Tom Hamilton Interview: American Babies and Brothers Past
Tom Hamilton of the bands Brothers Past and American Babies has been hitting Occupy Philly since the movement started. American Babies even performed there. Hamilton sat down with a HeadCount blogger to talk about Occupy and what inspired him to get involved – primarily, he says, the it was the fact that so many of his friends can’t find jobs.
Tom, you’ve been a supporter of the Occupy movement since its early stages. How does it make you feel that the protests have spread not just around the country but also around the world?
I think it’s awesome, I think it’s a great thing. In theory, at least right now, it’s a great thing. There isn’t a clearly defined message yet, which kind of … you have this thing rising up everywhere but it’s not quite unified. Everybody is just pissy, but everyone is not pissy about the same thing. I’m hoping that it starts to come to a head, sharpen the point, and to get behind the same message. Obviously Occupy Wall Street has a pretty definitive thing. For starters there’s the 1% vs. 99%. You know, getting corporate money out of our politics or letting our politicians govern instead of playing politics. Which is what I totally believe, which is why I’m such a fan of the movement. It’s exactly what I feel and what I want to happen.
But it’s not necessarily that same message everywhere. Even on Wall Street it’s not that same message everywhere. Everybody has their pet cause. Down here in Philly it’s pretty fractured still. You have people that are talking about the original message to people that are there because they want marijuana legalization. And it’s like, “I get it but let’s keep our eye on the prize here.” It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. I think it needs to become something more focused and get more powerful and make a statement that actually affects what’s going on, that actually affects policy, affects politics.
So you’ve said you have been almost a constant presence down at the Occupy Philly movement. What are you personal grievances, what are you down there for?
Well fortunately I’m a musician and I can still find work wherever we can find it. But that being said, I have a lot of friends. Most of my friends aren’t musicians and are collecting unemployment. Not because they are lazy people who want to live off the government, but because they can’t find a goddamn job. It’s an awful thing to see people you’ve known your whole life struggling. You know people with law degrees waiting tables, electricians and contractors, they can’t find any work doing anything. And it’s a goddamn shame. And I like to be there [Occupy Philly] and be supportive for all of the people that are in these situations. That are on unemployment. These people just can’t find work because there are no jobs. For the people that lost everything when the economy collapsed. It’s awful, it’s infuriating. You know when this whole thing started in ’08 I was paying very close attention to what was going on and seeing it affect my friends and family. Most of the new American Babies album is written about this stuff and for these people. So I feel like if I’m going to be writing about this stuff and using it in my career and trying to be a voice for these people, I should be down there with the movement. Showing solidarity and putting my instrument where my mouth is.
Do you have any concrete ideas to address these issues or do you think it should be left to the policy makers who are there right now to come up with solutions?
Well, everybody has an idea. But I feel that within the movement what people should be doing is educating each other. I feel like a lot of people are angry and upset about what’s going on, but they are not completely informed as to why they are where they are, why things happened and how it got to where it is. Within the occupation they should be educating everybody on what the banks did, what Wall Street did, how the government bailout affected them. To give them a very real understanding of what’s happening. I also feel there should be something set up at the occupation where people can go and tell them where they live and somebody give them the phone number, the email, the Twitter, and every kind of contact information they can for their representative. So they can write them or call them and tell them, “I’m your constituent, I’m who you’re working for and I want you to govern. I don’t want you to sit there and just play politics and go golfing.” There’s more than one way to go about protesting. You know, while you’re out there having civil unrest you can also work within the system to try and change it. And I feel like that should be happening.
Yeah I’m always just talking to people. To see why they are there, to see what they think is going on, how long they’ve been there, where they are from. Just trying to get to know people, their stories. And inherently that always leads to conversations about what do they think should be going on and what do they think about what’s happening. Just talking and finding out their situations. As I’m talking to people I’m telling them things they don’t know and other people are telling me things I don’t know. It’s a great learning experience in that way.
