What Does It Mean to Be?: An Interview with Tom Hamilton
Tom Hamilton returns to Chicago this week at one of the city's most perfect venue, Schuba’s, for a Thursday night show. [We're giving away some tickets... So go grab yourself some].
By now, his -name should be familiar. You’ve possibly seen him with his chameleon-like Americana outfit, the American Babies, a version of which he'll be performing with this week. Or, perhaps you're aware of one of his more electronic-leaning outfits: Brothers Past or the supergroup Electron. Just as likely, you may have hear of his Dead offshoots like Billy and the Kids or intrepid interpreters Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
The Barn caught up with Tom to promo his fifth American Babies release ( on the Royal Potato Family label). He approaches his life and craft with conviction, and has no confusion on his place as an artist, writer, or musical coach. He wants to push the envelope, challenge himself, his band, and the audience. Just what I want from a musician.
We talked about two years ago, and I give you a lot of credit, because at the time you were a little hesitant to answer. But I asked where you saw the Babies and Tom Hamilton in 3-5 years, and you offered a response that has turned out to be kind of prophetic. You said that you’ve made these things happen in your career. You’ve also alluded to wanting the Babies to take on this adaptive form, a liquid genre and style, and allow the band to channel music to create something that’s not comforting, and can really go anywhere.
Yeah. I think this stuff really translates well, or it has so far. It’s just really exciting.
It’s hard to not read into the album’s title, Epic Battle Between Light and Dark. Understanding your background and handling depression, is your songwriting how you deal and cope with those sorts of challenges in your life?
No. You know, the songs are an after effect of dealing with things. It’s never like, I am feeling X way, and I’m going to write about it. When I’m writing, it’s a pretty gradual process, where I will take take a lengthy amount of time to collect ideas, to collect little small thoughts, and when that stack of papers gets a little taller, I’ll start to dig into it and see what’s there.
It’s never that I had this experience on the bus today and I’m gonna write about it. I just kind of take little notes until that pile gets to a place where I’m ready to go through it, and say, "well...what does all this mean?"
Michelangelo would go in and stare at this big block of granite everyday for like six months. Like he would just sit there and stare at it for hours at a time, and people would be like “what the fuck are you doing?”, and he would be like “I’m working!”.
He would think...I got this thing, and what am I gonna make out of it? And ultimately he would think, I’m going to stare at it and work at it until I turn it into the statue of David. It’s kind of like that, where it’s all these pieces and fragments that I pick up over the course of time, I will stop and take them all and say, what can I make out them today, can I make something and do they make sense together?
Most times, it's all just random bullshit and I’ll go on with my life. But other times, they turn into songs. If someone gives you a stack of legos or a piece of clay, those little ideas either make something or they don’t. I just need to figure out how to make something beautiful out of them.
So the experiences make you, and it’s not something conscious as much as just getting weaved into the fabric of how you interpret that lego block or clay. It gets translated into whatever piece it is you construct?
Yeah...you know when I was making this record, and going through all of this stuff, one way we could go here is I could talk...about...this….and you know, if I kept going, I am sure I could have turned the source material into something else, but this is the place I want it to go. And once that decision gets made, it’s kind of easier to move forward. Those things aren’t a source of anything, that’s just my day to day life, and everything else is a byproduct of that.
So how did you go into An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark? Can you fill in the gaps around the band you put together to play the material live, who you brought in and why, and the creative process of making this album?
Well Pete Tramo owns the studio that I recorded Knives and Teeth in. And we just got along really well making that record. I knew it was going to be a little time before I was ready to write and record, but I knew it was going to be Pete. So we took a lot of my downtime, unfortunately, which isn’t that much.
But, we’d just spend time in the studio, hanging out, working with gear, and understanding what every nook and cranny of the studio sounded like, just so we knew sonically what our pieces of clay were going to be, what were all the possibilities that we had. You know, in there (the studio), we were thinking we could start working on a record, and I had this pile of stuff, and we just started going through it.
We started thinking a lot of this stuff could be steered towards this one topic, and the more we would talk about our personal lives and the things we struggled with, certain things that we’ve fortunately put behind us, it just started to make sense. You see a sign pointing a certain direction once or twice, and you think oh well that’s a coincidence, but after that you can’t really keep ignoring the signs, it just made sense for us to go in that direction.
Are these pieces that were plucked from the time after Knives and Teeth, or from an era before?
You know, a lot of the stuff was a bit of a guide. You thought of this one day, so don’t forget about that...you know...
So does that blow up creatively, where these dots suddenly get connected, and it exposes and opens these other doors in that process?
Yes, exactly. This line...what this line mean when you put it with this one, and does it change it if you put it with this one...well let’s expand on that. Musically it would just kind of go. You know really it was put together in the last year when we were really writing. but there were like 1 or 2 songs, you know like there’s a song, “Bring it In Close”, the seed of that one I’ve have for about 5 years or so.
When we were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck, that was one of the demos I found that I would ask Pete, "what do you think of this tune?" And Pete really loved it, it totally fits, and he said you know we should see if we can follow that one somewhere special. You know for the most part though, we went into this with completely open ears and minds, just thinking, “what can we do?” It’s a long process and we just enjoy the process of getting there.
So that’s the Pete and Tom picture, but where do the existing road and live band of the Babies come in? Were you looking to fill specific sounds, voices or personalities?
Well you know for the record, it was mostly me and Peter for most of the time. There were a couple of instances where we had a couple of demos where we’d be like, okay, let’s see what this one would sound like with a band. We’d call a band in and boil through a couple tunes and get a vibe and see what would work and what didn’t. But for the most part, it was just figuring things out.
