There’s no denying that Tom Hamilton is on a roll. Between his emergence in the Grateful Dead scene, playing with Billy & The Kids and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, his jamtronica chops in Electron and his own band, American Babies, there’s just no stopping Hamilton! The Philadelphia born and bred guitarist has spent the better part of the last fifteen years working, writing, and waiting for his big break, and 2015 was most certainly the culmination of that hard work. From playing with the Core Four members of the Grateful Dead in various incantations throughout the year, selling out shows with Almost Dead and touring heavily with his own American Babies, the trajectory of Hamilton’s career is clearly on the upswing.
As the Babies get ready to head out on a Winter tour in the coming weeks, in support of their forthcoming album An Epic Battle Between Light & Dark (out March 18th on Royal Potato Family), we sat down with Hamilton to discuss the new album and his ridiculously busy schedule.
L4LM: So, you had a productive Jam Cruise, with two sets from both Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Electron….
TH: Jam Cruise is incredible! It’s a pretty wild five days, but it’s so much fun. I really can’t thank Annabel (Lukins) and Cloud 9 enough for inviting me and the bands on. It is such an experience.
L4LM: I was keeping an eye out for some sit-ins, but didn’t catch you. Did I miss you?
TH: I didn’t come out for any sit-ins. No one asked, and to be honest, it’s not something that I would ever approach a band about in the first place. What if they don’t want you to sit in? It’s not like I am overly familiar with a lot of the artists on the boat, so a bit of social anxiety factors in and I think to myself what are they going to say if they actually don’t want you to sit-in with them “Ummmm….yeah, that would be cool, we guess.” It’s like “Hey can I watch you while you have sex with your wife?” It’s just a little strange for me, personally, to broach the subject. Having said that, I would be 100% down to play. There are so many amazing musicians on that boat, but I am not about to approach someone like an Ivan Neville about sitting in on his set. Talk about anxiety! We are actually about to hop on another music cruise next week.
L4LM: Really? What cruise?
TH: Cayamo Cruise (LINK). This one is even longer than Jam Cruise. It’s an Americana cruise with artists like John Prine, John Hiatt, Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, David Bromberg, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams….it’s a ridiculous lineup. I just look forward to playing as much as possible on events like these.
L4LM: That sounds awesome!
TH: Yeah, we definitely feel privileged to be on this boat as well.
L4LM: Have to ask….what are the plans for Almost Dead this year?
TH: Well, Joe and his wife are having a baby, which he definitely wants to have some time off to spend time with his family, and both Marco and I are releasing our new albums. Instead of playing the 45+ shows we did last year, we will probably do around 30 or so in 2016. Joe has to concentrate on his baby, and I have to concentrate on my own Babies! We all keep pretty busy with our own projects, which is definitely important to us as well, to keep the creativity flowing.
L4LM: As it should be. It’s original music. That should always be the priority.
TH: Yeah, there is so much of these tribute acts these days, when you look at venue calendars there is nothing but cover bands, it’s just tough for artists that are writing their own original music and they have to compete with what is going on these days. It’s killing music. I know, coming from the guy in JRAD, right? But, in our defense, I think what we are doing is different in that we are taking these songs and putting our sound into it. But even at that, we are all so involved in writing our own original music, but I would be lying if I didn’t say how much fun it has been, as well as a great opportunity that has opened up doors to other collaborations.
L4LM: Definitely. You have played with every member of the Grateful Dead and several other legit names in the scene. How is working with someone like a Bob Weir?
TH: It’s fucking crazy! Playing with guys like Bobby, Billy, and Mickey is unbelievable. We had been getting ready for an acoustic Babies set at Lock’n, and had asked Bobby if he wanted to play with us and join us in the rehearsal room. He was like “yeah, sure, ok”…we never expected him to show up, and then he actually showed up, listened in for a few, picked up a guitar, and it just was so smooth. A great experience. And then Billy and Mickey join in and you can see that deep pocket rhythm section that these guys have developed over 50+ years of playing together. It’s magical. I just look at it as complete dumb luck when something like that happens.
L4LM: How was the tour with Greensky Bluegrass? You had several sit-ins during the tour. Those guys are great aren’t they?
TH: That was a lot of fun, super talented band. And, ya know, going back to Jam Cruise, I didn’t see Anders (Beck) one time on the boat the entire time. I couldn’t believe it.
L4LM: It’s a rather large boat….like a city on the sea, if you will.
TH: It really is. Amazing how you can be on a boat and not run into some people at all.
L4LM: American Babies just announced some plays at the AURA Music Festival, along with support gigs with Umphrey’s McGee and Anders Osborne. Those should be fun shows.
TH: Really excited about these Umphrey’s Red Rocks shows, and the opportunity to open up for Anders Osborne at The Capitol Theatre next month….really cool. Just a lot of good things coming up to be excited about.
L4LM: Let’s discuss the new album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark. Is this album and its recurring themes a reflection of what is going on in life, personally? Where is this coming from?
