NEW YORK — “Flawed Logic,” the sophomore album from Philadelphia’s American Babies, is the perfect soundtrack for a cross-country summer road trip. In fact, Tom Hamilton (the frontman and driving force behind the band, also known for his work with the electro-rock outfit Brothers Past), calls the record a “collection of mental snapshots” from his time spent observing events around the country. Fans of Brothers Past might raise an eyebrow at Hamilton’s newer material, which draws heavily from folk, country and general Americana influences, but strong songwriting is still at the heart of Hamilton’s work, regardless of genre.
The singer recently took a break from rehearsals to chat with Blast about the new record, the inspiration for his songwriting, and his decision to break away from electronic music and form American Babies in 2007.
BLAST: Who are your main musical influences, both for American Babies and for Brothers Past?
TOM HAMILTON: God, it’s a fucking lengthy list. I definitely don’t separate them. I feel like you can hear my influences in either one. The obvious ones, The Beatles, The Dead, Dylan, stuff like that. Radiohead, huge influence. Stereolab, they have a record called “Dots and Loops” that redefined my entire idea of music, like the late ‘90s. Low, they put out a record, “The Great Destroyer” in like ’05, I think. (That was) another one that was just like, I heard this record and it shuffled the papers around in my head and kind of made me redefine what was possible in music. Broken Social Scene’s first record flipped me around. A few years ago, I got really into Motown, and that’s kind of where I am now, as far as this newest Babies record. Listening to a lot of Motown and Stacks records, stuff like that. That stuff just absolutely destroys me. Old Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. You just can’t beat it.
For me, the thing with music, it’s not what you do. It’s how you do it. And I feel like the bands that I listen to, that I really like, what they’re doing, the style of music, really has nothing to do with where my pleasure comes from. It’s the fact that there is a sincerity in every note played and sung. Like Springsteen. It’s so genuine and so sincere. These people don’t do these things because it’ll make them money and because they have to. They do it because they have to, primally. Like, it’s an animalistic thing. They need to express these things. They need to get it out and connect with people. And that’s the common thread in all those bands that I named that I like. It’s all very sincere music. That’s what I try to do, no matter if it’s electronic music or folk music or blues or whatever. It’s about being sincere and genuine and urgent.
BLAST: Would you say “Flawed Logic” has a unifying theme? What events inspired the songs?
TH: I started making this thing, and everything was fucked up and everybody I knew was fucked up. The Wall Street shit, and there’s fuckin’ 80 wars going on. My friends are unemployed. My brother is on his way to getting deployed and going to Afghanistan. I had other friends that had to go to Iraq. Until that point, everything I always wrote about was, you know, chicks and love. You know, standard things you can write songs about. But when I was getting this record together, all these things, all these unavoidable things, I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to it. And I had to talk about it. I had to say something.
It was a really awkward situation because I’d never been really topical in my songwriting, you know, that much. Because personally, I hate self-righteous pricks. I hate when you turn on CNN and Jeaneane Garafolo’s on there talking about the war. It’s like, we’re entertainers. I feel like there is a line there. For me, it was a very touchy thing. I was like, wow. I have all these feelings, and there’s a feeling of urgency to talk about it, but I have no idea how to do it without being heavy-handed, without sounding like just somebody ridiculous, like Bono talking about AIDS or something. So, it was a huge challenge, and scary for me kind of. Being that far away from my comfort zone. I could have easily just written another record about my last girlfriend, you know?
So, sitting back and finding my voice was like the whole thing. Just talking to people and observing like, you know, how my brother’s family was dealing with his thing with the military, talking with my friends who lost their jobs or lost all their friggin’ money and how they’re dealing with it, and just seeing how it all goes. My friends who are married, how is it affecting them? When I was on the road I would talk to people all over the country. Just, how are all these things affecting all these people? I just basically took mental Polaroids and each one of the songs on the record, they all came from one of those mental snapshots.
BLAST: How does your approach to songwriting differ with this band?
TH: Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know if it actually differs. (With Brothers Past) there were two songwriters. I wrote a majority of (the songs), but the keyboard player, Tom McKee, also wrote some stuff. I guess there was more collaboration in the Brothers Past thing. But as far as just like personally, the songwriting, it was never that much different. Even with the Brothers Past stuff, it was like, I would write the song on acoustic guitar or piano or something, and then I would have to dress it up in all of this other stuff. Which I feel like sometimes can get in the way of the song.
With the Babies stuff, it’s much more of a challenge. Because with Brothers Past,, there were times where, if a song kind of wasn’t totally happening, I could just, like, throw in a cool synthesizer line or something. I could throw in ear candy to kind of make up for a lack of something in the song. If a song isn’t really happening and isn’t like, really grooving, you can just throw a 404 beat under it and people just like it because it makes them move. There’s plenty of bands out there that make not that great songs and just put a dance beat under it, and people love it because there’s a visceral reaction to it. They don’t notice that you’re not saying anything in the song or that the song isn’t that great. All they know is that their ass is shaking. And that’s kind of cheating.
In American Babies, I don’t have that option. It’s kind of like, it’s just standard rock and roll. There’s no hiding behind anything. If I don’t really like this song, there’s nothing I can do to hide that. I have to just write it better or throw it out. So it kind of keeps me more honest.
BLAST: So you think it’s easier to make electronic music, even though there are more components to the songs?
