American Babies defies easy categorization. The Philadelphia-based band shapeshifts between Americana, psych-tinged indie rock and classic rock—leading them to spots opening for Bruce Hornsby, Greensky Bluegrass, the New Mastersounds and the Felice Brothers, as well as appearances at Gathering Of The Vibes, Electric Forest, Bonnaroo and the Allman Brothers-founded Peach Festival.
With such a chameleonic existence, it's unsurprising that American Babies founder/principal member Tom Hamilton's guiding creative principle is very simple: He doesn't like to repeat himself artistically. For the multi-instrumentalist, this mindset stems from a deep-seated need to always keep pushing himself as a musician—to delve into different lyrical themes and musical detours, and to explore potentially uncomfortable and unfamiliar emotional places.
"After you stop writing songs about standard things, then you're left with who you really are as an artist," he says. "Maybe you have to dig deeper into yourself, and talk about some shit that maybe you don't really feel comfortable talking about—or that you're not even ready to talk about. But that's what you're left with, if you keep challenging yourself.
"For me, that's where I am I my career. I'm trying to find the deeper things inside, and to start scratching those itches and opening up those doors that I didn't even really know were there."
Hamilton certainly dug deep when he and musical collaborator Peter Tramo started writing American Babies' fourth studio album, An Epic Battle Between Light And Dark. The record ended up evolving into an introspective collection that's a "meditation on mood," Hamilton says. "A meditation on dealing with having a hard time. Dealing with that constant struggle of confidence and doubt, that struggle of depression, anxiety and comfort."
The impetus for these themes was the sudden August 2014 death of Robin Williams, whose approach to comedy and acting—specifically, his penchant for improvisation and a dislike of repeating material—resonated strongly with Hamilton. "I consider myself a survivor of depression—I got through my late teens and twenties in spite of it, basically," he says. "When Robin Williams passed away, that was a heavy, heavy thing for myself. Topically, we started to explore dealing with depression and what a common thing it is these days. It was something that really hit home."
Hamilton admits the weightiness of this topic at first gave him pause—"Talking about mental illness and how we've experienced it or have dealt with it in others is a pretty fucking heavy thing. I wondered, 'Is that really a road I want to go down?'"—but once he and Tramo finished the album's first two songs, the War on Drugs-meets-Springsteen surge "Synth Driver," and the synthesizer-stacked, disco-tinged pop tune "Oh Darling," he knew they were on the right track.
"'Synth Driver' and 'Oh Darling' had two very unique grooves to them," Hamilton says. "That was the first marker of success for us. They have these really cool drum feels that affect you viscerally. These songs just opened the floodgates for the rest of the record, basically, and gave us direction as far as where we were going with it, sonically and lyrically."
Indeed, An Epic Battle Between Light And Dark is a dense record predicated on unexpected sonic detours. In addition to its '80s influences, "Oh Darling" boasts eerie, soulful harmonies and a keening guitar solo reminiscent of Pink Floyd; "What Does It Mean To Be" is an exquisite example of Bowie-esque glam-funk; and "Bring It In Close" possesses a languid, jazzy cabaret vibe. The record's arrangements, meanwhile, masterfully stitch together disparate influences: The brisk "Fever Dreams" starts and ends with horn-peppered twang-rock—but boasts a sparse, pedal steel-augmented bridge that's straight-up vintage country—while the instrumental "Not In A Million Years" segues from zoned-out psychedelic rhythms and grooves into a hard-charging coda with firecracker-reminiscent electronic effects.
Despite its diverse sounds, An Epic Battle Between Light And Dark is a remarkably cohesive record. Hamilton attributes this to the fact that most of the record was created in one place, Philadelphia's Lorelei Studios—a space that he and Tramo had spent well over a year updating with new gear and a customized layout—and to the album's underlying swagger. "Most of the tunes on the record, the grooves all feel pretty good, and they're all different. They all share a familiarity of making your body want to move a little bit. For me personally, that's a sign of a record I want to listen to."
Hamilton comes by his love of the groove honestly: For starters, he's been drumming since he was five years old. But since 2013, he's also played in the Grateful Dead tribute band Joe Russo's Almost Dead, while in 2014, he was invited to join Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s new band, Billy & The Kids. For good measure, Hamilton has also played with the Dead's Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart "in various combinations" in recent times, and he was a founding member of beloved jamtronica pioneers Brothers Past.
Being immersed in the Dead universe and songbook in particular had a profound impact on An Epic Battle Between Light And Dark—namely, Hamilton was adamant that the album didn't reflect his extracurricular musical activities. "I didn't want to come out and make a record that sounded like I'd been playing the Grateful Dead's music for the last two years," he says. "If you want to honor somebody that you really look up to or love, or somebody that influenced you, don't imitate them. That's the most insulting thing you could do.
"I don't want to sit there and try to sound like Jerry Garcia, for example—I want to try to forge my own path and to innovate in my own way."
Indeed, Hamilton initially formed American Babies in 2007 as a reaction to prevailing music trends—specifically, the live electronic music boom. He tapped his drummer pal, Joe Russo, to collaborate on American Babies' self-titled 2008 debut, an acoustic-leaning affair indebted to folky singer-songwriters.
In the meantime, Brothers Past had broken up. As a result, he decided to take American Babies more seriously as a creative outlet, releasing two albums, 2011's Flawed Logic and 2013's Knives And Teeth, recorded with an ever-evolving cast of musicians.
"The thing with American Babies I set up from the get-go, is that it would be a rotating cast of people," Hamilton explains. "It's not about who's playing—not even myself. It's about the tunes and the end result, and the record from front to back. I wanted that freedom to be there to change sounds and to evolve, so you don't get stuck where people are like, 'Well, I thought you were this kind of band, so you should play this kind of music or wear these kinds of clothes.'
"The word 'should' is something I've been trying to avoid for the last seven-to-ten years," he adds. "That's a cancer to creativity. I don't want to 'should' do anything."
Hamilton is especially effusive about his current collaborators, which include guitarist/vocalist Justin Mazer, acoustic guitarist/vocalist Raina Mullen and drummer Al Smith. "This current incarnation is wonderful—it's very open-minded people that are always into saying, 'Yes, let's try it,' as opposed to saying no right off the bat," he enthuses. "That's very important to me. I want to be in positive environments creatively, where the mantra is, 'Fuck it, let's try it.'"
By having an ever-changing lineup and adventurous sonic approach, American Babies is a remarkably fluid band which floats comfortably between scenes and genres. That's just how Hamilton likes it.
"Bruce Lee invented his own form of martial arts, called Jeet Kune Do," he says. "The point of it is there's no form to it. There's no set ways of standing; there's no set ways of attacking or defending. It takes the shape of whatever the moment is. And that's what I want the American Babies to be, and that's the way the American Babies are. Wherever the creative itch is at the moment, that's what we are. That's what we do. And that's what we sound like."