Written By: Chad Berndtson
:: The Art Of The Sit-In - Tom Hamilton ::
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the
scene’s most adventurous players
and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Jeff
Schnier and many others.
Tom Hamilton made his bones with Brothers Past, one of the scene’s most
bands and a staple of
often described as jamtronica. But it’s American Babies that might be the fullest
expression yet of Hamilton as a
musician – a song-based rock ‘n’ roll band with, as of late, a definite jones for jamming
and a lot going for it as it kicks
off a massive U.S. tour this month.
[Photo by: Andrew Blackstein]
The past year in particular has been an impressive growth period for American
Babies, which began in 2007
as a “when
we have time” side project and has since released consistently more interesting albums
(including 2013’s ace Knives
and Teeth), solidified its lineup of Hamilton, drummer Dave Butler, keyboardist Adam
Flicker and bassist Marc
Friedman, and is fast becoming a live band to make time for.
We asked the always-animated Hamilton to give us the lowdown.
JAMBASE: I remember when American Babies started but it seemed like it
took a few
years to become your
primary band, settled with a full and consistent lineup. When do you think it became the
TOM HAMILTON: I would say 2011. I wanted to really get on the road like
we had with
Brothers Past and
make it my primary thing. It’s been that way for about three years now.
There are quite a few factors in there that got it to that point. Brothers Past can’t be
the touring entity it once was – life
happens, and that’s fine. And if you know me, I’m all about the laugh, the hang, the good
dick joke. But when it comes
to music, I hold it sacred. I needed to get out there on the road and have something to
pursue full time, give it my full
attention. That’s what got Babies there.
JAMBASE: So you have your guys now after a less definite lineup in
How did you settle on this
TH: We had different guys in the lineup when it was more ‘we’ll do some
and we’ll do some shows
there.’ Organizing those names, guys like Joe [Russo] and [Aron] Magner into a constant,
grinding it out schedule would
be pretty much impossible so there was the need for a solid group.
Dave Butler I met through Russo. We had Eric Slick in the mix but almost two months after
he first came around, he
joined Dr. Dog and I was back looking for a drummer. Joe recommended Dave and it was a
[Keyboardist] Adam Flicker was in a band called The Brakes.
JAMBASE: Right, also from Philadelphia.
TH: Yeah. They were younger than me and when we were heavy in Brothers
opened up for us a few
times maybe – I knew them from around the way. They kind of stopped playing regularly –
their drummer [Josh Sack]
tragically died from leukemia [in 2008]. They went their own ways a bit, which is very
understandable in a situation like
that. But Adam and I were friendly, and he stayed and stuck around and he was a good fit.
And he’s just a fun person to
hang out with.
JAMBASE: And Marc?
TH: Marc Friedman is the newest Baby. That was just…wow. We had this tour
and the bass player who
was going to join us had a stop-gap and he told me, you know what, after all I’m not going
to be able to do this tour. I
was kind of panicking, and I was like, fuck, what can I do?
So as a last-ditch effort, I threw something up on Facebook. I have thousands of friends,
right? Someone will respond,
right? I got 80 responses, and a lot of it was from kids wearing flat-brims, you know? But
the 81st response was from
Marc Friedman. And I was like, dude, do you not have a gig? You’re Marc fucking Friedman!
He’d gone out to San Francisco and was doing work with Big Light and they’re kind of not
very active at the moment, so
he was like, hey man, I want to get back on the road so yeah, I’m available. I asked him
if he wanted to check out the
music in detail and he was like, no, no, let’s just jump in. We were friendly for a long
time, I knew him from The Slip and
them and Brothers Past were on festival bills together. And here we are.
JAMBASE: I think a lot of people shared your surprise. Marc is one of
you just always assume
wouldn’t be available.
TH: I know, right? His name actually came up last year. Joe and I were
about it. Russo isn’t in the band
but he’s still invested in it – he and I started it together – and we were talking about
potential players and he was like,
what about Friedman? And I remember we both thought about it for a second and then shook
our heads, naahhh, he’s
definitely got a fucking gig [laughs].
To say I’m incredibly excited…well, the hang’s been amazing, we’ve played only a few shows
but every one has been
better than the list. He brings a very exciting element to this. We didn’t really embrace
improvisation with the Babies
before, and I remember a lot of people were telling me things like, don’t jam, let the
songs speak for themselves. But at
the end of the day, I love to improvise, and I’m good at it. I love the Grateful Dead, and
that whole model was take the
best songs you could possibly fucking write and then open them up fearlessly.
So the Babies have embraced these natural instincts toward improvisation. And having a guy
like Marc – a master
improviser – has made it great and really fun, and now we’re getting to do some of the
things I feel like I built my career
doing with Brothers Past. I don’t know why I didn’t feel comfortable before. Maybe I felt
like I’d be stepping on the toes
of Brothers Past or something, but it’s been so exciting to do this with the Babies. We
have shows where we’ll do a
Babies song into a Brothers Past song into a Dead tune and back into a Babies song – I
love that freedom.
