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Published: 2016/02/28
by Matt Inman

The Light and Dark Sides of Tom Hamilton

Tom Hamilton isn’t slowing down. The Philadelphia native has been in various successful bands since forming Brothers Past right out of high school, but it seems like in the past half decade or so he’s really come into his own, and now he’s not letting anything stand in the way of his vision, even if that vision changes from album to album and project to project. From his main project of American Babies, who have a new album coming out on March 18, to the Grateful Dead tribute supergroup Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Hamilton is following his muse wherever it may lead, and so far it’s been pretty good to him.

For now, Hamilton wants to talk mostly about American Babies and the new, more improvisational direction in which he’s taking them, but he’ll never pass up the chance to discuss the profound effect the Grateful Dead—and the members with whom he’s played—have had on his career. Here, Hamilton reveals the dark and hopeful inspiration behind his new Babies album and how his new view for the band has him more confident in his music than ever before.

American Babies has evolved over time. How do you think this new album is different? Where do you feel the band is right now?

There’s an identity, or at least there’s starting to be. When the band started, it was definitely more of a roots thing. I was stuck with the shitty task of having to compartmentalize my work. The reason American Babies started was because I wanted to write songs that had acoustic guitar in them, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to do that for Brothers Past. I was like, “Okay, well, I like doing that shit.” I was told if I wanted to do that kind of stuff, I had to start a new band. With my hands forced, I have to start splitting my work up between the two bands. It’s uncomfortable and shitty. It’s like spending weekends with your kids. It’s a weird thing to be put into.

You can look at the evolution of the Babies records and I guess the exponential change in weirdness had a lot to do with putting away with the Brothers Past thing, for me. It got to the point where I was making the last record, Knives and Teeth, and I realized that I didn’t need to do that shit anymore. I didn’t need to compartmentalize it. I didn’t need to pick the Sharks or the Jets. It’s all one thing, it’s all my stupid ass. I don’t need to be anything other than what falls under the umbrella of “Tom Hamilton,” you know? That’s why I think there was a pretty good jump in tonal textures and in everything as far as playing it safe from my second to my third record. This new album just continues to tread. I just don’t care, I guess. And with that comes a lot of freedom. When it came to making this record, I just wanted to make a record. I didn’t want to make an Americana record, I didn’t want to make an electronic record. I didn’t want to make anything in particular. I just wanted to make a record that I thought represented who I am at the time. And I think I did that.

The title of the record is interesting An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark. Is that tongue-in-cheek, or is it something that comes from the feel of the album?

It’s not tongue-in-cheek; it’s the real deal. There’s not very many light-at-heart moments on the record; it’s a pretty serious album. I was coming out of an incredibly awful situation in a personal relationship that was just devastating. It basically felt like I kept getting kicked in the dick. It was a hard thing to deal with. Then Robin Williams killed himself, and that really just fucking set it off for me. The guy was really important to me. I looked at what he did in comedy, and how he improvised. He was one of my favorite dudes, because he was like the jamband of comedy. He went in and just went. You weren’t going to get the same take twice. You’re going to get him feeling the moment, feeling the film, the part and the scene and reacting accordingly. That’s what we do, what all of us in the scene do. I really identify with that man. When he passed away, it was just yet another swift kick in the balls.

I have a studio here in Philly, and I have a partner named Pete Tramo. He’s a brilliant guy. We wrote this record together. Mental illness is a real thing, man, and it affects everybody’s lives in different ways. It was really affecting me and Pete’s lives in a lot of ways, and we decided that’s something we were going to talk about a little bit. Not in a fucking, “Hey, what rhymes with Zoloft?” type of way. It’s not heavy-handed, but that’s what a lot of it is—it was us. We consider ourselves survivors of depression. I feel like most artists are. We’re all fucking miserable people in some corner of our lives.

A lot of this record is how we’ve dealt with things. How I, in spite of having those times that are just the worst, am still pushing through and making a life happen regardless. It’s an epic battle between light and dark. I feel like that’s what it all is for everybody, all of the time. If that’s something that we’re going to openly talk about, that’s what it is. It’s “Who is going to win today?” every morning. Am I going to fucking come out on top? Am I going to have a good day, or am I going to have a day that I’m still in my sweatpants and binge-watching something awful instead of doing something useful with my time? I can only speak for myself, but that’s what it is, man. This record is just dipping in and out of the good days and bad days.

Do you think the record as a whole represents you being in that mental state, or you trying to get out of it? Or is it a mix of being in that state, but also hopeful for getting out of it in the future?

I feel like it’s definitely a hopeful thing. It’s not a “woe is me” thing, or at least that’s not the way I intended it to be. Obviously with the listener, everybody gets what they get. For me, that wasn’t the purpose of it. The purpose wasn’t woe-is-me and wallowing in my own shit. It was more like, “Hey dude, this is a real thing that I also deal with and that I’m sure everybody deals with, and I managed to get through it.”

At the end of the record—the last song, which is the title track—is a positive message. It’s saying, “Look, it’s not easy to have the light days. It’s hard work. It’s work to be happy in this world. You have to work for it, and if you claw for every fucking inch of it, eventually you’ll get it and you’ll get those moments that you were hoping you would have your whole life.” That’s kind of the gist. Some of it is a real drag, but overall, when putting this record together, that was the point of it. It wasn’t, “Hey, everything is shitty and I’m just going to throw this hot potato in your lap.” It was more like, “Hey man, it’s a hard fucking thing just to be a person, and these are some of the ways I push through it.”

