Interview with Dave hamilton of 56 Hope Road

Known for their clever songwriting, lush vocal harmonies and one of the tightest rhythem sections on the scene, 56 Hope Road travels around the country in a 1988 Fleetwood RV, sharing their message of optimism and an organic blend of rock and soul with fans of all ages. Bonded like a family, the music has an unmistakable honesty and openness. They allow the joy of spontaneous creativity to color their song-based arrangements - neither losing their musical center, nor restricting its growth. With a blend of acoustic songwriting, funk, jazz and improvisation, this music is acoustic funk at its finest!
By Clara Rose Thornton

Rax Trax recording studios is housed within a squat brick building in Chicago's frenetic Lakeview neighborhood. Crouched on an unassuming side street and requiring low-level mental athletics to pinpoint its address plate or figure out that one has, indeed, arrived at the right spot, it doesn't seem to be part of the surrounding hustle and bustle. It hangs back, content, letting the bistros and flashy clothing stores do their respective dances for passers-by. Once inside, though, a palpable rush of human warmth, benevolence and radiant enthusiasm zings through the air like a wayward dart. Bright colors, band stickers, scribbled one-liners on kitchen cabinets and both hilarious and poignant photos of musicians who spent endless hours there eking out their creations only enforce the feeling. The inner sanctum of Rax Trax can be likened to a beating heart, joyous for its own existence and spreading that love to those who venture toward. Oddly enough, this is exactly the nature of roots rock purveyors 56 Hope Road, who were camped out there on a spring Sunday, tirelessly and joyously working on their upcoming 4th album due in the fall. The seven-piece "acoustic funk explosion" -- Dave Hamilton (lead vocals, guitars), Casey Fitzpatrick (saxophone), Greg Fundis (drums, percussion), Chad Sanders (bass), Anne Hamilton Katzfey (vocals), Matt Katzfey (percussion) and Tim Reid (vocals, keyboards) -- are not interested in screaming their worth to the world and constantly talking a boastful game about their heavy touring schedule, improvisational prowess or steady rise to national recognition, like some bands. They'd prefer you to just step inside their world, and see for yourself. Voted by Jambase as the #1 Road Warrior Band, they're surely headed to a venue near you. They can also be seen at this year's venerable Dogstock, a massive philanthropic festival event taking place in Melvern, Kansas, July 26-29 ( In this exclusive interview, Hamilton gets candid and possibly controversial while taking a break from his recording session, nursing coffee and an infectious smile.

Home Grown Music Network - Can you describe the band's origins?

Dave Hamilton - We started in Decatur, Illinois, around 1998 as a three-piece - guitar, bass and drums. Then I moved to Colorado for a year and started writing tunes. I moved back, and that's when our drummer Greg went to DePaul [University, in Chicago] for grad school. We thought, "Hmm, Chicago's a good place to start," so we started playing music here. Didn't play a ton of gigs at the start; we worked our way up. We saved all our money and went on tour three years ago. We've done about 220 shows a year for the last three years.

HGMN - How many band members are there? There seem to be a lot.

DH - There's a touring group of five. My sister and her husband play with us around Chicago. But she just had a baby a month ago, so she's not back in the swing yet. She's an amazing singer, and her husband plays percussion. They both will be on this new album that's coming out.

HGMN - What's the new album going to be called?

DH - Play It By Ear. Well...probably. (laughs)

HGMN - Your music, as I characterize it, has a very warm, richly personal, "common man" sort of sound. Was this a conscious choice? In other words, did band members specifically look to certain groups or genres to garner inspiration, or did the sonic aspect of 56 Hope Road evolve more naturally?

DH - [It] more naturally evolved. We never tried to sound like anything. We had our own sound and we realized that's what it uniquely was. It's good driving music. It's mellow a lot of the time. But compared to our live show... Our live show is very energized and you'll be dancing the whole time.

HGMN - What themes do you like to explore lyrically?

DH - When I first started writing, I never wanted to sing about relationships. It seemed like that was the standard cliched song. As if...

