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.
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.
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.
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.
JAMBASE: While I have you I do have to ask about Brothers Past. Accurate to say that Brothers Past will play when possible, but not consistently?
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 that, we 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 Hamilton.
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.