In the early weeks of 2018, Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling announced that they’ve shifted their focus to a brand new project dubbed Ghost Light with Steve Lyons, Raina Mullen, and Scotty Zwang. Paired with the new band announcement, the group also detailed a number of upcoming tour dates for Ghost Light’s inaugural coast-to-coast spring tour and explained that the project’s debut album would be released in the second half of this year.
Both Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling were on hand at Jam Cruise 16 earlier this month, and found the time to talk with Live For Live Music about what fans can expect from Ghost Light. With Hamilton increasingly known for his work Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in addition to his past projects like Brothers Past and Tom Hamilton’s American Babies and Holly Bowling first coming to prominence in the scene thanks to her solo piano reinventions of Phish and The Grateful Dead jams, the duo also spoke frequently about the legacy of the Dead and how the band’s spirit lives on. You can read the full conversation below:
Ming Lee Newcomb: First off, Tom, can we talk a little bit about Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s Red Rocks show this summer. That “Morning Dew” was really something special.
Tom Hamilton: My old man got me into the Grateful Dead when I was young, like way young—he gave me a cassette of the Dead at Red Rocks in ’78. When we booked that Red Rocks gig, I was able to fly out my parents who had never been to Red Rocks, who had never been to Denver, so it was really heavy during that show. During that “Dew”, I was looking straight ahead into the VIP section, and there are my fucking my parents and my brother, right there. It was super fucking crazy and way heavy.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead with Oteil Burbridge – “Morning Dew” – Red Rocks – 8/31/2017
Ming Lee: Can you guys talk a little bit about the Ghost Light project, and what we can expect? What was the catalyst for the project? What brought you guys together?
Tom: I had the American Babies thing, which was my band. Holly sat in with us a bunch over the course of a year and a half or so, and we just really hit it off musically.
Holly Bowling: Every time we found ourselves in a similar place at the same time, we were making an effort to play together, and have kept playing together.
Tom: I had the passing thought that it’d be great if Holly could just join American Babies full time, but then it kinda hit me that I didn’t want Holly to be joining ‘my band.’ I realized that I’d prefer real collaboration, so we were like, ‘let’s just start anew.’ We talked about it, and I was like, “Look, I have this idea for a band, and I have players in mind who I think we could use that would be interesting and different from what we were doing with American Babies,” and we kinda started going from there.
Tom Hamilton’s American Babies with Holly Bowling & Dave Schools – “China Cat Sunflower” – Sweetwater Music Hall – 11/19/16
[Video: NIck Dauphinais]
Ming Lee: Raina [Mullen] was formerly with American Babies, and I’m familiar with Scotty Zwang from Dopapod and RAQ. How did you guys settle into the lineup for Ghost Light?
Tom: Steve Lyons is this younger dude—he’s about 27, I guess?—and I’ve known him since he was in his late teens. He’s a monster and just an incredible bass player. He moved to L.A. a few years ago with his band, and they were trying to do the thing, you know? I ran into him last year, and things were slowing down for him. When we were talking about doing this type of thing, I was like, ‘This dude is the best dude for what we’re trying to do who isn’t already in a band.’ He’s just incredible. So I reached out to him, and we were like, ‘you can stay in L.A. if you want, but we’d love to do this with you. It’ll be based in Philly, but we’d love to fly you out and do whatever,’ and he was like, ‘Wow, yeah sure.’
Holly: From my perspective, I had played with everyone in the band other than Steve, so he was a total wild card for me. Before we all got together and played, I was like, ‘Man, I hope Tom knows what he’s doing here with this one, because if this guy sucks, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Then, we all got in the same room and played for, you know, like five minutes, and I was just like, ‘We’re good.’ [laughs]
Tom: It was one of those things where I was like, Holly’s either going to be able to trust me from now on…or never trust me again. [laughs]
Holly: Yeah, or I’d walk out the door, ‘Cool, well this has been fun.’ [laughs]
Ming Lee: You guys made the decision to start this project in the studio first, and Ghost Light already has an album under its belt. Have you found that there were benefits to starting this project off in a somewhat untraditional order by not road-testing the project first?
Tom: So the first time all five of us were all in the same room together, we were in the studio. We’d never all played together at the same time up until that point. And yeah! I think it’s been more exciting maybe?
Holly: It’s been really cool for me. I mean, [Tom] knew Steve a lot better than I did, and I had played with Scotty but I didn’t know him well, so my main way of getting to know them has been by working with them in the studio. I’m getting to know them as people sort of through the conduit of knowing them as musicians—playing together has really been at the heart of this all. It’s a cool way to all start to gel and learn and understand each other’s styles.