TH: With the way that these programs are today, it’s exponentially easier. If you’re a producer and you are making your tracks, you’re actually recording the drums and you’re playing all the instruments and there’s original thought in there, I think it’s awesome. But more so than not, a kid gets a MacBook Pro and a copy of the program Ableton and you can buy samples. You can download samples. It’s all other people’s work that you’re just taking and, like, putting together. It’s the difference between, like, buying a puzzle that is the Mona Lisa or getting a canvas and painting the goddamn thing yourself. One of those takes an amazing amount of skill and talent and passion, and one of those things just takes the ability to fucking connect the pieces.
BLAST: What role did music play in your life growing up?
TH: It’s just always been around. My mom plays the piano and the cello. There was always music involved in my house. So, from a pretty young age, I was captivated by it. Whether (my parents) were listening to vinyl all the time, or the fact that my dad had, like, a local band, guys his age that just liked to hang out and play music.
BLAST: What was the first album that you fell in love with?
TH: My dad was a huge Deadhead, way into the Grateful Dead, which in turn made me also way into them. My dad gave me a cassette of this Grateful Dead show. It’s from Red Rocks, Colorado in 1978. Still, to this day, it’s one of my favorite things in the world. So that was the first thing that was, like, mine. And I listened to the shit out of it. I was like, this is awesome. To this day, I can listen to it. I know every note of every solo and whatever. But an actual record would be … I was really young, probably like three or four, and I loved Eric Clapton’s “Just One Night.” It’s a live record he put out, the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. I had a toy record player but it played real records. And I can vividly remember yelling at my mom, saying I wanted the cow record. Because the record label’s logo was a cow. … That was my shit, man. I loved that. That was a great, great, great album, and I listened to it nonstop when I was very, very young.
BLAST: When did you first start playing music?
TH: I started playing drums when I was about 5. My dad was a drummer and just kind of all-around rock musician guy. He played drums and bass and guitar and stuff like that. And he got my older brother playing drums when he was about 6 or so. And then, you know, me being the little guy, whatever my older brother was doing, I wanted to do, obviously. Since I was old enough to basically hold the sticks, I was like, I want to do that, because my brother was doing that. So I started playing drums when I was 6 and I took that pretty seriously until I was, I’d say, 12 or 13. And then I started playing guitar when I was about 10 or 11.
BLAST: What prompted your change in musical styles, from electronic music with Brothers Past to more roots rock with American Babies?
TH: I grew up on the roots stuff. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and obviously The Beatles and all that stuff. Rock and roll in general is like a mentality. … I mean, it’s a reaction to something. When I got into the electronic stuff, it was new and it was exciting and it was a different thing. And I was like, wow, this is great. And then I guess, around 2006, 2007, it became kind of abundantly clear that any dude with a laptop and a synthesizer can make this stuff. It became so over-saturated and easy to do. The innovation was out of it, the excitement. It didn’t seem genuine to me. It didn’t seem honest. It didn’t seem cutting edge. And for me, that was the whole allure, was trying to bring songwriting and electronic music together. It just seemed like it got very just watered down, kind of.
So I went back and focused more on the song. I got very lost in (electronic music with) dressing songs up in production, with bleeps and boops and drum machines and weird things. The main focus should be the song, and it was a reaction to where I was at the time. I was just, like, so engulfed in all this electronic stuff and I was like, you know what? I want to strip it down. I want it to be about the song. You can’t hide behind anything if you’re just recording songs. There’s no production that can make a song great. It’s like, oh no. If the tune’s not there, it’s not there, and that’s kind of it.
BLAST: How did your bandmates in Brothers Past react?
TH: Originally, the idea was for that band to be playing this stuff. We put out an electro pop record and people really liked it and it got great reviews and it was selling really well and we were doing really well for ourselves. And I was like, hey, man, I think it’d be funny if the next record we put out, we make it like “Led Zeppelin III.” … The first half of that record is, like, punishing rock and roll. The second half of the record is all acoustic. And I was like, let’s put out like a “Zeppelin III” type of record next, to kind of show the extremes of what we’re doing. Like, hey, yeah, we do electronic music and stuff like that, but we can also really just craft a song. I wanted to make a record that was like, Side A, the most intense electronic music possible, and Side B, the exact opposite of that, which is just like stripped-down acoustic songs. And the guys didn’t really think that was a great idea and I was basically told, hey, man, you want to play that kind of music, you should start another band. So I did.
BLAST: How did you come up with the band name?
TH: I started writing these tunes, these more acoustic songs, with the idea of it being a part of my other band. And when I started getting into the whole thing, I started writing this song, and it was called “American Babies.” And it took me forever to write this song. I don’t know why, but it fought me pretty hard the whole way through. I had this grandiose idea of what the song was supposed to be. And when I was planning the recording sessions and all this stuff … I wanted to get all my friends around that I knew to come in and play these songs. The idea for the song “American Babies” was, there was a middle section of it that is this big, like, cacophony of sound. And it was basically like the kitchen sink song to me. I just wanted to get everybody that played on any part of the record … which was a pretty large number of people … everybody had to play something in this section of the song. It just kind of clicked for me. I was like halfway through the record and I was like, what do I even call this band? That song, it was symbolic to me of what this project was going to be. And I was like, well, I’ll name it after the song. American Babies. That sounds good.
BLAST: Do you think you’ll ever go back to electronic stuff?
TH: Brothers Past still plays here and there, for sure. We’re mildly active. And I mean, I do enjoy that stuff, the electronic music. When I do it now, I do it less frequently than before, so it’s fun for me. I don’t get wrapped up into the whole scene and stuff and get frustrated. … My passion is songwriting, and the Babies, I feel, are the purest form of my voice that I’ve had in my career. And I’m very excited about it.
American Babies are touring throughout summer 2011. For tour dates, visit americanbabies.net.