Tom Hamilton may be one of Philly’s most dedicated musicians and he wouldn’t have it any other way.A self-described “workaholic,” he performs with a number of bands, including Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Billy & the Kids (featuring Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann) and Electron. It is American Babies, however, that is his most personal project, and, on March 19, the band celebrates the release of its fourth studio album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, at Ardmore Music Hall. I met up with Tom at Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown to talk about the new album, breaking out of comfort zones, and why Philly’s work ethic makes it one of the greatest music scenes in the country.
NewsWorks: Out of curiosity, what made you pick Penn Treaty Park as a meeting place today?
Tom Hamilton: I live nearby. I come here a lot to just sit and think. It used to have a better view of the city, but now this new building they’ve put up is blocking it. (laughs)
NW: It’s still a great view! Love how the Ben Franklin Bridge looks from here. Anyway, let’s dig into the music and talk about the new album coming out. What was the inspiration behind it?
TH: A lot of the record stems from a pretty rough breakup. Actually, a couple in a row that were pretty hard to take. Both of the people I was with were dealing with mental illness, depression mainly. Being someone who has struggled with that and dealing with the illness in someone else, it was an eye-opening experience for sure. It put the whole thing in the forefront on the record.
NW: I also read that the death of Robin Williams had a big impact on you as well with the new record. Do you want to talk about that?
TH: When Robin Williams passed away in the fall of 2014, it hit me pretty hard. I love the guy. I identified with him as far as how he approached his craft. He was a lot like me in terms of improvising and working in the moment, which is something I pride myself on when I play live. I never recreate the record. I let the song become today’s version of it. How am I feeling today, you know? Making the music a more fluid thing and that’s how Robin Williams was with his comedy and acting. He was someone I really looked up to. (pause) One of the songs on the album, “Oh Darling, My Darling,” plays off of one of the lines in The Dead Poet’s Society.
NW: Ah. I remember that movie. “Oh Captain, My Captain.” Very cool. Didn’t know that about the song. Did you find it hard to touch on such personal subject matter?
TH: This is my fourth record. I already have the album about standard stuff. I try not to repeat myself as much as possible. Sure it’s going to be uncomfortable for me but I gotta do it. As artists, that’s our job. (pause) If it weren’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t have gotten through high school. Whenever you make a record, you hope you can touch someone’s life the way your life has been touched by music.
NW: Now this new album has a different feel from your previous work. It’s very cinematic. Did you change up anything in the creative process this time around? Where did you record it?
TH: We did the album at my studio, Lorelai Studios, which we just moved to this huge space in Germantown, and it’s fantastic. The last few records were just myself writing and with this one, my partner Peter Tramo and I went into the studio with nothing. We had no map at all. Every day, we would go in for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and at first we wouldn’t even pick up instruments. We’d just sit there, chug coffee, and talk. What don’t we want to do? Sonically we’ve already done this and that. How do we keep from repeating ourselves? From there, it evolved into me picking up the guitar and him playing the keyboard. Half the record is me and Pete playing everything. Then on tracks where we wanted more or if there was something we couldn’t play ourselves, we’d bring in my live band, for instance.
NW: Now let’s talk about your career as a whole. You play in so many successful bands, how on earth do you keep it all together?
TH: It’s a bit silly, isn’t it? (laughs) My first band was Brothers Past and we worked really hard for a long time and then it imploded and that happens. From there, I developed my work ethic. The Disco Biscuits are a great band to work with, and I still play with them in various forms. But just by being on the road and talking to people, I ended up with the Grateful Dead. I really attribute it all to work ethic. If you work harder than everyone else, something’s gotta happen.
(Jennifer Logue for NewsWorks)
NW: What do you love most about the Philly music scene?
TH: Honestly, how hard people work. Look at the people coming out of this town on a national level. Look at the Roots. You know Questlove is probably still triple-booking himself. He’s been working his butt off since 1992. The Roots won a Grammy and they worked even harder! The Disco Biscuits are hardworking dudes. Lotus are hardworking dudes. Dr. Dog has been killing it on the road for years before they popped, and they’re still at it. They’re dedicated to their craft, their live show. That’s the Rocky effect for me – the underdog stuff that comes with being from Philadelphia. It drives people to work really hard and bring attention to the city. This is a great place to be for artists.
NW: On that note, do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
TH: Work your butt off, but don’t make it a job. Don’t take gigs for money. If what you’re doing musically doesn’t pay your bills, do something else as a side job. Don’t be a music teacher or a sideman. It drains your creativity. (pause) I was a plumber, I was a mechanic at a bowling alley, a preschool teacher. These things significantly helped my career because I was doing something that allowed me to use a completely different part of my brain. If you give your brain time to process, it helps things fall into place and gestate. It’s really important. (pause) Also, don’t compare yourself to other people. Put your head down to do the thing. It may take longer than you think it should, but if you stay focused and put in the work, it will happen.
American Babies’ newest album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, comes out Friday and is available for purchase here. If you’d like to attend their album release show at Ardmore Music Hall Saturday, tickets are available here.