JAMBASE: Let’s stay on that for a moment. I remember around 2010, 2011
American Babies shows were
very song-based, and you were just starting to introduce some of the jamming element. So
with what you’re saying, it
seems like it was a gradual move toward the more improv-inclined band it is now.
[Photo by: Andrew Blackstein ]
TH: This band, you know, really started as a reaction. It was a reaction
to what I
saw in the scene in 2007 and
2008. The jamband scene, I don’t know, it just felt so fucking diluted. It was a bunch of
dudes not writing any music,
but saying, hey bro, I got a laptop and a van and a Click Track, and we’re going to go out
and play this lowest common
denominator electronic bullshit.
It was hard watching that because the Brothers Past guys and I sat in a basement for years
really spending time making
that sound and trying to get it right, and so many of these bands sounded like shitty
versions of us or other bands that
had been trying to work on that sound. Imitation is a big form of flattery, sure, but it
just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want
to be part of that or be the asshole that was telling them it sucked.
So I think it was a reaction. The Dead came from songs – the whole Dead thing came from
songs. I started writing, and
you know, all the stuff on the first Babies record, I was writing for Brothers Past
originally. We didn’t see eye-to-eye
necessarily on what those songs should be like and the feedback I got was, well, hey, if
you want to play that stuff it
should be with another thing.
But now it makes sense again. I love to improvise. It’s freedom, and when you’re on that
stage doing it, nothing else
matters. That stage, that piece of real estate – it’s ours, it’s our space, it’s our time
to do whatever the fuck we want.
And I just think it would be a shame to play album-faithful versions of the same songs
every night. How am I going to
conjure up the same emotions night after night for a song I wrote three years ago? It’s
almost insincere to play in the
same. I want the version of the song we played in Boise on Wednesday or whatever it is to
be that version of the song.
You know what I mean? Let’s go in and play it that way, that night.
JAMBASE: Do you think the scene has shifted back toward song-based
do seem to be more
younger jambands in the last few years that have embraced it, particularly Americana and
TH: I’d like to think so. I don’t pay that much attention to what’s going
on in the
scene and I don’t know a lot
of the younger bands now, but there’s a band from the northeast a lot of people are
talking about. Twiddle? I don’t
know much about them, but I saw a minute of them at something we were at and it was
definitely not electronic and it
was definitely not just four dudes trying to play house music poorly. They had songs, they
had some rock ‘n’ roll to
what they were doing, and I was like, OK, cool, and kids we’re fucking loving it. So
that’s good to see.
And I don’t know if it’s that so much as I just got sick of hearing younger bands worrying
about wobble bass and what
they’re taking from dubstep and all that. And hey man, whatever. I love electronic music:
smart, good, electronic music,
not just the stuff where any jerkoff can do it.
JAMBASE: You talked about the thrill of improvisation and you collaborate
lot of musicians. Tell me a
favorite sit-in story or jamming story from the past year.
TH: I’ll go with Jam Cruise here. Brock Butler was not able to get to Jam
and they had this slot open for
him and they asked me, hey man, do you want the set? And I asked about the stage, but I
didn’t just want it me playing
my songs. I wouldn’t want to watch just me and my guitar, you know? [laughs]
So I took the set but I was asking around to see who was available and if we could get
together to do a thing. I was able
to wrangle Magner, Steve and John Kimock, and George Porter Jr. And dude, fuck, was that
fun. Porter, man. I did an
acoustic set some years ago opening for 7 Walkers, and they did "Sugaree" and George sang
and I remember, it blew my
fucking mind, man. It was a gospel song the way he sang it – it was amazing. So I knew
he’d play Dead tunes and would
know that stuff, and obviously Kimock knows all that shit, and me and Magner have been
playing Dead tunes together
for a long time, so we were like, let’s see if we can get Porter to come up and do this.
We put the word out and we didn’t know if he was going to show, and then he arrived and he
was like, hey guys, so
what are we gonna play? And I told him about "Sugaree" and seeing him do that with Billy
Kreutzmann and all that. And he
smiled and he was like, OK, count it off.
It was a ridiculous set. We crushed it. It was a long "Sugaree," like 20 minutes. And then
he was like, let’s do another one.
And I said, what do you want to play, and he says, "Lovelight," go! And he’s just fucking
going and killing it and we’re all
just trying to keep up. I remember looking across the stage, and Magner’s looking at me
and we have this look like,
what the fuck are we doing right now?
JAMBASE: That’s Porter’s reputation though, right? He just loves to play.
TH: Yeah, and let me talk about that. I’m from Philly – we’re a blue-
and all the musicians I know
here work their dicks off and have no airs about it, and I mean everyone from Questlove to
the Dr. Dog guys. The best
musicians in this town are insane workaholics. There’s no vibe of entitlement like you
find with a lot of people in New
York. I lived in New York briefly and I got disheartened running into people, usually in
their late 20s or early 30s, who
just had that vibe.
