Tom Hamilton—lead guitarist for the electro-trance jam band Brothers Past —says he’d never heard Gram Parsons before recording his latest album with his new band, both called American Babies . Given the forthrightness and raw emotional honesty of the tunes contained therein, we can assume that Hamilton isn’t being untruthful. So there must be some cosmic synchronicity at hand, or at the very least a serious case of shared influences. Because when Gram Parsons set out to make his self-styled “Cosmic American Music” the sounds of American Babies are almost surely what he had in mind.
One Of Your Own
A sweeping, pastoral flight of dreamy Americana and country rock, American Babies is bathed in acoustic guitars, draped with string arrangements and washed in pedal steel. Its songs are tightly crafted but left open in their rendering, yielding way to expert musicianship, crashing crescendos and emotional depth.
Hamilton says he set out to make an organic album. He’s done that. American Babies has an earthy quality and flow to it. “I wanted to [use] only real, analog instruments,” says Hamilton. “Just people. No synthesizers, no electronic drums. It’s all done by man. For me that’s really satisfying.”
Another overriding characteristic of the album is the emphasis on vocals. At times Hamilton’s expressive voice possesses a still quietness that draws the listener in, but intricate harmonies permeate the disc too. “The singing, bringing that three and four part harmony thing out that nobody does anymore [was important],” says Hamilton. “Nobody is singing like that and it’s a shame because it’s a wonderful thing. I grew up on Crosby Stills and Nash—those lush beautiful harmonies.”
When they crank up the tempo and the volume, as on the shuffle “Brooklyn Bridge” and the aptly-titled “Rocker” they harness a uniquely American brand of rock’n’ roll that recalls folks like the E Street Band and the Heartbreakers.
All of this is only a surprise because it stands in such start stark contrast to Hamilton’s previous group, Brothers Past. Based in Hamilton’s hometown of Philadelphia, Penn., Brothers Past garnered a name for themselves in the ranks of the jam band scene, an essential act in the corner of that universe some called trance-jam or livetronica. Along with Lotus, the Disco Biscuits and others, Brothers Past embraced electronic instruments and computers in their own-stage improvisations. Known to stretch songs to their limit, Brothers Past thrilled crowds with their trance-inducing jams. But the band was always song based, says Hamilton. “It’s a very similar way of writing for both projects,” he says. “It’s usually just that I lock myself away for a while and I’ll just demo out a bunch of tunes. So I’ll just kind of play every instrument and get the song to as closely as I can resemble what I hear in my head. I’ll give those recordings to the other musicians and say ‘Hey, here’s my vibe; this is what I’m feeling. Let’s see how you guys interpret it from there.’”
Brothers Past had started when Hamilton was just in high school. He’s been playing music publicly since he was 12, mostly in his older brother Jim’s bands. But in 2000, there was a role reversal, Hamilton says, and suddenly the younger brother became the bandleader. After a while, the older brother grew tired of the grind of being a still up-and-coming musician and dropped out of the music scene. The band self-released three albums and played at festivals from coast to coast over the next few years.
In 2005 Brothers Past released their magnum opus This Feeling’s Called Goodbye on SCI-Fidelity Records, garnering wide critical acclaim and showing up on many year-end best-of lists (including Honest Tune’s Top 30 records of the year). They suffered a minor setback in 2006 when drummer Rick Lowenberg quit the group, though they soldiered on, quickly replacing him with Ilya Stemkovsky of the Om Trio.
But during this time period, Hamilton was writing songs that he knew were not Brothers Past songs. The songs came naturally to him, he says, inspired by the country music records his parents listened to when he was growing up, folks like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Rather than take Brothers Past on a 180-degree turn, he cut the record himself. “It was apparent from the get-go that the guys in Brothers Past didn’t want to go away from their formula,” says Hamilton. “That’s definitely their prerogative. But I just needed to do it. I needed to make this record. I needed to write these songs. So the whole American Babies thing started more as a recording project than a band.”
The timing was right. Brothers Past had been working hard for a long time and was ready for a break. ‘We’d been doing 150 shows a year for six years so we thought that we’d earned a break and we’re going to take one,” Hamilton says.
In the jam band scene, where bands are known for live performances and constant touring, fans often follow their favorite band from concert to concert, so a break in the touring schedule is often cause for consternation among the most faithful. Too much importance is placed on it, Hamilton says, insisting that Brothers Past is just on break, and not disbanded.
