Tom Hamilton of American Babies Updates Americana

“This record I wasn’t really into anything,” says Tom Hamilton about his latest American Babies record Knives & Teeth.  “The only thing I really listened to regularly was Alice In Chains. They were such a brilliant band. Honest and powerful. That’s what I wanted this album to be. Honest and powerful.”

The anguish of Layne Staley’s vocals isn’t something we would think the founder of electro rock band Brothers Past would relate to for his creative endeavors but then again American Babies has never been about setting any expectations or rules.  Released  October 15th  from The Royal Potato Family, the 10 songs on Knives and Teeth range from uplifting to heartbreaking as Hamilton considers the secrets of childhood, the impending doubts of adulthood and the weight of strained friendships, mixed in with Hamilton’s various musical nods to the Dead, Willie Nelson and other contemporaries and past influences.   More importantly, Hamilton earnestly works to redefine Americana within his own terms on Knives and Teeth, as he cuts through the BS of certain throwback pretenders and works to establish the genre as one of big guitars, 808 kick drums, and synths and yes even, a drum machine.  We recently had the privilege to talk to Hamilton about Knives and Teeth…

Congratulations on the release of Knives & Teeth – I’ve listened to it numerous times and find it to be very line with what you hear from the psych folk of bands like Blitzen Trapper but  itvery much still remains Americana without doing the whole acoustic thing . Would you call this your most boldly ambitious recording yet in terms of making a band statement and something that sincerely sticks out from the rest of the music makers?

 “Boldly ambitious”? I dunno. I think the biggest thing that happened with making this record was that I stopped trying to compartmentalize my work. Up until this album, I had a whole “Sharks and Jets” thing going on in my head when it came to writing and recording. There was the Brothers Past gang, and then there was the American Babies crew, and they would duke it out pretty often. I have no idea how it became that way, and in hindsight I’m mad at myself for letting that happen. I guess I just listened to too many outside people’s opinions about how I should handle having the two bands? Who knows.

What I DO know is that something clicked when I entered the studio to make “Knives and Teeth.” I stopped giving a fuck about pretty much everything. I didn’t listen to much music besides Alice In Chains and the songs I was working on, and I didn’t really seek outside creative input in the form of a producer. I turned a corner somewhere in January, and I feel great about myself musically. I love the Grateful Dead. I love to jam. I love great songwriting. I felt like I was denying those things. Why in the world would I try to fit myself into something that restricts my creative leanings?

This record is me finally free of any and all creative shackles. If you hear it as ambitious, that’s ok too.


I found it interesting how you described in a prior interview that you are trying to update the whole Americana thing.  How do you feel musically you’ve updated it with American Babies and what songs best represent that?

Well yeah, I do think “Americana” needs a bit of updating. I guess I feel that it needs its own shackles taken off. The dressing a certain way, and writing about shit that hasn’t been relevant in decades, is just so trite to me. Having a style of music and having all of these rules feels stifling. To me, music is freedom. The hippies created a scene where they were free to express themselves in whatever way they wanted, and the music that was a part of it was played with the same abandon. That’s what made it special. The punks were the exact same thing, a reaction to society and a yearning for freedom. But it seems to me that all of these things are now more of a fashion statement than a true belief system. They’re “scenes.” That’s a shame.

The same goes for the “Americana” music. I use big guitars, 808 kick drums, and synths on this album, but I think this is still “Americana” from front to back: blues, jazz, rock n roll, country. They were certainly the formula of where it came from. But since then, America has also produced psychedelic and electronic dance music and they certainly should be involved in the equation.

A song like “When I Build My Fortune” is a good example of it. Is it “Americana”? Acoustic guitars? Check. Nice vocal harmonies? Check. Train drum beat? Check. It also has a drum machine, synths played from an iPad, and loud electric guitars.


On the subject of Americana – what bands out there do you feel are doing the Americana thing the right way? Do you have any resentment to bands like The Lumineers who wear suspenders and such and pretend they are really old timey?

Resentment? Na. That’s a weird way to put it. I’m not looking to start a press war with anyone. Especially with folks who could care less about what I’m saying.

I personally think going down that road is boring, and worse of all, it’s insincere. But I’m also probably a bit older than those folks. I just don’t give a shit about “making it big” or any of that stuff. I want to make interesting records that I think can help the cause. Push the envelope a bit. Mix things up. If you listen through my discography, starting at Brothers Past’s A Wonderful Day and go all of the way through to Knives and Teeth, I couldn’t imagine anyone saying that any of those records sound alike.  I want to push myself with every release. I can’t fault others for not doing that.

How is Knives & Teeth most different from 2011’s Flawed Logic and your 2007self titled debut in terms of mood and composition? Were there any albums from contemporary artists that had a hold on you that you thought along the lines of “I want to make a record kind of like that?”

I think the biggest difference was that there weren’t any albums that I was listening to this time around. The first album I was listening to a lot of John Prine, and Willie. The second album I added a shit ton of Motown and Dylan into my musical diet.

This record I wasn’t really into anything. Like I said earlier, the only thing I really listened to regularly was Alice In Chains. They were such a brilliant band. Honest and powerful. That’s what I wanted this album to be. Honest and powerful.

Are there any songs in the American Babies catalog that you most enjoy playing live and feel have room for extended improvisation or re-imagination?

