Singing about struggles, and rising above them
At about six feet tall and built like a bear, Nine Pound Hammer’s Ronnie “Velveeta” Walzer is exactly the kind of character you’d expect to be behind the bar at Anna O’Brien’s, a venue that has been home to all manner of misfits for more than 40 years: bikers, hippies, eccentric academics, and professional musicians.
Thoughtful and articulate and sporting tattoos, Ronnie seems to be a lot of each.
Slinging drinks to a half-dozen regulars while wolfing down a sodium and nitrate bomb for lunch, Ronnie explains the indie-acoustic-Americana music Nine Pound Hammer makes, a genre that has taken off in Honolulu. Exploring blues, bluegrass, folk, rock, and funk, a handful of local acts have embraced these uniquely American traditions and interpreted them for modern sensibilities. Nine Pound Hammer has drawn enough attention and appreciation to have earned a coveted opening slot for the upcoming Dropkick Murphy’s concert.
“A lot of people have called it a lot of things,” Ronnie says in his deep baritone, tugging a thick neck-beard. “We sing about the struggles of the American workingman, and about rising above them. It’s a return to the music of yesterday, from the perspective of the U.S. today.”
He pauses, perhaps a bit leery of taking himself and the music too seriously, and says, “We try to keep it positive.”
The four-piece band has managed to do just that. Ronnie, on bass, guitarists Yuki “Sweet Corn” Stehman and Kehau “Peanut” Wright, and percussionist Daniel “Big Country” Walzer have decided to forego offers of regular weekly gigs from a variety of local venues in favor of larger, if less frequent, special engagements.
“We want people to get psyched for our shows,” says Ronnie. “We want them to be big parties.”
Speaking of his Cherokee-Irish roots, Ronnie says he’s been in music since he was five years old. “Like a lot of musicians, I grew up singing in church,” he says, with a clear reverence for that heritage.
While Ronnie serves as the band’s manager, booking shows and handling promotion, the creative process within the band is decidedly democratic. All handle vocal duties and contribute to the writing.
“If you see one of us singing a verse, that person wrote it,” says Ronnie. All sing harmonies, often in three thoughtfully arranged parts.
Nine Pound Hammer came together as a result of a regular open-mic night at Anna’s. Ronnie was tending bar. Their first show was a First Friday event at the Chinatown arts enclave Ong King.
“We fucking stomped it, man,” Ronnie says proudly. “It was packed. We only did five songs, all originals. We thought the roof was going to come down.”
He’s proud of the fact that Nine Pound Hammer plays only original music. “We’ve only done one cover, at the Hard Rock. It was a Billy Idol medley,” he says, without a trace of irony. “It went over great. But we’re committed to creating and supporting original music.”
And the members of Nine Pound Hammer regularly demonstrate that commitment. Indeed, after his shift at Anna’s, Ronnie is headed to 39hotel to perform with the bluegrass outfit Dischord & Rye. Peanut and Sweet Corn performed as a duo recently at the newly opened Downbeat Lounge. Nine Pound Hammer and its individual members often collaborate and perform with similarly-inclined bands like Art of Whimsy, Raised By Wolves, and Onward, Etc.
While the subject matter of the struggle of the workingman may seem fraught with disillusion and rebellion, the music of Nine Pound Hammer is purposefully upbeat and infectious. “It’s all about getting people happy and dancing,” Ronnie says. The band gets into the celebratory spirit they try to foster in the attendees at their shows. “We get dressed up, you know. We want to make our shows a big deal.”
As for Nine Pound Hammer’s plans for the future, Ronnie is optimistic, but not unrealistic. “We’d like to look into the summer festival circuit, maybe hook up with some likeminded bands,” he says. But there doesn’t seem to be any push to break out on the national level just yet.
“It’s great man,” says Ronnie, pouring a round of shots for the regulars at his bar. “We have a nice niche.”