First getting attention as a hardcore rapping drag queen in Brooklyn, the performer known as Hamm evolved into a musician of a profoundly more personal and idiosyncratic nature. Now with a new EP release and involvement in a prestigious series of talks, trans artist and broadcaster Theda Hammel is taking it all to an even higher level.
Thotyssey: Hi Hamm, thanks for talking to us! So, tis the season… are you a Christmas person, or are you Over It?
Theda “Hamm” Hammel: I like the season. The songs are annoying, but the colors are cute. There’s some pagan wisdom in the idea of storing up happy memories before our spirits are all crushed in the new year.
I think they might already be crushed for many of us, sadly! How are you dealing with this political climate? Are you one of those holding out hope that the Electoral College or the CIA or, I dunno, aliens or some shit are gonna save us in the final hour?
No, I have no hope. But I’m weirdly cheerful. I don’t know how to account for it. Maybe it’s that the world has gone mad, so I feel sane in comparison.
There’s not going to be any instant salvation from Trump. The damage will last at least a political generation, if he doesn’t destroy the world first.
I think his mind is unraveling. This is my little Alex Jones style conspiracy theory.
See, I dunno! I really don’t think he had much of a mind to begin with. I think he came into this with no thoughts or ideas, and now these awful, terrible people he’s latched onto are just gonna make all the decisions.
Yes, he was always a stupid motherfucker. But he lashes out like someone in early stages of dementia. He watches CNN and tweets about it. Have you ever watched CSPAN and heard the senile lunatics that call in? We let one be president.
That is a pretty scary comparison.
Well, you have a very popular online presence, with your web show. How do you predict you’ll be handling this on there? Just obsessively reviewing all the horrors? Or will you use that forum as a method of escapism?
I have no fucking idea. I don’t think escapism will work. The more you try to look away, the more anxious you get about what you’re not seeing.
At the same time, I hate the idea of “tackling issues.” Hammcast, my YouTube show, is pretty discursive. I’m kind of just talking stuff out to figure what I think about it.
How long have you been doing Hammcast, and what motivated you to start being a broadcaster?
I’ve done like 20 or so episodes. I started this summer, because I bought a nice camera thinking I would make money as a cam girl. But I’m a horrible cam girl. My beauty–such as it is–only really makes sense if I present myself as a talker and not as a sex object.
Hence, podcasting. I used to do an audio-only podcast, but that’s weirdly more stressful because it’s more of a pure object. Radio is a wonderful medium, but it’s hard to anchor it in people’s attentions without it being super tightly done. Which most podcasts do not do. God, there is nothing worse than podcasts.
But I think people need chatter in the background. Everyone is desperate for something mildly diverting while they fold laundry or commute or whatever, so there’s a nice niche to fill there. Actually, quite a few people have told me they use my podcasts to fall asleep, which I think is wonderful.
So, you’re a Pacific Northwest native? How did that world treat you?
Oh, it was fine. They have nice gays. I don’t hike or camp or any of that shit, but I think it’s nice that people do. So, Oregon is full of that.
I understand that everyone has, like, five dogs there.
My family home presently has four.
That’s very restrained! Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon is in town this week, and she’s a native of that region also. Did you see her perform at all around there while you started doing your thing there (if you did start there)?
Oh my God, yes. At the Escape all ages nightclub. She was my high school boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend.
I didn’t understand what was going on. Actually, my whole career in nightlife has been an attempt to understand what the fuck was going on at the Escape all ages nightclub.
So, I did not start doing drag stuff in Portland, because I couldn’t sneak out of the house effectively, and also was too ugly to make friends. I’m not an early adopter. I started at 23.
So it was while you were in school at New York that you began to explore drag and performing?
At undergrad, I performed music in a kind of crossdresser getup. I could not stomach the idea of performing out of makeup, but didn’t have the will or incentive to do drag. Then when I moved to the city I started doing it. Then I stopped doing it, and now I’m trans and everything makes a little more sense.
A lot of people on the outside who don’t understand drag believe that all drag queens are transgender, which is obviously false. But do you believe that’s it’s fairly common for trans people to get in touch with their identity via drag performance?
Drag culture is defiantly frivolous, which makes it a good low-stakes environment to explore tendencies that would be controversial or destabilizing in real life. But that same frivolousness makes many drag queens reluctant to take trans identity seriously, and that can make the culture an unaccommodating environment for girls who are transitioning.
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag” is, to me, a transphobic and nihilistic sentiment. If it’s all just drag, then why are trans women killed in such alarming numbers, and why would they risk their lives to do so?
Is the answer “let’s all take this less seriously,” or is the answer “no, let’s be a little more serious about this so that fewer people die”? I think the latter is more productive, although I see the value of frivolity and don’t wish for a world without it.