TH: With every album that I have every written, this being the fourth with American Babies, and three with Brothers Past, I always strive to do something different and dig deeper into areas that haven’t been explored before. Why write about the same subjects that have already been written about? It’s like a sense of discovery. The more you dig, the more you discover and learn about yourself. Also, when you dig that deep, the heavier things get. It’s funny, I sort of relate it to something that Louis CK spoke about. He was like ‘Look, I have been working for 15 years on the shittiest 60-minutes of comedy that you have ever heard,’ but then he heard an interview with George Carlin that he takes one year to write 60-minutes of standup. And at the end of the year, he would throw it away and start writing again. And the next time around, he would dig deeper, and look to try to come up with something completely new and different. And sometimes the deeper you dig, the darker things can get, but you also discover a lot of new, good things as well. I think that is a perspective that I have tried to take on as a songwriter.
L4LM: And what did you find when you were digging?
TH: One subject in particular had to do with an ex-girlfriend a few years back who suffered from depression and other mental health issues, and it was a very difficult time in general. There were times where she would be in a bad place and all you want to do is help and you try to, but it’s a disease and it’s not very easy to help people suffering from it. It’s something that I suffer from as well, and really had to find ways to overcome it. I battled it hard when I was younger through my teenage years. So one day, I came home and she simply wasn’t there anymore. She literally packed her stuff up and just left. It was tough and it hurt, but at the same time she had to do what she had to do and it was almost a blessing in disguise for me because I didn’t have to go through the break up part, essentially. But, ya know, that was a very tough time, but there was also good times as well….light and dark.
L4LM: Seems to be some tongue in cheek lyrics as well on the album, in “Light and Dark” you write ‘I cannot defeat the demons….How can I defeat this Jesus?, He’s a mixed martial arts master, They should turn him into plaster’….
TH: It’s sort of a pun, like Jesus can solve all of your ills, when really you are the one that has to take the initiative to resolve issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slamming Jesus or religion or anything like that at all, there is certainly something there that can be good for some people. But there is also something strange about it, where that all became something to profit off of, instead of doing what it is intended to do. The song does end on a positive note, though – ‘Crawl to the light, walk to the light’. Meaning, you have to work for your happiness. None of this comes easy, but you can get there if you want to, wherever THAT may be. You may have to eat a ton of shit along the way, but if you work hard enough, you can achieve what you want to one degree or another.
L4LM: Definitely digging the incorporation of horns on “Fever Dreams”. Really cool song, big builds, especially at the end. Who did you have on horns?
TH: Adam Flicker who used to be in Babies is a multi-instrumentalist and was in the studio and it just all worked out. With tracks like “What Does It Mean To Be” and “Fever Dreams” they both have this very analog sort of sound, whereas most of the other tracks have this very sexy, Euro type feel and vibe to them. There is a definite arc to the album. You have this American, post-grunge feel to some of the tracks and it progresses into that more Euro sound. And it all culminates with the final, title track “An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark.”
L4LM: Loving the synths on “Oh Darling”. Has that 80’s pop sensibility, almost Pink Floydish with the guitar work and keys. Halfway through the song it gets super heavy with you channeling your inner David Gilmour.
TH: Definitely where that Euro sound comes in, for sure.
L4LM: “What Does It Mean To Be” – Very funky.
TH: It was definitely a track that has some Bowie-esque leanings.
L4LM: Are you a big Bowie fan?
TH: Yeah, I love Bowie. A true artist. Even in death he was able to find inspiration and leave us another piece of art.
L4LM: It felt so sudden, because nobody even knew he was sick.
TH: Interestingly enough, the cinematographer for the “Lazarus” video, Joe Belack, is someone we have worked with in the past. And he didn’t even know Bowie was sick. Nobody did. He kept it to himself and still managed to channel such creativity out of it all.
L4LM: Out of the tracks you have played live, is there a specific track that is THE track?
TH: Definitely “Synth Driver,” we are feeling that on stage right now. It just clicks with everyone.
L4LM: With any album, are there just songs that strictly for the album, while other songs make their way into the rotation? How does that work for you?
TH: I don’t ever necessarily go into it like that, but there are songs that we have never played. “This Thing Ain’t Goin Nowhere” is coming back this tour as well as “Goddamn” which really wasn’t played very much before. And with the setlists, we haven’t been using them at all. We just stopped thinking about that and decide while we are on stage what to go into next.
L4LM: So as a song or jam develops and nears its end, you are giving cues as to what is coming next?
TH: Yeah, I mean I more or less am the conductor of the band, I guess you could say. So, when it comes time to make that decision, what key we are playing in is a major factor and how to lead into the next song from that point. It’s been sort of liberating and allows us to explore and just play.
L4LM: Sounds fantastic! Really looking forward to seeing you and American Babies out on the road. Best of luck with the new album and thanks so much for sharing your time.
TH: Anytime. Thank you!
Check out Tom Hamilton’s American Babies on tour (dates below), and listen to some tracks on the band’s Soundcloud page HERE.
[Cover photo via Sam Shinault Photography]