Catskill Chill Artist Spotlight: An Interview With Tom Hamilton
Zachary Franck interviewing Tom Hamilton
ZF: For the fans, where are you from and when did you start playing guitar?
TH: I grew up in West Philadelphia, in a part of the city called Overbrook. I started really playing guitar when I was eleven - it was right around the time that Stevie Ray Vaughan died that I realized I was totally in. There was a show on T.V. called Austin City Limits, they did a special on him because he had done a couple legendary shows on there, I watched both of them and was sold. That was probably the turning point when I seriously started to practice and become less interested in little league and stuff like that, I started to get a lot more into music.
ZF: Early on, who would you say your biggest influences were as a guitarist?
TH: I mean, I was always into Jerry Garcia. The first music I ever heard was the Grateful Dead - my dad gave me a cassette of Red Rocks 7-8-78 when I was four, so I've always been listening to the Dead. Garcia was always a thing for sure. When I was younger, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a huge thing. Then as I got a little older, like 12-13, middle school ages, I was way into Van Halen and Randy Rhoades. I did a pretty heavy trip through Ozzy's catalogue and through the Van Halen catalogue as well. I mean those guys were the shit, they were innovators. I guess I've always been into innovators.
ZF: Exactly, they're all original. When you started to really take music seriously, in your late teens, did you always see yourself playing music professionally?
TH: Ya know, it was always the hope. You can plan on it as much as you can plan on it. I got lucky in a lot of ways but that was always the goal - to be my own boss, to play my own music, on my terms. It was only a few years ago that I started playing other people's music. When Brothers Past started going, I never took hired gun gigs. The only band I played with was my band. I was completely focused on my own vision, my own quest to do something. I think that's a really important thing, especially when you're young - to focus on your own thing, stick with it, and just go. Don't worry about what other people are doing and don't look over your shoulder.
ZF: Can you think of a defining moment in the early stages of your career? When Brothers Past really started touring, did you ever feel like your dreams were coming true?
TH: Well, you know man, I think that's one of the detrimental things of being in your twenties. It's like you wait for this moment where you're like "Oh, I made it" and it doesn't happen. At least it didn't happen for me, it didn't happen to a lot of my friends either. It comes down to if you're doing it, you're doing it. It doesn't matter if you're going out on tour and then you're coming home and working a part-time job. That doesn't mean that you're not doing it. You're still doing it! Man, Wayne Coyne worked at a freakin' Long John Silvers until like 1988, the Lips started in like '83. There's no "making it" necessarily, there's no moments. There was a point when I was in my late twenties, maybe thirty where I looked around and was like, "Woah, I've been doing this". I think that those expectations can really mess with people, they make people stop playing. People set these expectations and when they're not immediately met, they feel like it's impossible. It'll happen if you're good at what you do and work really, really, really hard.
ZF: What set Philadelphia apart from other cities in the early days of Brothers Past and the Disco Biscuits? When did you realize that there was a unique music scene forming in Philly?
TH: Hm, I guess when Lotus moved to Philly. I thought that was peculiar, like why are these dudes from the Midwest coming to Philadelphia of all places. Honestly, for most of my adult life I haven't even been in Philadelphia, I've been on the road. Especially in the early Brothers Past days, we'd be out on the road doing 100-150 shows a year. We didn't really hang in Philly, we didn't even really play in Philly because we were doing shows all over the country. There was like six years of that, where I had no idea what was going on in Philadelphia. I had no idea what the scene was because we weren't around, but I do remember meeting the Lotus guys. I guess it was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. We were playing a place called Murrays Inn - we were headlining inside and they were playing outside, in between our sets. I remember them telling me that they were moving to Philly and it just struck me as odd. I felt that it was interesting that musicians were moving to Philly for whatever reason.
ZF: Well I feel like it's great city for touring musicians that want to live in the north-east, it's much more affordable than New York. It's also a pretty central location.
TH: Absolutely, that's why I still live in Philadelphia. As far as location, It's so convenient.
ZF: Definitely, from New York to D.C. - you have access to a number of cities from Philly.
TH: Yeah man - New York, D.C., Baltimore, Boston, Burlington. None of them are really that far away. There was definitely a thing going on in Philly during the early 2000s. Besides BP, Lotus, and the Disco Biscuits, there was also a band called The Ally .
ZF: Greenfield's old band?
TH: Yeah, and Ira from Yeasayer. Not to mention that The Roots were crushing it the hardest in the early 2000s, they put out Things Fall Apart in like '98 or '99 then Phrenology - they were seriously crushing it, winning Grammys and shit. D'angelo also released his amazing album Voodoo. A lot of great hip-hop and neo-soul has come out of Philadelphia.
