It's Not About Me: A Conversation With American Babies' Tom Hamilton

Contributed by: Mike Guzaski - @312mrg

Tom Hamilton spent over ten years fronting the Philadelphia based jamtronica act Brothers Past.  While BP still tours, and he fills his plate with the occasional side product or super-group (Joe Russo's Almost Dead, anyone?), his focus, attention, and energy is centered on the Americana/blues/folk/rock concoction that is American Babies.

At a Babies show, you'll hear the influence of Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, the Dead, and Motown, both in selected cover material, but also at the core of his writing style. Odd, coming from a man who made his mark exploring uncharted territory.  But Tom demands more of himself  than just taking the crowd through 10-15 minutes spelunking expeditions. No doubt, he's willing to "go there", but only after a well-deserved launch into the ether, that feels organic and natural.

Tom and I met in Columbus last fall, and after a quick exchange about the performance, the conversation turned to sports. A shared love of the Philadelphia Flyers afforded me a real and personal connection.  Sometimes I felt like I could see the wheels turning in Tom’s head when he spoke.  Both then, and int the conversation that yielded this interview, his responses are thought out, each point seeming to "connect the dots" from the last in a polished and well articulated fashion. It is a storyteller's insight combined with the gift of accompanying his words with melody, hooks, and harmony.

Tom talked to me about the art of improvisation, his restless nature, a lot of things ‘Babies’, including the tour, bandmates, excitement about freshly inked Marc Friedman’s (previously of The Slip) addition to the band, as well as the palate cleansing nature of Alice in Chains during the writing and recording of Knives and Teeth, released on October 15th from the Royal Potato Family.  He rolls into Chicago this Saturday, January 18th for a gig at the Tonic Room (check out THIS CONTEST for a chance to win a pair of tickets).

I was reading the Glide Magazine interview you did, and you had mentioned you had listened to alot of Alice in Chains during the recording and writing of Knives and Teeth [American Babies latest release]...any specific album?

TH: No, I just have a playlist of my go to tunes, but it's most from Dirt and SAP, the SAP EP is one of my favorites. But yeah, you know I've always dug that band and their entire catalog.

Was it (Jerry) Cantrell's lyrics and guitar or (Layne) Staley's voice and pain and stuff that came across?

TH: You know, they had a know, you could sway to their music, you know, like "Would?".  You could kind of dance to that, which was a really unique thing for the Seattle bands. You know Nirvana was a pop-punk band basically, and that wasn't like grooving, Pearl Jam was an Americana band, same situation, not like grooving. Soundgarden was like a prog band, or like a Black Sabbath -- great riffs, and everything was in weird odd time signatures.  It was fucking awesome...but again, it wasn't like grooving. It didn't have a sting, there was a sexiness to Alice in Chains, that was unique to them. That was the thing I really liked. They had power, they had darkness, they had pain, but they also had a way to make it sexy, which was really cool.

I was a huge Alice in Chains fan, and they always spoke to me more than any of those Seattle bands. I loved Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, but Kurt Cobain and Nirvana didn’t speak to me like Alice in Chains could. I was a big Van Halen fan, and I saw AIC open for them and get booed off the stage during their Facelift era.  It's part of why I think they stuck with me...but when Dirt came out...that album!

You know thinking about the rise and fall of Alice in Chains, and thinking about the effect of these little blips on the radar that happen over the course of time, like even with Jimi Hendrix. They come out of nowhere, they make a name for themselves, and as quickly as they appear, they vanish, but their material lives on.Those are the stories that really interest me and thinking about the purpose that rock and roll serves in a historical context. And Alice in Chains was one of those bands.

TH: Yeah, more than 80% of the days I was writing and recording the record, I woke up and I put on Alice in Chains, you know, I got out of the shower, sort of like that, I started my day, you know that was my little piece of ginger, my palate cleanser, that I had every morning.

The other thing, it was far enough removed from what I was doing, any kind of influence, really wouldn't show. You know if there was a subtle or subconscious influence from listening to it that much, I wouldn't think it would be that obvious to the listener, you know, that Alice in Chains...its so removed from my life and my scene.

So it didn't necessarily translate to the writing, but it helped you to get to a spot where you could focus on the task at hand?

TH: Yeah, it put me in the headspace I wanted to be in, though I will say some of my close friends, when I played them the record before it came out, you know a quite a few of them were like, "Hey man, have you been listening to Alice in Chains?" The song "Cold-blooded", the guitars in it, the middle section are pretty heavy and chunky.  There are some moments where it shines through a little bit...they were a great band, they were the best band of the Seattle sound.

So Knives and Teeth has been out for about 3 months, and you've done a fall tour...

TH: ...yeah you could say this is kind of the second leg...

...what's your take on the growth of the material of the album in the live setting and the touring process supporting it?

TH: Yeah, I feel by the end of the tour we were firing on all cylinders, and having fun with the set lists.  Having wrote the songs, having them breathe and be their own thing each night -- that was good. It's been about three weeks since our last show, so I'm chomping at the bit to get back at rehearsal. I'm pretty excited to see what the distance did to us, you know.  I feel, like with a sports team, you take time away, it does some good and some bad.  There will be prospective gains for everyone on the songs and material, but there might be some rust that we have to figure out, you know any bad habits that we were getting into on the last tour I feel we'll be able to have that space to break those habits and address them before the tour starts again.

