Flying Solo with American Babies
Photo by Andrew Blackstein
Tom Hamilton, founder, lead singer and guitarist of American Babies, kicks his left leg up on the dashboard of the band’s van outside the Brooklyn Bowl and says, “People should look at flying solo like an opportunity. Reinvention. You’ll probably never see most of these people again, so be who you want to be that night. Go in and be Travolta in Staying Alive, or go in and be mysterious. Look at it as an opportunity to open new doors, try out new things within yourself. It’s like an open mic night.”
It’s 5 weeks after my flying solo epiphany (when the idea of this column hit me and I excitedly dove into it, snagging an interview with The Motet after their show at the Brooklyn Bowl). Returning to the scene of the crime, joking around with the guys at the door, I realize that flying solo is much easier when you have a place to call home, a virtual Cheers. Earlier that day, a friend serendipitously posted on Twitter, “Bliss happens when you step outside your comfort zone.” It occurs to me that I’ll have to branch out and try new venues, even new cities. But first, Hamilton is on to something, and I begin to think about who I want to be tonight, back here in NYC for a short visit, and when the American Babies share the stage with Tea Leaf Green.
As he reminisces about his days in the early jam scene, it becomes clear that Tom Hamilton has learned from experience. “This was a community of outcasts that were able to come together and be accepted somewhere,” he says. “I would see Phish when I was 15 years old, looking like I look now.” (He jokingly notes his lack of patchwork pants and dreadlocks.) “I loved that band. I knew their music inside and out. But then I’d start to get the stink-eye from some guy in the parking lot dressed like it’s 1969 and he’d be looking at me like I’m a narc or something. It’s like ‘Dude, back it up! That’s not what this is about. This is supposed to be a place where everyone is in.’ After a few years of that I just stopped going to shows.”
I almost tell Tom that he let the bullies on the Phish playground win, but I catch myself and admit out loud that I spent 20 minutes today changing outfits and thinking about who I might run into at the Brooklyn Bowl on a rainy Friday night in May. After a few laughs and light teasing of my own social anxiety, dare I say Tom Hamilton and I shared a moment — a reflection on the fact that regardless of age, we’re all still kids on the playground, grappling with confidence and acceptance. “We’re getting into some real sociology here,” he says with a laugh. But we digress. We’re not sociologists, we’re music nerds with feelings. And for anyone feeling a little social anxiety about flying solo to see American Babies, Tom says, “Grow a set. Come on out and hang. Fuck it!”
These days, Tom Hamilton isn’t bothered by the stink-eye. “I got a new studio in Philadelphia and it’s in the same building as a venue. There are definitely times when I’m working and need to take a break, so I’ll go into the venue by myself, do a little Terminator 2 peripheral viewing, find a place to sit and watch whatever the show is. I look around the room and wonder, ‘Why does anybody care about this?’” He clarifies that that’s not meant as a reflection on the music, but people’s own motives. “Music fills a void, and that could be anything. It could be as trivial as partying, to someone losing a family member.” Whatever the void may be, Tom and I agree that above all, music gives us something to love, and something to be excited about.
“On any given night, there’s just as much of a chance of any of these bands shitting the bed as there is of them doing something that will change my life,” he says. “THAT is exciting! I think my colleagues and I should try to change our fans’ lives every time, every song! Try to change ourselves! Do something new, surprise ourselves, surprise our fans! Try to just make everyone go, ‘Holy shit!’” If the American Babies’ van was the (insert sports team here) locker room, Tom Hamilton would be the fiery coach, giving the pep talk we need to score the winning goal with just ten seconds left on the clock. Suffice it to say, I am riled up and ready for this show! “I feel a responsibility, you know? Nobody has any money but they’re finding it to give it to us to go see us play, so we better fucking deliver!” He pauses, turns his head and looks out the window. “I know I take it too seriously. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. But it should matter.”
Maybe it’s my years of working in the music industry and, well, dating musicians, or maybe it’s just female intuition, but I quickly pick up on the natural frustration that Hamilton must feel for not yet having the kind of success with American Babies as he did with Brothers Past. “We’re starting over,” he says, eyes cast down. In 2006 when I started Jam Session on BreakThru Radio, Brothers Past was one of the first bands to get behind the show. Naturally, I have immense gratitude for Hamilton. Right now I’m torn between wanting to thank him a hundred times and give him a hug, and commiserate on the less than ideal state of the music industry. We end up indulging in our respective shitty experiences for fifteen minutes. Frustrated on our beaten up soapboxes, we acknowledge that it’s bullshit that the cold, depressing, exhausted, hard, fart-laden facts of being an independently touring artist aren’t more exposed. It’s the truth, dammit!
With Hamilton’s advice of reinvention in mind, I make the quick decision to switch to my alter ego, Luna, the chick who doesn’t have ten years of experience in the music industry. The one who’s just been a huge fan of the music for years, and who’s incidentally experiencing a bit of a fan-girl moment here. She would punch Laura in the shoulder and say she was bored to tears and, “It’s about the music, girl!” Luna wants the truth, but she’s also looking to fill a void; music is her escape, her therapy, her life motivator, and because of that she wants to choose to see things positively. Who can blame her? After all, she’s face to face with Tom Hamilton right now before he plays Brooklyn Bowl with the Babies and, although she’s pretty good at hiding it, she’s flipping the fuck out. Perspective truly is everything.
Somewhere in my mind, Luna and Laura eventually meet, and the conversation continues, now more relaxed and hopeful. “I certainly could have sold my soul a few times,” says Tom. I tell him I’m glad he didn’t. For a jamband community veteran, going to an American Babies show is like a night out with your best friends from grade school at least ten years after graduation. You conveniently forget that you’re older and in debt with student loans, and focus on how much more experienced and infinitely cooler you all are. Successes, failures and embarrassing moments blur together to be the good old days, and if you allow yourself to indulge in it, every memory is a magical one. Tom recalls the wildfire-like success of Brothers Past. “We went from a basement in Philadelphia to the main stage at Bonnaroo in four years – that’s pretty good,” he says with a chuckle that quickly turns into a hearty laugh, and then he sighs with a smile. I’m confident I just witnessed one of the jam community’s greatest musicians slap himself back to reality – struggles and frustrations aside, he and the Babies are doing pretty damn well.
On this particular flying solo adventure there were no intoxicated, overbearing suitors like last time, just a few doppelgängers of Newman from Seinfeld who couldn’t take a hint. Overall, the experience was just how Tom Hamilton encouraged it to be — a chance to choose who I wanted to be in that moment. A balance between the industry kid who gets it, the hopeless romantic once again eating the Bowl’s famous fried chicken alone while scribbling these words, and the nomadic music lover who came here for a little lovin’ — the kind of connection no individual person nor substance can provide, that can best be felt when you place yourself in front of that stage.
While watching American Babies perform, it’s admittedly difficult not to picture Tom Hamilton at your favorite sold out Brothers Past show, but not in a yearning kind of way, just mad respect. It’s also incredibly challenging to avoid working a kowtow into your dance moves for everything bassist Marc Friedman has done and continues to do (notably for me, the June 12, 2004 Slip show in Providence, RI at Lupo’s). If you’ve had the pleasure of watching their respective careers grow over the years, then flying solo with American Babies is familiar and welcoming. But even if you didn’t, there’s no way you could witness them cover the Grateful Dead and not feel like a part of the clan. On this particular night, the Babies proved that they’re still the genuinely cool kids – not the scenester ones who have to try, the ones who just ARE. They embody great, authentic musicianship with a hearty helping of lovable humility and welcome you into their world with open arms, whatever version of yourself you decide to be that day.