It’s definitely a slippery slope. When you see trans people who come from a more fringe universe like Jayne County or Kate Bornstein embracing “Trannie” and a separateness, is that a good thing or a bad thing, or a “whatever works for you?”
I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s hard to go wrong by following Kate Bornstein’s example, though.
I agree! Okay, let’s talk about music. When did singing and composing start for you?
I started writing songs at around 12. They were bad. They’re better now.
When you first started performing as Hamm, was it mostly rap that you were doing?
Yes. As a drag queen, I was not pretty, and could not lip sync. The only reason anyone gave me gigs was that I did vulgar hardcore rap. That lasted more or less a year before I ran out of things to rap about, and got frustrated and phased it out. I liked the wit involved in writing verses, but ultimately it was not in my voice; it was problematic and appropriative. I didn’t like the way it was being viewed by the nightclub audiences, and I don’t do it anymore.
The music you create now is so hard to describe. I watched a performance of that “Bicycle” song recently and it was beautiful and moving, and extremely intimate and raw. It’s difficult to categorize. Are you conscious of that lack of category?
I can’t quite figure out what category I’m in, but if anybody asks I just say I write emotional music for trans people.
So, when did you first become involved in the Brooklyn scene, and the bar TnT?
Four years ago, I think? I was involved in some way from the time it opened til the time it closed.
Do you remember the circumstances of how you got hired?
Yeah, I guested at some shows, a bartender liked me, gave me Saturdays, the manager didn’t like me on Saturdays, another girl quit Sundays, I moved to Sundays, and did that for three years, before moving to Tuesdays. Then the bar closed and now it’s probably going to be a Topshop or something.
Drag is stupid.
You were hosting karaoke there in the end. Was that fun, or torture? Or both?
Both. I don’t understand why people do karaoke. It’s ghastly. But the fact that I didn’t have to do numbers, and that I could sit in place, and talk whenever I wanted, and develop ideas over the course of a night was satisfying.
On the other hand, I had to hear “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes more times than any human should ever have to.
The rule seemed to be anyone who came to sing hated me, and anyone who came to hear me talk hated the singing. So it was not a popular show.
That sounds like a very Brooklyn dichotomy. At any rate, it must’ve been upsetting to you when the bar closed, right?
No. I love endings.
That’s a healthy way of looking at it. Do you think the drag aspect of your career is over now?
There are components of it that I’d like to re-incorporate. Also, the bookings are better, so I don’t know. But I’m never gluing my eyebrows down again.
Cheers to that! So, can you tell me about this latest recording, that you’re gonna debut this weekend?
Yes. It’s a three or four song EP, called “Very Great.” They’re good songs, I like them. I’m happy. I haven’t recorded the fourth one yet, but it’ll get done, I think.
I’ve had two of the songs kicking around for a while. The third one, “Brick,” is new. My friend Torrey says it’s a trans-inflected song, which is cute. It’s the only song where I’ve been able to address transness in a way that didn’t feel cloying.
I’ll be performing something live, I’m not sure what yet. These songs exist mostly as recordings, and weren’t written on the piano, so I don’t really know how to play some of them. But we’ll figure something out, and maybe throw in a Christmas song, or whatever.
Mariah, I dare you! Do you have stage fright ever?
Now. let’s talk about January 8th, where you will appear in an installment of the “Squirts” talks series at the La Mama theater. Those talks focus around an inter-generational pair of queer activists/artists, and you’ll be paired with the great Kate Bornstein, who we mentioned earlier! Have you met Kate before?
No! We’ve texted. She came to talk at my undergrad when I was there. For a while, I appropriated her round sunglasses thing because it made me feel like a punk.
There is quite a cool factor about her, and she’s had such a fascinating life. Does it bother you that’s she’s close friends with Caitlyn Jenner now, though?
No, I love Caitlyn Jenner. She’s the best. I love that motherfucking cunt.
I’m sure she’d be very honored to know that! Do you know how the talk’s gonna go, as far as what subjects you two will be discussing?
No, I don’t have a clue. My plan is, I want to talk about all the little trans kids and how they’re going to phase us out.
Honestly, do you watch Westworld? Do you know how the old generation robots still have mechanical parts, but the new ones are printed from organic tissue?
We’re the last generation of mechanical trans. Every generation after this is going to be defined by early access to medicine. It’s going to change the trans landscape drastically. I want to talk to Kate about that. The kids, the kids. I wanna talk about extinction!
Okay so, last question: if you were forced to come up with a New Year’s Resolution, what would it be?
Honestly, I would like to resolve to be more sexually nasty, and not such an uptight suburban prig loser douchebag.
And order less Seamless. Those are my two resolutions.
Thank you Hamm! Happy holidays!
Theda Hammel, aka Hamm, will perform songs from her new EP “Very Great” for its release party at Wise Men on December 18th. She will later appear with Kate Bornstein as part of the “Squirts” talk series at La Mama on January 8th (6pm). Hamm can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.