Tom: I also think it keeps the focus in the right place. The reason we even really all know each other is because of music. This is about music; this is about art. It’s not about any of the other bullshit. We’re all keeping our eye on the ball.
Holly: And doing it in the studio instead of just throwing ourselves out on the road right away, I feel like it’s giving us the time and space to really know each other’s strengths and figure out what everyone’s voice is and what they’re bringing to the table.
Ming Lee: How would you describe Ghost Light sonically?
Holly: This is the million dollar question, and I’m not sure we really want to give too much detail about it. It’s a very new thing, and it’s still evolving…
Tom: What the record is going to be is not like what the live show is going to be. An album is a statement, you know? It’s a document and snapshot of a particular moment in time, so we have that hat on. But when it comes to taking that album and bringing it into the live arena, that’s when we turn ourselves back into the improvisers that we all are. We get to really see what these songs can do and where they can go and how they can change and grow—and this is with all the music that we’ll play. Whatever it is, whether it’s just the songs on the record or any other music we play, it’s all gonna be ‘whatever happens.’ We just want to out there and try to do something beautiful and interesting every night.
Ming Lee: Does that mean Ghost Light will take on a “jam band”-esque feel in terms of stretching and improvisation on the road?
Holly: The whole catalyst for this project was improvisation. We all really enjoy improvising, so we’re not going to have a band where that’s not a huge part of it. I mean, that would be torture. [laughs] Literally.
Tom: I mean, yes, definitely, because that’s what we do. Now that being said, you used the term ‘jam band,’ but that’s not what this is, you know what I mean? Like, in the air quotes way of ‘Hey, we’re going to take a heady mix of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy,’ which is what a lot of things are turning into. I think that’s part of the reason we’re enjoying starting Ghost Light off in the studio together. To make music, to make art, it should be work. It shouldn’t just be, ‘We’re just going to take from a bunch of people and make shitty copies of them.’ It’s more like, ‘What is it that we all have to say? What do we have to bring to the table that isn’t already in the lexicon?’ And that’s what we’re trying to figure out. If we’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is great! But wait—this actually kind of sounds like somebody else,’ then we flush it and move on and start over.
That’s the work you’re supposed to do as an artist. That gets lost a lot, especially in this scene, when it’s easy to do whatever the guy next to you is doing or whatever the hip band at the moment is doing. That’s not art, that’s bullshit. So we’re putting in the work, and that’s the most important thing, I think. We do five-day blocks where we’re like, ‘okay, we’re going to be in the studio for 14 hours today. Buckle the fuck in and let’s figure it out’—and that’s great. We’re passing ideas around and doing the thing.
Ming Lee: The way this new band has been presented, it seems you are all viewing it as a long-term project. Where will Ghost Light fall in terms of your focus versus your solo work, Holly, and Tom, your work with JRAD and other projects?
Holly: Right, so this is not a side project for any of us. This is the thing that we’re all invested in and want to put our time into. Is Tom going to keep playing with JRAD? Of course. Am I going to keep playing solo stuff here and there? Totally. But, the thing that we’re really jumping into right now is Ghost Light. As much as I know you love playing with JRAD and I love doing the solo stuff I’ve been doing, I think we are all looking for something else. Personally, I have a lot of ideas that I can’t express in the solo context and a lot of things I want to try out, and this is the place for all of that.
Tom: This is our laboratory. We have all these ideas, and with the band, we can all bring in these ideas and figure them out together, like ‘How do we make this awesome?’ What we’re saying, what we’re adding to the lexicon—our voice and original material—Ghost Light is our contribution to that. It’s not the side note or the asterisk; it’s the main course, and everything else is going to be what we do when we’re not doing this.
Holly Bowling – “Terrapin Suite” – Massry Center for the Arts – Albany, NY – 5/12/16
[Video: Holly Bowling]
Ming Lee: Across the album release and the live shows, is there one thing that you’re particularly looking forward to in 2018?
Holly: For me, it’s not a division between the live shows or the album. For me, it’s more so about seeing the progression that the music is going to go through; I’m more interested in this whole project over time. We’re just getting started here, and it’s constantly in flux and growing and changing already. I’m just excited to look back at these same songs at the end of this year and be like, ‘Holy shit! How did we get here from there?’
