Tom Hamilton is what you might call a musical renaissance man. He has earned the respect of many of his musical elders and contemporaries, which has led to a major role in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a recent appearance with Phil Lesh at the Grateful Dead bassist’s birthday celebration at Terrapin Crossroads, and the 2-night run with PhilRAD (Lesh + JRAD) for New Year’s at The Capitol Theatre. A lot of eyes are on Hamilton, as many people are starting to realize his exceptional musicianship, and uncanny ability to genre-bend and adapt to whatever music he is playing or writing at the moment. I had the opportunity to chat with Hamilton about all of these aforementioned opportunities, as well as his work with other acts like Brothers Past and Electron, the recent and very successful JRAD Brooklyn Bowl performances at the Freaks Ball, his own project American Babies and their upcoming performance at The Cutting Room on Friday, February 27th where the band will perform originals and their own takes on Modern American Rock songs from groups like My Morning Jacket, The War on Drugs, Arcade Fire, and plenty more. Here is what went down:
L4LM: First things first….were those JRAD Brooklyn Bowl shows as magical for you as they were for those of us in the crowd?
TH: We sure did have a good time. One of the best things about playing in that band is our consistency and how relaxed we can be on stage.
L4LM: How was it decided that you guys were going bust-out 15 debuts on Friday night?
TH: That was all Russo’s doing. Joe writes the setlists and I guess he realized that there were still so many songs that we had yet to play. So why not, right? I liked that show a whole lot. Those deeper cuts are some of my favorites. Apparently, I’m in the minority with loving Lost Sailor? I thought everyone loved that song!
L4LM: With the chemistry this lineup has, and all the playing you have all done together over the years, will you ever decide to write and release originals together?
TH: Oh man, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Personally, I wouldn’t think so. We all have our own careers that we write original music for, so I could see us bringing in a Marco Trio song, or something from Joe’s new band, Hawaii. But really, JRAD is this thing and I’m totally ok with it being that and being the best there is at it. Why mess with that?
L4LM: How are things going with American Babies at this point in time?
TH: Things are going great! You can feel this thing finally coming into our own, and the vision of more clear than it ever was. When I started the band, it was just a recording project, as something else to do, in between Brothers Past projects. I tried compartmentalizing BP and Babies, and eventually just stopped giving a shit, because when it comes down to it, they were still my songs. It was a very freeing experience. And the Babies shows incorporate those songs as well.
L4LM: Has the process changed, as far as songwriting, from Brothers Past to American Babies?
TH: If you look at both bands as one thing, it makes a little more sense. You can compare it to the Grateful Dead’s catalog, to an extent. Those early BP albums, were like the Anthem of the Sun; they were experimental records….Wonderful Day was a concept record made by a couple of 21 year olds. The balls on us, right! This Feeling’s Called Goodbye was really the first electro-pop record in our scene.
When it gets from TFCG to the first Babies record, initially it didn’t have to be a different band in my mind, I just wanted to make a different record.it became a similar thing, just a different band. It was an artistic challenge for me.
L4LM: An evolution….
Yeah, exactly. I wanted to go from Anthem of the Sun to Workingman’s Dead, if you will. You listen to the last Babies record, and there is electronic elements in there with synths and from a production aspect. It’s still me writing the songs.
L4LM: It’s very clear when seeing American Babies in a live setting.
TH: Definitely. It’s like you look at an old Dead show, and one minute they are playing “Me and My Uncle” or “Mexicali Blues” and the next moment they jump into “Terrapin.” You know? You go from Workingman’s to Blues for Allah, which is an extremely progressive rock album when you think about the music on that, or even with songs like a “Terrapin Station” or “Estimated Prophet.” That’s the same band that had studio versions of “Box of Rain” and “Uncle John’s Band,” and look what some of those songs became in the live setting.
L4LM: Sort of like underestimating the music and putting it into categories?
Yeah, that was one of the drags at the end of BP at the end. I hate the idea of when it comes to being creative. There were expectations within the band of things being a certain style, and it was creatively stifling. Music and art need to just be just that, and not pigeon-holed into categories. And that is what I am finally feeling with the Babies, it’s a free, positive environment feeling of “Let’s just do whatever we want.” Like, if we want to do a Babies tune into a Dylan tune, then follow that up with a Brothers Past tune, then that’s just what we will do.
L4LM: Since we have been talking about the Dead a bit, can you tell us about the experience of getting to play with guys like Phil Lesh (at Terrapin Crossroads, and PhilRAD NYE at The Cap) and Bill Kreutzmann (Billy & The Kids)?
