An Interview with Guitar Talent Tommy Hamilton - OurVinyl
Tommy Hamilton Interview Electron Phil Lesh and friends

An Interview with Guitar Talent Tommy Hamilton

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Recently we had the pleasure of catching up with prolific guitarist, songwriter, Producer of Kurt Vile, preeminent nice dude and notorious scarf aficionado; Tommy Hamilton of the American Babies, Brothers Past, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Electron. We hung out back stage at BB King’s Place on New York City’s famous 42nd Street, where Electron had just rocked a dazzling show featuring some surprising covers of Beatles’ classics “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence.” It was a wildly interesting conversation, during which we meandered from the most miniscule details of his custom guitar to the secret meaning of existence, and beyond… Enjoy.

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00631PD: So you’ve got a custom guitar, is it a Becker?

TH: Yes, it is a Becker.

PD: Can you tell me everything about it?

TH: Sure, we talked for a little bit about doing a guitar with them. You know, when I did the Mega Biscuits Tour with these guys when Jon broke his hand in 2010 or whatever, they gave me one to play for a couple shows on the tour. It felt really nice but it kind of sounded weird. So I was like, “Look man, I want to design the electronics in it, and if I can do that, I’d be more than happy to play the guitar.” So I used to have this guitar when I was a kid, it was called a B.C. Rich Seagull. They only made it for one year; there are maybe 100 of them left in the world. You can’t find them anywhere, and if you can find them, they’re like five grand. So, I fuckin’ tracked down the guy that like, invented this guitar. It was the first year B.C. Rich made guitars and it was a great instrument. It was before they were like, metal type things. So I found the guy, his name is Neal Mozer. He lives in Arizona. So I contacted the guy and I was like “Hey man, I love this guitar. I love the electronics in it. Is there any way you’d be able to make me something like that?” And he’s like, “Dude I still have all the original parts from then, I can make you that exact loom. That exact set up of electronics.” So I had him build me that, and I picked out a couple pickups that I dug and sent everything to Becker and they fuckin’ put it together.”

PD: Nice.

TH: You know, yeah.

PD: So you’ve got two humbuckers…

TH: …Two humbuckers (bridge/middle) are ’72 Guilds and the one (single coil) at the neck is a microphonic from ’65. It’s a cool thing. The three switches at the top are on/off for each pickup, the two switches that are silver on the bottom are to turn the humbuckers into single coils, then there’s a red switch in the middle that is a thing called a “varitone,” which basically notches your EQ and the other red switch is an overdrive, basically an overdrive pedal in the guitar, with a gain knob.

PD: Wow. Was that also part of the B.C. Rich?

TH: It was. It was the first guitar with active electronics, or so I’ve been told.

PD: What about the neck profile, fret size, and woods?

TH: I don’t know anything about the fret size. I think it’s just standard. You know, they might be jumbo frets. The wood on the neck is bloodwood.

PD: What?

TH: I know, I never heard of it either. The guitar is made of alder, and it’s a neck-through, one piece, jammy, it’s great! I love the guitar. I love the way it feels, I love the way it looks.

PD: So how do you decide when you want to play the Rickenbacker? (Hamilton’s previously most-played guitar)

TH: You know I didn’t want to play the Rickenbacker (that night, though he did). I’ve been flying a lot lately and my (Becker) and my pedals have been getting banged up. So there’s a buzz in my guitar now, one of my pedals is fucked up. So I’ve been getting this fuckin’ buzz nonstop so I was like “Alright, I’ve got to switch to my other guitar.” When I go home I’m going to put everything in the shop and get it worked on.

PD: Where do you go? You’ve got a shop in Philly?

TH: Oh yeah, I’ve got a guy I’ve been going to since I was a fuckin’ teenager.

PD: Yeah? What’s his name?

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00628TH: His name is Rusty. You know I don’t even know if I know his last name to be honest. He’s always just Rusty. You know, in Philly, if your shit’s broken, it’s like “Yeah, yeah, I’m just taking it to Rusty…”

PD: Is he at a shop?