“Bands do it all the time,” he says. “They make a record, they tour behind it. Then they take a break and recharge. It’s the way normal bands do it. When Radiohead gets off the road for two years, they don’t make an announcement that they’re going on hiatus! They get off the road and go and live their lives. A couple of years later, they’ll make a record. Most bands don’t tour incessantly. It doesn’t lead to a very creative lifestyle eventually. You kind of get burned out and it’s hard to grow artistically if you’re constantly on the road. Go home, live life a little bit. You’ve got to find a muse. Whatever it is.”
For Hamilton, that latest muse came in the form of “American Babies” the first song in the cycle that went on to become both the name of the album and eventually, the band that recorded it. The song itself was two years in the making, but once it was made, so was a record, and a band.
Invite All Your Friends
What’s also stunning about American Babies, the album, isn’t how well Hamilton and company captures this easygoing retro-vibe; it’s who that company is. A host of musician friends help make up the band American Babies, and they’re all top notch players. But, like Hamilton, they all come from a different world.
If you learned that members of bands like Brothers Past, Disco Biscuits , Particle and The Duo formed an all-star group, the last thing you might expect to come out of that group would be an acoustic Americana record. As it turns out, it just happened to be who Hamilton’s friends were, and they all answered the charge to serve the songs he’d written.
“I can play all of the instruments, but not very well,’ says Hamilton. “So I needed a band to play this stuff with me, and who better to ask than my friends? I happen to have some great musician friends. So I gave the demos to them. They loved them.” Those friends are Joe Russo from the Benevento-Russo Duo on drums, keyboardist Aaron Manger from the Disco Biscuits and Tom’s brother Jim on bass. That’s aided by additional guests. Fleshing out the sound on the album is a host of vocalists and string instruments. Krista Neilson provides cello and joins in background vocals along with Moira Cohen and Jenni Alpert. Joe Mass plays violin and lap steel. Kevin Kendrick plays vibes. Stewart Myers adds some mellotron. The touring lineup includes the core three, plus guitarist Scott Metzger, who has previously played with Rana and Particle. All accomplished players, but none exactly known for their acoustic flights of fancy.
“We all knew each other just from the fact that we all used to play at this club in New York called The Wetlands in the late 1990s and early 2000s before it closed,” says Hamilton. “We all met there and we all played in different bands, but we maintained friendships over the years. We were all busy doing our own bands and being on the road and doing our own shit, but when this Babies album came together, Scott wasn’t gigging with Particle anymore, and the Duo was kind of slow at the time, and Brothers Past was slowing down. The stars aligned for us and we were like, ‘Hey! We get to be in a band together.’ So we jumped at the chance.”
But while the songs of American Babies might at first seem an odd outlet for this band of improvisational jammers, that very background is hinted upon in the building crescendos throughout the album.
The title track starts at a wistful slow burn but leisurely builds to a raging fire fueled by the heightening tension provided by cello and violin. “Swimming At Night,”—a happy little song about drowning—features a sweeping chorus that heightens tension towards the glorious ending. On “Broken English,” Alpert duets with Hamilton in a lush and beautiful yearning that’s propelled by blustery organ and mellotron.
“I started doing solo acoustic shows a few years back,” says Hamilton. “I would play by myself with the lone accompaniment of a cellist, this girl Krista that I’m good friends with. It would just be acoustic guitar and my voice and a cello and her voice. When it came time to make the record, I already had a musical relationship that was really solid and I wanted her to be a part of the record and she was more than happy to oblige.”
Now, armed with the double guitar attack touring lineup of both Hamiltons, Metzger and Russo, American Babies (the band) is hitting the road hard, playing festivals and still writing those Cosmic American songs. “We made the record first and then it was like, ‘We have this record and we all love hanging out, so let’s just be a band.’ So we decided to be a band,” says Hamilton.
“Scott is just a beast on the guitar,” Hamilton adds. “It’s cool for me that it’s the first time ever in my professional career. Mostly, I’ve never played with another guitar player in the past six or seven years because Brothers Past is a one-guitar band. And Scott’s just blazing so I definitely redefined my role in a rock band. That’s also interesting for me to not be the lead guitar guy all the time. Scott takes the spotlight more than I do, and that’s exciting for me. I can focus on the song and focus on the singing and other aspects of being out there. It’s cool.”
American Babies started off the festival season with a set at Langerado , and will go on to play Wakarusa , Gathering of the Vibes and High Sierra. They’ll hit the road hard again in the fall and if they can find the time, might even record another Babies album. “I’ve pretty much a second record completely written at this point,” says Hamilton. “I’m definitely hoping to get back in [the studio] at some point. The fall will be pretty big. Maybe we can squeeze in there before fall, or maybe after. I have a lot of songs. It’s what I do, you know? I just write a bunch.”