TH: How much fucking time you got? Well, being out in Cali with JRAD at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, we went up to Terrapin Crossroads, up to Phil’s place, and me, Joe, and Scott (Metzger), I don’t know, that was the best show I have ever been apart of. It was the most pure improvising environment. All the bands I play in are fantastic, but there was something about doing those songs, and doing it with Phil, in particular. With JRAD, the three of us are the main voices, and it is a guitar-centric band. And putting Phil in the middle of that was un-fucking-believable. At the risk of sounding mildly lame, it was magical. I had played with Phil before, but something about that day just clicked. You could feel how much Phil appreciated it, while kicking our asses, because Phil still has it. His ear is on point; it is inspiring. A guy in the later chapter of his career, and he isn’t jaded and bitchy, and just enjoys it. I know a lot of guys that are just fucking bitter, ya know, like “Fuck that shit….I’m too cool for whatever the fuck.” And this guy is 70+ years old, all business and loving it, just being in the moment. It was the real deal. So….I guess that would be the first thing to come to mind. I have been pretty lucky with all of it.
And I can’t forget playing with Bill (Kreutzmann) in Billy & The Kids (at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam). He is another one, just a down-to-earth guy, and an unbelievable individual. He gets behind that kit and is just happy. You can tell that he is stoked about this 50th anniversary of the Dead, and just getting back out there and playing.
It’s all a learning experience, whether it’s who you are playing with, the road just kicking you in the balls, or whatever else it may be. But that’s the thing, there is always new people, new rooms, new musical ideas, it’s pretty awesome that way.
L4LM: Tour life can be tough at times, but what is the best part of it for you?
TH: It’s funny that you mention that. When we were just out on the road with JRAD, we were sitting around and….well, to preface this, we are insane shit talkers and ball-busters….so the five of us are just going and riffing off each other, laughing our assess off. It was Joe that pointed it out, that when we are on stage we are doing the same exact thing, just musically. There is a relationship there, a camaraderie from playing together for so many years. That’s a fun band. When we are not on stage, we are still hanging out together. And that translates to playing together as well. You can relate that to other bands as well. If there is turmoil within the band, it translates on the stage. With Brothers Past, we did some incredible stuff when we were on good terms, and when we weren’t there were some swings and misses. Same thing with Phish when they first came back. It was rough, but now they are playing, to me at least, really well. It comes down to the hang, especially with bands that improvise.
With the Babies, we have all hung out together as friends, played together in different forms, and have a good relationship, so we play well. It’s a real important thing.
L4LM: You have kept the Babies stuff coming out on a fairly consistent basis. Will you be heading into the studio at some point to begin work on the follow-up to Knives and Teeth?
TH: I’ve got a good amount of sketches for new material. I think the early part of next year, outside of some of the already confirmed shows, will be quiet for the Babies, and we will get into the studio at some point and put some songs together. Definitely looking forward to using the free time to getting into the studio with those guys. No real date yet, maybe next Fall, but I wouldn’t want to put a date on it. I’m a bit of a psychopath once I get in the studio, anyway.
L4LM: What is your songwriting process?
TH: For me, the thing that takes the most work is the subject matter, from a lyrical perspective. I start stockpiling sentences, basically, I have the notes app on my phone, and if something strikes my fancy, or a stranger says something, I just start collecting stuff. When it gets big enough, I start the process. At the moment, I have a boatload of lyrical ideas to go off of. Next step is just getting into the studio and think of the vision from a musical perspective. What am I hearing and experimenting with.
I work with this great studio engineer in Philly, Pete Tramo (???), he is a great songwriter. We’ll just put some sound ideas, like what is the color of the record, for instance. We have had a few sessions before this tour, with some crazy weird ideas….I feel like this record is going to be the most complete picture of my songwriting. I think Knives and Teeth was me reconciling the Brothers Past and American Babies thing, and letting those worlds collide. I think this next record will be a step forward, it doesn’t have to have an acoustic guitar, or a synth track, or anything in particular. It is going to have whatever is needed at that point in time. It will be weird.
L4LM: Weird is good. Fly your Freak flag!
TH: Weird is beautiful. Yeah, you know, once we start figuring out the signature of the music sound-wise, I will go through the pile of words and see what lyrics make sense with one another. It’s like pieces to a puzzle. Like dumping a bunch of clay at your feet, and you can make whatever you want out of it.
L4LM: Tell us a little about the upcoming show at The Cutting Room in NYC on Friday, February 27th.
TH: So, we were toying with the idea of honoring modern American rock bands, like Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs, Father John Misty, Arcade Fire….yeah, I know, they are Canadian, but fuck it, Win Butler is from Houston, so it counts. Close enough. So, we are going to incorporate those types of bands into both of our sets that night.