I mean, you see a guy like fucking George Porter who’s almost 70. That motherfucker just
loves to play. He’s like, hey
man, I get to play music, that’s what I do. There’s no jadedness or taking anything for
granted. It was the real deal with
him. That’s perfect and how it should be. I don’t ever want to be a jaded asshole that’s
pissed because something’s
wrong in my tour rider or something. None of that shit matters. If your eye isn’t on the
prize – music – it’s not worth it.
JAMBASE: While I have you I do have to ask about Brothers Past. Accurate
that Brothers Past will play
when possible, but not consistently?
[Photo by: Allan Greig]
TH: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. Our keyboard player owns a music
school, and our
drummer is an attorney.
They’re just not in a road dog position. I love that band and I love what we did and the
songs we had, but there’s no
plan to build it. The only way to build a band is to fucking grind it out.
Clay [Parnell] and myself, we love being on the road. Brothers Past stopped playing and we
did not – we did some Join
shows, I had Clay play a few Babies shows, but he and I both just love building something.
We love creating a
community and a vibe and being out there and running into friends. It’s a beautiful world.
So I can’t say definitively what
will happen with Brothers Past, maybe we do get into a situation somewhere down the line
where our members could
take four weeks off and tour, I don’t know.
I will say that we do talk about it. We’ll work on some things here and there, and we’re
all in agreement that if we’re
going to do it, we’d want to do it right. We’d want to make a record – we’re really good
at the studio thing. We put out
this box set [Everything Must Go in 2010] and some of that was the best shit we ever made
– incredibly interesting,
weird shit. Who knows? I’m so happy for Clay that he found that gig with the Particle
guys, and I’m going to do my
thing, but who knows.
JAMBASE: Safe to say American Babies will be on the road all year?
TH: Yes, no rest for the wicked. We’re out nine weeks right now, and
we’ll do the
summer festival thing, and
come fall, we’ll be right back at it. We’ll tour nationally.
JAMBASE: You mentioned the Dead and your improvisational urges so you
knew I’d have
to ask you about Joe
Russo’s Almost Dead. When Russo chatted with JamBase a few months ago he mentioned that
you guys played that
Brooklyn Bowl gig last year and knew it was good but were still surprised when there was
so much buzz about it. Is that
how you felt too?
TH: I think so. You know we didn’t improvise much in the rehearsals for
were just trying to learn the
songs. So when it came to the show, and the spots we did open up, we didn’t know what was
going to happen. That
band – that’s Bustle [in Your Hedgerow] plus me, and if you take away Marco and add me,
that’s the original American
Babies band. So we’ve all played together a bunch but oddly never really all five of us.
We had no idea if it would be good, and I remember me and Joe sitting up in the dressing
room at Brooklyn Bowl and we
were like, what the fuck just happened? What was that? That was crazy! We got a recording
and listened to it and said,
OK, wow, that is as good as we thought it was. And yeah we got some buzz from it and that
was cool but we all have
other things. So we decided to leave it as just that one off and then the idea came
together to do another show at the
Cap in December, and the idea going into that was OK, was this a fluke or not? The first
show was sold out but it was a
low ticket price and it was the Freaks Ball and the Cap show was a higher price. But it
came really close to selling out
and the playing was really inspired – we got out there.
So we learned it wasn’t an accident – that’s what we can do when we play together. We’ll
see what happens next. I’m
certainly open to doing more of it but it’s a matter of getting five packed schedules
together. We’ll have to see.
Here are five performances worth seeking out from the past six months that highlight Tom
American Babies, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY - 10/7/2013
The Babies’ most recent Brooklyn Bowl residency was a fun mélange of guests, themes and
wicked jams. This night
brought the Disco Biscuits’ Jon Gutwillig into the mix for an extended run of songs the
Jerry Garcia Band would often
play. Check out this “Tangled Up in Blue” for sure.
American Babies, Southland Ballroom, Raleigh, NC - 11/15/2013
A sleeper Babies show with tasty helpings of Dylan, the Dead and Pink Floyd in the midst
of inspired jamming.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY - 12/27/2013
Nope, not a fluke – the JRAD corps worked up Dead magic similar to their first show
together 11 months earlier. And
Hamilton and Scott Metzger sure work well together as a guitar tandem.
Jam Cruise - 1/7/2014
As Hamilton describes above, he took over the Magic Hat Solar Stage slot originally
intended for Brock Butler and
worked up a wild one with Aron Magner, John Morgan Kimock, Steve Kimock, and first Chris
Chew, then George Porter
Jr. on bass. JamBase Editor Scott Bernstein detailed this set here.
American Babies, Woodland’s, Columbus, OH - 1/17/2014
A terrific illustration of the Babies’ improvisational leanings, weaving in and out of
band staples like “Winter War Games”
and plenty of segues, including the set-closing run from “Old Fashioned” into “Winter War
Games” and then closing off
the “Scarlet Begonias” that had begun more than an hour earlier.