by Lizzie Morelli
We caught up with Tom Hamilton at his studio to discuss music, influences, and his big year ahead. Here is that conversation…
How did music find you?
It was just always there. I have never known it not to exist. My folks were and are huge music fans and musicians themselves. My mom played the piano and the cello growing up, my older brother who is about four and a half years older than me started playing drums when he was about six, so I started playing when I was about five and then Jim moved to guitar when I was about nine and then I moved to guitar too. I started playing out in bars and stuff with my brother when I was like twelve. I have never known another way of existing. I have always just been playing shows or just focusing on creating things, whether it’s music or album art of videos. That has always been the thing I always did, I always made stuff.
Did you naturally take to guitar over the drums?
I don’t think so. I still love the drums. It’s still probably my favorite instrument. I would love to be a drummer in a band.
Speaking of drummers, when did you and Joe Russo first meet?
Joe and I met in 2000. Marc Brownstein from The Disco Biscuits was putting together a new project called Electron and he had hired Joe to be the drummer and me to be the guitar player and that is how we met. We hit it off pretty well and then we maybe did a show or two and then we didn’t see each other for a while and then we reconnected after a year or two to do another Electron thing and we never really lost touch after that.
“Wolf” in Boston, was that the first time you got to play Jerry’s guitar?
It was not. That was my third time paying Wolf. I did a concert for his seventy-fifth birthday at Red Rocks and the estate was nice enough to let me play Wolf and Tiger, the guitar he used the most in the eighties.
Was it surreal to play them?
Yeah I mean, they are beautiful instruments. I have never seen any kind of guitar remotely close to those. They are cool tools. They have such unique feels to them and I couldn’t be more humbled and freaked out that I go tot play them. I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead; I mean I started listening to them when I was four. They have always been a part of my life in one way or another and I would never have dared set the goal of getting to play those instruments. It would be a weird thing to make that a goal in life but when the opportunity in life came up, I think a lot of people would shy away from the opportunity in fear of people saying “Who does this asshole think he is?” but I don’t sound like Jerry Garcia– he is a unique person on to himself. I wouldn’t think that anyone listens to my playing and thinks I am doing some Jerry imitation. I enjoyed playing those guitars because I enjoyed playing those guitars the way I play guitar. Ya know, really digging in and getting into it with the instrument. It was nice the family let me play the guitars and then to make me feel like it was okay to really play them…that was something I couldn’t be more thankful for.
Can you share some highlight reel moments from 2017?
I don’t know…how many am I allowed to name? I was fortunate enough to play Red Rocks twice in a month, both sold out, that’s weird. It’s a lot of weird moments where I am like “Why do I get to do this?” it’s like survivors guilt or something. I have always been a blue collar musician, a working stiff guy playing two hundred shows a year or something, never in front of the largest of crowds so it is interesting and weird that I am able to do it now with JRAD and then for Jerry’s birthday celebration. That was pretty awesome. JRAD was supposed to do Red Rocks in April and it got snowed out. They had to move us to the First Bank Center outside Denver, so we got to play this arena which was cool and sold out and really bad ass and I got to sing “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. In an arena that was lit up like it is when Bruce Springsteen sings it. That was awesome.
Are you a huge Bruce Springsteen fan?
I am a psychotic Bruce Springsteen fan. The man is a national treasure.
According to your social media you will be putting out new music with a new band this year. Tell us about that.
I can’t really get into it yet but it’s a new album and a new band and it is very exciting for me. I have always been a band person. I like bands. I like writing music with people and creating art in that kind of environment. I always tried to find players who wanted to really be apart of it. People seem to be so much more worried about money and the gigs and that’s a weird thing for me. It’s so hard to find people who want to create together for the sake of doing that. So I decided I am folding the American Babies and will announce the rest of the band in early January. I am working with a bunch of great musicians that people will remember or know and I am excited. We had our first recording session last week. We were in the studio for four days and we wrote and recorded four tunes in those four days. I am currently in the middle of doing overdubs and stuff at my studio here and it is super fucking awesome and I am stoked.
Well, that’s good to hear. It must be exciting to be working with people who want to create on that level.
It is. I mean the slippery slope of JRAD is…. I mean we are a Grateful Dead cover band and we know that. People like to say it like it’s a terrible thing and I mean c’mon it is no secret. We don’t think we are the second coming of the Grateful Dead. What we are is a conduit; we are the conduit to keep this music alive and to keep it growing not just to stagnate and recreate something that has already been done. We are just a vessel for it at this point and that is not who we all are in the band. We are all creative people that write music. We have always written our own music, so it is exciting I guess to be able to talk about original music. A lot of things are about the cover thing but the original music is still very important. I feel like to really dig in and really create something that doesn’t sound like everything going on, that’s the fun part. I think in JRAD that is what we all try to do. In our other careers we are still trying to make music that is challenging and original and doesn’t just sound like the Grateful Dead or Phish.
That’s evident just by the fact that you guys pursue so many other projects outside of JRAD despite your success as a band. It is clear that it’s the creativity that fuels you.