Oh yeah! Like I said before, having that reality check that I fucking LOVE to improvise was a huge weight off of my shoulders. Again, I feel that I was listening to other people instead of myself for quite a while. “You don’t need to jam.” “Let the songs do the talking.” Etc, etc. But that’s not ME. I like the idea of a song having its own life every time it’s performed. A new vision and version for each time it comes off of the stage.  I’ve found a lot of songs that can be opened up, and we have certainly been doing just that this year.

You make vague mentions of getting older and facing mortality – do you feel that looking at the grim reaper lyrically caused your music to become more urgent, brash and rocking verse considering other themes?

Ya know, I didn’t really think of that. I’m sure there is a correlation, but it wasn’t intentional. I am by nature, a very anxious person. So I wouldn’t be surprised if most things I do or say come off as urgent or brash.

American Babies is a lose operation where you are the one constant member. How does that work for you and how does it not work for you?  Do you miss the long time camaraderie of having band members stay and grow the band into a series of phases?

Well in the studio, it works just great. I’m certainly a dick in the studio because I know what I don’t want when I’m making records and I’m not shy about letting it be known. So I do a lot of playing on my own. I can competently play a few instruments so a lot of tracks, at least in the demo form, start with me playing almost everything.

In the live setting, it’s was a bit of a drag for a while (the revolving door). Flipping musicians all of the time made it hard to have an identity. And as much as the band is centered around my songwriting and guitar playing, I want there to be a camaraderie between players because I feel that that comes through in the improvisation. Fortunately, I was able to land Dave (David Butler, drums) and Flicker (Adam Flicker, keys) a couple of years ago and they have stuck around. We have a good vibe on and off the stage, and they are true friends of mine now. This was really interesting when I came to writing for Knives and Teeth because it was the first time I had an idea as to who would be performing these songs in a live setting as I was recording them. I was able to have fun with it by writing for their strengths, as well as writing to help strengthen their weaknesses.

Can you tell us more about this edition of American Babies band wise and what each band member brings to the live show and to the creative facet of the band?

Well, Flicker is certainly a great utility man. His piano and organ work is top notch, but he also plays trumpet and accordion, which we’ve utilized here and there. On this tour we have him playing acoustic guitar on “Cold Blooded”, which is a killer live track. Having a guy that can do all of these things and bring a unique ear into the fold with great ideas.

Then there is Dave on the drums. He’s a rock, and fortunately he humors my insanity. My first instrument was the drums, and is still my primary focus when it comes to playing music. I write everything starting with the drums, so I’m incredibly particular about those parts. (BP’s Rick Lowenberg can also attest to this) Anyhow, Dave is great and we have a healthy, open dialogue when it comes to my vision and where I want things to go. That’s incredibly important, and I’m grateful to work with him.

Coming from a more electronic music based background- you’ve almost effortlessly morphed your music into a more straightforward rock sound built upon harmony and lyrics. In many ways it’s hard to believe its the same band leader as in Brothers Past.

It’s still my songwriting, ya know? The songs are just dressed up a bit differently. It’s like listening to “Space Oddity” and “Modern Love” by Bowie. Same dude, ya know?

My goal has always been to write good songs. Being associated with the “jam scene” my whole career has made me even more focused on the song, because I feel that people forgot that all of that scene was started by the Dead and the Allmans, and they wrote GREAT FUCKING SONGS. The jamming was and is cool and all, but they all had wonderful songwriters as the nucleus. I don’t want to lose that. I think it is possible to have an exploratory live show, that will rip your fucking head off, and also write great songs. At least that’s my goal.

Do you have any kinship with other adventurous rock folk Americana bands from Phily like Dr Dog or Man Man?

Philly, in general is a blue-collar town. There isn’t really a sense of deserved success or entitlement there, which is why I moved back there from Brooklyn a few years ago . All of the successful bands out of Philly work their dicks off for it. Questlove is always working. Marc Brownstein (Biscuits) is always making moves. Jesse Miller (Lotus) is always recording something new. All of those bands, as well as bands like Dr Dog and Man Man, put in an ungodly amount of time on the road. There’s the kinship I feel with all of them. I’m always working on something for the band. I spent six months recording Knives and Teeth, and as soon as it was finished I started recording an EP of alternate versions of songs from my catalogue that we’ll probably release after the new year. There’s also a live album being put together, and a distant eye on when I’ll start working on a new album. That’s not to mention the work that goes into planning tours and whatnot. Thank God my girlfriend is an understanding, patient woman.


Would you ever consider working with an outside producer?  If so who would you most like to work with and why?

I’ve worked with producers before, and I’ve enjoyed it. Jon Altschiller was the first guy I worked with that had legit credits to his name. He came in when I was making Brothers Past’s This Feeling’s Called Goodbye and we just clicked. He has been probably THE most important part of my maturation as a producer. So much so, that every thing that I have released since that album has had his hands on it in one way or another. He produced the first Babies album, mastered the second, and he mixed Knives and Teeth.

There are definitely a few other guys I’d be into working with. Dave Fridmann makes beautiful, vibrant albums and I would love to try to make something like that at some point. On the other side of those psychedelic leaning records would be working with someone like Ethan Johns. His work with Ray Lamontagne is awesome and beautiful. Daniel Lanois is another guy who I’d like to hang around with in a studio for a few weeks.

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One Response

  1. thanks for running this interview. i pick up most of the stuff that the royal potato family record label releases and this one has quickly become one of my faves for the year!

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