The Art Of The Sit-In | Tom Hamilton

JAMBASE: Let’s stay on that for a moment. I remember around 2010, 2011 when 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 jamming? There do seem to be more younger jambands in the last few years that have embraced it, particularly Americana and roots bands.

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 with a 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 Cruise 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 it 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- collar town, 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.

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