We managed to track down one of the busiest men in the music business right now. Tom Hamilton is currently in the studio with his band, American Babies, working on their first full length album since 2013’s Knives and Teeth. Except when he’s playing with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a Grateful Dead… *gulp* cover band, so good it actually pains me to call them a cover band. Or you may know him from Electron playing along side his friends from Lotus and the Disco Biscuits. Or maybe you knew him from Brothers Past. The list goes on.
Hamilton was kind enough to fit in a little chat in advance of a big weekend of shows (three shows in CT, NY, and NJ) that includes a stop at The Cutting Room, where they will play a show honoring Modern Americana music with songs by Arcade Fire, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket, and more.
They’ve got a few more stops already lined up this year, including stops in Baltimore, MD, Lancaster, PA, and a couple of big festivals including Electric Forest.
But that won’t be all. As you can read on in our interview below, he’s got big plans for the year. Check out what Tom has to say about modern Americana music, being a musician in Philadelphia and growing up in West Philly, and he’ll tackle some questions from fans including his take on hippies versus hipsters.
**Disclaimer: Tom Hamilton sometimes uses bad language. If you think that you might be offended, please go back to our home page and click on another link.
EN: Can you talk a little bit into how this unique show (This Friday night at the Cutting Room) came about?
TH: Yeah the guys who run that thing put on these shows and ask the bands to curate it in a specific fashion. They had one band do a bunch of songs from movie soundtracks, shit like that. So they approached me about doing some kind of Americana thing, you know maybe The Band or old Dylan or, whatever. And I kind of — It’s like, everybody does that shit. People do “The Last Waltz” every year over Thanksgiving or Dylan things. You know, a lot of stuff that’s like based in the 60s and 70s so I was intrigued by the idea of doing a show that had some kind of theme with it but wanted to do something a little different. So I kind of liked the idea of doing like a modern Americana thing. Americana music that was made in the 21st century.
I just feel like it’s a thing with American music where for some reason, American music, people just assume if you’re playing Americana you have to wear flannel or dress like you fuckin’ are train hopping and you know, that’s not the fucking case. Americana music didn’t stop being made after fuckin’ Blood on the Tracks. I feel the bands that are going today — fuckin’ War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, Father John Misty, fuckin’ Arcade Fire — this is what Americana music has come to. It’s what it’s turned to. It’s evolved. It’s no longer just this one thing. It used to be a thing where it was mixing rock and roll and country and blues and all this stuff and you’re still mixing in all that stuff but now you’re throwing in punk rock and jam and electronic and you’re mixing in, you could, in theory, mix in elements of hip hop. This is all American music.
So American Babies — you didn’t really make it a priority until about 2011. And there have been a bunch of different lineups in the last few years but you’ve got a pretty set group and it looks like it’s predominantly Philly artists, right?
Yeah, man, definitely.
Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I feel like there’s… I don’t know… I don’t want to have guys that are just takin’ a gig, that just look at playing in Babies as just another band that they play with. I want people who are into playing in a band and focusing on one project and building that thing into something bigger. You have these New York session guys and that’s a lifestyle up there. Just take gigs, play in as many different acts as you can, it’s a big hustle. And I don’t like that, particularly. I want guys who are focused and into being in this band.
Philadelphia has a great pool of musicians. A lot of great guys and it’s also a much more affordable city so it’s easier for a musician to focus on being in a band and living in Philadelphia, being able to pay your rent. Where as if you’re living in New York, you gotta play two gigs a night every night just to pay your fuckin’ rent. That’s not conducive to creativity and making a life, unless your parents are rich. And then that’s a whole other thing. But I’m not that fortunate.
But when we’re all in Philly we can just say hey let’s go rehearse today and we can just go do that. Instead of it being a thing where, well, this guys gotta come in from New York, and this guys gotta come in from LA and it’s fuckin’ stupid. I’d rather have everyone together in one spot.
