“I want music to make me either want to f—k, fight, or dance,” laughs American Babies main man Tom Hamilton when asked about the writing that went into his band’s new album, “Knives and Teeth.” “I just want it to feel like it matters in a real way.”
The Philadelphia-based American Babies will play the River Street Jazz Café in Plains on Saturday, Oct. 19, bringing with them an arsenal of 21st century, Americana-strewn ambiance that borrows equally as much from the unconventional acousticisms of “Led Zeppelin III” as it does the boundary-busting electric country honk of “Being There”-period Wilco. For Hamilton, the Americana genre is something that could use a little refining, if not all-out rebellion.
“This thing with Americana,” he begins, “a bunch of people wearing plaid and cowboy boots – that was Americana in1970. Americana now should be a new thing. That’s what we’re trying to do with our music: update the whole thing.”
Hamilton says that his band digs deep into the core of the human experience with their music, talking about who we are, how we live, and the self-doubt we all face. In fact, he’s compared the ideals on this album to waking up at some point during your life, looking in the mirror, and being surprised at what you see.
“But, it doesn’t have to be all f—king pedal steel and sounding like (The Band’s) ‘Music from Big Pink,’” he fervently emphasizes. “I don’t care what Levon (Helm) would have played. We respect where we came from (musically), but we respect it enough to say, ‘We’re not going to do that; we’re going to do our own thing.’”
Hamilton believes the image of many Americana bands is beginning to wear thin, and he worries image may become synonymous with the music itself – he’s not having it.
“These bands like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers are great songwriters and great bands, but you don’t have to dress like you’re Amish and only play acoustic instruments to be considered Americana music.”
However you slice it, Hamilton is cool with a listener walking away with what they will after hearing the new “Knives and Teeth” record. For him personally, the experience of writing the new music was nothing short of a “complete existential meltdown.” Drawing inspiration from life pools as deep as his brother’s experiences and perceptions in the military, to reconciling his own mortality, Hamilton strove to create art that represented what he always wanted an album to be when he was a kid.
“I wanted music to comfort me, to know I wasn’t alone,” he says. “I want people to know they aren’t alone in feeling the things they feel when they listen to this.”
The demise of Hamilton’s pre-American Babies band, the electronica-laced Brothers Past, was seemingly a major key to the direction American Babies’ music would take upon their inception in 2007, and the immediacy that his music would eventually encompass. Hamilton grew tired of the fact that would-be musicians could, rather easily, poke a finger to an Apple MacBook and make a subpar imitation of what Brothers Past was doing.
“I saw the dissolution of that scene, and I saw how you could fake electronic music with the right programs. What you can’t fake is writing a good song. When you break it down to just a voice and an instrument, that song’s either going to be good or it’s not. I didn’t want to be a part of something where you can just phone it in.”
In a live setting, American Babies promise more than a structured, by-the-numbers reading of their studio albums. The band’s shows have the potential to be quite memorable, and unique to each city.
“I believe the live show and the records are two different things,” Hamilton explains. “The live show should be more free; why would you force yourself to play a song a certain way you wrote it five years ago if it’s not how you feel at the moment? I encourage the band to live in the moment. For that time we’re onstage, there’s nothing else that matters – we go where it takes us.”
Hamilton elaborates on his thoughts about the band being able to trail off into another musical stratosphere live. The original American Babies drummer, Joe Russo, currently plays with ex-Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in the band Further. Hamilton recalls one particular story Russo told him about Furthur’s pre-show conversations.
“The guys were huddling up, talking about the set,” Hamilton begins. “Phil Lesh was pushing them, like, ‘Let’s get into it. Let’s make this night, this night.’ People might think guys that age would be a nostalgia act, but these guys are 70 and still wanting to push the envelope – that’s inspiring to me.”
In the end, Tom Hamilton wants his music to stand above the crowd. He drives himself to create music that’s not intentionally derivative, and will make the listener take notice.
“When I write music and I think, ‘This reminds me of so and so,’ I throw it out. I don’t need something that reminds me of something else. Again, it’s all about that freedom to go wherever we want – vision is required.”