Year Two of Ghost Light: An Interview with Tom Hamilton April 16, 2019 13:47
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Photo by Donna Winchester: DonnasPics
In preparation for Ghost Light's upcoming run through the southeast, we recently sat down with guitarist / vocalist Tom Hamilton to learn more about what what we can expect from the band in year two, their recent album release, and much more. With scheduled performances in Nashville (4/16), Asheville (4/17), Charleston (4/18), Atlanta (4/19), and Charlotte (4/20), southern jam fans have plenty of options. The tour continues on April 24th at Zydeco in Birmingham, and you can enter to win a pair of tickets by sharing this interview from the Live & Listen Facebook page. See below for our full conversation with Tom, and make sure you don't miss out on this run!
Let's start off by talking about your personal journey. You've toured the country and been involved with a number of projects. How would you describe the journey thus far?
Tom: Yeah man. It's been a long go, I guess. I started playing at bars when I was twelve, and I just turned forty. That's a good amount of time. It's funny. Starting that early, there was never really an option. There was no "plan B," so to speak. This is just what you do, because you love to play music. Starting in middle school, I was a student with a part time job. On the weekends, I played concerts. It's always been like that. Up until about four years ago, I always had a job as well. It's something I did because I loved to do it.
With my first band, Brothers Past, that was a college experience. I lived with a bunch of dudes. It was like living in a frat house. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing...with any of it. That was a van full of 21 to 24 year old kids with no internet or iPhone. We had an atlas and a van. It was just like, "Ok...I guess we're gonna drive to fuckin' Cleveland today!" That kind of fell apart unfortunately, or I guess fortunately, because I'm ok with where I am now. I love being in a band. I've always enjoyed that comradery and the hang in general. It's something I've always been super into.
Clearly. Things have obviously come a long way since then. Joe Russo's Almost Dead has really taken off. I'm sure that's been a bit of a game changer for you personally. How much have things changed since then?
Tom: Hmm...I don't think things have changed personally. You're talking to me right now. I'm in Columbus, Ohio at a 300 person venue that I've played a bunch of times over the course of my life. I've been on the road for four weeks. I'm in a van with five other people. This could be April 11th 2019. This could also be April 11th 2001. There's not that much of a fucking difference.
The JRAD thing has been amazing. You're right. It's provided so many opportunities and has made it more feasible, or maybe more comfortable, to do what I'm doing right now. I'm still doing the same shit though. I still have the same goals. I started Ghost Light last year, and fortunately, my experience over the years and the entire organization has allowed us to grow a lot in our first year of existence. It hasn't changed my goals, which are to be in a band with a group of people that is based around original music.
That's what I like to do. I like to make interesting records. I feel like I've stuck to my guns, you know? When I was a kid, in my mid-twenties, someone asked me to take a gig with this band that just wasn't my cup of tea. It wouldn't have been something that I believed in and enjoyed. I would have just done it for the money. I turned it down, and at the time, I was fucking poor. I had been living on Joe Russo's couch for the better part of four years. I had changed my residence to a couch in The Disco Biscuits' studio in Philadelphia. I was sleeping on that couch or in my car, so it's not like I was in a position to be picky about gigs. I didn't want to just do something for the money. My buddy thought I was crazy. I told him the only gig I'd ever consider doing that wasn't my music was something related to the Grateful Dead. That's how I started listening to and playing music.
So when the JRAD thing came together, I was all about it. I love the Grateful Dead. That music is a part of my DNA and a part of my existence. I've been lucky that I've been able to get to this point. I'm not fucking Bono or anything. I'm just a working musician, but I'm able to make a living doing it. I can look in the mirror everyday because I got here doing what I wanted to do. I didn't have to take a bunch of bullshit gigs that I didn't believe in, and there's a small sense of satisfaction with that.
Photo by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography
I can imagine so. So more specifically, Ghost Light is entering year two now. You guys have covered a lot of ground thus far. Packing out venues from day one. How has this experience been for you thus far, and what stands out the most when looking back on year one?
Tom: Oh man. It's been really interesting. The response has been crazy...and heartwarming. It's really nice that people are taking a chance on coming out and seeing this band. I feel like most of the reaction has been very positive. Those people seem to enjoy it and are likely to come back again. That's a nice feeling, because there's a lot of stock in the tribute thing right now. It's nice to know that people are still open minded enough to come check out a new original band that isn't playing Grateful Dead or Phish tunes.
That's gotta be encouraging, especially considering that this is a brand new band performing new original material. A lot of people are coming out and giving you guys a chance without having a whole lot of familiarity with the band's catalog.