Can you talk a little bit about how the American Babies lineup has changed over the years and how that has affected the music?

The first record was definitely more of a recording thing. I didn’t have much of an eye on touring. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on with Brothers Past because of all of the aforementioned inner turmoil, and at the time [Joe] Russo and Marco [Benevento] were also having a bit of an identity crisis and didn’t know what they were doing. I had these songs, and I wanted to make this record, so I pulled some people together.

When I did start playing live a little bit, it was basically JRAD for a while. It was me and Joe and Scott [Metzger] and [Dave] Dreiwitz for a good amount of time. Then it got to the point where it was obvious that Brothers Past was the side project and American Babies was what I really wanted to be doing. I had to look for a more permanent thing. Joe got the Furthur gig, obviously, and who’s going to blame him for taking that instead of playing with my fucking monkey ass? So from there, it was finding a more solidified situation. Which I did—for most of the Flawed Logic Tour and the Knives and Teeth tour, I had a band. In the course of those two records and the live show, it was that thing of not having to compartmentalize my work anymore.

And I really like improvising. I feel like it’s one of the few things in the world that I’m okay at. With the Babies, I was like, “Hey, I want to start improvising more with this band,” and I realized that the band I had wasn’t a very good improvising band, necessarily. Some of the guys in the band just weren’t really into it, and the other guys just weren’t good at it. They wanted to do it, but it’s a skill. It’s a language in itself.

Right before I started making the Epic Battle record, I basically retooled the entire band with more like-minded dudes—and a chick, for that matter. Now there’s a female in the band. The new version of the band came together, I’d say, about a year and a half ago. That was when I had a good sense of what was going on. Then making Epic Battle was where everything came together and solidified.

So it was really your vision that changed the band’s recent line-up as opposed to it changing by itself and affecting the music?

I mean, yeah. I’ve never been that guy. Even with Brothers Past, we had a drummer that left. Our original drummer split for a couple of years. I feel like music shouldn’t be a job. If everybody isn’t into what’s going on, there’s no reason to force the square peg into the round hole. I have a responsibility as the creative director of the band to be very open with the players and to be very open with what the vision is. I can’t fault anybody for not wanting to change with me. I change a lot. My whole career, every record has been pretty different from the last. I’m sure I’m a pain in the ass, with following my muse wherever it may go.

So when it came to the point where I wanted to improvise more, if it wasn’t jiving, then it was like, “Okay, well I’m going to find somebody who wants to do this.” I’m a fucking lucky dude. I’m in a good position in my career where I have a lot of people who wouldn’t mind playing my songs. I don’t want to force anybody to stay, nor would I force anybody out. Everybody needs to be on the same page, and once that starts not to happen anymore, it’s like, “Okay, well, what’s the option now?” With the change in the live show as well as the constant changes in the studio records, it was just time to make a change.

You’ve also played with Clay Parnell, who you used to play with in Brothers Past?

He’s not playing with us now, but he did a tour with us. You can’t fake that kind of history—fifteen years of playing together. He had off, and we were going on tour, so it was like, “Hey man, you want some work? You want to go out for a little bit?” It was just to scratch that old itch. It was a fun tour, for sure. He did half of our fall tour for 2015. It was a really fun ride. I doubt that that is going to be a permanent thing, but it was cool.

Clay likes more of the electronic thing. He’s in Particle, and that says enough. That’s more of his vibe, and obviously I fall more under the Grateful Dead angle of things. It was a blast. It was a funny fucking tour, doing that shit together again. Who knows what will happen this year? I doubt that we’re going to do it again just because he has the Particle thing. I think they have a record coming out this year, and obviously I also have a record.

Speaking of that, what is the deal with Brothers Past currently?

There is no deal with Brothers Past. It is what it is. It was a band that existed at one point in time. I’m not going to say never. I don’t see a reason to do that at the moment. I say the same thing to everybody that asks that question. I play music all the time. I am one of the hardest working dudes in the fucking business that you’ll meet. I like working with people that are the same way. I like working with people who work hard, who are focused on being a musician. If it ever got to the point where all four people from Brothers Past were into being musicians and were into rehearsing and writing new material and doing the work that it takes to be a successful band, yeah, I would certainly be open to doing something again at some point. Until then, I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything like that. I’m not into the idea of doing a one-off bullshit thing. I feel like the last year and a half that Brothers Past was still playing, we were hurting our legacy more than helping it. We were limping along like fucking Brett Favre playing for the Jets. We weren’t doing anything good, we were just basically playing because some of the guys in the band wanted to still be able to play music on the weekends. And it’s like, “Dude, that’s not right,” and it’s also not good for what it was.

We had a thing that was pretty fucking good for a certain amount of time, and I don’t want to tarnish that any more than we already have by continuing it longer than we should have. It was a cool thing. This Feeling’s Called Goodbye was a good record, we played some cool shows and that’s that. If it all comes back and all three of the other guys are like, “Hey man, we’re down to do the work,” then yeah, it’s a conversation I’m willing to have. It’s not like a “Fuck them” kind of thing. That was my band, too. But somewhere along the way I lost the locker room, which is obviously my own failing. But it is what it is. Ditka can’t go back and coach the Bears. Brothers Past is a thing that I’m incredibly grateful to have had and to continue to have in my life. If any of those conditions ever get met, I would certainly be into playing a show or something.

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