“We Hadn’t Played Together in Forever”: Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling on ‘Lacuna’ and Beyond

Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta on January 19, 2022
“We Hadn’t Played Together in Forever”: Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling on ‘Lacuna’ and Beyond

Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling are two of the jamband scene’s most active musicians. Whether it’s Bowling performing her complex solo piano ruminations and reinterpreting Grateful Dead classics alongside Phil Lesh, or Hamilton balancing his pensive singer-songwriter roots with his no-holds-barred guitar work with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Billy & The Kids, they’ve both embraced the spirit of transient musicians— bouncing between projects and styles with ease.

Of course, there’s also Ghost Light, their indie-leaning supergroup with Dan Africano, Raina Mullen and Scotty Zwang. Yet, unbeknownst to either musician, a spontaneous, September 2020 jam session at Hamilton’s Philadelphia studio would soon add yet another line to their sterling[1]silver résumés. 

“I don’t think we went into it intending to do something ‘outside of Ghost Light’ or ‘in addition to Ghost Light’ or anything,” Bowling says of Lacuna, the 46-minute, improvised release that dropped this November. “We hadn’t played together in forever. I hadn’t played with anyone in forever because of COVID, and I just really wanted to play. It wasn’t supposed to be anything beyond that. It was just like, ‘Let’s play music.’ Then, when we listened back and felt like there was something there, it just kind of became a thing.”

“When we did this, things were still pretty dicey,” Hamilton adds. “This was pre-vaccine. We weren’t trying to get a bunch of people together.”

The timing was, indeed, special. Bowling had just driven cross-country with her husband, photographer Jeffery Bowling, in a tricked-out van, taping improvised sets at some of America’s most picturesque national parks. Additionally, Bowling had another passenger along for the ride: She was pregnant with her first child.  

“We worked real hard to get out there,” Bowling says of their coast-to-coast pilgrimage, “driving and staying out of civilization the whole time. So having the chance to play with Tom again, just for a short window, was pretty special.”

As she lost herself in the American countryside, she felt a “tremendous sense of isolation” leading up to the Lacuna session. It seemed that a cathartic musical experience was exactly what the doctor ordered. In Philadelphia, Hamilton was also longing to collaborate. As the pandemic raged on, his gigs with both Ghost Light and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead continued to run dry. His brand[1]new studio was sitting empty and the implosion of a “pretty bad relationship thing” left him feeling as blue as ever.

“I was already kind of miserable and alone, and then COVID hit and it was like, ‘Oh, OK, well now I’m really gonna lock the doors, draw the blinds and hunker down with my cat,’” Hamilton explains. “Thankfully, I had the studio and I was able to kind of go there just as a way to not be in my house. It was a weird, lonely time. I just kinda went to the studio all the time and was either still building things for it, or just like working on bullshit by myself. But man, that gets old after a while. It was definitely a welcome release to kind of take the improvising chops for a walk [with Holly].”

And just like that, the Lacuna session came and went. Both artists were glad to have a friend to perform with during one of the most uncertain periods of either of their lives. Hamilton was also thrilled to finally put his studio—known affectionately as The Ballroom—to good use.

Lacuna was the first thing that was recorded in that space that wasn’t just me making some shitty demo,” he muses. “It was the first real session that was held there.”

“It had to be one of the fastest recording sessions for a record of all time,” Bowling says with a chuckle. “Because we just walked in, played for an hour, walked out and that was it.”


When Hamilton and Bowling concluded their Philadelphia summit, neither musician considered actually releasing the resulting music. But, by February 2021, they realized that the recording had a certain spark and quickly decided to segment the 46-minute session into actual songs. There were easy inflection points for them to cut the tape. Yet, for Hamilton, finding names for the tracks was its own challenge. With no lyrics to pull from, and no desire to hold up the project further, he suddenly thought of friend/bandmate Joe Russo—who has previously imbued his own instrumental tunes with complicated, yet totally random, names—and gave Lacuna’s eight tracks titles like “Smile Pretty for the Camera,” “Pavement Grass” and “Exit This Way Please.” 