Tom: Absolutely. I'm really proud of our management team. They've done an amazing job getting our live material out there into the ether and consciousness of the listener. Whether it's through live recording on Archive.org or video clips, it's been great to see the positive reaction. People are willing to pay their hard earned money to see us play. There's only so many people and only so much money people have to spend. When someone chooses to spend that time and money on us, it's a pretty special feeling.
It's been about three weeks since the release of the band's debut album, Best Kept Secrets. The band ultimately decided to release two singles prior to the full album release. What do you feel are some of the positives and negatives of releasing a new album in the modern digital era?
Tom: Honestly, I think it's all positives. You're putting out an album. You create a piece of art, that is ideally something that really matters. It's part of being a creative person. I've never taken that lightly. I love albums, but I do realize that, in some ways, it is the less desired form of consumption. That doesn't mean you stop cutting albums though. There are plenty of people that still appreciate it. So yeah, I think it's all positives man. I look at as a piece of art, a statement, and piece of yourself. It's a very important landmark in your life. I look back on my life and career thus far, and the albums reflect my experiences. They're great chapters. It's a really exciting thing for me.
Absolutely. I'm sitting here looking at Spotify right now. The first single you released was "Best Kept Secrets," and it's already sitting with 72,000+ streams. The various streaming networks certainly give you the ability to reach a wide audience quickly, which is valuable.
Tom: Yeah...it's all good man. Even if people don't like it, I'm cool with it. As long as it's out there.
You mentioned that you're a few weeks in to a three month tour across the country. What habits and patterns have you developed over the years to keep a sound mind and body while living on the road?
Tom: Oh man. That's a great question. I try not to take anything too personally. We're out here, and we have a mission. We're out here to make this music and present ourselves to the masses. Personally, I just try to keep my eye on the ball. Obviously, the hang is important. Having fun is important. At the end of the day, I try to keep my head on straight. Be conscious of what the goal is. There are days off, and someone might want to go for a hike. Maybe it's best for me (and best for the show) if I just chill and recharge the batteries. Maybe going for a hike is the best thing another day. Being self aware and always trying to do what's best for the three hours you have to put everything out on stage, you know?
That makes sense. I know that you take a lot of pride in keeping things fresh and putting on a unique show every night. How does each set play out with preparation vs. improvisation?
Tom: It's one of my favorite parts of the process. We don't ever have a setlist. We have a song list, maybe eight songs, that we know we want to play. We just go out there, play, and figure it out as the show unfolds. As we're walking on stage, we'll decide on a starting point. That's about the extent of the planning. Whatever happens happens. We try to have strong communication on stage, and if someone brings the band to a certain song, then that's where we go. We get there, play that tune, and keep moving.
Photo by Donna Winchester: DonnasPics
What is the band's approach towards covers? Is there much focus on keeping a fresh rotation?
Tom: Here and there. Personally, I don't care that much about it. I get my fill playing covers with JRAD. With Ghost Light, we try to throw in some covers to keep things fresh. I try not to give too much credence to that shit. A lot of the blogs out there focus on when a band plays a certain cover. Why not give more coverage to their original music, you know? (laughs). Personally, I try not to put too much weight into the cover thing. We have some cool ones on the list that are certainly outside the box. We do an 80's Kinks song and a Shins tune. Those aren't covers that a lot of people in our scene are going to expect.
I like that approach. It's always refreshing to hear a cover that hasn't been done a million times.
Tom: Yeah man. We like to try some different things and throw in a few deep cuts.
Before we wrap things up, I was curious to know how you're balancing things out between JRAD and Ghost Light. How do you see the calendar playing out for the rest of 2019?
Tom: Honestly, balance isn't really a luxury that I have. JRAD does 40 shows a year, and that's that. Ghost Light is probably going to do 80 to 100. That's what you have to do to grow a band and build something new.
That's almost half the year already.
Tom: Yeah...it's a lot of fucking time (laughs). To quote The Godfather Pt. 2, "this is the business we have chosen." I don't know man. I've just always tried to work as hard as I can. Put your head down, dig in, and do the job. Good things will happen. They might not happen right when you want them to. I would have rather had this kind of success when I was in my twenties, and not have to wait 'til my late thirties, but it still came. I believe it's because I work very hard. I think that's a truth that anyone would try to deny. It is what it is.
Balance is something I'll worry about in a few years. Maybe when I get to fifty, I'll try to find some balance. At the moment, I love the JRAD thing so much. I love the hang. I love that music. With Ghost Light, we're building something here that people are reacting to. I'm responsible for my bandmates as much as they're responsible for me. I need to work as hard as I can to make sure that their careers are as successful as mine, if not better. There's a lot that needs to happen, but balance isn't really a part of it for me.
There's a time and place for everything. It's been a pleasure catching up with you. I really enjoyed interviewing the entire band back in December, but I wanted to make sure we covered some different topics today.