Who are the band mates supporting the material with you?

TH: Adam Flicker and David Butler on keys and drums, respectively. Those guys are the live band, they've been with me since Flawed Logic (AB's 2011 release), so it's been about three years for the guys. And our bass player, since Knives and Teeth came out, we've been using this guy Steve Lyons, who's just a motherfucker of a bass player.  He has his own band here in Philadelphia, so it's a temporary basis, but we actually just got a permanent replacement, who'll be starting before the tour in February.  His name is Marc Friedman, he was in a band called The Slip...

...that's awesome...

TH:...yeah, it is awesome...he's one of the absolute, in my opinion -- he and Reed Mathis -- are the best bass players in the scene, so I'm a lucky motherfucker to have been able to land Marc.  I'm pretty excited about that, to see what Marc brings to the material. The Slip was such a great band, and had great sensibilities, so we're very excited to bring him around.

How is the collective balance between Brothers Past and American Babies? Are you putting a little more attention and focus on growing American Babies?

TH: Well you know it's not about Tom Hamilton, it's not about me, NO! I look at myself as a conductor and a conductor isn't shit without an orchestra. So I don't need my ego stroked, you know. I write the songs and that's whatever it is, but when it comes to bringing the music to the people, and being out there, it's not the Tom Hamilton show my any means. It's a group effort. Throughout my career, even with Brothers Past, my motto has always been to make the records one thing and the live show another thing. I guess if you had to say if there was more of a me-centric situation, it would be the records. When I make albums, its a pretty solitary experience.  I bring guys in and out as I need them, but other than that, it's just me and an engineer, making records.

But the band aspect, the family aspect, the group aspect -- that comes into play in the live setting.  That's where regardless of what it is I did in the studio, that's when Dave and Adam and their ownership of the material comes into play. They get to grab what I did and make it theirs, and we improvise a lot, so we get to let the songs grow and change as we grow and change, and our relationships and music moves….it's not about me.

I want it to be a group situation where we're all talking, whatever Adam's saying on the keys is just as important as what I'm saying, or Marc's saying on the bass, and Dave on the drums. It's like an improvised classical piece.

As far as Brothers Past goes, it is what it is right now. Nobody's focus is on the band, everybody has their own thing going on.  I've got the Babies, and Clay was doing his BioDiesel thing for a while, and now he's touring with Particle, which is cool for him.  Clay is a wonderful bass player and live musician. Clay is the epitome of what I was talking about earlier. You know I started my career with him. He's the king of grabbing something and taking ownership of it. I'm really excited for him.

Our keyboard player, he runs a music school here in Philadelphia and he's really takne a shine to that. Our drummer is an attorney and getting married this year, so he's pretty busy in his own world. Everybody's kind of doing their own thing.  Bands always been about the ups and downs and ebb and flow, and we're just gonna take it easy and maybe play a few shows this year, but not really apply any pressure. I'll get through the rest of my album cycle, and Particle will probably be in an album cycle for at least 12 months or so. When both of those things die down, if Tom and Rick are in a position where they want to talk about making a record or whatever, then we'll talk about it.

But right now American Babies is my thing. I feel with Brothers Past things got very stifled, and pigeon holed, where everything had to be a 4/4 drum beat, you know when things get defined in such a way, unless everyone is on the same page....that's what's fun about the Babies, we can do whatever we want still. We haven't been crammed in any one particular cavity yet. I'm enjoying that right now.

Last Halloween, you played in Chicago, you had just come off doing a couple shows with the Babies, how do you change gears, genres and styles with those two bands?

TH: No. Man, being creative is being creative. You know I feel I can make something interesting with whatever I'm dealt. It's just mildly different materials I guess. If someone gives you a bunch of balsam wood and says, "make something out of this" and someone does the same with a bunch of aluminum foil, you know, I'm gonna make something out of both of them. And I'll feel good about whatever I made out of either of those two materials. It's the same thing. If you break it down, both bands are bands where I wrote alot of the material, so it's not like I have a problem with the material.

And improvising, I LOVE TO IMPROVISE. It's one of my favorite things to do. So it is what it is. I dont really have a preference.

Like over the holidays, I did this thing with my buddy Joe Russo and this thing called Joe Russo's Almost Dead, with a bunch of buddies of mine, we did a bunch of Grateful Dead songs. It's all the same thing, it's the conduit that's a little different. Any live concert where you improvise, improvisation is a mindset, that really doesn't matter where you are, so if you have the right mindset, you're going into it the same way all the time. To be open and to be listening, and wanting to create something new in the moment...the catalyst for those improvised segments are the songs.  Whether it's jazz, or Brothers Past songs, or American Babies songs, or Grateful Dead songs,a it's all the same's a jumping off point. Alot of times its also a destination, you know, we are gonna start at this point and we gotta get to that point, and the in between is up to you guys.