TH: Yeah it’s called Musician’s Electronic Services, I think.

PD: So that’s everything about the guitar, nice. What, and there’s got to be a lot, but what comes to mind, when we’re talking about the difference between playing with (bassists) Marc (Brownstein, Electron) and Clay (Parnell, Brothers Past), compared to playing with Phil (Lesh, The Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends)…if that makes sense.

TH: Oh it makes absolute sense. Ok so the thing about Clay is that we’ve been playing together for 15 years. For a lot of that we lived together, we lived in a van together, we lived in a house together, we toured together; there is such a bond with Clay that you can’t compare. We have a thing, it’s just telepathy. We know where we’re going. He knows where I’m going to take a jam before I even consider it. Yeah. It’s amazing. I love Clay and I’m very, very grateful that we play together and I’m looking forward to another fifteen or twenty years of doing it. You know, Marc… if you look at it like a hockey team, your drummer’s your goalie; bass player is your defense-man, and then there’s me and Mags (Aron Magner, keyboards) playing the wing. Clay is like an offensive defense-man, he’s fuckin’ Bobby Orr, ok. Marc is a stay-at-home guy; he’s like Chris Pronger. He just stays back, clears the crease, you know. Electron is Marc’s band, there’s no mistake about it. I’ll lead the jam in a way, but it’s definitely his call on where things will go. So I guess the difference is, when it’s Clay and I we’re kind of both out there bobbin’ and weavin’ with each other. When it comes to Electron and playing with Marc, I’m trying to compliment where he’s taking the jam. You compare all that to Phil, playing with Phil is the easiest thing in the world.

PD: Yeah?

TH: …Because I’ve been playing with Phil my whole life, he just didn’t know. So when we’re going, it’s exactly what I want it to be. It’s what I hear in my head already, and he’s just doing it because that’s how I learned to play music, was playing to (The Grateful) Dead records. And it was the same thing when I played with Kreutzmann, he would do these fills and it’s like, “Yeah, exactly! Right, right! That’s what you’re going to do, because that’s what you do, you’re fuckin’ Bill Kreutzmann!” That’s how I learned to play music was playing to Dead shows when I was a kid. So musically it’s not weird at all, surprisingly. I thought it would be really bizarre. But it’s really comfortable.

PD: What would you say is the most challenging group you play with?

TH: JRAD (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – Tribute to the Grateful Dead) absolutely. Without a doubt.

PD: Why’s that?

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00939TH: Well of those five musicians, I’m the worst. You know what I mean? I’m certainly the low man on the totem pole as far as playing goes. So just trying to fuckin’ keep up is, you know, a lot of the time I’m just trying to stay out of the way. They’re all just so good, just so fucking good. And you know, Marco (Benevento, keys) and Joe (Russo, drums) have that telepathy that Clay and I have, that same history. Joe and I have been playing together almost fifteen years now, but we didn’t do those road dog years that he and Marco did. It’s weird because it’s a guitar-heavy band. So you want to be quarterbacking the jam a bit and trying to bring things where they’ve got to go, but at the same time I try to bob and weave out of the way of Joe and Marco, or Joe and Scott (Metzger, guitar) you know, they’re just so fuckin’ good. I guess in the improvising, that’s the thing there. It’s also challenging in that I don’t want to sound like Jerry (Garcia). It’s in my playing just because, it’s in my playing, I can’t do anything about that at this point, and it’s been 25 years in the making. It’s that idea of respecting the music but not trying to copy it. I always say, “You want to honor somebody, you want to tip your hat to somebody, but you don’t want to imitate them.” That’s bullshit. Innovate, that’s how you do it.

PD: How does playing with Phil or Kreutzmann effect how you’d play those songs with another band like JRAD?

TH: It doesn’t, no. I played with Phil last week and it was me, Joe, Scott, Phil and Jason Crosby. Just because it’s Phil it doesn’t change my mind, it doesn’t make me want to play like Jerry, I don’t think he would want me to do that, you know?

PD: Well yeah, that would probably be weird.