ZF: Definitely. Give us a brief summary about how and when Brothers Past came into fruition?
TH: Oh man, the initial seed of it started when I had just graduated high school. I had a group of friends and we were all into playing music. We were into the Dead, Phish, The Allman Brothers etc. We started playing together, it was originally me and my older brother and two guys we went to high school with. I met Tom McKee in '98 and he started playing with us. "It was a great band, to this day one of the best bands I've ever been in". We were eighteen year old kids playing really intense, old music. It was going good, we started to get shows outside of Philly. It eventually got to the point where everybody besides me and Tom McKee didn't want to live the life of touring musicians. It was around 2000 that we got Clay Parnell and Rick Lowenberg and reinvented ourselves as a band, and that's when the official start of the band would be. We all lived together in a house outside Philadelphia, in a town called West Chester. We just worked really hard, we practiced every day, I mean every day, for hours. We had a residency at a local bar that we would play at every week. We were just a really hardworking band and I owe a lot of that to McKee, I was always a taskmaster like him when it came to the music but McKee pushed the business side of it. "Between me, Tom, and Clay - we could really do some damage".
ZF: Yeah, they're both great musicians, McKee's a creative keyboard player.
TH: McKee's a good keyboard player and a great songwriter, he was so important to us because of his songwriting. He wrote great songs. He did a lot of good things.
ZF: As a songwriter, who has had a lasting impact on your musical outlook and style?
TH: The Beatles obviously, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Radiohead, Tom Yorke has really shaped my whole thing. Springsteen and Bob Dylan, both were enormous influences for me. There was a band called Stereolab that me, Clay, and McKee all rallied around. They were able to combine pop music with electronic music in a very cool and original way. It really influenced what we were trying to do. There was also a band called Broken Social Scene, there was such a huge indie boom in the early 2000s.
ZF: You guys were greatly influenced by the Indie Rock?
TH: Yeah man, we loved it. Interpol, The Flaming Lips, and a lot of stuff - we all listened to a lot of music, the early 2000s were a very fertile time for music.
ZF: Lately you’ve been playing numerous shows with various bands/projects, I know that American Babies is your main focus but what other musical endeavors have you been excited about?
TH: "The Dead stuff is always pretty good. I've always been a fan of that band, they've had such an incredible and profound influence on my life. Since I've been alive, the Grateful Dead has always been a part of my life. The imagery, artwork, album covers, music, books, calendars - my parents bought me all that stuff, I was always surrounded by that culture. So, it's pretty cool. It's validating for me. New Years was pretty cool, getting to play with Phil and being able to have my family there. New Years Eve is my birthday so it was pretty special to have Phil Lesh lead two-thousand people in singing 'Happy Birthday' to me with my parents and brother there."
ZF: That was probably amazing for your parents, I know your dad is a huge Deadhead.
TH: Totally man. For all those years that they were worried about me because I was a starving musician, to be able to show them that it was all worth it was really nice, it was a nice thing to be able to share with them. Being able to play with Bob Weir at The Peach Music Festival was also really fun.
ZF: Yeah, that was really special.
TH: It was man, it was really cool. It's interesting, I've never met a person that was that musically confident. A lot of musicians, myself included, we hate ourselves - we feel inadequate, we're all filled with insecurities.
ZF: Yeah, I feel like that's the case with anybody who is truly creative.
TH: For sure man, it was interesting seeing Bob because that was not the case with him - he walked on stage with us, took the bull by the horns, and he lead that band. It was awe-inspiring to see. Obviously playing with Bill Kreutzmann for the last year has been incredible. His playing and his attitude are just so good. It's also nice to be able to call him a friend. All of the Dead stuff has been a real honor for me. Throughout my life I've always said, "I'm not that big into the idea of playing other peoples music", and people would challenge me that there was some gig I'd take, and I can vividly remember saying, "Well, I'd play with the Dead guys". That had to be seven or eight years ago, and here we are.
ZF: Well, you know their discography so well, a lot better than a lot of musicians. It also must be awesome to play next to Magner with Billy and The Kids.
TH: Absolutely man, me and Aron have been friends for so long. One of the things that we can share in our friendship is our love for the Grateful Dead, we both got into the Dead at a very young age. It's great to be able to share these experiences with a friend that really appreciates what's going on. Not to mention that he knows their catalogue like I know it. It's a really cool and interesting thing that I'm grateful for.