I hate the Philly as an underdog cliche, but I can’t help but think that in spite of the prominent artists coming out of there, the city is still kind of second tier to a place like New York or LA. Like when people hear Philadelphia, they may not think about a unique music scene like they might New York or LA. Not that Philadelphia doesn’t have its own persona, but is there an element of that that has infiltrated the American Babies sound or the attitude you guys take on?
I guess it’s just kind of in my being as it is. Like, it doesn’t matter where the fuck you live. You live in New York? Okay, what does your music sound like? I don’t care if you live in fuckin’ Brooklyn or you live in fuckin’ Ithaca. It doesn’t matter. What’s the work you’re doing? You know, there’s definitely an entitled vibe with some people that live in New York or LA where they kind of exude a thing where they deserve success just because they live there. Like dude, fuck you, man. You don’t deserve anything. The only thing anyone deserves is to die. So it’s like, okay, you can pay rent in a fuckin’ loft in Williamsburg doesn’t mean success, or whatever.
So does that Philly thing come in…? You know, maybe, but think about what Philly does have:
Go by genre, go by indie rock. Well, you got fuckin’ Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, you got Man Man, those are some pretty relevant fuckin’ bands. You go hip hop and you got the fuckin’ Roots. These guys are the band for all of hip hop. And then you can go older bands there’s fuckin Gamble and Huff band, you want Neo Soul you’ve got Jill Scott. Then get to the jam band scene. You’ve got the Biscuits, Lotus, Brothers Past. Philadelphia is a pretty fuckin’ happenin’ place.
And where in Philadelphia are you from?
I grew up in West Philadelphia — The actual West Philadelphia — not the people who pretend to be punks or hippies, the people who say they’re from West Philly but really it’s University City or a bunch of kids from Narberth who move to the ghetto just to pretend to be poor for a couple years and dress in all black, ya know? It’s like dude, nobody cares about you, man. Fuck off. But people who grew up there actually kinda take offense. Why would you want to pretend to be poor? Why would you want to move to ghetto and pretend to be poor? You think the people who actually have to live there appreciate that? No, man.
(I’m laughing the entire time)
Okay so 2015… American Babies have been coming into their own. You got a few dates lined up, including some festivals. E Forest is huge for you… What does the rest of the year have in store? Can we expect a full tour?
Absolutely! The reason we’re only doing this few shows in the first half of the year is because we’re in the studio making a new record. So yeah, once this thing is fuckin’ done, yeah, right back out on the road. The fall tour is going to be a pretty big one. We’re going to tour the whole country. But right now, we’re just tryin to fuckin’ finish this record. It’s fun. It’s great. It’s an exciting process and I’m glad to be in the think of it, but yeah, that’s the only reason the touring schedule is so light, I wanted to make another album.
Sounds good. Hey we invited some fans to ask any burning questions they had. Some I refuse to ask you, but we got a lot of legitimate questions.
How’d you get hooked up with Becker guitars?
I did a tour with the Disco Biscuits in 2010 because Jon (Gutwillig) broke his hand. The Becker guys were providing Jon with guitars so when I did that tour they were like, hey man, we’re this company, blah blah blah… and they gave me a guitar to use for the tour if I wanted. And I dug it. I thought the guitar was cool. It felt real nice but I didn’t particularly like the way it sounded very much. And they were kind of talking to me about using their instruments and stuff. There were certain things I wanted if I was going to play one of their instruments. If I was going to play a Becker guitar I wanted it to be my own design. I wanted it to be what I wanted it to be. I didn’t need a new guitar so I wasn’t just going to get one. So after a few years of casual talking, we came to an agreement on what it was I was looking for and we made it happen. So i got it almost exactly a year ago last year. End of February early March, something like that.
Does Electron have any touring or studio plans?
