With any luck, you’ve been internalizing phrases like “be yourself” and “be honest” since the day you could understand language. These ideas are applicable to our everyday lives in a general sense, but they can also be the guiding force and underlying theme in the way we express ourselves through music and art.
If you’re reading this, chances are you already know Tom Hamilton is an exceptional guitarist of many projects, including Brothers Past, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Billy and the Kids, Electron and, of course, Tom Hamilton’s American Babies. He is rising as one of the most talked about musicians in the scene, yet he continues to stay humble.
I initially wanted to chat with him about his upcoming scheduled appearances at Disc Jam June 9 through 12 in Stephentown, NY. On Friday, he will play a set with the Babies as well another set with headliner Electron. What we got out of the conversation was much more insightful. His tell-it-like-it-is candor about his own life and passionate ideas come with underlying morals applicable to humanity.
With that I present to you is, “Lessons from Tom Hamilton.”
Talk about it.
The new American Babies album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, was influenced by Tom’s experience with his own depression as well as that of past significant others. One of whom was hospitalized for her mental illness. One of whom left without saying a word. In addition, a member of his family had committed suicide, something he had not fully come to terms with. It was when Robin Williams took his own life that he really felt compelled to write music about these struggles. “We all have our shit, our human faults; why is no one talking about it?” he said. The process of creating the album has provided the closure to his family member’s death that he had been seeking.
When Tom was just four years old, his love for the Grateful Dead began. He remembers his father watching nervously as he put his little hands allover his music collection, so he gave him his first tape—Grateful Dead at Red Rocks 7/8/78.
“Back then there were two kinds of Grateful Dead fans—the hippies and the bikers. My dad and his friends were definitely the later, but they were the nicest guys,” he said. “Bunch of mean looking guys standing around listening to ‘Ripple.’ They loved music. They lived for it.”
He learned to play all the instruments of the Grateful Dead, playing their respective parts at a very young age.
In 2014, a friend of Tom’s recommended him as a fill-in for a severely food poisoned Anders Osborne at Phil Lesh’s 74th Birthday Bash at Terrapin Crossroads in California. Tom recalls an irritated and anxious Lesh who, hoping for the best, asked this complete stranger if he wanted to go over the songs. Tom told him, “I can play 95 percent of the catalog without sheet music, I’m good to go!” With that, Phil seemed to instantly relax.
“I’ve been playing with Phil my entire life, he just didn’t know it,” he said.
Tom said he feels that too many bands these days are looking around at what other people are doing or looking to the past to what they did. With the American Babies he feels he is doing his own thing without worrying about what’s trending. It is why out of all the bands he plays in that he considers the Babies to be his heart.
One of the things Tom said he feels is wrong with the jamband scene is an overemphasis on the jam. He feels the song itself becomes lost. In fact, he said the only jamband he listens to is the Grateful Dead.
“It’s like piling hummus onto a cracker. You aren’t even eating the cracker anymore, it just becomes the vehicle in which you shove hummus into your mouth,” he said.
To Tom, the music of his American Babies is what good songwriting sounds like. The lyrics have meaning and there are clear segments of the song. While they often become grouped in with jam bands and there are certainly some shreds between Tom and guitarist Justin Mazer, they are doing their own thing, creating their own kind of sound. And it’s working.
Make new friends, but keep the old.
Having played with super group Electron since 2001, Tom said he is looking forward to getting down with Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits and Mike Greenfield of Lotus at Disc Jam. Their set from 2015 was one of the most memorable of that weekend, featuring an exceptional cover of the Grateful Dead’s “I know You Rider.” Playing with old friends is something Tom said he really enjoys. But while they are known to cover Tom’s beloved GD tunes and even did a full Pink Floyd set at last year’s Gathering of the Vibes, the majority of songs are Marc Brownstein’s.
“But those are Marc’s songs,” he said. “And let’s face it when it comes to songwriting, he’s no John Lennon.”
What he is looking most forward to is being onstage with girlfriend and bandmate, Raina Mullen, Justin Mazer, Al Smith and Mark Sosnoskie—The American Babies. He is looking forward to playing his own songs with the people he calls “family.”
At one point in our conversation, Tom asked me if I had ever written a “bad review.” I had to think about that. I’ve definitely been to shows I wasn’t a fan of, or nights where the band was off. I certainly have listened to albums that I didn’t care for. I told him I had, but that I try not to completely tear the artist a new one, highlighting both the good aspects as well as the bad. His response was not sugarcoated.
“You journalists are so afraid to write a bad review. Why? You end up with this diplomatic shit. If something is a steaming pile of shit, just say it!”