ZF: At last year’s Catskill Chill you played a huge set with Electron; it was the first big festival set for the band if I’m not mistaken. It was one of the best sets of music that I’ve ever seen. After it happened, did you feel like Electron was going to become more serious?
TH: I remember at the end of 'Comfortably Numb' feeling like we just played a really good set of music. We were listening to each other, the jams were patient, it was very fun. The thing with Electron is that everybody has other stuff going on, it can only be so much between Lotus, the Biscuits, and American Babies. It was definitely a great set at a great festival though.
ZF: Over the past year, what are some performances that have really stood out to you? Are there any specific shows where you walked off stage feeling like you absolutely nailed it? (Besides every show)
TH: The PhilRAD shows were really special for me, those had some pretty intense moments. The thing about JRAD is that they're all pretty great shows, we don't really drop the ball that often. It's five guys who know each other very well and are comfortable playing with each other.
ZF: As a creative and innovative musician, where do you see yourself in a year from now?
TH: "American Babies is always my main focus, that's my band. They're all my tunes and I get to cultivate the culture that I want to be a part of. I just finished a new American Babies record which is freakin' crazy. It's the most out there stuff that I've probably ever recorded. All the songs are long and very progressive. The first two songs are like ten minutes each. It's a long form type of thing, I'm really excited about that. We're going to figure out how we're going to release that. As far as a year from now, I can't really say. I haven't done anything different in years. I keep my head down and do the best work that I can. Somewhere deep down, I hope that somebody is paying attention and if they're not, oh well. "I need to do this, I don't necessarily play because I want to, I do it because I need to. There's a primal feeling inside of me that tells me I need to create things, record records, direct videos, improvise, and do all these things. Hopefully the audience will grow in a year and not shrink, we'll see what happens from there."
ZF: Will Brothers Past ever play shows again? Now that you guys have been on a hiatus, there is constant chatter about the band in the northeast jamtronica scene. Among my friends and acquaintances, I have seen multiple discussions about old BP shows as well as sharing of links/soundboards. Anybody that truly knows music and loves livetronica knows how special BP is - can you elaborate on how you feel about that? Have you completely flipped the page on that chapter or do you still have the passion for your original band?
TH: I don't mean it with any malice or anything like that but I don't really have any interest in Brothers Past anymore. I like doing things that you can sink your teeth in, that you can really get down and dirty with and build something with. Brothers Past isn't that thing anymore. There's no building with that band because half the guys aren't on the road, they can't tour because of their personal lives. I'm not into being part of a part-time thing. If I'm putting my creative energy into a band like Brothers Past where I write half the songs, it's a lot of work, Brothers Past is a lot of work. If all of us aren't putting in an equal amount of work, I'm not going to waste my time. Again, I have no hard feelings, it is what it is. I'd rather do something else unless all four people are going to communicate, rehearse, and practice on their own. Those are the things that it takes to be a professional musician. I have so much stuff going on that I can't afford to add something to my plate that's half-assed. That's not what I do, if I'm going to do a gig, I'm going to crush it.
ZF: I understand what you're saying. I feel that Brothers Past is the type of band that only works if every member puts 100% into it.
TH: Exactly. The past few years that BP was going, I felt like we were kind of limping along, doing more damage than good. Half of the band members weren't in it, they were into being musicians on the weekends. That's not how this thing works. I can't carry the load for other people, it's not something that's doable. Unless all four members plan on challenging themselves and each other full-time, you will probably not see another Brothers Past concert.. ever.
ZF: American Babies is a very different band than Brothers Past, very awesome but different. The songwriting and lyrics stand out to me as real American rock n roll, similar to a refreshed Dead sound and powerful Dylanesque lyrics. Yet the songs and improvisation are amazingly original and very personal, pushing boundaries in a calm and collected fashion.
TH: With Brothers Past, we helped define a new generation of jam bands and improvisational musicians, I still love that. I really do still love that element of it. So it's been really fun with the Babies, being able to re-implement all the things that I did with BP, as far as the improvising aspect goes. It's awesome to be with a new group of guys that are all really into being musicians and playing together. Having Clay on board really helps the whole thing a long, you can't fake the connection that me and Clay have. We've been playing together for so long, our chemistry is just so great.
ZF: I totally agree. In my opinion, your on-stage relationship is like Brownie and Magner. It's the type of chemistry that can't be faked or taught, you need to earn it.