Tom: Yeah. From today to when we walk off stage, hopefully during our New Year’s show, looking back and being like ‘Wow, what the fuck happened in there?’ because that’s a huge gap of time.
Ming Lee: Holly, your husband records and disseminates many of your solo shows. Will you still be doing something like that for Ghost Light?
Tom: Hopefully! [laughs] …if he’s into it.
Holly: He’s not going to be on the road full-time like he is with me. We haven’t talked about this in any sort of official capacity, but coming from the scene that all of us are and given the roots all of us have, I assume we’re going to have a pretty open policy about taping and archiving and wanting to make sure all that stuff is circulating freely.
Tom: And, again, every night is going to be different, and that’s the beauty of it.
Holly: And that pushes you too, and I want that.
Tom: You gotta challenge yourself. There’s no going out there and doing the same shit or whatever. Every song, every night is a challenge. What does it mean to you tonight? It’s not like method acting where you’re conjuring up a feeling from whenever. No, this is the moment. What is this version of the song going to be? And we don’t know—none of us know—and that’s what makes it fun. There’s no formula. One of the things that we both most share in common is that we’re both improvisers in a very real sense of the word. We’re not “jam band-ers,” and we really want to go out there.
Holly: Our whole plan is to Throw. Away. The. Map. Tear it up, light it on fire. Question mark?
Ming Lee: You guys have been talking a lot about the improvisational aspects of Ghost Light. Would you say that’s something that you’re actively cultivating, or is it more just a natural extension of all of your temperaments?
Holly: Hm, kind of a mix? I don’t generally think of myself as running a dictatorship musically whenever I’m playing with somebody. Because we’ve been working on writing together a lot, I do think there is this conscious exchange when you bring in a tune of, ‘What do you want to do here?’ ‘Well, I have a couple of ideas, but I’m also interested in holding those back and not having it just be my voice.’ So I think it’s a little bit of both.
Ming Lee: You have both collaborated with original members of the Grateful Dead at various points over the past few years. What is that like, considering that major aspects of your careers rely on continuing the musical legacy of the Dead?
Tom: We actually just had a long talk about this the other day. I look at it like this: There is a Grateful Dead cover band in every city in America. That’s a lot of people playing this stuff. There are a handful of people that are in the position that Holly and I are—of being sanctioned by them. That’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility to carry the ship forward, to make sure that the songs, plus the reason the songs are there, keep going. So it’s not about looking behind you—that’s not what the band is about…We don’t try to sound like the Grateful Dead. Holly doesn’t sound like Brent [Mydland], and I don’t sound like [Jerry] Garcia. They already existed. Why would we do that?
Tom Hamilton’s American Babies with Bob Weir -“Loser” – Sweetwater Music Hall – 11/18/16
[Video: Deadheadland Films]
Tom: This kinda goes back to what I was saying with jam bands in general earlier. If you want to honor somebody, you don’t copy them. If you love a certain artist because they did something amazing and unique, well, don’t do exactly what they were doing—that’s already happened. Take it and run with it. With the JRAD thing, that’s what we’re doing. We’re not trying to sound like the Grateful Dead. That’s the opposite of what that band is about.
Holly: I think especially with JRAD, the whole thing is about turning all this shit upside down and pushing it out there.
Phil Lesh, Holly Bowling, Ross James, & Eric DiBerardino – “Eyes Of The World” – Terrapin Crossroads – 11/4/16
Tom: Constantly changing, constantly changing, and never resting on anything! I’ve never played with any of the guys from the Grateful Dead and had them be like, ‘Oh, do it more like this.’ Like, no! That’s not what it’s about. So I embrace that we get to carry this thing on in a good way until we can’t. I think the trick to it is maintaining humility. We didn’t write that shit. None of the guys in JRAD have egos about this shit because it’s not ours. We’re just a conduit for it.
The size of the crowds and all that stuff is cool, but that’s not us. It’s them. We’re just a continuation of this thing and helping bring it forward. The real tip of the hat to them is that we’re still all making our own music. We’re all still trying to innovate and move the music in a forward direction and do something new and beautiful and useful with it. None of us are just taking what has been done, rebranding it, and passing it off as our own. That’s insulting, you know? It’s important we take what they do, and we twist it, turn it inside out, and fucking shred it, and do whatever it is that you can do with it, because that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Holly: Exactly. It’s not about replicating it. It’s about replicating the spirit behind it and continuing it.
For more information on Ghost Light’s upcoming tour plans, head to the band’s website.