Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta show it takes two
The collaboration experiments with tradition
Ross Hammond thinks his new record, Upward, is his best yet. A huge factor? It’s not just his: Rather, it’s a collaboration with Sameer Gupta, a New Yorker by way of Sacramento.
Most locals know Hammond as the prolific improvisational guitarist who dabbles in jazz and experimental music. Upward finds him playing the 12-string acoustic and exploring traditional Appalachian folk music—all in his own, atypical sort of way.
But the record is really about the interaction between Gupta and Hammond. Gupta brings elements of traditional Indian music and plays the tabla, traditional hand drums from India. The two improvise an hour’s worth of music, which is dynamic, trance-inducing and nearly impossible to pin down genre-wise. In a way, the album is about how these two experimental musicians melded their own forms of traditional folk music together to create something new—and it was one of the most natural things either musician has ever done.
“We didn’t really talk about it. We never really sat down and said, ’OK we’re going to play folk music for the people, dammit,’” Hammond says. “We’re playing these traditional instruments, but we’re not trying to stay so rigidly connected to it. That definitely made this music ours.”
When they first discussed the project, neither of them really knew what to expect. Hammond and Gupta played in a dissonant, electric jazz-influenced improvisation band years earlier in college in Sacramento, but they have taken their own paths since.
Gupta and Hammond didn’t have any time to work much out in advance of recording at Gold Lion Arts. Instead, they just went for it, driven by curiosity, and chose the best songs for the record. Both musicians brought years of experience, sure, but the key magical ingredient here was the easy musical communication between Hammond and Gupta.
“It’s like seeing an Ingmar Bergman film, seeing a dialogue between two people and it’s so intense, every line is very significant, every move is very significant and it changes the environment,” Gupta says. “The fact that we don’t even know where the bottom is of this floor that we’re creating, that’s a significant act in the act of improvising.”
Not only is Upward much different than anything either Hammond or Gupta have worked on separately, it’s also very different than the music they’ve made together in the past. Rather than creating abrasive music with loud, amplified instruments as they did in college, they orchestrated something delicate and nuanced that strings together elements of chaos and unpredictability into something gorgeous and emotionally stirring.
“The appeal to acoustic music, to me, is there’s no sweetener. No fixing anything in the mix. What can you do with this instrument? That’s what we wanted to capture,” Hammond says. “If I’m playing electric guitar, it’s coming from across the room because it’s plugged in and there’s magnetic shit. But acoustic, I can feel it vibrating through my body.”
Oddly, as much as each musician brought a different form of traditional folk music to the table, the glue that connected their performance was their history with experimental music.
“It’s very informed by that,” Gupta says. “I like that it has a very listenable quality to it, but that it kind of pushes these edges. But it’s always subtle and it’s always beautiful.”