Interview: Tom Hamilton Talks Acoustic Duo Project Ahead of Capitol Theatre Show

On Friday June 1, guitarist Tom Hamilton and pianist Holly Bowling will bring their acoustic duo project to The Capitol Theatre for what is sure to be a magnificent set of Grateful Dead material. The show is billed as ‘Acoustic Exploration of The Grateful Dead.’

Currently, Hamilton and Bowling are touring together with Steve Lyons, Raina Mullen and Scotty Zwang as the highly received jam outfit Ghost Light. Given that but also given both Hamilton and Bowling’s extensive backgrounds in bringing new life to The Grateful Dead songbook, this Capitol Theatre show should be one of those shows to get out and see at all costs. For more info, visit The Capitol Theatre’s website.

In our excitement for the show, NYS Music sat down with Tom Hamilton and discussed in depth the nature of improvisation in today’s modern music climate.

Miles Hurley: So I understand that you’ve been playing with Holly Bowling since her many sit-ins with American Babies. And then of course there’s Ghost Light, and now this duo project. What draws the two of you together musically?

Tom Hamilton: I’d say we both respect the idea of improvising, and of really trying to go places. And seeing how far away from an origin we can take things out. And we listen. The whole thing for me, and for a lot of people I think, when it comes to improvising, is listening to what each other is saying, and giving each other the time and space to say what they have to say, and then reacting accordingly.

MH: What do find is different about improvising in a two-person setting as opposed to with a full band?

TH: Well the principle is always the same, and…well with the acoustic thing, there are just different variables, you know? The acoustic thing is interesting because, not only is it just two of us, but it’s an acoustic guitar instead of an electric guitar, and the pallet that I get to choose from is different. Different than what there normally would be with a band. So I guess it’s kind of doubly-different then. And I think for Holly, you could pretty much say the same thing, because in the band she’s using the keyboards, and not an actual grand piano. And there’s an enormous difference between the way she plays those two.

It’s like having any kind of conversation. The best kind of conversations a person will have, it’s not just the other person waiting to say what they want to say, it’s: “okay, I have heard what you’ve said, and I will retort.” A real back and forth. So with Holly and I, there’s a lot of respect, and a lot of listening.

MH: I got to catch Ghost Light’s show at The Acoustic in Bridgeport, and I could see what you’re explaining going on. Seeing the way you guys interact when building jams was almost as good as hearing it.

TH: Yeah, the thing I always try to stress is, let’s try to write a song right here on the spot. Let’s try to write a Radiohead tune right now. And see what happens, and if it goes somewhere it goes somewhere, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s about making choices. I think that’s the difference between bands that can get around, and bands that kind of just noodle. It’s a thing of saying things with a period on the end, rather than a question mark. “You said this, so this is what I say.” You keep making things happen. And sometimes it’s complete dogshit, and that’s totally fine. That’s the point of it, that it can go either way, and I think people respond to that. I think that’s why people come, because it could be the greatest thing ever, or the worst thing ever, and they think, “I want to see which way it goes today.” As long as everybody’s making choices, it’s always going to be a good outcome.

MH: One thing I think is interesting is that Holly started out doing the tribute thing, and I remember asking her about writing her own music, which Ghost Light has now given her the opportunity to do. But this acoustic project and now The Capitol Theatre Show will almost kind of bring both of you guys back full circle.

TH: Yeah, you know The Capitol and the Dead are both that common thread between us two. When we were asked about doing this, we just said absolutely. For me, the thing that makes it super not a problem is that…as long as we’re still chasing original music. And I mean original music, not like, “oh I’m going to take music that’s pretty been written a thousand times and put different words over it,” or something. No, like original songs and doing original things. As long as we’re using our other time to doing that, and contributing to the lexicon, I think it’s great. It’s great that we get to have the best of both worlds.

MH: This will be another one of several different Dead related projects you’ve been involved with. I think there’s something to be said for the fact of people coming to see you tribute The Grateful Dead in not just one but multiple different projects.

TH: I mean it’s certainly flattering, I will say that. It’s an honor that people care. And we’re lucky enough that with that songbook, you can keep it fresh, as has been proven over the last fifty years. Those songs are living documents that are always going to be growing, and as long as you’re helping that, and keeping it moving in a forward direction, it’s a wonderful thing, and I’m glad to be doing it.

MH: Thinking outside the Dead, were there any particular music artists that you and the other members of Ghost Light have bonded over?

TH: The fun thing about Ghost Light, I think, is it’s five pretty different points of view. I mean, yes, there’s bands that we all agree on. Like Radiohead is fucking Radiohead. They’re the Beatles of our time, and The Beatles are The Beatles of everybody’s time. There’s certain truths you can’t escape.

But there is like…we do a couple of Rolling Stones tunes, and it’s not that I don’t like The Stones, but I wouldn’t have brought that it, and Holly did, and that’s awesome. I brought in a Derek and The Dominoes tune that we do, that probably nobody else in the band would’ve brought that in. Raina brought in this song called “Wild One” that’s just this awesome punk tune, that none of us would’ve thought of. Scotty brought in “Head over Heels” from Tears for Fears.

We all have our own place we’re coming from. That’s the thing that turns me on about the band, and about people in general. It’s a weird time we’re in that most people, through either social media or in social situations, they surround themselves with sicophants. Surrounding yourself with people that are just going to say yes, or agree with what you’re saying, or have the exact same tastes as you. Where it’s like, “well if you don’t listen to what I listen to or believe what I believe, then I can’t hang out with you.” And I get it, but it’s also bullshit, and you’re not going to bring anything new to the world, by a bunch of people just agreeing with each other. And this is bigger than just music I guess, but differing opinions need to touch each other to create a new opinion, to bring understanding and to broaden horizons.

Like, everybody in the band, we all got together because we all love Neil Diamond, okay? And, more than likely, we’re going to end up making a shitty version of Neil Diamond. Which, A) nobody needs, because nobody needs a shitty version of Neil Diamond, and B) Neil Diamond already exists, you know what I mean? I think, putting together this group of people, the fact that everybody is coming from five pretty different places, that’s what’s making this band good, and that’s why people are reacting to it. It’s not something that just like what already exists.

MH: I feel that we’ve reached a bit of an influx, in the sense that there’s so many bands out there today, doing the jam thing, but it’s getting harder to do that jam thing without sounding unoriginal.

TH: Well I think it is easy to do that, if you just work at it. That’s the thing. It’s harder, obviously. But who the fuck said it was supposed to be easy? If it’s easy then you get a lot of what’s going on, which is just a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. If you look at JRAD, that’s five super different folks, trying to sound original every time they walk on stage. You know, for being a band that covers the Grateful Dead, I feel like we’re more original than a lot of bands going, because we openly say, “listen, the songs aren’t ours, but the jams are.” You have some of these jambands that claim to have original music, but it’s a Phish song with different words, or executed poorly.

And it’s hard, it’s not easy. When we were writing this Ghost Light record, I was banging my head against the wall for months and months. That’s the nature of the gig, you have to try and navigate through an ocean of stuff that’s already happened. This Ghost Light record, there’s a lot of tracks where I just think, this sounds like us. I’m really proud of it.