“I honestly don’t even remember the names of any of the songs [on Lacuna],” Hamilton laughs months later. “It was freeing. I thought it was an interesting exercise. I’m a self-righteous prick when it comes to songs, and I used to bust Joe’s balls about it. And then I found myself in a situation where I was like, ‘Alright, well, here we go so strap in.’”

The album is also billed as Bowling and Hamilton’s “return to their classical roots,” and both players have spent considerable time pondering why that cerebral genre has found a unique home in the jamband community. 

As Hamilton surmises, “The word jamband didn’t even come into play until Phish entered the arena. And early Phish is as classically influenced as it gets in this scene. Those early compositions, like ‘Fluffhead’ and ‘The Divided Sky,’ are heavily classically influenced. It wasn’t all just blues and jazz.”

Bowling, who first started playing classical piano at age 5, notes that “classical music” is often a misnomer, and more of an “umbrella term” than people realize. Sure, there’s Beethoven and Schubert, but there’s also newer, more conceptual approaches to the genre “where people are really tuned into every single note, every single space between every note, how each note is played and the 17 different shades that you could pull out of your instrument for the same note.”

Lacuna seems to accomplish that in spades, especially considering that Bowling is always on the hunt for new, interesting ways to play her instrument. She recalls that—early in the pandemic, during some solo musical experimentations—she started tinkering with her piano’s percussive abilities. The Lacuna session marked the first time she was able to document this new sonic palette and she’s quite happy with the results. “I fell in love with the percussive stuff that you could get by drumming on the frame of the piano,” she says. “Then, I’d send that through a bunch of effects pedals with delays and loops.”


Bowling has always been a tinkerer by trade. If you’ve enjoyed her live performances, then you’ve probably seen her fiddle with her piano, plucking at its strings or detuning its output with some kind of wrench or other anonymous implement. 

“I’ll find myself sitting around my house, pulling random shit out of the drawers in my kitchen at 2 a.m., being like, ‘What does it sound like if I stick it between the strings of my piano?’” she says with a laugh. “‘What else can I put in here without breaking the thing?’” 

“What we’re doing with Lacuna is really fucking getting in there, man— putting on those glasses that have a magnifying glass on them and seeing every single stroke and then improvising with that,” Hamilton says. “Taking that whole thing and just being like, ‘OK, well, now what happens if we just try to make some shit up at this microscopic level of nuance?’ It’s pretty fucking cool.”

A strange percussive element permeates Lacuna’s second track, “This Elevator Goes Up” while plucky sounds dance through “The Swimmer.” (In addition to the music, Bowling did have one other landmark experience while visiting Hamilton in Philadelphia: “That session was one of the first times I ever felt my kid kick in response to music, which was a pretty cool moment.”)

And while there’s currently a few Lacuna promo shows on their schedule, Bowling and Hamilton don’t intend on retreading any musical territory—staying true to the album’s improvisational ethos.

“Nothing changes—it’s the same thing where one of us just starts playing and the other person reacts, and then we just play that little game of tennis until we get tired,” Hamilton says of the shows. “And then we can fucking high-five and go home.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Ghost Light are also working on a new LP, and the players have been casually checking in with one another at Hamilton’s space.

“[Ghost Light] didn’t play together as a band for a really long chunk of time,” Bowling says. “So it’s been a mix of writing songs, getting the tapes for the record together and just being a band again— playing together, remembering how all that fits together.”

As of this interview, Hamilton notes that the members of Ghost Light have been workshopping material in the studio for three weeks, and they’re building a “heavier,” “darker” record, rife with in[1]studio creative collaboration.

“We’ve all been off for a year and a half. And I think there’s an interesting energy there—a bit of pent-up energy,” he adds. “There’s a lot more gratitude involved. We can’t believe that we actually get to do this—perspective’s a motherfucker. I don’t like saying shit like that without prefacing that a lot of people have struggled very much through everything that has happened. But there were some positives that came out of COVID and out of the pandemic and the shutdown. And perspective is one of them. For me, personally, being able to have things slow down—and to really take stock and appreciate what we have and what we’re able to do and who we’re able to do it with—is pretty nice.”