing a bunch of parties. Our first show was a backyard party on the 4th of July. I think we played something like six songs. When we were done someone yelled “Encore!”. So we just played the six songs again. (Laughing) It was all we knew! It was a pretty terrible showing. Eventually, we started learning a bunch of covers and becoming pretty good at them. It was during that time that I started thinking that I wanted to play some original music.
I started writing songs, which I hadn’t really done before. I had written parts. But I had always been in a project with someone who had already written songs. So I wrote a handful of songs, and some were pretty terrible. But I wrote a song called “After a While”, which ended up on my EP. I sent it to our friend Cary Judd(of Moz Eizley, Vacationist, Solo, and Worm Hole Studios fame). He told me to send me the tracks to that song and he said he would mix and master it at his studio. He sent it back and I was like, ‘Woah, this actually sounds good!’. So I sent him more songs, and he really encouraged me. He was like, “Hey when did you become a songwriter?”. And I was like, (Laughing)‘I didn’t really know I was!’. So I decided to record an EP. I had done demos for about ten songs and from there I chose the five songs I thought were the best and that I enjoyed playing the most. So that’s what we released with our named eventually becoming Justin Hambly and the Heavy Hand. We used to be called Pigmanlion, but sometimes I do solo shows, and it seemed weird to book shows as Pigmanlion when it was just me. So we changed it to Justin Hambly and the Heavy Hand. And our EP is Hearts Breaking Slow.
UCR: I love it. And I commend you for going for it. It’s hard to put yourself out there with your own stuff, so I admire you for doing it.
I think it’s so interesting to discover how someone comes into their own as a songwriter. Would you say being a guitarist first, rather than being a vocalist first, your songs are set up with the guitar servicing the song rather than having a song and then plugging in guitar later?
JH: Definitely! I don’t play a guitar solo for guitar solo’s sake. I want every part I play to be perfect for that song. Or as perfect as I can play it for that song. In some way, it’s probably because I still feel inadequate at times as a guitarist. And the earliest songs I’ve written were as a guitar player. I would write all the music first before I wrote lyrics or a melody. But I’ve realized that you can have the hook of the song first, whether it’s the guitar part, or it’s having the vocals come first with the melody. Of course, there are still guitar hooks that I love that will service the song really well, but now I can do it with lyrics and a melody that I’m singing instead of just with the guitar.
UCR: Do you remember the first concert you attended?
JH: The first rock concert I went to was, Buffalo Tom, Better Than Ezra, and The Damn Builders. The show was at Legion Hall in Hollywood. This was before GPS or anything so I think we ended up in Long Beach which is like an hour away from Hollywood. We finally found our way there and somehow we still got there super early, and we were in the front row. I remember the lead singer of Counting Crows, Adam Duritz, was there. He kind of cold-shouldered us. Which was hilarious. I mean we were like 17 or 18 years old. And he was a little too cool for us.
UCR: So would you say it was that concert where you caught the bug and thought, “Ok I want to play music.”?
JH: I think the first time I caught the fire of “I really want to play music” was when I was around seven or eight years old. My friend and I were going to the park. Back when you could just go to the park by yourself. We were riding our bikes and we left the park and ended up at this music shop called World Music. I just remember being in there and, I had never touched a guitar, I was just in awe of the wall with all these guitars. I remember thinking “What is this place?!”. The next thing I know my dad showed up. I think someone who worked there knew my dad. One of those small town things where everyone knows everyone. But I remember before my dad showed up I walked in the back and people were having lessons. It was probably music that I recognized from the time. So from there I just kinda knew I wanted to do that.
UCR: Do you remember the first show you ever performed? Was it that first Moz Eizley show at Java Island?
JH: It wasn’t. The first show I had played with a band was with my brother. He had come home from college, and we played a party. We called ourselves Rumble Fish. What’s hilarious is we had two bassists. One guitar, and two bass players! (Laughing) I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before.
UCR: Woah, groundbreaking!
JH: I think it was a “Let’s let the little brother help out” type situation. So they were nice enough to let me play some whole notes on the bass guitar. But anytime you can play live and have can have the crowd or the two people that are watching you respond to anything you do, it’s amazing.
UCR: What’s the best part about playing your own songs?
JH: I have to say that when I’ve looked out and seen someone singing the lyrics to my songs as I’m playing them, that is the most special. When people latch on to something you’ve written and it affects people in some way. I’ll have people contact me on social media and ask me, what does this song mean? Or where can I get this song? I even had someone tell me that they played one my songs, “Love and Discovery”, for their first dance at their wedding. It’s a song I co-wrote with my wife, so it’s special that they asked to use it.
UCR: Is there a band you always make a point of seeing live?
JH: My wife Jenn and I are huge music fans and we go to concerts a lot together. First of all, I have to say, we never miss U2. My wife is a huge fan. We saw them on the 360° tour in Oakland and when they came across on the bridge, Bono came across and my wife touched his foot and I thought she was going to pass out.
I am a huge fan of Wilco so I make a point to see them. I saw them here in the Bay Area then I flew out and saw them in New York. So I saw them on the first show of the tour and the last show of the tour. It was interesting to see the beginning of a tour and the evolution to the end of the tour.
UCR: Last question Mr. Hambly. You’ve played a lot of shows. You’ve played in different bands, you played solo, what would you say has been your greatest live experience as a performer?
JH: That’s a really good question. There are a couple. I remember playing one show with Moz Eizley at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. I loved playing that venue. We played great, we sounded good, we put on a really good show, and there was a good crowd. I couldn’t tell you the date or anything else other than I remember feeling like ‘Woah, we did something tonight!’. I don’t know if we sold it out but it was packed.
And that’s one feeling, but then there is this other feeling of playing the songs that I’ve written. Being the vocalist and speaking to and connecting with the audience is great. We played a show up in San Francisco at Hotel Utah and I felt like, being from out of town, not knowing a bunch of people, we connected with them and made fans. That was a really good experience. I felt great about the whole performance and the connection we made with the people that were there.
Justin recently performed here in Utah at the Angelus Theater in Spanish Fork. The audience was totally invested in his performance. The crowd connected with him as he masterfully performed a solo acoustic set filled with songs of past loves, funny, meaningful, sometimes self-deprecating stories, and of course songs dedicated to his lovely wife. Following the show, there was a line of people waiting to meet/ talk to Justin. His welcoming personality and passion for music makes his performance feel like an intimate concert meant just for you. Justin has a spring tour in the works and will be bringing his band The Heavy Hand with him. Stay tuned to Utah Concert Review for Justin’s return to Utah. You can also follow Justin for future tour information.
To get Justin Hambly and the Heavy Hand’s EP Hearts Breaking Slow, just go to iTunes, Apple Music, or Spotify.