American Babies refuses to be typecast. Described by the group’s founder, Tom Hamilton, as a progressive Americana band, American Babies has a consistent desire to remain fresh. Whether recording in the studio or performing on stage, Hamilton ensures that the creative process is not forced, allowing the group to settle around sounds that feel right.
Hamilton went through a “dating period” in his career, during which different musicians rotated through the band, but he feels he has found the right group composition now, one that includes himself, guitarists and vocalists Justin Mazer and Raina Mullen, drummer Alex Smith, and bassist and vocalist Mark Sosnoskie. While currently on tour, American Babies hopes not only to produce a dynamic performance, but also to remain focused on each song to find fresh ways of interpreting its meaning and message for people every night.
We talked with Hamilton before the group’s Labor Day weekend performance in Denver, at Mile High Spirits Distillery and Tasting Bar, to hear how American Babies stays fresh and learn more about the band's organic approach to finding its sound, and the creative process surrounding its latest album, Epic Battle Between Light and Dark.
Westword: Your fourth, most recent album is described as a “meditation on mood,” and Robin Williams's death played a part in the creative aspect. Can you tell us more about this?
Tom Hamilton: The "meditation on mood" is a remark regarding how the song forms are longer than average. When we were making this record, we consciously decided to stop trying to cram whatever our inspiration was into three or three and a half minutes, and in making that decision, it felt like a huge weight was lifted.
A song like the album-opening "Synth Driver," for example, was arranged as a meditation. The way that the instruments circle around themselves and slowly come into the groove, that needed to happen so that when the lyrics finally come in 1:20 into the song, it felt right. A soft landing, if you will. I found it to be inviting and a great way to start the album.
As far as Mr. WIlliams's death is concerned, it was tough to swallow. I admired him so very much. His work had been present in my life as far back as I can remember, and for someone who gave us all so much of himself to have left us the way he did was jarring. It forced my hand in looking at aspects of the human condition that we don't talk about at parties. It forced me to look at events that I have endured in life that I would have preferred to keep locked away in the recesses of my mind. Life is hard, messy, and — if you're lucky — long, and I felt that the songs should reflect those truths.
Since you’ve allowed your songs to develop organically, could you describe your process when writing?
The end goal never changes — to put something out that feels right. At the moment of recording this album, we went a certain way about it, but that doesn't mean that the same process will yield similar results now or that we will use said process ever again.
The only factor in album-making that I have used for every record is that I try to stay fresh, avoid clichés, both musically and lyrically, and try not to tread on ground that I have personally used before. That is what keeps things exciting for me. If, at the end of the process, there are elements where one could say, "Hey, that bit kind of reminds me of this or that," or other vague comparisons, I guess I have to deal with that. But to go into something with the goal of recreation bores me.
What do you find are benefits and/or challenges to such a creatively open-minded approach?
Well, with the band, that open-mindedness applies to the live shows; in the studio I keep it a low-attended affair. Too many cooks has never yielded good results for me. I work with a writing partner for a good amount of time before I call anyone else in to help.
But in the live setting, that's where the band as a unit shines. And that freedom serves us quite well. When that freedom is consistently used, it allows us to create unique experiences for us and the audience on any given night, and that's the goal. I find that the ability to improvise is an invaluable trait to learn — not just in music, but in life.
What was a standout moment while developing this album, creating those "meditations on mood" that are unlike what you've done before?
I would reference the track "Synth Driver" again. My partner, Peter Tramo, and I were at our studio doing our usual fucking around with gear and making noise when I heard him play what turned into the opening chords of "Synth Driver." I leapt up, pressed the "record" button and ran behind the drum kit and started playing. It felt hypnotic. I played that groove under Peter's two chords for close to an hour straight, neither one of us looking at the other or speaking a word. When I listened back, I knew we had something special.
American Babies, with Aron Magner and Tom Haliton: Acoustic Again…Again and Boogie Mammoth, September 2, 1 p.m., Mile High Spirits, 303-296-2226, $15-20, 18+.