Tom Hamilton keeps very busy between Ghost Light, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, American Babies, Electron, and the rare but most coveted Billy & The Kids appearance. There is something to be said about musicians that are just really good guys. What that is, I’m not entirely sure but when it comes to women in music, there can be a gimmick to it. Ghost Light has two female members yet there is nothing gimmicky about it. The music is true to it’s calling. Ghost Light has that calling to its audiences too, a purely musical experience that transcends the club or environment for the evening with just the listener and the music. Grateful Web had the chance to catch up with Tom Hamilton before a bold 2020 unfolds for him.
GW: How was Jam Cruise?
TH: It was great, a really great time. It was paced very well. I had the first day off to relax and then went to work. I had a bunch of sets each day, glad to back home on solid ground.
GW: Do you like boats?
TH: I am not a big fan of boats but Jam Cruise is such a special and fun occasion that I can’t pass it up.
GW: I wouldn’t either! Did you see Relix wrote: Ghost Light Made it rain? Can you tell us more about that?
TH: Our set was in danger of weather and we were going through weather the whole day. We played, our whole set was a really great set. We were all mentally in a great place and we played some really interesting things. Right at the end of our set, there was this huge peak, we were really trying to put the exclamation point at the end of our show, and the last 90 seconds of our show the sky just opened up. It only rained for the last 90 seconds of our show. It was pouring for the last 90 seconds then we hit the last chord, said thank you very much, and the rain stopped.
GW: Oh my god!
TH: So it was pretty intense, cool. One of those things where you like to think that was exactly how you planned it.
GW: Oh yes! You did that on purpose, chuckle. Well, I actually saw you here in Chicago. Grateful Web is based out of Boulder Colorado but I am here in the Chicagoland area and I saw you play with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead a couple of years back at North Coast Music Festival and…
TH: Speaking of rain!
GW: Yeah! I thought it was pretty hilarious that I get a chance to speak with you after another rain incident like that.
TH: This was a much more pleasant experience. That North Coast set was so cold and rainy. The tropical rain was not as tough to deal with.
GW: You went to Mexico this year, right?
TH: Yes, the Bahamas the first day at port and Mexico the second day.
GW: Must be rough! chuckles
TH: Ya know, its a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it
GW: This music, Jam Cruise being a shining example, exudes such a community spirit. Your music is certainly carrying the torch of the Grateful Dead but you’re planting such different seeds as it progresses. Your music, in my opinion, is very independent. I feel like you’re having your moment where you somehow blend indie rock, jam bands… Here let’s do this. Would you play a game with me?
GW: Okay great! It’s called “Would you rather.”
GW: Ok, so would you rather control the weather or control other’s emotions?
TH: Well I’m in the fortunate position that with music, I come close to doing both. But no, emotion is the thing. That’s the goal with the whole thing. It’s not controlling necessarily. It’s facilitating. Let’s go with that. Ya know?
GW: Yes! I like that. Ok, would you rather go to bed early or wake up early?
TH: Ummmmm, in my more advanced years here I don’t mind waking up early.
GW: heh. Advanced years. I think we’re around the same age. You’re what? 41?
TH: I just turned 41, yes.
GW: Cool. So, what was your first Grateful Dead experience? I mean it’s one thing to grow up listening to the music but its another thing when you indulge in the community and decide I think I’m gonna do this. I think these are my people.
TH: Well, It was never about the community. Nothing against the community but I didn’t know about that or really give a shit about that. When I was a kid, my dad was a big Deadhead with dozens, hundreds of tapes. I was always on him when I was very young. I was always asking him to play certain songs until he got to the point where he said I’m just gonna give you one of your own. So he gave me a copy of Red Rocks '78 on cassette tape
GW: Awww. that was their first time playing Red Rocks.
TH: Yeah, maybe I am not really sure but I listened to that thing until it wore out. I couldn’t get enough of that. I wore out that tape and swapped it out for another one. There was a Stanford '73 that I remember being very influential, a super important show in my life. It’s still one of those ones that I always went back to. It wasn’t about the community. I didn’t know anything about community, I was a kid listening to music, discovering not only that I love this music but that I love music in general, ya know? It was never about any of that other stuff. I didn’t know what that other stuff was. I didn’t know about hippies, I didn’t know about tie dyes. I didn’t know about drugs. I didn’t know shit. I knew about these songs and the improvising. I didn’t realize at the time that they were making it up as they went along. It was a passion for the music that I absolutely loved and couldn’t get enough of and I listened to every nook and cranny of this music. The songs were so good, the instrumental parts were so good. It made me feel everything at once.
