INTERVIEW: Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton

For a while there it looked like Aerosmith were done. Steven Tyler had fallen off the wagon (and subsequently the stage), and at some point he was in consideration for a proposed Led Zeppelin tour in the absence of an unenthusiastic Robert Plant. Along the way bass player Tom Hamilton was diagnosed with throat and tongue cancer (he recovered but the cancer returned last year, and after treatment he’s recovering well). And of course Tyler went off and took a job as a judge on American Idol too. When the band finally reconvened and hit the studio, the question was “Which Aerosmith will be making an album? The 70s bluesy rockers? The 80s/90s hard rock superstars? The FM smash balladeers?” It turns out the answer was “All of them.” Music From Another Dimension! manages to have something to appeal to fans of all three of the band’s main eras, and with 15 tracks on the standard edition it’s pretty much a case of “If you don’t like the ballads, there’s plenty of the other stuff.” Whether intentional or not, Aerosmith seems to have found a way to please everyone.

Hi Tom!

Hi! Have you had a chance to listen to the record?

Yeah! I like that there’s three Aerosmiths here – the 70s feel, the 80s/90s stuff and the ballads. Something for everyone who likes something about Aerosmith.

Yeah, I noticed that’s how it came out. Every era of our career is represented. I don’t think it was a conscious decision. We’ve learned that it’s so much about songs, and we’ve dipped into different styles throughout our career. What always comes back is it’s all about songs. We want to have really kickin’ drums and blasting guitars, and Steven singing amazing vocals. And I’m a musician so sometimes I’ll listen to music just for the bass player, but not that often. I really believe that the song is the thing.

I like the old sci-fi-style introduction. It sets you up for the album as an experience instead of a collection of songs. 

Right. That’s a reflection of our past, and that concept of an album being a one-piece experience. You know as well as I do that it’s disappointing that people want to buy songs one at a time, because you worked on it as a grouping, so hopefully people some day will treasure that experience of listening to an album from front to back.

You have three songwriting credits on the album, and more on the bonus material. Tell me about the song “Tell Me.”

Yeah, I came up with the basic chords and arrangement on acoustic guitar, and for the longest time I would play that. I’ve never written a vocal for an Aerosmith album, so I just coaxed myself to try it, and eventually it became more of a natural thing. When I picked up the guitar, instead of just playing chords I started to hum notes that were part of the chords. And over the years I started to accumulate a lot of song ideas, and started to realise that a lot of them would probably not be used by the band, even though some of them would, and I’d have to learn how to finish a song completely. Because in the past my songwriting contribution was obviously about the instrumental tracks. So I kept working on the lyrics and I learned that lyrics can sometimes be discouraging, because you can’t just write something that sounds poetic, and just because something is poetic doesn’t mean it’s going to work well when somebody’s singing it. Lyrics are musical sound, so it’s an extra challenge to take a line that you think is very clever in terms of imagery and put it to that test of whether someone can actually sing it or not. So over time I was able to do that with “Tell Me.” And it was an amazing experience to have a singer like Steven singing a song I wrote, because I’ve never written vocals before. It’s been a cool experience and I’m excited that people are noticing.

And you even have a vocal song as a bonus track.

I do! Again it was one of those things that I didn’t think would ever happen, but I wished it would, so maybe that’s what made it happen. It’s a song that I wrote and was able to do very simple, basic vocal. My intention was that Steven would come in and sing the beautiful background vocals that would give him the quality of his voice. It felt so great that day when I heard the stuff that he put on it. I think that made it possible for it to be on the record.

One of my favourite moments on the album is the false start on “Lover Alot.” It really reinforces that this is a real band.

I love that stuff too! That goes back to [producer] Jack Douglas because he really loves that kind of stuff. There used to be a TV show in America called The Outer Limits that was supposed to be these scary, spooky stories. We wanted to do that on the album but we couldn’t get clearance so Jack went in and did it himself [as the album intro].

What was it like working with him again? Had his working methods changed? 

No. It was really the same relationship, with the exception that we all are a little wiser and have a lot more experience. But really, he’s a great coach and he’s got a great sense of humour and he’s got the willingness to make sure everybody gets their ideas heard. And that’s why it was so great working with him. We also worked with Marti Frederiksen, who has been producing for us before on various projects. He needs to be mentioned as well, but Jack was the overlord, and it’s unbelievable the amount of time and energy that he put into this thing.

