Tom Hamilton’s American Babies releasing new record, touring with Shavertown native Justin Mazer
WILKES-BARRE — Writer, guitar giant and producer, Tom Hamilton, is everywhere. The founding member of Brothers Past spent the last year and a half as lead guitar player in two Grateful Dead ensembles; Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Bill Kreutzmann’s Billy & The Kids. He plays in the all-star side project, Electron, featuring Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein of Disco Biscuits, and he’s still found time to write for his band, American Babies, which currently features Shavertown native, Justin Mazer.
Hamilton’s newest studio effort, “An Epic Battle Between Light And Dark” is his first Babies record since 2013’s “Knives and Teeth.” The album releases March 18 on the Royal Potato Family label, and is a unique result of Hamilton’s desire to explore new sounds and recording techniques while speaking about subjects that affect him personally. American Babies is on tour in support of the new record, and they’ll visit the River Street Jazz Cafe March 17.
“An Epic Battle Between Light & Dark” is a mixture of profound lyricism and layered instrumental brushstroke. A balance of hopeful and ominous writing is accompanied by sonic emotion.. The reference to “a long hard road desperately hanging on for life,” in “Bring It In Close” cues listeners to heavy subject matter while the choir-like vocal outro creates a feeling of optimism. Thoughtfully structured sections in “Synth Driver,” the entirely instrumental “Not In a Million Years” and “An Epic Battle Between Light & Dark” portray depths of feeling through ambient sound.
Hamilton and production partner, Pete Tramo, entered their Philadelphia studio in 2014 determined to make a record unlike any they’d made before.
“If you’re really digging into a space, every nook and cranny can be a new sound and a new tone,” Hamilton said. “There was a lot of talk about what we didn’t want to do. Let’s not even have these certain things on the table, because these are things that we’ve already done, whether it’s stylistic things or certain recording techniques that we feel are getting played out.”
Writing on the record came from Hamilton’s experiences with anxiety and depression. Growing up in a lower class West Philadelphia neighborhood, he saw friends and family cope with internal struggle in unhealthy ways.
“Somehow Pete and I got out of it,” Hamilton said. “We managed to not fall into that, and we got out of the neighborhood. We talked a lot about that struggle of getting out of there.”
The song, “Oh Darling, My Darling,” is not only a rumination on Hamilton’s personal method of dealing with depression but also a tip of the cap to Robin Williams in “The Dead Poet’s Society” as he leads a class in a study of “Oh Captain, My Captain.”
Hamilton’s examination of feeling produced songs that have longer instrumental sections than many studio cuts. Hamilton brought some of the philosophy of playing live into the recording of “Epic Battle.”
“I didn’t want it to be just short sentences,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t want each song to be this two minute 58 second in and out statement. I wanted them to be meditations on mood.”
Some of the studio improvisation came from working with open minded and skilled musicians such as Al Smith, Raina Mullen and Mazer, Hamilton said.
“What Justin brings in in relief is so comforting and wonderful to deal with. It’s such a breath of fresh air, and he’s a great player,” Hamilton said. “He’s almost 10 years younger than me, and it’s fun to see the guy that’s the 26-year-old guitar slinger.”
Hamilton said Mazer doesn’t have an ego and called him “a good teammate and a great friend.”
Mazer said he feels lucky to be part of Hamilton’s ensemble.
“Tom is a consummate professional on every level,” Mazer said. “He’s a monster guitar player. I’ve sat in with him and jammed a few times over the years, but I was really happy to get the call from him to join the band full time.”
Mazer said the Jazz Cafe was his musical home while living in the area and he’s excited to come back to play some of the most interesting and original music he’s been involved with, he said.
“It’s almost like Tom’s 15 plus year career of playing in all those different projects and bands have come full circle,” Mazer said. “I feel like all of those influences are so nicely combined on this record. I’m really excited. I really love playing these tunes.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651
IF YOU GO:
What: American Babies
Where: River Street Jazz Cafe, 667 North River St., Plains
When: 10 p.m. March 17. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Cost: $10 at the door