One of my really close friends is a comedian and has a radio show that we do down here in Philadelphia called The Panic Hour. We play music, but he’s a comedian so it’s a comedy thing. It’s basically me and him and 3 or 4 other people. Before the occupation it would be a weekly thing where we would sit around and in a pretty light way just talk about the news and what’s going on in the world. The range of the people on the show go from extreme conspiracy theorist to more rational people. So it’s basically just a pissing match between all of us and we just sit around and bust each others’ balls and talk about politics and the world and whatever. His name is N. A. Poe and he’s in charge of the media branch of Occupy Philly. He’s been living there since day one. And so when I am there that’s who I’m with; I’m in the media pen a lot. He goes around and interviews everybody he can find from random people that are down there for the right reasons to people that are obviously there for the wrong reasons. Like the trust fund kid with dreads that wants to just smoke pot and play in the drum circle. We interviewed the previous mayor of Philly when he was down there, the chief of police; we kind of run the gamut. It’s looking at what’s going on, interviewing people and getting information out there. But we don’t have an agenda, like I said there’s everyone down there. There’s hippies, there’s anarchists, there’s all of these people down there that have their own agenda and they are always pushing things one way or the other. My buddy N. A. Poe, he’s just a comedian, but also really believes in this thing that’s going on as much as I do. We’re trying to get the message out, get that content out, because the press isn’t reporting on it. So we’re going to get it out there and make it unbiased. You know, what the media is supposed to be doing, but also funny at the same time. You can check out the hundreds of interviews he’s done on his YouTube channel, which has gotten a huge number of hits so far. And I think it’s because he’s just telling it how it is and being an unfiltered voice. That’s why I like being down there. Just trying to help as much as we can. And do things the way we feel is the right way.
Do you think the real problem is Wall Street and big business or do you think the real problem is the politicians and bureaucrats who regulate them?
Or don’t regulate is another way to say that. For me it’s lobbyists really. I feel like that’s the problem, big business gets lobbyists into D.C. and there are all of these backroom deals being cut. And that’s not the way its supposed to go. Even as the 99%, we don’t have lobbyists. We can’t afford lobbyists. This is about lobbyists, that’s not what the government should be about. It’s supposed to be about “we the people” and what we want. And that’s what should be going on, what’s in the best interest of the country and the best interest of its citizens. And if you have been paying attention to what’s going on in Congress and the Senate right now you know that nothing’s going on, nothing’s happening. Because there’s this fucking mandate that the right has put out that says that nothing that comes from the left — especially the president — goes through. And it has nothing to do with Americans. And has everything to do with some pissing match that’s going on in D.C. And we’re suffering for it, and a bunch of guys [are] sitting there measuring their dicks, and it’s like “hey man, that’s not governing.”
Is there a politician that you support that you think can get American where it needs to be? Or at least someone that has ideas that you agree with?
It’s not something that a politician can fix. That’s not the solution. It’s not a person, it’s the system itself is cracked right now. Some will say broken. And as for who I personally support politically, I’d really rather not say. I don’t think that that really matters. The system is what’s wrong. And that’s what needs to be addressed.
One of your projects, American Babies, performed at the Occupy Philly protest. How did it make you feel to “entertain the troops?”
It was an absolute honor. And that’s exactly how I looked at it, as entertaining the troops. These people are down there freezing, getting rained on, getting snowed on. They put themselves out of their comfortable homes into this situation, to try to make a difference and change things for all of us. The least I can do is strum a guitar and make them smile and dance for an hour.
As a musician you have a larger platform than most to speak your mind and spread a message. Do you feel that’s your responsibility as a musician?
Hmm… Well this new American Babies album is definitely about what’s going on. Making that record was a real struggle for me. I think it’s a responsibility for sure. To give the people that don’t have a voice a voice. That’s part of why people love music. It’s somebody is saying something or putting something into words or into music that the listener can’t express on their own. And that’s why they grab onto things and hold onto them for dear life and hold onto them forever. So yeah, I do feel like it’s a responsibility as a singer/songwriter.