You know, that’s been… that band is one of those things where it’s a bunch of guys that like to hang out and play music but we all have our own thing goin’ so just orchestrating the calendars of all the members is a pretty hefty job. So I wouldn’t say there’s much touring, but we’ll do what we do, which is here and there and do a couple shows and when our schedules permit we’ll put somethin together and have a good time. Electron’s always been for — shit it’s been 15 years — it’s always been a thing we do when we can do it. It’s not a priority on anybody’s list but it’s a thing where we’ll all retreat from our separate bands and do this thing, have fun, and high five and it’s like a vacation, like a work vacation.
On that note, someone wanted to know what Brownie’s (Marc Brownstein of The Disco Biscuits & Electron) hat smells like…
(Laughs) …Uhh… fuckin’ pot resin… I don’t know.
Yeah that’s pretty much what I thought you’d say….
What are your thoughts on the current jam scene, and the relationship, or disconnect, rather, between hipsters and hippies.
That’s funny. That’s a funny question. Well.. the hipsters versus hippies thing… they’re all the same, ya know. They’re all the same. That’s what my favorite thing about it is. The hipsters, the hippies, the punks, they’re all the same fuckin’ thing. They’re just wearing different clothes. It’s a scene. They’re all scenes, man. Every scene is basically the same. They all think they’re different from everything else but they’re not because it’s a bunch of people. It’s something that starts as a cool thing but then ends up as people just trying to out scene each other. Like, you’re not as cool because you don’t wear this clothing or you don’t have this hair, ya know? Like, whatever. It all turns into stupid high school bullshit eventually. So as far as the scenes go, I just think everyone needs to fuckin relax and just, be, ya know? I’m a pretty big proponent of just. fucking. be. groups of people, ya know? I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care who you like to fuck, I don’t care what you wear. Be a good fucking person, and that’s kind of it. Nothing else should matter at this point. Unfortunately, I know that’s not a reality, but I’m also not going to feed in to any of that bullshit. Scenesters wanna have whatever drama comes with having a scene. Have fun with that shit. But I’m out.
(Laughs) Mic drop!
Yeah, Hamilton out!
And what was the first part of your question…?
He wanted to know your thoughts on the jam scene…
(Doesn’t miss a beat)
It’s weird. I don’t really know. The newer bands… I don’t know… they all sound the fuck the same. Which is kind of weird. When we were coming up–
Sorry I’m going to interrupt, when you say when we were coming up, who do you mean?
I just mean my graduating class, I guess you would say. Brothers Past, Biscuits, [Sound Tribe] Sector 9, Lake Trout. New Deal. Everyone had their thing. BP was the indie band that jams, the Biscuits were the ones doing all that crazy classical shit. The New Deal… obviously… we all know the New Deal… The New Deal owns the house thing. Nobody could do it like that. That’s what they owned. Lake Trout owned the drum and bass thing and the jungle thing. Everybody had their thing that they were all good at. Now it seems every band kind of… it’s this grey mixture of everything… like a photo copy of a photo copy of a photo copy. It just doesn’t really seem like it’s got a real fuckin’ identity. Other than the fact they’re all in this fuckin’ scene and they all grew up listening to those fuckin bands.
Okay I have two hard hitting questions we can wrap it up with.
Hit me, Heraldo.
Okay, one fan wanted to know what cigarettes you smoke when writing songs.
I quit smoking.
Yeah. And they shouldn’t smoke either. It’s a real bad habit. It’s been 3 months.
Oh well congratulations. I hope this question didn’t make you want one.
Oh it certainly does. Every second of every day.
Last one – told you – real hard hitter. What’s your favorite color?
Didn’t even have to think about it, eh? Well, that’s all I got for you, don’t wanna keep you from the studio.
Very excited to see what comes of the Babies and JRAD this year.
Yeah should be a good year.
Well congrats on all your success and good luck in the rest of 2015.
Thanks a lot!
Thank you, Tom!
You wanted links, you said? You got it!
Check them out in the NY, NJ, CT tri-state area this weekend and of course, don’t forget to check out American Babies on Spotify