Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton
Music from another dimension Friday at the Frank Erwin Center
By Raoul Hernandez, 9:07AM, Thu. Nov. 15, 2012
Joe Perry I'd interviewed before and Steven Tyler seemed like a longshot, so Tom Hamilton became the next logical choice for an Aerosmith chat tied to the band's show Friday at the Frank Erwin Center. Days before the election, politics made for an obvious topic, as did songwriting given the bassist's name on both “Sweet Emotion” and “Janie's Got a Gun.”
Austin Chronicle: How do you feel about this election season?
Tom Hamilton: It’s a very dramatic thing. It’s really about some pretty fundamental differences, about how to deal with what’s going on with the economy and society in general. It’s tough. I think I’m going to remain one of the undecided until very shortly before I vote. I will vote, but my mind’s isn’t made up.
AC: John Lydon just spoke to the Chronicle about all heavy metallers being “Republic pigs.” Is that true? Is the hard rock/heavy metal community primarily a conservative one?
TH: I wouldn’t know about the metal people, although the vibe I get is, yes, very right wing, a lot of people. But as far as my kind of band, I’m not even sure how to define my band. Hard rock is what I’ve said all my life. As a matter of fact, I’ve always hated it when we were lumped in with metal, not that I don’t love that kind of music. It’s just not what we are.
So, I don’t know if you can say what the general political slant is of people in loud, crunchy, rock bands. Very interesting question. I wouldn’t know how to answer it, I guess.
AC: Have any politicians licensed an Aerosmith song for a campaign?
TH: We were asked by the Kerry campaign, and it was very close to happening. They wanted to use “Walk This Way.” And I remember thinking, “Why on earth would they want to use a song about having sex with teenage girls”? [Laughs] So, that didn’t really stay on track. Hopefully some brainiac in the organization realized what the song was about.
AC: Funny that the Thin Lizzy estate didn't want Romney using “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
TH: Oh, I commend his taste. I have to say.
AC: Great song.
TH: It’s an unbelievable song.
AC: You share that with Phil Lynott: both bass players, both songwriters. Who are your favorite songwriters?
TH: All my life I’ve been oriented more towards the song aspect of the music I like rather than the bass playing aspect of it, but without really being conscious of thinking about songwriters. Really, I spent most of my life not caring anything about lyrics in general. I just wanted to play loud guitar music, and I thought, “Whatever the lyrics, they’re fine.” You know? It’s just been relatively recent, the last 10 years or so, that I’ve started to really pay attention to that.
So as far as my young life, obviously there’s the Beatles and the Stones. Pete Townshend is one of my favorite songwriters period, from both the lyrical side and the musical side of it. Another one is Tom Petty. It blows my mind how many great, simple, basic, awesome songs he’s written.
AC: I thought your co-writes on the new album, Music From Another Dimension!, were among the best songs on there.
TH: [Laughs] That’s an amazing compliment, thank you. I’m shocked.
AC: On “Love Alot,” the guitars and bass find a real alchemy there in the riffs. What’s it like playing with the same guitarists for as long as you have?
TH: “Lover Alot” is one of those team-gang-written songs. In fact, I think a couple of our crew people participated on that one if I’m not having a ridiculous mental block. That’s a song where there was a basic riff, and we went into a little room with little amps and played that riff over and over and over again until we nailed it and it started throwing out ideas for more parts to go with it. So that’s an example of a song that everyone pretty much threw down on.
AC: You and Joey Kramer have been a rhythm section for 40 years. What’s that language like? Must be automatic.
TH: A lot of it is definitely automatic. I have certain aspects to Joey’s playing that I focus on – generally his right hand. And a lot of times when the band is getting ready to do a tour or start doing something in the studio, he and I will go and rehearse, just the two of us. We’ll just start playing. He’ll start playing a beat and I’ll start playing along to it, and we just keep going on it and going on it and letting it drift here and there.
Another thing we like to do is put on some kind of rhythmic loop in our headphones and let that guide us. See what kind of ideas it throws off. A lot of the rehearsing we do is generally with headphones if it’s loud. We have a studio a little ways outside of Boston, so we always have it set up where we can put our headphones on and play that way – hear each other that way – instead of trying to do it with a stack of Marshalls.
One thing [the band] did a lot on this record was go into a small conference room, about 15 by 15 feet, with little amps so that we could be cooking along and yelling out ideas to each other.
But yeah, Joey and I are definitely attached at the skull, especially live. There’s so much that we do that I don’t even realize we’re doing it anymore in terms of cuing each other and signaling and suggesting and reacting. So yeah, I haven’t done a helluva lot of playing outside of this band. I would probably be shocked if I played with some other drummers.
AC: That’s quite a remarkable accomplishment in that the same five guys on the first album in 1973 are on the new album in 2012.
TH: [Laughs] Either really good or really boring!
AC: Seriously, “Tell Me” from the new album, that’s one of Aerosmith’s better ballads.
TH: That’s the first time I’ve written an Aerosmith song lyrics and all – just demoing it in my studio with my crude version of what we call singing while imagining Steven singing it. So to have that finally happen on this record was a huge rush. I listen to it and I hear the stuff he did on it and it makes me feel great. It’s something I’ve had as a goal for a long time.