TH: Yeah! You know, I have all the respect in the world for John (Kadlecik, Dark Star Orchestra {Known for precisely imitating historical Dead shows}) from Further, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a “fake Jerry,” necessarily. You know what I mean? That’s not me, that’s not my thing. Whether it’s with JRAD, or the (American) Babies, or with Phil or Billy, it’s not about re-creation. It’s supposed to be about what the Dead was about, which was the moment, now, and fuckin’ make it count! You know? And that’s what’s really cool that I learned from playing with those guys, they still want to do that. They have no interest in being a legacy act. They have no interest in sounding like “Hey, you know, let’s try to sound more like ’76,” or whatever the fuck… they want it to be, you know, this version of it, the tonight version, the 2014 version. And that’s freeing, man! That they don’t put any handcuffs on you. They want to let you speak and interpret the music and it’s awesome, it’s cool. Yeah, I don’t know.

PD: I spoke with Marc, and we were talking about favorite Electron songs, and he immediately said, “Well Tommy’s favorite is ‘Plan B,’” is that the case?

TH: Yeah, “Plan B” is probably, yeah, my favorite Electron song. For sure. It’s a good tune; the jam’s really cool. It was the first song that I heard of the Biscuits, I think. Surprisingly, and I don’t know why people are so surprised by this, but you know, I never listen to those guys. That’s not my thing. I listen to the Dead, or Springsteen, or Dylan. I don’t really listen to jam bands or anything, especially my peers. I don’t care what they’re doing, they’re doing what they’re doing, and it doesn’t matter to me. It was one of the first times Brothers Past opened for the Biscuits and they sound checked with “Plan B,” we were there because we were about to set up, and I heard it and was like “Wow that’s a really fuckin’ cool tune.” Probably about 2000 or something like that. It was a long time ago. It’s a cool thing, I like that guitar melody that peaks the jam and stuff. It’s a good one.

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-01035PD: So what’s going on with Brothers Past? You’re doing a lot with the other bands…

TH: Right. Brothers Past isn’t doing anything, we’re just chillin’ right now. Tom McKee (keys) bought a School of Rock right outside of Philadelphia, and it’s really great to see him succeeding so much with that. He’s really amazing with those kids and brings out the best in them and hopefully is raising an army of musicians, and that’s really cool to see. Rick, our drummer, started a law practice, you know, criminal defense.

PD: He’s a lawyer?

TH: He is a lawyer, for better or for worse. So those guys have a lot going on at home. Clay (on tour with Particle) and I obviously like to be on the road workin’ it and earnin’ it and building things. So Brothers Past isn’t in a position where we could do that right now. We probably could do a weekend here or a weekend there, but we feel like that would cheapen it to an extent. So it’s just like, “Well let’s just not do it for a little bit.” Everybody get their shit together, and if and when the moment comes, we’ll get back and make a record and tour and really do it right, then we’ll do it. If not, we won’t. It is what it is.

PD: You mentioned Springsteen, you mentioned Dylan…if you had to pick one, which one would you choose?

TH: Of those two? Oh you’re a dick…

PD: Dude, desert island, you can only have one.

TH: Desert island, you can only have one? It’s got to be Dylan. And I fucking love Springsteen. But it’s got to be Dylan. I think it was when Springsteen inducted Dylan into the Hall of Fame, he said something along the lines of…“People like my songs because I give a voice to a specific thing, and I talk about a certain thing. Dylan manages to talk about everything at once. Everything at once. What it means to exist, the secret to that, is in every song of his. Every song. You can look into it and you can find something.” I’m sure he didn’t do that on purpose, he just wrote a song. But that’s what music is, people listen to it and they project what they want it to be onto it. And I feel like with Dylan, it’s a little more of a fluid situation. You can get a little more out of each tune. And it’s really important. I do believe that in 50 years, he’s going to be required listening and reading in high schools and colleges. You know, he’s our Walt Whitman; he’s our Mark Twain; he’s our Hemmingway. He is. He’s our Shakespeare for God’s sake. What he does, no one else can do. That’s special. That’ a real thing, that’s not just hyperbole. You know what I mean? Do you know another Bob Dylan?

