Philadelphia, Pa. 4-piece American Babies is currently on the road supporting their latest album Knives and Teeth, via The Royal Potato Family. Philly has never been a slouch in the musical talent department, and American Babies boasts a very strong lineup with loads of recording and performance experience behind them, most notably guitarist Tom Hamilton of Brothers Past fame.
When describing Knives and Teeth, Hamilton stated “It’s a 40-minute existential meltdown.” Take that however you want and apply it to whatever circumstance you may be experiencing, but rest assured the record focuses on pushing past the typical, ever-important nonsense of young adulthood, and strives to find a deeper meaning to what life is all about.
So, I spoke with guitarist/singer Tom Hamilton prior to their stop in Syracuse, NY on December 7th to discuss the new record and the thought process going into the booth, how this run of shows has been treating the group, their plans for 2014, and the City of Brotherly Love.
G- Hi Tom and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five! How’s everything going, man?
T- Hey man. I can’t complain. Everything is going good. How are you?
G- Not too bad. It’s getting a little cold up here, and I’m sure it’s cold down there as well, but we should brace ourselves because it’s going to stay that way for a while.
T- Yeah ‘tis the season, for sure.
G- Right on. So, for some of our readers who may not be familiar with American Babies at this time, you’ve got a new record out, so let’s talk about the players on the album and tell us about the players and where everyone is from.
T- Sure. Well, the band is myself, Tom Hamilton. I’ve got Steve Lyons on the bass who’s from Philadelphia, Adam Flicker on the keys who is also a local boy, and on drums we’ve got a guy named David Butler who is from Brooklyn.
We’ve been in a van doing this since the day the record came out, and we are currently 4 weeks into a tour.
G- And this is obviously supporting the new release, Knives and Teeth. I’ve been listening to it for the past few days since I got it sent to me, and it’s great. How has the reception been to the songs, and what are the fan favorites you’re noticing off of the record right now?
T- You know, the reaction has been overwhelming. I couldn’t have expected it to be this positive, and I’m happy and grateful about that. The song that people are really digging the most is “Old Time Religion.” It’s really got some legs underneath it, and it’s a fun one playing it live, that’s for sure.
And for the writing process, obviously you’ve been around for a while, people know who you are, and you’re very good at what you do, both at guitar and singing. In terms of the writing process, was this a little more of a jammed out thing during rehearsals, or was everything pretty much laid out before you hit the studio, and how does this record compare with some of your previous experiences?
T- Making records is really more of a solitary experience than anything else for me. A lot of times, it’s just me in the studio figuring things out.
You know, I play a lot of instruments, so it’s easier for me to kinda work out parts and work out ideas by my lonesome, and get things to where I feel they should be. And if I need outside help from there, I make some phone calls and see who’s around and who wants to come in and do some playing.
The record has a bunch of my friends on it. Joe Russo, who is a drummer and plays with The Grateful Dead guys now, used to drum for the babies, and I had him come in and do a couple of tunes on the record, and some of my other Philly friends. My mom actually came in and sang on one of the songs…
G- Ha! Nice!
T- Yeah. I needed female vocals on one of the songs, and she was around. So I try to make the recording process… The writing thing is so solitary and in my own head, so when it comes to getting things recorded, I try to get people who I think can musically represent the song well, or someone I know well personally who I think would get the song and what it means, and just have them play on it. I try to keep it as collaborative as possible.
G- Alright. And a few more questions about the recording process… Where did you record it, who was behind the boards this time around, and how long did the release take to record and get ready for release the way you wanted it to be?
T- Well, this is really the first time in quite a while that I didn’t have a producer involved. My mentor is a gentleman named John Altschuler who did the Brother’s Past record This Feeling’s Called Goodbye, which is the one that kind of made us pop, and he produced the first American Babies record and… He’s had something to do with every one of my albums, and I learned a lot from the guy. For the last American Babies record, I worked with a guy named Bill Moriarty, who worked on al the early Dr. Dog records, and I learned a lot from him as well. So, when it came time to do this record, I wanted to see what I could do on my own this time.
So, I ran into a friend of mine, this guy named Peter Tramo. He’s a Philadelphia studio guy/session guy/producer, and I grew up with him. I hadn’t seen him in say 10 years, and he turned up back in Philadelphia after some time in Los Angeles and he opened up a studio, and we reconnected and I said ‘Hey, I’d love to come in and make a record and have you be my engineer.’ He knows gear really well, and it was a really great experience! I got to flex my producer muscles and if I needed a critical ear, Peter was certainly there to give it to me. It was great. I can’t be more happy with how it turned out.
Then, I took it up to John Altschuler to have him mix it and have it sparkle the way it does.
Now, I want to dive a little bit for the next couple of questions I have. Obviously, given brother’s Past fame, and now American Babies, who will do well when you come up here and perform in Syracuse, NY, for some of the folks who haven’t heard the group or album yet, give us 4 albums every fan of American Babies probably has in their collection, or 4 album they should?