GW: Did they control your emotions?
TH: For sure! As a young kid, that’s pretty fucking heavy. That’s a heavy thing: Not only to discover that I love music, not only what they are making me feel, but discovering emotion! What this music was making me feel, I didn’t realize I could even feel that. That there was such a thing! It was always that. The social aspect, I have pretty bad social anxiety, to be quite honest, so the social aspect of it was always more terrifying for me. I got to see the Dead, fortunately, before the big guy passed away. My older brother, I was finally allowed to go in 95. I saw a show at the Spectrum in Philly in March and then I saw 2 shows at RFK in June.
GW: So you were all in? You saw one and kept on going?
TH: Oh yeah! For sure! Well, my older brother would go. He started seeing them in 87 so he had seen a bunch of shows and ya know, he is my older brother. I always idolized him so whatever he would do, I wanted to do. Then it was crazy seeing that other aspect of it. I was like Woah! What in the…?! This is a different thing. It was actually kind of… I remember the first show I saw was the first time they played Unbroken Chain. I didn’t know that song and at the time I didn’t know what was going on. It was deafening. It was so loud. The people were so loud. I just remember being like I can’t hear a fucking note they’re playing. Why doesn’t everyone shut up and get into what is going on here? I didn’t understand the other side of it, ya know? It was kinda always, just about the music type of thing ya know? Does that answer your question or..?
GW: For sure! I mean, I have some questions I want to ask ya but it’s more about chatting you up and getting to know you. What I think about you as a player is that you are so patient. You’re definitely one of those guitarists, amongst other instruments, but you can play the silence as well as the notes and I really appreciate that about you. So I was wondering, not just the general influences on your playing but how did you come to be the player you are? It’s clear that you’ve always played with your own independent projects. I mean, Philly - you’ve got Biscuits and Lotus out there. Why Lotus would move there from here (Chicago), I don’t know why they would do that is a whole other topic but...
GW: You stuck to your own thing, you didn’t join in on anybody else’s thing, that I can tell, until you get tapped by Kruetzmann and you’re playing with Phil and… I was curious how you came to be playing Grateful Dead music.
TH: Yeah well I was always a fan, I grew up listening to and playing that kind of music. My older brother started playing guitar. He was way into the Allman Brothers and the Dead. He needed a rhythm guitar player so he could be the Jerry (Garcia), ya know? A lot of how I learned to play guitar was by listening to Bob (Weir). My brother would say, you listen to what this guy is doing and do that - then I’ll listen to what the other guy is doing, that type of thing. I got way into that and then the Phish thing happened in the mid-’90s. I was way into that as well. Once I got into my own band, in the late ’90s… My first band was this band called Brothers Past. I did the thing that you do, which is you start a band and write songs that sound exactly like your influences. Its the thing kids do, although I can see adults probably doing it too. But you do that and then you’re like, ‘I can’t do this because it sounds just like a Phish tune,’ er this song sounds just like an Allman Brothers tune, what have you. I wasn’t really into that thing. I didn’t want to be somebody else. I wanted to be myself and I didn’t know what that meant. I stopped listening to all that music right around 1999. I stopped listening to the Dead, Allmans, Phish. Just shut it all off and dove into other kinds of music. Brothers Past, we discovered things like Aphex Twin and Stereolab, all these bands that were incorporating heavy rhythm. Heavy influences in electronica and stuff like that, indie rock, as the early 2000s got going there were bands like Broken Social Scene and Stars, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ya know just really digging into things that had nothing to do with Grateful Dead or Phish or any of the jam bands. So we got super into electronic music and indie rock and mixing these things. Turns out, in electronic music… There isn’t a lot of guitars!
GW: That is the criticism, hahaha
TH: Ya know? But I think that was a good thing because it taught me to… I did a lot of destroying your ego work as a younger guy. I was pretty heavily into doing acid and discovering my sense of self and letting go of that. Musically, the electronic music thing helped because there isn’t a lot of guitars. There isn’t a lot of heroics going on. I mean the guitar guy is usually the dude trying to say the most er whatever
GW: Member that part of Almost Famous where the lead singer is screaming, “I get them off!”?
