Inspired by a 1974 B.C. Rich Seagull, Tom Hamilton’s custom Becker guitar features B.C. Rich electronics designed
by Neal Moser. Andrew Blackstein

In 1996, when he was 17, Tom Hamilton scraped together $800 from working part-time at a bowling alley to buy a guitar he’d been coveting—a 1974 B.C. Rich Seagull, with its strange, curvy design. “I worked really hard to get that guitar, and it was the best thing I had ever played,” Hamilton says. “But when I was 18 or 19, somebody stole it, and I was heartbroken.”

For years Hamilton searched for a replacement Seagull, but whenever another example of this rare guitar surfaced, it was well out of his price range. Then, a couple of years ago, Becker Guitars, a boutique maker in Massachusetts, offered to make Hamilton a guitar. He agreed, providing he’d be able to specify the electronics. Remembering the functionality of the stock components on his old Seagull, Hamilton decided he wanted the same setup for his Becker. On a whim, he tracked down the B.C. Rich Seagull’s designer.

“It turns out Neal Moser is retired now, living in Arizona,” says Hamilton. “And when I asked him if he could tell me about the original electronics, he was like, ‘Hey dude, I still have all the original parts. I can make you that exact loom.’” He also opted for a pair of 1972 Guild humbuckers for his Becker, as well as a 1960s generic single-coil pickup.

Hamilton now uses the Becker almost exclusively as the frontman of American Babies. This Philadelphia band of rotating players serves as a workshop for his songs, which reference Americana, psychedelic rock, electronic textures, and jam-band terrain in equal portions—music that places a premium on songcraft and arrangements over instrumental virtuosity.

But Hamilton is no slouch on the guitar. As a teenager he learned to play every great Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads track with note-perfect accuracy, yet was equally steeped in the blues stylings of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the extended improvisations of players like Jerry Garcia and Duane Allman.

“My father sat us down to watch Austin City Limits, and when I saw Stevie, I said, ‘Man, that’s it—I’m in.’”

Non-stop gigging since his teen years has also made Hamilton a formidable axeman. His first group out of high school, Brothers Past—an electronica-informed jam band that uses odd time signatures and modulations to excellent effect—made waves at festivals like Bonnaroo and SXSW and only recently went on hiatus. Hamilton has also maintained his improv chops as a member of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—as the name suggests, a Grateful Dead cover band—and he’s also worked with Dead alumni Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir.

On American Babies’ fourth studio album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, Hamilton pushes himself as a lyricist and stretches out as an arranger, delving into vintage country-and-western with pedal steel (“Fever Dreams”), and using that same instrument elsewhere in a synth-like way (“Synth Driver”).

Speaking from his home in Philadelphia, Hamilton told us how he tackled dark subject matter as the inspiration for the record, and how in pursuit of original tones, he covertly drilled some holes in the studio’s walls.

You grew up in a musical household in Philadelphia. What was that like?
My dad was a serviceable bass player and serviceable drummer and an okay guitarist. He had a local band and stuff like that, but never pushed us to play. My older brother played drums and we had instruments around the house, so I started playing drums pretty seriously when I was like 5. My dad turned me on to the blues when I was pretty young—Stevie Ray and all that stuff—and when Stevie died it was a pretty big thing in my household. My father sat us down to watch Austin City Limits, and when I saw Stevie, I said, “Man, that’s it—I’m in.” And from there, I picked up my dad’s guitar and started working on it.

The American Babies fourth album An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark was released on March 18, 2016.

Talk about the role that depression played in the making of An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark.
When we started making the record, me and my partner in the studio—Pete Tramo, who’s an old friend of mine—would just go into the studio every day and not even play. We just sat around and talked, and then tried to figure out what was on my mind and what I wanted to say.

I had a pretty rough relationship with somebody who had severe depression that manifested itself into a Karen Carpenter-level eating disorder. And it was a pretty intense thing to be there with. We had to put her in a hospital and all sorts of stuff. Then one day I came back from a tour and she had disappeared. In hindsight she was just doing me the favor of not having to deal with all that stuff, but at the time it didn’t make it any easier.

I’ve dealt with depression on and off my whole life and so has Pete. But it was somebody else’s struggle with it that really kind of fucked me up. And so, I was processing that. That was something that we would talk a lot about—and shit that happened to us when we were younger. And then Robin Williams passed away in August of ’14, and, man, it was kind of like one swift kick to the balls because he was sort of a hero to me. I don’t really look to musicians that much for inspiration. Everyone is just stealing each other’s ideas and it’s not that fun for me.

How was Robin Williams a benchmark, and how did it impact the making of this record?
I often look to comedians and actors who I think are tasteful for musical inspiration. And a guy like Robin Williams was right up my alley, man. The way he improvised, it was like fuckin’ Miles Davis, man. He was the Miles of comedy—it was something I really admired. Ever since I was a kid, I would try to model myself after that. You know: not repeating yourself, going with fresh ideas and holding yourself to a higher standard. And so, I decided to write about the real and raw things I was experiencing, and not do a record about chicks or something similar that’s been done to death.

Can you talk about how another comedian or actor has influenced your work?
Sure—I take a lot from Bruce Lee. He invented his own form of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. It doesn’t actually have a form; it takes the shape of whatever the moment is. That’s kind of how American Babies is—we just follow the sounds we’re hearing in the moment, and where the music wants to go.

Speaking of improvisation, did that factor into the record at all, or is that more something you do with your side projects?
It’s absolutely on the record—in the writing of the songs and in the arranging of the tracks. I played guitar, drums, bass, and piano on the record, and so I would just go in and do 30 takes over something and every take was a completely different idea, really exploring in the moment every possibility of what could go on within a song or within a chorus, within a measure. And that’s where I start doing the math and piecing it together.