The Philly-based guitarist approached his band’s fourth album as a workshop for improvisational songwriting and unconventional sounds.
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.
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.
To create unique effects on American Babies' An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, Hamilton and company captured cavernous reverberations within music venues housed in their Philadelphia studio's building. Photo by Andrew Blackstein
I have a history of improvising a lot in a live setting, and I think that's what makes it possible for me to do that stuff in the studio. It's having an improvisatory approach to everything, making every note count. And it really helps when you go in and say, “Okay, what can we do to make this song different, to make this song special, make the song not just another song that anyone could have written?"
Do you have any training in improvisation, or is it more just an intuitive thing?
I guess it would just be intuitive, but I do have informal training—I've been on the road for about 15 years at this pointand, as I mentioned earlier, I have an older brother, and he brought me out into playing with him in little bars and stuff when I was about 12. We grew up on the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead and stuff like that—bands that improvise. With that foundation, it's only natural that I gravitate towards improvisation.
“Oh Darling, My Darling" has a killer guitar solo. How did you approach it?
That entire ending would be a prime example of the improvising thing. For that whole bit, I had just three chords, and we looped them and spent a few days working over them. I just went over it and improvised and improvised [the accompaniment] until eventually we whittled it down to the backing track that you hear on the album, a sludgy Alice in Chains-like texture, with some thick, nasty guitars. After we were done with it, we sat on it for a moment and went, “Okay, what happens next? Do we put words over this or a vocal melody or something?" And it just kind of hit me: Let's go [David] Gilmour on it, a straight clean solo over all this stuff, and see what that does.
How did you get those thick, nasty sounds?
That was just my Becker guitar through a [TC Electronic] Flashback delay and into a Super Reverb turned to 10. As soon as I hit that first opening lick on it, Pete turned around and we both had that knowing look. My 17-year-old self was like, “Aren't you glad you learned all those Pink Floyd solos?
Are there any solos in particular that you dissected when you were a teenager?
There are so many. When I was a kid, learning to play guitar in the late '80s and early '90s, Van Halen was a huge thing and so was Randy Rhoads. I knew absolutely every note on most of their records, which is a little outside of the box from what I do now. Those were the things I really dissected. And Stevie Ray—the whole The Sky Is Crying record. That's the good stuff.
Your recent music seems pretty removed from those guitar-god influences. What are some less obvious things you've learned from them?
The variety of my work would be the biggest thing. I loved Van Halen and Ozzy when I was a kid, but their music doesn't resonate as much now. If “Panama" comes on the radio when I'm driving, I'm gonna turn it up, but it's not like I'm sitting in my room listening to fucking “Mr. Crowley." As I was growing out of these bands, I realized they were very one-dimensional, David Lee Roth singing about his dick over amazing guitar work. At a certain point it was like, “Okay, this shit's really cool, but there's certainly a shelf life and there needs to be more to it." I started reconnecting with players like Jerry Garcia and Duane Allman—players who could hit just one note and make your entire existence mean something different. So I guess the happy collateral damage of my Van Halen phase was that it helped me find something deeper in terms of my own writing and playing.
You're a multi-instrumentalist. On “Fever Dreams" is that you playing the pedal steel?
That's not me playing pedal steel. I certainly wish it was! That's Isaac Stanford. He's from Philadelphia and is a schoolteacher by day and a beast of a steel player by night. I tell him,“Dude, if you moved to Nashville, you would immediately be like the number two guy in town." Fortunately for me, he's still here in Philadelphia.
How did you get the ethereal sounds at the onset of “Synth Driver"?
The whole beginning is pedal steel as well. I told Isaac, “Look, I want you to just improvise and think about what the song is and what the song means, and in free time just do whatever you want." I must have recorded four passes of roughly 30 seconds of music. And then we took it from there. We reamped the shit out of it—through the Flashback and a Strymon BigSky we used a lot for reverbs and stuff—to get that dreamy and shimmery texture that sounds like a synthesizer but is actually a pedal steel.
Speaking of reamping, can you talk a bit about the recording process you used on the record?
Sure. My studio is in downtown Philly, in the basement of a huge apartment building. There are three different rooms: Two of them are music venues and the third is a studio with a long, thin live room.
We had some great gear in there that we know how to use, since that's the secret to getting a great recording. We had Voxes—an AC15 and an AC30—and an old Fender Deluxe. For a lot of the bass we used one of those old Ampeg flip-tops from the '60s. We would crank it up, put it in the middle of the room and set up a [Neumann] U 47 about four feet back for a nice, simple bass tone.
With the studio being on the same floor as the venues, for reamping we ran lines into one of the venues—a huge, cavernous space with 20- to 30-foot ceilings and a PA system. Unbeknownst to the landlord, we drilled holes through the wall and snaked the lines through. We'd would run things into the PA system and just crank it up.
What's one of the more novel recording techniques you used?
There's a song on the album called “What Does It Mean to Be," and on the drum groove that opens the tune, there's all sorts of delay, a washed-out delay thing. We fed the drums into a [Boss] Space Echo, in turn feeding into two Fender Twins that were cranked in the venue.
And so it was a playground. Whenever one of the venues was empty, we would use it and do something fun. A lot of the sounds on the record are real reverbs and real stairways and huge empty rooms and shit like that.
Yeah, it's fun to make tones that are truly your own. I could buy a software bundle and easily make sounds from plug-ins, but there are millions of other assholes using the same sounds. Why would I want that, you know? I don't want to walk outside and see everyone wearing the same clothing.
Describe how the Philadelphia music scene has changed in the last decade and what it's like to be kind of at the epicenter of it?
It's funny, when I was first playing in clubs in the mid '90s, most of the things going on in Philadelphia were cover bands. Nobody gave a shit about original music. And then Roots hit pretty big—they won a Grammy in 2000. And from my perspective, that's when things started to change in the city as far as the focus on original music.
You've got the neo soul thing that really came out of Philadelphia. Erykah Badu made records here, and you've got Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and all that stuff. That definitely kept the momentum going. And then, the indie-rock thing started to hit and the jam-band thing was, and still is, pretty big in this town. It just kind of snowballed from there. You've got Dr. Dog—they're from Philadelphia—and the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile are from here, too. These people are all very relevant artists that are making great records and really doing interesting work, especially on the guitar. Kurt's a great guitar player, and we produced his first demo in 2001 when we were kids.
Observe Tom Hamilton's improvisational chops as he stretches out with his band American Babies in this full set, filmed late last year in Pennsylvania at the Ardmore Music Hall.
And how does it feel to be a part of it all?
Oh, it's great, man. The bands I mentioned—Kurt and Dr. Dog, jam bands like Disco Biscuits—these people work so hard. I lived in Brooklyn for four years and for some reason there's a lot of entitlement there, like they deserve success just because they pay ridiculous rent or something.It's nice here, man, because everyone works their dicks off for it. And it means something to me that there are all these kindred souls when it comes to work ethic, really honing your craft and working for every check. We all have to really work for it and that's also kind of the feel of the new record when it comes to happiness. It's like, hey, things aren't easy. It's not all waves on a beach, man. But if you work hard at it, you can find happiness—the stuff that makes all the bullshit worth it.