Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling are two of the most active musicians in the jam band scene. Whether it’s Bowling performing her complex solo piano meditations and reinterpreting Grateful Dead classics with Phil Lesh, or Hamilton balancing his pensive singer-songwriter roots with his rampant guitar work with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Billy & The Kids, they’ve both embraced the spirit of transient musicians – bouncing between projects and styles with ease.
Of course, there’s also Ghost Light, their indie-leaning supergroup featuring Dan Africano, Raina Mullen and Scotty Zwang. But unbeknownst to both musicians, a September 2020 impromptu jam session at Hamilton’s Philadelphia studio would soon add another line to their sterlingsilver resumes.
“I don’t think we went in with the intention of doing anything ‘outside of Ghost Light’ or ‘in addition to Ghost Light’ or anything,” Bowling says of gap, the 46-minute impromptu release that came out in November. “We hadn’t played together in ages. I hadn’t played with anyone for ages because of COVID, and I just really wanted to play. It couldn’t be more than that. It was like, ‘Let’s play music.’ When we listened back and felt like there was something, it just became a thing.”
“When we did this things were still pretty precarious,” added Hamilton. “This was a pre-vaccination. We weren’t trying to get a bunch of people together.”
The timing was indeed special. Bowling had just driven across the country with her husband, photographer Jeffery Bowling, in a tricked-out van and shot impromptu sets in some of America’s most picturesque national parks. In addition, Bowling had another passenger on the ride: she was pregnant with her first child.
“We worked really hard to get there,” Bowling says of their coast-to-coast pilgrimage, “riding all the time and staying out of civilization. So the chance to play with Tom again, for a short period of time, was quite special.”
Losing herself in rural America, she felt a “huge sense of isolation” prior to the Lacuna session. It seemed that a cathartic musical experience was just what the doctor ordered. In Philadelphia, Hamilton also longed for collaboration. As the pandemic continued, his performances with both Ghost Light and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead continued to dry up. his brandnew studio sat empty and the implosion of a “pretty bad relationship thing” left him feeling as blue as ever.
“I was already kind of miserable and alone, and then COVID hit and it was like, ‘Oh, okay, now I’m really going to lock the doors, pull the blinds and squat down with my cat,’” explains Hamilton. “Luckily I had the studio and was able to go there for a bit, just as a way of not being in my house. It was a weird, lonely time. I just went to the studio all the time and was either still there building stuff for or I just liked working on bullshit on my own But man that gets old after a while It sure was a welcome distraction to walk the improv chops for a bit [with Holly].”
And just like that, the gap session came and went. Both artists were happy to have a friend to perform with during one of the most uncertain times of their lives. Hamilton was also delighted to finally put his studio – known affectionately as The Ballroom – to good use.
“gap was the first thing recorded in that room, not just me doing some fucking demo,’ he muses. “It was the first real session held there.”
“It had to be one of the fastest recording sessions for a record of all time,” Bowling says with a chuckle. “Because we just came in, played for an hour, walked out and that was it.”
When Hamilton and Bowling concluded their Philadelphia summit, neither musician considered actually releasing the resulting music. But by February 2021, they realized the recording had a certain spark to it and quickly decided to segment the 46-minute session into actual songs. There were easy bends to cut the tape. But for Hamilton, finding names for the tracks was his own challenge. With no lyrics to pull off and no desire to hold up the project any further, he suddenly thought of friend/bandmate Joe Russo – who has previously imbued his own instrumental tunes with complicated, but totally arbitrary names – and gave Lacuna’s eight songs titles. such as ‘Smile Pretty for the Camera’, ‘Pavement Grass’ and ‘Exit This Way Please’.
“I honestly don’t even remember the names of the songs [on Lacuna]”, laughed Hamilton months later. “It was liberating. I thought it was an interesting exercise. I’m a self-righteous bastard when it comes to songs, and I broke Joe’s balls over it. And then I was in a situation where I thought, ‘Okay, well, here we go, so join us.’”
The album is also billed as Bowling and Hamilton’s “return to their classic roots,” and both players have spent considerable time reflecting on why that cerebral genre has found a unique home in the jam band community.
As Hamilton surmises, “The word jamband didn’t come into play until Phish entered the arena. And early Phish is as classically influenced as it gets in this scene. Those early compositions, such as ‘Fluffhead’ and ‘The Divided Sky’, are heavily influenced by classical music. It wasn’t just blues and jazz.”
Bowling, who first started playing classical piano at age 5, notes that “classical music” is often a misnomer and more of an “umbrella term” than people realize. Sure there’s Beethoven and Schubert, but there’s also newer, more conceptual approaches to the genre “where people are really attuned to every note, every space between every note, how each note is played and the 17 different tones you could pull off.” from your instrument for the same note.”
gap seems to achieve that in spades, especially considering that Bowling is always looking for new, interesting ways to play her instrument. She remembers – early in the pandemic, during some solo musical experiments – she started tinkering with her piano’s percussive skills. The Lacuna session was the first time she was able to document this new sonic palette and she is quite pleased with the results. “I fell in love with the percussive stuff you could get by drumming on the piano’s frame,” she says. “Then I’d send that through some effects pedals with delays and loops.”
Bowling has always been a tinkerer. If you’ve enjoyed her live performances, you’ve probably seen her play her piano, strum the strings, or detune the output with some sort of wrench or other anonymous tool.
“I’ll find myself sitting in my house at 2 a.m., pulling random shit out of the drawers in my kitchen, and thinking, ‘What does it sound like if I stick it between the strings of my piano?’” she says. with a smile. “‘What else can I put in this without breaking the thing?'”
“What are we doing gap is really fucking going in there, man — putting on those glasses with a magnifying glass on them and seeing every shot and then improvising with that,” Hamilton says. “Taking that whole thing and just being like, ‘Okay, well, what happens if we just trying to make up some shit on this microscopic level of nuance?’ It’s damn cool.”
A strange percussive element penetrates gapsecond track, “This Elevator Goes Up”, as courageous sounds dance through “The Swimmer”. (Besides the music, Bowling had another historic experience while visiting Hamilton in Philadelphia: “That session was one of the first times I ever felt my kid kick in response to music, which was a pretty cool moment.”)
And although there are currently a few gap promo shows on their schedule, Bowling and Hamilton have no intention of innovating any musical field – staying true to the album’s improv ethos.
“Nothing changes — it’s the same when one of us starts playing and the other person reacts, and then we play that game of tennis until we get tired,” Hamilton says of the shows. “And then we can give the fuck a high-five and go home.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Ghost Light is also working on a new LP and the players casually checked in to Hamilton’s space.
“[Ghost Light] haven’t played together as a band for a very long time,” Bowling says. “So it was a mix of writing songs, getting the bands together for the record and just being a band again — playing together, remembering how that all fits together.”
As of this interview, Hamilton notes that the members of Ghost Light have been editing material in the studio for three weeks, building a “heavier”, “dark” record, full ofstudio creative collaboration.
“We’ve all been gone for a year and a half. And I think there’s an interesting energy there – a little bit of pent-up energy,” he adds. “There’s a lot more gratitude involved. We can’t believe we can actually do this – perspective is an asshole. I don’t like it of saying things like that without presuming that a lot of people have struggled a lot with everything that has happened. But there were some positives that came from COVID and from the pandemic and the shutdown. And perspective is one of them. For me personally, it’s really nice to slow things down – and really take stock and appreciate what we’ve got and what we can do and who we can do it with.”