PD: No. And you’re right about, especially those Romantic or Transcendental poets. Because they’re, you know, constantly exploring what it is just to be.

TH: Yeah!

PD: And I think that’s what you’re talking about there. It’s in every song.

TH: And it’s in him as a man, you know? He knows. He’s self-aware. He knows that for some reason he got that thing and can do this thing that no one else in the world can do. Heavy is the crown there. There truly is no one else in the world that can do what Bob Dylan does. That’s fucking weird! And that’s why he’s still on the road. He doesn’t need to tour. You kidding me? That guy’s a gazillionare. But he does it. I saw an interview with him on 60 Minutes once. He was probably 62 or something like that, and the guy was like “You’re 62, you’ve made 50 records, you’ve got more money than God, why do you keep doing it? Why are you still out there?” And Dylan’s like, “Look man, that’s the deal. If you’re lucky enough to do it, you’ve got to pay that back for the rest of your fucking life.” That’s it, that’s the truth.

PD: So are you planning on doing that, paying that back for the rest of your life?

TH: Hey man I’m a lucky fuckin’ dude and I certainly owe something, something. That’s the deal. You don’t get to retire. We’re in B.B. King’s right now. B.B. King’s almost 90 and he’s still touring.

PD: What’s your most embarrassing stage moment?

TH: Most embarrassing? Aw shit. Um. One time we played this festival in Canada once, Brothers Past, and we weren’t going on until like five in the morning or something like that. It was freezing cold and we had so much time to kill. So we’re sitting around for like six hours with nothing to do and we’re freezing cold, so Clay and I just pounded coffee. Just drankin’ coffee, because it was hot and it was keeping us up. So by the time we got on stage, I had drank like two pots of coffee. I had to piss like every few minutes leading up to the show. And we started playing and I had to pee so badly. It was the only time where I ever had to do this, in the middle of the jam; I was like “I’ll be right back!” and went to take a monster, like Ogre from “Revenge of the Nerds” piss. And I came back. I felt pretty shitty. It’s not professional.

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00751PD: A special lady wants to know if you wear boxers or briefs, and if you’re a Hanes man.

TH: Boxer-briefs and yes I’m a Hanes man.

PD: You told me last year your most crucial effect pedal is delay…

TH: Still is. I was using this TC-Electronic thing called a Flashback, but it’s fuckin’ me up. I’ve had it maybe not even a year and it’s broken four times. So I’m going to call them and tell them, “Listen, you’ve got to either send me something new or I’m not using your product.” So that’s where I’m at now.

PD: Besides the delay, do you have a reverb pedal?

TH: I do, I use the Holy Grail (by Electro-Harmonix).

Just then, Aron Magner (Keys, Electron, Disco Biscuits, Conspirator) approached. Hamilton stuck the recorder in his face.

TH: …Yeah, I’m just finishing up a thing. Ladies and gentlemen this is Aron Magner…

AM: Oh… hey…um…I like ponies.

PD: You do? What’s your favorite color pony?

AM: Purple.

PD: Purple ponies? (Laughs)

AM: Purple ponies. I get weird when the red light goes on. I’m really funny when it’s not.

All: (Laughs)

TH: Believe me I’m fuckin Lenny Bruce when this thing’s not on.

PD: So how about that guy who jumped up on stage earlier?

TH: Oh man, when is that a good idea? People think it’s a good idea sometimes.

PD: Yeah it’s not a punk show; you’re not going to stage dive. Hey what about a Clash song? I’ve never heard you play a song by The Clash.

TH: No, but I love ‘London Calling,’ that whole record is amazing. Every person in that band wrote a Top Ten hit.

PD: Really? Did you see the Grammy’s “London Calling” performance a few years back with Bruce?

TH: Oh yeah, dude. Bruce (Springsteen), Elvis Costello (Steve) Van Zandt, fuckin’, the drummer from The Clash, the bass player from No Doubt, and Dave Grohl.

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00758PD: Which Clash drummer? Was it Topper Headon?

TH: The original guy, I think.