AC: There’s been a lot of Aerosmith ballads just in the last couple decades, but this one stands apart. It’s a heartfelt lyric that Steven’s singing the shit out of.
TH: Like I said, I’ve had this as a goal for a long time, and I’m only now at the point of seeing the overall reactions to these songs. It’s really a moment for me. I’ve been looking for this a long time and I don’t think I’ll forget it.
The summer before this past summer is when we recorded a lot of the basic tracks and “Tell Me” was one of the basics we did, but it wasn’t until this past spring where we got to the point that it was time for Steven to put a vocal on it.
So he and I went down to the studio and out into the big room where we went line by line, and verse by verse – just bouncing ideas off each other. He laid it down and took that home to think about for a few more weeks. Then he went in and did his full vocal. Great experience.
AC: You’re one of the writers on “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Did that song pay for a house or college tuition for one of your kids? Gimme a ballpark figure.
TH: [Laughs] That song didn’t really pay off that much in terms of publishing, because my participation on that was not a 50-50 thing with Steven. What happened was that I came in with a song that I’d written that was just an instrumental arrangement. It didn’t have any vocals on it or anything.
I brought that in when we were starting the Pump album and didn’t really get any reaction to it, but in the course of putting all the songs together, Steven listened to the intro of the demo that I had made and started playing it on piano. That planted something in his head in terms of rhythm and the chord changes I guess, and then he went on and wrote that amazing song.
So my name’s on there, but my financial participation was relatively small.
AC: So which song sold well and still pays off?
TH: Well, “Sweet Emotion” does some nice business every five or six years. It’s been used for ad campaigns and in movies.
AC: Listening to your new album reminds me of something Keith Richards once said. That once you’re 40 years into it, all new band songs are cousins of others. In going through the new album, “Can’t Stop Loving You” has a reference to “Mama Kin.” “Legendary Child” has parts that sound like “Walk This Way.” “Sweet Jesus” – a little bit of “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Is it hard to find new sounds four decades in and are you yourself surprised when you hear bits that evoke Get Your Wings?
TH: That does happen sometimes. This is kind of a fun little quiz, but if you listen to this album, there's a part used on one song that’s also used on another song on the album. So there are things that do repeat. That happened just within the course of this record, but I think as far as how everyone’s taste is dialed in and judgment and responses and reflexes, it’s pretty well burned in. Although at a certain point in our career when we put the band back together in the Eighties, we decided that in order to really maximize our chances for survival and really get the creative process flowing again, that we would work with people outside the band.
As far as the songwriting goes, you had the huge influence of people who were not in the band, whereas the Stones, when Keith said that, he was thinking from the point of view of a period when all their songs came from within the band. So we've been exposed to different ways of doing things as we’ve gone along, but it’s always been with the goal and intention of Aerosmith-izing anything. Even though we’ve collaborated with people outside the band, we never used anything that wasn’t right down our home street.
AC: Great to hear you talking about the “band” and its inner workings.
TH: Again, it’s one of those things where it’s the way it’s always been for me, so there’s a lot of stuff I don’t notice. Nowadays, we record everything. We videotape almost everything we do. So we’ll be able to look at this stuff some day, all these miles and miles of material, and see our process and how it goes. There’s a lot of it that we’re not really that aware of.
AC: In revisiting 1991’s Pandora’s Box set, I was reminded about what a tight cull that was even though it’s way past due for an update.
TH: Oh my god, yes. There's so much. And a lot of it is pretty well developed too. We have songs that we love that we’ve still never put on records, and then we have new stuff that everybody’s been doing and demoing.
I can go up into my little studio with some pretty simple recording gear and make reasonable sounding demos of the songs I’ve written. That’s how I was able to bring it to the band on this album in a way where people could say, “Oh shit, I see what you’re getting at here.” As opposed to coming in with just a riff and getting one of my songs going that way. It’s pretty amazing. As long as you have your computer or something to record on, you can express yourself really well.
And composing and writing, as far as new artists, is gonna be more important than ever. That every musician be able to compose and write because frankly the supply of excellent musicians is growing exponentially, and you're seeing teenagers that have the skills we never had until we were in our 30s. I keep seeing this.
It’s really amazing, but I worry about all these kids competing with each other and I wonder how the public is going to be able to have enough attention for every musician to be heard. It’s really important to write and it’s really important to play live, because that’s when you make people notice you.
AC: Someone who’s been at the top of the band food chain as long as you have must have a highly developed sense of the absurd.
TH: Oh man. Well, obviously Aerosmith’s had some absurdities that have been destructive over the course of our lives, but there’s a lot of absurdity that’s just completely inspiring. That happens a lot when we’re onstage, especially watching the audience. The audience thinks we’re the only ones being watched, but we’re watching back and you see such funny stuff out there.
It’s unbelievable. You see people doing amazing things. I love that aspect of it. Coming from the hippie era and thinking about how weirdness was so embraced during that time period, I always enjoyed that and still kind of look at things that way.