That being said I also feel like it’s a responsibility to not be heavy handed. And to not try and push people into one direction or the other. That’s the reason I’m involved with Headcount, during the mid terms or presidential elections, both of my bands– we always open the door to Headcount. For having tables at our shows. I tell people to vote. Not to vote for anything in particular. Because that’s not my job. I feel like that is actually irresponsible. Kids especially are impressionable. Young 18, 20-year-old voters are impressionable people. Somebody they look up to and will listen to with more open ears than to somebody else pushing them into my political beliefs is a gross misuse of power. You should tell people, “Hey man you should vote because you have the ability to do so. You should educate yourself as to what’s going on. And vote your conscious and vote what you believe. You don’t have to believe what I believe, you don’t have to vote for what I vote for.” That is a secondary conversation. The initial conversation is about getting out there and voting. And I think it’s an important part of being an American citizen. It is your right and it’s a wonderful thing.
I listen to your new album Flawed Logic. I have to say, I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen and I know he’s a personal idol of yours, and you sound just like the best of the Boss. How does it feel to be compared to one of your personal idols?
Well obviously, you know it’s Bruce so that’s fucking unbelievably flattering, but at the same time it’s mildly not flattering. Because I try not to wear my influences on my sleeve. I like to think I try to avoid it and have my own voice. I’m glad that you think that for sure, but it just kinda drives home that on my next record I just need to keep growing. And keep trying to change it up. But Bruce is a special guy for sure. And that anyone would even mention us in the same sentence, it’s a great thing.
I’m wondering about your other project Brothers Past. What’s next for you guys? Are you going to keep touring or make some next music in a studio?
Well we just did this box set thing over the past year. It’s been ten years this past October, so what we did was leading up to that we decided [we] were going to record and release an old song and sound board recording of one of our shows. And that we were going to do this every month during the year leading up to our 10 year anniversary. That just ended this last month. And that’s a pretty intense project. Basically every month recording a new song. And it was really fucking fun. As a producer I really get to hone my skills in the studio and I have pretty good ears at this point. It was a really cool thing. The next thing, and we have a lot of options. We have half of a new record already recorded. And I’m not really sure what we’re going to do with it. We’re still talking; we have a lot of stuff that we’re still writing and working on. We’re going to release something soon which I’m sure you’ll hear about in the next few weeks. But we just got into this groove of recording and we’re just going to keep doing it. It’s a band that, really for the first 10 years of our career, it would take a lot of finagling to get us into a studio. Because we were always on the fucking road. And this 2nd chapter of our career, we’re in the really interesting and opposite place where we spend most of our time recording. And a small fraction of it playing.
It’s cool and it’s good for us and it’s making it, so we have a controlled way to decide what our next avenue is going to be.
Do you have any other side projects that you’re working on or might go with in the future?
Nah man, I think I’m good. You know when I began with Brothers Past I was a really young guy and was really interested in electronic music and where I think I could take it. And I started the Babies 3 years ago because this other side of the spectrum that I also love with is more organic Americana music. And I feel like I’m finally getting into my grove with that, also with writing. And the first record was kinda like, whatever. And this one I feel was like a positive step in the right direction, and I just started working on the next American Babies record. And I’m really excited about where it’s going. I feel like this is going to be a really, really special record. So yeah, I feel like all of my creative itches are being scratched right now.
Do you ever find, working with two bands at the same time, do you ever want to use something for both of them? Obviously you have to choose.
No. And this is why the creative process is so different for each band. The Babies is the writing process, there is a very solitary thing. Let’s say it takes me 50 hours to write a song, the first 30 hours of it are spent without an instrument or a pen in my hand, it’s just an introspective time. And then once we figured it all out that’s finally when I pick something up and start playing and writing. With Brothers Past it’s more collaborative. I work a lot with the keyboard player and a lot of that is just the two of us in a room working and just seeing what happens. So usually I don’t run into the problem with having to flip a coin to see who gets what.
How have you found the transition from a collaborative writer to a singer/songwriter?
It’s like a fish in water. I kinda prefer it. I get easily distracted, and when it’s just me it’s easier for me to concentrate on the task at hand. Even when me and [Tom] McKee are working together, we’ll be in the studio together and I’ll go into a different room for a few hours. Just because I’m kinda flaky. The transition wasn’t anything at all, it’s the same.