We are excited about it, we have to learn some of the tunes as a band, which is fun and work at the same time. But, these are things that make you stronger as a band. You have to dig in and make sure that you honor the music the right way. You have to make sure you have the swagger with the music, and can handle the vocals properly. It’s like, if you are going to cover Led Zeppelin, you better get those fucking vocals down, unless you are going to go the Bustle (In Your Hedgerow) route and just say, “Fuck It!” and not even sing the lyrics at all [laughs].
I don’t want to see a jamband cover Michael Jackson. I mean, it’s Michael Jackson, come oooonnnnn….
L4LM: Funny that you mention that. We actually threw a Michael Jackson vs. Stevie Wonder show a few months ago at Highline Ballroom. But, we had Nigel Hall (Nth Power/Lettuce) sing, so….
TH: Well, there you go, that’s what I mean, you better have someone that can sing. And Nigel has some serious pipes, so that works.
L4LM:: Getting back to the show, that’s a great concept. Definitely a big fan of The War on Drugs; easily one of the best albums of 2014.
TH: Yeah, we actually already cover “Red Eyes” (from Lost in the Dream). I heard that album and was extremely impressed. Then I found out the dude (Adam Granduciel) lives in Philly and wrote the album there. And I found out Kurt Vile was an original member of the band; I have known Kurt for years, I produced his first demo in 2001. But Adam lives down the block from me. So, this beautiful album was written literally right around the corner.
So it will be fun to do a Dr. Dog tune, again with Arcade Fire, music that we can put our own spin on and open the songs up a bit. Make some interesting jams out of. “Red Eyes” has been a huge jam vehicle for us; we really take it out for a walk. It’s funny bringing that indie world, which is so anti-jam, into the jam scene. But we’ll find the good shit, and bring it at the Cutting Room.
Originally, we considered doing a Motown set. It doesn’t get more American than that. I mean, who doesn’t like Motown?
L4LM: I love it. And if you don’t like Motown, there is simply something wrong with you as a person.
TH: Seriously. If you are at a bar and a Marvin Gaye song comes on, or “My Girl,” who doesn’t start singing along? But, then we figured there is nothing worse than a bunch of terminally Caucasian white dudes singing some of the most soulful music ever created. The best thing we could do for that music is to just not play it. [laughter ensues from both of us]
L4LM: Also a really big fan of your work with Electron. The dynamic between you, Marc Brownstein, Aron Magner, and Mike Greenfield really brings out something special in those tunes.
TH: Playing with that group of friends is also an incredible time. It’s a totally different animal.
L4LM: Alright, let’s wrap this up. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. What is your favorite songs to play in each act you play in? GO!
TH: Brothers Past – There is a song called “Boy” that is one of the first songs I ever wrote, when I was 16 or 17 years old, and I have to say, we even played it last night, and I still enjoy the song. I don’t know why, it’s a song a 17-year old kid wrote, but for me it has a lot of meaning to it. I can remember writing it. I can remember my life at 17, I didn’t have a lot to worry about. I think my main concerns were drugs and getting laid. And the song “Astphadel” by Tom McKee, we could play that song any night, and I would be fine with it.
JRAD – This is tough, because now you are talking about the entire Dead catalog. Let me think about this for a second….”Terrapin” is a monster of a tune. Damn, this is like picking your favorite kid.
L4LM: Well, that’s easy. I know that I’m my parents favorite kid, because I’m the first born.
TH: That’s pretty hilarious, actually. I love “Brown Eyed Women” and “Estimated Prophet”, Scott really knocks that one out of the park. But, I gotta go with “Help>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower.” I love playing that. It’s so much fun.
Babies – There is a song called “War Games” that is great to play live; it’s one of my favorite songs that I ever wrote. It’s sort of like the Stones on steroids. I just dig the vibe. And this band just crushes it, so that’s a nice feeling as well.
Electron – That’s easy, “Plan B.” The guitar melody in the jam section is a beautiful thing, and we always rock that one out. Either that one, or “Little Lai.”
L4LM: Tom, just want to say thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and chat about a number of things. Can’t wait for the show on Feb. 27th.
TH: No worries whatsoever, man. Anytime. Really looking forward to the Cutting Room show, and playing New York City with the Babies again. It’s going to be a fun night.
– Chris Meyer
[cover photo courtesy of Jeremy Gordon, additional photos courtesy of Andrew Scott Blackstein Photography and Pati Bobeck]
* For tickets to American Babies show at the Cutting Room in New York City on Friday, February 27th click HERE ($20 food/drink minimum for table service) *