PD: Huh, did you know they kicked him out of the band the day after he wrote “Rock The Casbah?”

TH: NO WAY.

PD: Yeah man, he was a junkie and kept opposite studio hours as the rest of the band. So he wrote the melody to the song in the middle of the night, and left the tape for the band to find in the morning. That same night the rest of the band agreed he had to go and sent him a telegram or whatever. They went in the studio the next morning and fleshed out his material from the night before, but had no idea it would be a hit. Some weeks later, it was #1 and that was the last thing Topper contributed to the band. He talks about it in the Strummer documentary “The Future is Unwritten.”

TH: Oh yeah! Someone just gave that to me, I heard it’s fantastic but I haven’t seen it yet.

PD: It’s great. It’s even got Bono talking out his ass.

TH: (sarcastically) Shock there…

PD: Ok here’s a question, what do you think of how U2 released their latest album on everyone’s iTunes and what not?

TH: I think that their intentions were good. Absolutely. People give that band a lot of shit. But you know what man, have you ever heard any stories about Bono like, actually being a dick in real life? No, because he’s genuinely a good dude and he means well and it’s not just a PR stunt. I just read a thing today where they were doing an online interview, and someone gave them shit about it. And he said something like, “Look, dude I’m sorry man. As artists we tend to have a vision and get really stoked about it and sometimes you go too far with it. There’s ego involved and passion involved and having the means to do pretty much anything you want, you go for things and yeah maybe it was a little to ambitious or a little weird but that wasn’t our intention and we’re sorry if it annoyed anybody and here’s a link if you want to get rid of the record.” So yeah, I think it’s fine. Yeah he’s a blowhard or whatever, and he’s an easy target, but he means well. And he’s the genuine fuckin’ article, and hey man, you can’t say that about most people, especially in this business.

PD: For sure.

TH: So fuck ‘em man, I love him. I think he’s a great person and I’m glad that they’re still doing it. That’s somebody who doesn’t need to play another note of music again if he didn’t want to. You think it’s about the money?

PD: No way, he’s out there because he wants to be out there.

TH: Exactly, he loves it and he loves being out there and giving people that gift. And you know what man, that’s the real shit.

ScottHarris-Electron-1080px-00898PD: So what about the “Dear Prudence” and “Hey Jude” tonight? How did you approach that? I heard the bass line coming in for “Dear Prudence,” and I thought, “Oh is that the Beatles’ melody? Eh, it’s pretty far apart.” And somebody I was with was like, “That’s Dear Prudence!” And I thought, “Really?” And then it really came together and I think a lot of people were super surprised because they didn’t know what it was at first.

TH: Ah dude honestly it was very thrown together. On this run we did, on Wednesday night Marc was like “Let’s do some Floyd tunes tonight,” and we were all like “Cool.” So we did one in the first set, one in the second set, and we encored with one. Then last night he was like “Hey let’s do the same thing, but let’s do it with a different band. And maybe we could do that every night for the rest of the run,” and we’re like “Ok cool, what do you want to do?” And Aron and Marc learned some Dead tunes when they played with Bill (Kreutzmann) and Mickey (Hart). So they were like, “Let’s do those tunes, let’s do some Dead tunes.” So we did “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Shakedown Street.” So we’re on the drive today, and I’m like “What band do you want to do tonight?” And he said, “Let’s do the Beatles,” and we said, “Ok what tunes do you want to do?” And he just rattled those off. We listened to them on the way down and figured them out in the dressing room. I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow, but we’ll probably figure it out on the drive. It wasn’t nearly as thought out as you might think. It was kind of like, “Hey does everyone have a general understanding of this song? Cool let’s do it.” You know?

PD: Sweet. That’s all I got. What else do you want people to know?

TH: Oh man, just, fuckin’ American Babies, that’s my shit. And it’s a good band. Come check it out.

Both: (Laughs)

PD: That’s a great message, (laughs). Thanks again, man.

TH: Yeah it’s a good one. My pleasure!

Interview and writing done by Pete DeStefano

OurVinyl | Contributor

Photos by Scott Harris