TH: That is just fifteen years of playing together and grinding it out on the road. It's fun. The Babies are what I've always wanted my band to be, it's what I wanted Brothers Past to be originally. We're not pigeon-holed into anything. We can play whatever we want and fit into so many different genres because that's what this thing is supposed to be, it's supposed to be freedom. When you're trying to make it, you're making it to freedom - freedom to walk on stage with your comrades and absolutely own the stage for the next four hours. You claim your real estate, ride the wave, and do something new and interesting every night. You are free, nobody can tell you anything, you dictate exactly what you want.
ZF: I definitely agree with what you said about the Babies, one night you can open for the Disco Biscuits and the next night you can open for Greensky Bluegrass, it's awesome. Your music stretches genres and can fit into so many "scenes". American Babies is refreshing because you take the best of old music and the best of new music and combine the two. A lot of the newer jamtronica bands are pretty stale and unoriginal. Where do you hope to see the American Babies in the next year?
TH: We're going on tour with Greensky Bluegrass in the fall which will be fun. The new record that we spoke about will be released at some point. I just want to keep playing and pushing myself, that's all I can do. Keep going.
ZF: You are an incredibly essential part of the live music scene, and always have been. What do you think of the current state of the scene and do you think that the majority of your peers are doing a good job at keeping the torch lit?
TH: I think the scene is kind of weird. Like you said, there's a little bit of a stale situation going on. I don't really pay that much attention to be honest. I want to do what I do and worry about myself. I don't really care much about what my peers are doing musically. I'm great friends with both the Disco Biscuits and Lotus, I love those guys, we've been playing together for a very long time. I've just never really listened to these other bands because it's not what I listen to, I don't listen to jam bands that aren't the Dead. Like I said, they are all friends and we talk. I'm glad that Lotus is doing really well and they're growing. I'm glad that the Biscuits are playing well and that they're all getting along and having fun. Those are the only things that I care about. I don't care what they're playing musically, I just want to see them trying to kill it every single time they play. As long as that's what they're all doing, I'm happy for them and I'm happy. I love talking to Barber and hearing that he's happy and that their shows went great, that's what I want to see in the scene.
ZF: Most definitely man - by the way, the Biscuits set that you sat in for at Red Rocks was entirely epic. You were really the glue that held it together, plus I thoroughly enjoy seeing you and Barber playing together.
TH: I love playing with Jon, it's always fun. What's funny is that people always try to insinuate that there's a competition between us or some nonsense. We're friends! We've been friends for freakin' fifteen years! There's no competition. Also, we both don't care what other people think. We have fun. I also think that Jon's one of the best guitarists around right now and has been - he's definitely better than I am and I'll be the first guy to admit it.
ZF: That's what's awesome about seeing you guys playing together. You guys have very different styles and tones.
TH: Yeah man, it's apples and oranges. There's never been any "competition", we play together because we enjoy playing together. When it comes to the scene, I love our community and I'm just going to keep doing what I do.
ZF: If you could play with any musician throughout history (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
TH: Ah man, that's a rough one. Freddie King comes to mind for sure. I would say Garcia but I feel like he would hate how I play. I would've loved to play with John Lennon. Honestly, I don't really feel like I'd be good enough to play with any of these guys. I would just love to sit in a room with them and watch them play.
ZF: What sets Catskill Chill apart from most festivals? What upcoming shows and festivals are you looking forward to the most?
TH: "Ah man, I love Catskill Chill. It's my favorite small festival, it really is. It's so great and I love everybody that runs it, I love all the people that work there. It really is my favorite festival of its size - I'm really sad that it's moving and I hope that they find a suitable new venue for it."
ZF: Yeah, Camp Minglewood is just so perfect.
TH: "It really is man, it's as much a part of the festival as the music. The fact that it's smaller really makes a huge difference. People are very respectful and don't bother you. The whole situation is filled with positive energy, I really feel and enjoy that. Like I said, the people who run it are just so cool and they encourage interaction between the musicians. The backstage area is so chill, everybody hangs out together."
ZF: I totally agree, it's my favorite festival and I love everything about it. I can't really find a negative word to say about Catskill Chill.
TH: Me neither. It's very clean, the people who go to Catskill Chill have it together.
ZF: I'm very excited to see you play with Electron there again.
TH: It's going to be really cool man, the Babies are also playing on Sunday and I'm doing another acoustic set with Aron Magner. It's going to be another very special year at Catskill Chill.
ZF: If you could say one thing to your dedicated fans, what would it be?
TH: "It's still foreign to me that I have actual fans. It's not something that I'll ever fully get used to. Just keep on coming and I'll keep on playing!"