I mean, I play a lot of instruments, and for me, it’s just working things out. I try to think of every possibility. I try to make rational decisions. I would try to get the songs where I could get them, and at the end of the day, if that’s not where I wanted to be….
A song like “What’s It Mean to Be” is a really cool groovy tune, with a lot of sexiness to it, and Peter and I were working out the demos to it, and we discovered we couldn’t get the groove we wanted just by ourselves. So it’s like, “let’s bring in a rhythm section”, so we brought in Al (Smith), and it worked out from there. We did the basic tracks...drums and guitar, and we’d go through it live. You know, it wasn’t like “Synth Driver”, where I just pieced it together, instrument by instrument, and I did the whole song front to back. It all really just depended on what the track needed.
And that’s how recording became who you’d use for the road?
Yeah, so Al’s been with us (as our drummer) since like August of 2014, then on guitar is Justin Mazer, and he came in around the same time or just after Al, and I’ve been flipping around bass players for a while, and we got a guy named Mark Susnowsky, who’s a guy from Pennsylvania, who's just a mellow type of dude who really fits in.
Then most recently with Raina Mullen, while I was producing an EP for her, right as I was writing and recording this record. I’ve always had a female singer on my records. So the deal we had worked out, was I would produce her EP if you record the vocal tracks on my record, and it went really well. So when it came down to start playing, it just kind of made sense to bring her along as the vocalist and acoustic guitarist...because I just kind of got tired with the guitar/keyboard thing.
So many bands are the same band, you know, so let’s try to switch it up, so it’s 2 electric guitars, an acoustic, bass and drums, and four of us sing, and it’s a really cool and interesting sonic palette. I think people really respond to it.
So you’ve done Jam Cruise and recently an Americana cruise called Cayamo with this outfit? No disrespect to the jam world, but you’re associated with that scene. Everyone knows you. But to be included and invited on a cruise like that has to be the utmost compliment...how did that come about? And you had some pretty interesting sit ins with Steve Earle and others for a Dead tribute…
Oh man, yeah, it was Steve (Earle), Buddy Miller, Larry and Teresa Campbell, Jim Lauderdale, David Bromberg, Sam Lewis...just some real heavy Nashville cats….and I really don’t even know how it came to pass, you know. I just got an email from my agent saying do you want to go, and right away I was like, of course!
Honestly, the only name I needed to see was John Prine. I grew up listening to John Prine and I love the band, I saw that he was the headliner, and I was like, “I’m there!”. I didn’t really need to know anything else at that point, but as it was coming up, they wanted me to put together a Dead set with some of the headliners, and we were like, certainly, if the headliners want to do this, we’d certainly be the house band for it.
So then, it was like, yeah, Buddy Miller would do a couple of songs….alright cool...and Jim Lauderdale wants to do a couple...ok, far out….Oh, and Steve Earle wants to jump in and do “I Know You Rider”...and it was like this is turning into something cool, and in the end it just kind of turned into what it turned into...an incredible experience! I give the band all the credit...I mean, I’ve been playing this music my whole life, and also intensely the last couple years, so I know this stuff like the back of my hand.
I mean my band didn’t have this stuff in the bag, they’re all younger, they didn’t necessarily grow up with this shit. They all busted their asses and learned this stuff and it was really great!
And going on a cruise as opposed to truck stops and driving in the middle of the night through Dubuque, IA had to have been a great way to get the band tightly knit in a relaxing environment…
Yeah, it was a great bonding experience. But anytime you go on the road it’s a tight bonding experience. You go on the road and you get tighter as a group. We get to share that with one another. But you know, it’s kind of one in the same...
I read in another interview that George Carlin's way of writing comedy -- in the way he would redefine his stand up act annually, rewriting his act every year -- was an inspiration for you. How do you take a band which grew in the studio on the road and start from scratch? Is that Carlin statement a model for how you approach your material and your band?
Well you know, first it came from doing the album. It came from subject matter and sonic palette. So let’s try to do something different and dig a little deeper than we did last time, and talk about some different shit. From there, it’s never really a conscious decision to flip the band as I’ll call it.
Unfortunately, people don’t like change very much. Which is confusing to me. Kind of what it comes down to is, if people don’t like change...it’s kind of like Flawed Logic. I do that album, and I put it out, and I get some people in and they learn that, and we go out and we perform that stuff and some new stuff. And then I come back in and I write Knives and Teeth, and people are like, well, this is not quite like what the last record was, I don’t know if I’m as into it...and OK.
People want something very rigid, or well defined things.. And that’s not me, that’s not who I am or how I am. I don’t like things so structured, or black and white. So when it comes down to flipping the band, it comes down to the people that are in it when I flip the band, they’re not into changing or learning new things.
Look man, I know you are good at playing this one style of thing, but what are we going to do, keep writing that same style of thing so you can show off how good you are at it? No, what I like to do, is have a group of people and finding what they’re very good at, and also finding out what they’re awful at, and writing accordingly. I’m going to write a song, or a style of song that you are going to suck at, so that you can learn to get better at it. For myself as well.
I write things or say things, that I don’t want to say or write. But that's challenging yourself thing. What are we going to do, keep doing the same safe bullshit my entire life? That’s stupid. I’m not Bono. I’m no superstar. I’m making these records, because I want to make something good, and I want to make something that follows my code. I don’t want to sit there and crank out bullshit and sound like the dickhead from Coldplay!