It is no big secret that we don’t have to do anything besides JRAD. I appreciate that you notice that even though we could all just sit at home get fat and watch Law and Order marathons- we’re not. We are all out there doing things. It is a testament to who we are as artists.
How often do you sit and write music? Are you a lyricist?
I only do it when I have to. I write the music and the lyrics and I produce. I have a studio and as far as sculpting sound. There is an art in everything you are creating whether it is for guitar playing or for a whole band. My favorite thing to do is to make records. I approach it like I am making a movie, which is also something I love to do. I love shooting things and then editing… I just truly love to create.
I did not know that about you…that you enjoy making films.
Yeah all the American Babies videos except the animated one I directed and edited. I love it. It is a real passion of mine. I was just saying to a friend that if I got to do it again I would’ve tried going for comedy then acting then maybe music at the end.
It would be a shame for you to put down that guitar any time soon.
Yes well that was a huge hypothetical “If I get to do this all again” I’d do it that way. But I do everything so that’s why when it comes to arranging the songs I say “Okay, well it is time to make an album” and then I will get in there and start writing. That is what I have been doing the last few weeks. Getting back into the swing of it. I mean it is a muscle. Making music and writing lyrics, it’s a muscle and it will atrophy if you don’t work it, so it takes time to knock the rust off and get back in it. Once this record is done I will want to make some videos for it and that is where my creative energy will go… it will go towards designing art for shirts or album art. There are always things you that get to do and get to create when you are doing this like this. Me choosing to write only when I have to isn’t a bad thing, you only have so much bandwidth and you have to prioritize. So I do.
What are your influences in terms of sound on this new project?
That’s a good question. We are still kind of figuring it out but one of the prevalent things sonically I guess would be like, Zeppelin. Zeppelin Three to like Houses of The Holy vibe as far as sound. Now I am not saying it’s like a bunch of blues songs about my dick. “Ush, Ush”…it’s not that bad. I just mean as far as like side two Zeppelin Three, “Gallows Pole”, “Tangerine”, …the way they are acoustic tunes but are kind of heavy. Houses of Holy is a great example of what things are feeling like with the record. Also, that is purely just incidental. It certainly wasn’t like “Hey man, let’s get together and make a record that sounds like Zeppelin!” that’s not it- just at the moment that is what it is sounding like.
What were your general influences growing up?
The first music that was ever mine…my dad gave me a cassette of the Dead at Red Rocks in 1978. That’s a great show and I still listen to it to be honest. It was that and Stanford 73’ were the two big ones for me. I love the Beatles and I loved Clapton as a kid. I went through an enormous Led Zeppelin phase and Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osborne. I recently fell back in love with Ozzy Osborne’s first four records over the last year and a half. When I knew I was going to start writing a new album that was one of the things I knew I wanted to incorporate this somehow. I really dug into Blizzard of Oz and Bark of the Moon. Those early Ozzy records…they are fucking great records. They really are super under appreciated albums…they are beautiful written and really interestingly produced. Also like the first five Sabbath records…Black Sabbath is basically like if The Meters were English and Moody… do you know what I mean? It is all riff-based music with a really swinging rhythm section. It’s fucking great. It really is. They were an incredible band.
I went through a big phase of that and then when I was about ten Stevie Ray Vaughn died in like a helicopter crash and I remember watching the show Austin City Limits, it was on PBS and Stevie Ray had done a couple episodes of this thing and when he passed away they had this big special where it was like B.B. King and Buddy Guy and a lot of the living blues legends together to pay tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn and I watched that with my dad. Immediately following the tribute they aired both of the episodes of Austin City Limits that he had done, it was like a two hour block of music and by the end of it I said “ I have to take this guitar thing more seriously” so I kind of put the metal thing on the back burner and dug deeper into Stevie Ray Vaughn and Freddy King and Buddy Guy and a lot of the blues guys and then came grunge and that was the end of it. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden… they were huge influences and still are…I also listened to a lot of them when I was getting prepared to write this album. I would say starting in August of last year I have been on a heavy diet of Soundgarden, Alice and Chains and Black Sabbath…really fucking brilliant music.
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
Well, it’s going to be a pretty fun year. The JRAD has a lot of great shows that are booked. That’s going to be great. This new band is going to be so fulfilling and exciting for me and I have this acoustic trio…well I guess it’s a quartet now…its me and Raina Mullen who was in American Babies and is also going to be apart of this new band, it’s me and her and my brother Jim who is one of my favorite musicians in the world and Aaron Magner from the Disco Biscuits.
You guys recently played in Philly and New York?
Yes and it was so moving for us. We didn’t really rehearse any of that so the shows are super loose. We have a list of tunes and I just kind of call tunes and we do whatever we are going to do with them. It was such a beautiful thing. All four of us walked off stage both nights really surprised and moved with what happened. So that is something we are all going to try to do that more often this year. We will need to make time for that. And I am also building a recording studio, I have a farm out in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and I am building a recording studio out there. So that is also exciting for me. I am very excited to be able to do something like that…to have my own space that I can leave and come back to… to create…it’s going to be very special for me.