T- (laughing) Ok. That is one of the most original things I’ve ever been asked. A high five to you, my friend!
G- A LIVE HIGH FIVE!
T- (laughing) Yeah! Well played!
Ok… I’m gonna go with Rolling Thunder Review by Bob Dylan, Europe ’72 by The Grateful Dead, Dots and Loops by Stereolab, and Hail To The Thief by Radiohead.
G- Ok so 4 heavyweights. Going for the throat with those, and I think a lot of people are going to have those in their collection, so if that’s the case, you should all come see American babies on this tour, folks!
And to dive a bit more, you’ve been a touring musician for a very long time, and the road can be a tough place. What would you say is the most difficult thing about being in a band and/or on the road?
And every musician has that moment where they may be in a bit of doubt about their music, their band mates, or their future as a performer, so what do you tell yourself when you have to squash those thoughts?
T- The most important thing is having an open dialogue with yourself first, and also with your co-workers. Having a band like American Babies, where we go out and try to reinvent ourselves every night and fly by the seat of our pants, it’s really more like being on a sports team than anything else.
You’ve gotta be sure everyone is on the same page. There’s a system involved with how things are going, and I have a pretty specific vision of how I like things to go. Having very capable players, as I’ve been fortunate enough to have in the band, is one thing. You could have a team full of all-stars, but if everybody is not on the same page of what the system is, you know… What kind of defense we’re going to run? What happens when we’re on the power play, you know?
These are important things, and I feel like that is the key to the whole thing. I’m past the point of doubting anything. I mean what am I going to do, go back to college or something?
G- (laughing) Right?!
T- You know? As far as just the people that I surround myself with, it’s like being married to 4 other people. You’ve gotta keep the communication open and make sure everyone is on the same page. “Hey this was great last night, this wasn’t so great last night, and let’s talk about how we can make it better.”
And the same thing for me, I look to them to tell me if things weren’t clicking last night. It’s a mutual respect thing, and if you have that, just like a marriage, it’ll last forever.
G- Excellent. Good answer!
And let’s keep going with it… For American Babies, do you have a favorite song you have ever written or if you could only give 1 song to someone who’d never heard of you before, to try and make a new fan, what song would you give them and why?
T- (laughing) Man, that’s like asking someone to pick their favorite kid!
G- (laughing) That’s true.
T- (Laughing) ‘Our little Jonathan here is good in Math, but Sally is very artistic.’ They’ve all got something, man.
G- Ok. Well, instead of trying to pick you favorite, because most musicians favor the stuff they’ve written most recently, how about just a good track in your eyes for someone who’d never heard you before that you think will reel them in on this tour?
T- I gotta say, I think the song “Old Fashioned…” is a pretty killer tune. It’s always exciting to play it, and I love it. I think when people hear that song for the first time, they perk up a bit extra. I guess that’s where I’d have to go.
G- Ok, and one more of the kind… Are there any bands or artists that you hope to share a bill with in the future, or if you could curate your own feasible 3-band dream lineup to be on with American Babies, who would you want to go on tour with?
T- (laughing) Oh! Ok, yeah… That’s fantastic!
G- Thank you.
T- I gotta say, just for “hang” factor, I feel like Dr. Dog. They seem like good guys and fun to hang out with, and I think American Babies, Dr. Dog., and… Shit, man. The Flaming Lips. That’d be a really funny, exciting tour to be a part of.
G- For sure. I’ve seen them both, and I get to see you guys in a few weeks. If it sounds as good as the record, and it will, that’d be an awesome tour. Let’s make it happen!
T- Yeah I’ll get my people on it! (laughing)
G- Sounds good!
And to finish up today, again you’ve been doing this for a very long time, and music is a tough business, but the dream never dies. Kids always want to pick up guitars and drums and write songs, so from your experience, what advice can you give some of the young, up and comers out here who want to make it in the music game, go on the road, and be a professional musician like yourself?
T- I’d say, for the young bands starting out, get a house together, get a van, and just do that for a long time. Live together, play together, talk to each other, hang out, and just keep the right thing in mind. This whole thing is about the music. If you’re doing it to get laid, or doing it because you dig partying and drugs, you’ll probably last a couple of years and find yourself going back to community college or something.
If you’re doing it because you love music and that’s what you want out of your life, you’ll be alright.
G- Dig that.
Well look, American Babies will be in Syracuse, NY at Lost Horizon on December 7th, and it’ll be a great show, so make sure to come out for that, folks. Tom, I want to say thank you again very much for speaking with Live High Five today. I’m digging the new record, so travel safe, play hard, and I’m looking forward to seeing you when you’re up here, man. I appreciate your time!
T- Hey man, thank you for the interest and I can’t wait to be up there in a couple of weeks.
G- Sounds great!