The thing that I like about the American Babies the most at this point, is I don't give a fuck about anything outside of me and the other guys in the band. I don't really care what other people think or say or any of that crap, or what other bands are doing. It doesn't matter to me. On Babies tour, I will have shows where its an American Babies song into a Brothers Past song into a Brothers Past song into a Grateful Dead song back into an American Babies song, because you know what? That's fun to me. And I enjoy all those things, I'm just gonna do it, I'm not gonna over think it. I don't sit there and think what they are gonna say on a message board, or worry about what my colleagues think, ya know, fuck em all! I have fun! That's what I want and all the guys in the Babies, we all have fun, and that the point of it, let's go out there and have a good time. Lots of laughs, lots of high fives, and good music.

I don't feel like writing a song just to be a vehicle for a jam segment is the best use of time. The song is the song. That's what's timeless. You can have skill and talent, but without vision, there's not many places that skill and talent can be utilized to the best of their ability. You can be the greatest classical violinist in the world...but without a composer, what do you got? There needs to be the ring leader, there needs to be the visionary. I look at Frank Zappa. He gathered these amazing musicians and found ways to utilize them to the best of their ability, to the pinnacle of Frank's vision.

How do the creative differences of having a drummer of Joe Russo's stature, your brother or David Butler behind you, does it challenge, alter or change your playing at all?

TH: You know, me and my brother grew up as drummers, we both started playing, I was about five and he was about six, so the drum situation has always been a large deal for me. I write most songs drums first. I have a feel in my head, of the the way I want the listeners body to be moving....and that's the seed of a song. When I met Joe, whenever that was, '99 or 2000, we really clicked because we musically got each other.  We both had a strong foundation as drummers. Above all, we enjoyed songcraft. So, we definitely get each other in a pretty awesome way.

Joe's one of my best friends, we've played together for years.  I toured with the Duo for a while, and then obviously with the Babies for a while. I would say my playing is a lot more rhythmic than a lot of other players I know. I play percussive.

The Almost Dead thing....the other guitar player is Scott Metzger (WOLF!, RANA, Particle, Bustle in your Hedgerow amongst others), who is just an amazing guitar player. And we are different stylistically, because he is a "lick" guitar player --he's a guy that has all the moves melodically, harmonically. He's just brilliant. Where as in my thing, it's just rhythmically -- I find the spots that not a lot of other guitar players go to.  It's like a percussionist playing with the drummer, or a lot of weird syncopations or modulations, metro modulations, and things like that. Naturally that's just where I'm at, I'm a drummer first. All those years with Brothers Past, of composing electronic music which is obviously rhythmic based, with drums first, I feel I play more that way. I feel like I play more the role of a percussionist than say a flautist.

Being a part of the Royal Potato Family record label, aside from the family and friend nature, does it allow you to feel more confident being in a space you can feel more comfortable with releasing the material you want? Does it push you any way?

TH: I don't really think about that kind of stuff. I don't really think about where I am at and think that much about it. The Royal Potato Family is a wonderful record label and the people like Marco [Benevento], it's his label and I've known Marco for a long time.  So when I had this record come together and I had the first Almost Dead thing come together at Brooklyn Bowl, I said "yeah man, I got this record I'm working on, and I'll probably be done with it in a few months, and I gotta find a home for it." Marco suggested the Royal Potato Family would probably put it out and then I spoke with this guy Kevin Calabro who runs the label, who's just a fantastic dude.  It just felt right, right away. We're just guys who get one another, just as far as how we do business. There wasn't any arm twisting or extremist bullshit. It was a very straight forward situation and it still is. I've never been this happy dealing with someone else. Yeah, having a label and a group of people that are championing your music and your cause...that is a great feeling. I'm sure it is a confidence builder.

That all being said, as soon as we figured out our deal, there wasn't a lot of high-fiving, it was like, 'Cool, what's next'? Let's finish this record, let's get on the road, let's shoot some videos. I'm not a big proponent of sitting soon as it's done, it's in the past! And we need to keep moving. That's just how I am and how I operate. Complacency just breeds boredom and is an art killer. I try never to be too complacent or too happy with where I am. I have an EP I just finished, that should be out in March or April, so that's exciting, and I've really been into film recently, and shooting videos, so I shot and directed the video for 'Cold Blooded' that came out when the record came out, and then there will be another two videos I did over the holidays that we'll be putting out.

Where do you want to take the Babies and your career over the next 3-5 years?

TH: I just want to keep growing. You know one of the turn-offs that ended up happening with Brothers Past, was the fact it got to the point, internally where it stopped becoming a 'Yes' situation and became more of a 'No' situation. That's a drag. It's not very artistically fulfilling. The right part of the Babies thing, it's designed to be a band, where I'm the only constant member. So I don't really see anything but good things happening. I'm a Yes person. I like just doing shit and seeing where it leads. You know happy accidents happen that way, and the next five years, you know...I'm just getting better...I just want to be pushing the envelope when it comes to being on stage and making as passionate art as possible when it comes to being in the studio.

The American Babies will be playing at the Tonic Room on January 18 during the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival.  Click here for a chance to win a pair of tickets.

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