TH: Exactly. That’s not my disposition in the world. How about learning to incorporate myself in an egoless way into a band setting? I think is where a lot of the patience thing comes in. Knowing that sometimes the best thing for what’s happening in an improvised moment is to not do anything. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with being the guy on stage that is just standing there and not playing. You don’t always have to be playing. It’s the same thing with songwriting. If a song doesn’t call for a particular instrument... Just because you have a sax in the band doesn’t mean that there has to be a sax solo in every song. Ya know? That type of thing. Yeah, I think that’s where the patience you were talking about comes from. It’s a lot of, I don’t care about the guitar. I don’t care about myself and my role. I care about the end result and what is best for the group in the moment. If what’s best for the group in the moment is for me to be ripping a solo then okay but if it’s just for me to be sitting back and not doing anything, that’s also just fine.
GW: Totally! Okay, another Would You Rather question: Mountains or Beach?
GW: Baggy or fitted?
GW: Crew Neck or V?
GW: Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
TH: Um… that word is a little loaded.
GW: It is, you’re right.
TH: I’m not sure what that even is today. I describe myself as a person that firmly believes that we are all equal, that regardless of what you have between your legs, your skin color, where you come from economically, none of those things matter. We are equal and we should be treated at such.
GW: Do you believe we are at the end of the Patriarchy?
TH: Again, hot button, hot word
GW: It really really is, I totally understand. I ask this because I have an idea for a tee-shirt but it would need to be worn by just the right person and I feel like you are that kind of person. It’s a shirt that says, “This is What CONSENT Looks Like.”
TH: For sure, 100%. Those things I feel like can all get hijacked and people put their own meaning on the words these days instead of what the word actually means. I mean, feminism is exactly what it originally was - it’s equality. All of us living equally. There is nothing that a man can do that a woman can’t do. I firmly believe that. We all… it’s just insane to me - identity politics is completely insane, I also think it’s one of the most toxic things going on in the world.
TH: I think it’s basically climate change followed very closely by identity politics. I’m just not into it. I try to treat everybody the same and live by that. When you start putting labels on things, there is where things start getting tricky.
GW: Amen. Just that phrase “identity politics” right there is really awesome. You seem to have such a director’s eye for the whole picture, as you said, the death of the ego. I read that during the making of your Ghost Light record you sampled LSD to help with the songwriting. Can you talk more about that?
TH: Sure. Raina and I are the primary songwriters. She had never written a full record for a band and was also new to psychedelics. I was coming on writing a record for my third band which is a hard thing to do if you want it to be different. Brothers Past, my first band and then after that, American Babies were two pretty different things. I was very proud of those, to have two different bands that really occupy two different places sonically. That’s not an easy thing to do. Coming up with a third option, here is yet another band and it has to be different from the other two things, for me, definitely posed a challenge. I had not taken psychedelics for about 18 years at that time.
TH: Yeah, so basically starting over. I needed some help getting out of my own way as far as new information into the machine. Raina was bright-eyed and ready to try some new shit so...We just kinda went for it. Some of it, most of it, was dog shit. We set up in a small room in the house and hit record. We played for eight hours. Then we would go through the eight hours of shit we just did and...
GW: The editing must have been...
TH: Yeah! Well yeah, you’re going thru and trying to find stuff that wasn’t complete gibberish and we found a bunch of those things. We just kept going through more refined, more refined until we came down to about 10-12 ideas that we felt strongly about, that we persued. From there, that was it. It was just to get over the hump, to help us find a direction. Once we found a direction we went headfirst into it. That’s where we called the other guys in the band and had them come into it. The group came together and fleshed the rest of it out.
GW: And it’s killing it! So next you guys are going on tour with Greensky Bluegrass. That will be quite the eclectic crowd.
TH: I’ve been fortunate to play with those guys a bunch.
GW: Did you know Anders Beck from growing up in Philly?
TH: No, surprisingly enough. I went to High School 4 minutes away from where he grew up! He was technically more in the suburbs. He is about 30 minutes away from the city. I grew up in West Philidelphia. There wasn’t a lot of cross-pollination there.
GW: (chuckles) You can’t say I grew up in West Philidelphia and not sing the rest Fresh Prince opening theme song, right?