Another one I really like is ‘Closer.’ There’s something about the atmosphere of that: dark and bluesy, but not 12-bar blues. More like what David Coverdale and Jimmy Page did together on ‘Whisper A Prayer For The Dying.’ 

It’s a ballady kind of song but it’s a rocker, y’know? It’s a rock ballad. And if you listen to it, other producers might have made it a lot more commercial-sounding. And that’s what I like about the way it came out: it sounds like a rock band playing it. And I think it’s going to sound great live.

What basses did you use on the album? 

I used a Fender relic Jazz Bass for a lot of it. When we were finishing the tour before the record, Steven and I were walking around Vancouver and we went to a music store. We had another friend with us that plays bass, and we were looking at this beautiful, beat-up but brand new Fender Jazz bass. We were both playing it and I liked it but I looked at the price tag and walked away from it. I went upstairs and started looking at some of the computer equipment and electronic stuff, and when I went back down, Steven was at the front counter paying for it. He bought the damn thing for me, and sure enough, we tried it out on the record and it just sounded amazing. About two thirds of the record is that bass, and the rest is G&L ASATs, which I’ve always loved. One day their artist rep came into the studio and dropped one off. It has this unbelievable gold metal flake finish on it.

I’ve seen you pictured with a Parker bass quite a lot, which is sort of an unusual choice. Some players are kind of scared to play Parkers for some reason. 

Yeah. I don’t understand that. I did use them for a long time. Maybe they don’t have a unique-enough personality to their actual sound, but the way they play is unbelievable. No matter what, you pick the damn thing up and it’s always perfectly in, the action stays the same and they really did play beautifully. But maybe there has been some resistance because they don’t have a unique-enough sound for some people.

What pickups do you use?

Pickups? I use whatever’s in it. I’m not a real techie when it comes to modifying basses. I just keep trying guitars and when I love one I play it. I have to switch around sometimes because a lot of times, whatever is the newest guitar I play, I like it, maybe because it’s different. And then it takes a while before I can sort out which ones are the ones that are going to record with us. But there are a lot of factors which go into which ones I record with and which ones I play live with.

Do you record with amps or do you go direct? 

I let Jack do that whole thing, and he likes to record with a B-15, which is what we used for Toys In The Attic and Rocks. Over the years that’s what he’s become accustomed to. I like my Gallien Kruger amps and I have an Eden bass amp that I really like a lot. A lot of it was amp, but I’d say most of the bass on the record is probably DI through a lot of vintage outboard gear. We had tonnes of ancient Pultecs and 1176s, y’know. All this stuff that’s now vintage that was brand-new high-tech when we first used it! I read a quote recently: “No older equipment is good because it was more accurate.” Rock music didn’t come about from accuracy. The colouration of that equipment is what rock music is based on. That’s why people keep going back to it, and not because the older equipment is the most accurate, but because it does have that colouration that makes it sound so nice. But I have to say, I really think that a lot of the plugins that people are doing are really, really great stuff. I don’t think it’s going to be that long before people bother searching out expensive vintage gear any more.

Do you use pedals? 

I’m always switching around between various distortion pedals. There’s a Tech 21 bass effect pedal with four preset buttons on it. Their stuff is pretty good, but I think in the future I’m going to just get a Marshall, because I think a lot of the music I loved when I was growing up, you had these English bass players that were using Marshalls, even though they’re not technically bass amps, and they probably used them because they could get them nice and loud! Being a bass player was very frustrating back then, being drowned out by the guitar amps all the time, so Ronnie Wood and some of these other people just said ‘Fuck it! I’m going to use a Marshall stack!’ And I saw Cream live once and Jack Bruce was using Marshalls. They weren’t Majors or Marshall bass amps, they were just Marshall stacks! So I’m just gonna get me a Marshall and turn the damn thing up and use that.

A Marshall? Get a wall of them!

Yeah! Right!

Have you ever thought of getting a signature bass? 

I am! With G&L! I actually went down to the company, which occupies the same buildings as way way in the past, and I was allowed to go and hang around in Leo Fender’s lab, where he used to come up with his stuff. He has all these bizarre mock-ups of basses that are just planks of wood with strings on them, and it’s all chaotic and sloppy and everything’s all over the place. It was awesome to just sit in his chair, because I’m always worried about what a disorganised person I am, and here I was in his office and it was just chaotic. I was like, “Okay… I guess it’s okay!”

Music From Another Dimension! is out now. Follow Tom Hamilton on Twitter here.