The Art Of The Sit-In | Tom Hamilton

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 Chimenti, Allie Kral, Al Schnier and many others.

Tom Hamilton made his bones with Brothers Past, one of the scene’s most underrated bands and a staple of what’s 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 priority?

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 previous years. How did you settle on this group?

TH: We had different guys in the lineup when it was more ‘we’ll do some shows here 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 great recommendation.

[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 Past they 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 booked 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 those people you just always assume wouldn’t be available.

TH: I know, right? His name actually came up last year. Joe and I were talking 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.

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