TH: I am well aware. (you can almost hear his eyes rolling, Sorry Tom!) I went to the same schools as Will Smith. He was around a bunch when I was a kid.
TH: Yeah, pretty fun stuff. He was always very nice.
GW: So then you will wrap up with Greensky and play the sunny skies of Ventura County at the Skull & Roses Festival. How many times have you played with Billy & the Kids now, how is that?
TH: It’s great! I mean, before Dead & Co. we did a good amount of shows. We did a bunch of things, it was the band after Fare Thee Well. It was what was happening and it was great! Bob (Weir) would get up and play with us a bunch. It was a really fun band but then Dead & Co came around. That obviously ate up all Bill’s bandwidth there which is totally understandable. Then I put together Ghost Light, started playing a bunch with JRAD. Everybody’s got their own things going on so it didn’t leave a lot of room at the time. I was very happy. I saw Bill over the summer last year and the first thing he said was ‘Man I’ve been thinking we should do some more Billy & the Kids things.’ I’m like, ‘hey man any time I’m available! I’m down to do it.’ From there it was just a matter of getting everyone else’s temperature and availability.
GW: That will be one of the first festivals opening the festival season. I know it’s highly anticipated.
TH: Yes! Very fucking excited! I’ve heard it’s a wonderful vibey place.
GW: Heck Yes, Ventura County. Whatta long strange trip it’s been. It’s been a long road for you. I once asked a musician what he would be doing if he wasn’t playing music and he looked at me blankly like he didn’t know how to do anything but. It seems like you are on that road yourself.
TH: Well you know, music was always around from a very early age. My Dad had a band my whole life, a cover band in Philly. My brother had a band. I started playing in bars when I was 12.
GW: Shut up! Really?
TH: Yeah! Most of the time in high school, I was playing concerts every weekend, playing in bars and clubs all around the Northeast corridor. It was never, I never thought about being famous or any of that. It was just what you do. It’s a vocation. It was a calling kind of thing. This was what I did with my time. I create things and try to be artistic. All through my adolescence, I had a job, I had school, and I played shows. All through my 20’s and most of my 30’s I had a day job and I played music with all of my other free time. It’s never been an either-or thing. This is what I do and for money, I would do other things.
GW: Money is energy
TH: Yeah, it just never computed in my head. The idea of playing shows specifically for money had never even really occurred to me until I was in my late 20s. I figured I should at least prioritize that part of it at least a little bit. I never cared. I had whatever shitty day job I had and that’s how I paid my bills and I got to play music because I was lucky. Music was the gift. It’s a gift to play music.
GW: And now you’re a full-time musician, right?
TH: Yeah! My last day job was about 5 years ago. I was a plumber.
GW: No way!
TH: Way indeed.
GW: I just can’t picture you with the plumber’s crack.
TH: I wear it well.
GW: Awesome! Of course, you do. So after Skull & Roses, what is happening for you after that? Is Ghostlight going back on tour? Will you get back into the studio?
TH: Skull & Roses is in April? Well from there on is a lot of festivals, JRAD and Ghostlight alternating. I built a recording studio in Philadelphia over the winter so I’d like to get into the studio and make another record.
GW: Does JRAD have any records?
TH: No. We’re a Grateful Dead band. The material is already written for us
GW: I didn’t think so but wasn’t that supposed to be a one-time thing, JRAD? That is such a fun project.
TH: It was definitely only supposed to be a one-time thing, yeah. If we can keep it to a reasonable amount of shows a year so that we all still have the opportunity to do the things we are passionate about - whatever band I have that is playing original music, or Marco’s (Benevento) trio, or Joe (Russo) makes all these albums and puts together really brilliant bands that play all over New York, Scott (Metzger) has studio work and Dave (Dreiwitz). Ween. We all agreed that we are down to do it but we want to do it right. We really go for it and want to put our all in it. Ya know? We do the thing. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We realize what it is and that we are all just the luckiest fucking dudes in the world to get to do that.
GW: That just brings you all up individually too. It’s a win-win! I have heard people say the nicest things about each and every one of you in JRAD. I think that is what makes it such a fun project. You guys are having fun, we’re having fun listening to it. It’s the music we all know but again, the way that you do it…it’s different. There are a lot of gardeners of the Grateful Dead, planting seeds. I appreciate the way you are doing that.
TH: Thank you very much
GW: No, thank YOU!