HGMN - ...everybody upon everybody does it.

DH - Everybody's singing about how his or her heart's broken. But then my heart got broken, you know what I'm saying? So as far as getting the truthfulness out from inside, that's the most truthful music I've ever written because it really struck me deep. This next album is very reflective of what relationships are about, expectations within relationships, getting let down in relationships and also getting surprised in a relationship. Before it was about trying to write political songs or songs that were about everyday life besides relationships. But man, you know how it is.

HGMN - Yeah, when it happens, it happens.

DH - (laughs) When it happens, it happens. And as a songwriter, that's the best way to get it out. You need to get your feelings out there so you can move on.

HGMN - So do you think of songwriting as a sort of catharsis, then?

DH - Yes, completely.

HGMN - How would you describe the dynamic between 56 Hope Road and its audience?

DH - It's a close-knit one, definitely. We try to bring a party atmosphere to our shows most of the time. That's what people have come to expect. I love doing the acoustic shows too because you can really get it mellow and have people just sitting there and listening, not talking. The relationship is a constant, growing thing. You've got new and old fans, and that relationship is always, hopefully, growing, and will never stop growing. Hey, that's a hard question!

HGMN - Have you started to see a sort of cult-like fan base growing around the band?

DH - Definitely. In Colorado, we've got a lot of stuff going on. Colorado, Arizona, and Minnesota are hittin' for us. We've found a couple of pockets where people are just into it. So we keep on going back to those spots, and magic will grow. We just did our first tour out west, and man, California's where it's at.

HGMN - Why do you say that?

DH - Because the people are so open to experience new things. They're not going to judge you the way it seems sometimes on the East Coast or even in the Midwest, where people have preconceptions of you or your music or what you might look like or might sound like. Out there, there's this freedom. They accept your expression more. They're not afraid to dance by themselves (snaps fingers) to start it off. I love the freedom out there.

HGMN - So do you feel that the scene in each of the four regions of the country has it's own tone?

DH - Oh yeah.

- How would you characterize, say, the Midwest versus the South, specifically in terms of sound?

- Well, South like New Orleans -- that's where a lot of music came from. A lot of the funk bands, like The Funky Meters, they created the whole scene down there. You've also got your southern rock, which is a whole 'nother scene. In the Midwest, there's also an incredible mix. You've got all kinds of music up here. You've got your hard rock, you've got your rockabilly, you've got your blues, your jazz.

- It seems that there's starting to be a lot of integration between hip-hop and rock -- rock improvisation with a hip-hop MC in front. I feel that's really happening in the Midwest more than I see it happening in other places.

DH - That's happening a lot out in the mountain towns, too. In Colorado, they're so into it. You get an MC up there with you, and they can blow up the crowd (snaps fingers again) like that, if they're good. I love that aspect. We do have a couple rappers who come and play with us occasionally, and I love it every time. I would love to have an MC in the group permanently. It would change our direction a little bit, but it would be great if that person could maybe play percussion and sing, too. (laughs)

HGMN - Like while they're rapping, have some conga drums going?

DH - Seriously!

HGMN - In terms of the tone of the scene in different regions, I really feel -- and I might be biased, since I grew up here -- that the Midwest is one of the most accepting. You say that you feel California is the most, but I don't know. When I lived on the West Coast -- and granted, I was in Oregon and only made it to California a couple times -- I felt the presence of a sort of cliquish aspect, more so than in the Midwest. The Midwest to me seems "down home." You know, flatlands. Very friendly and open.

DH - Well, I do hear what you're saying. That sounds like Boulder. And I don't want to point fingers at Boulder, but it's soooo cliquish. Many people there have to be Mr. and Mrs. Cool.

HGMN - Like, (affecting a smirking grimace) what bands are you into? That kind of thing.

DH - Yeah. But my point mainly focused on there being more of the people there that are into our style of music. Folks are into it here, but there are a lot of people here who just want to hear '70s rock n'roll. That's what they listen to, and they don't care to open their mind up to other things. They just want to hear a cover band. They want to go see stuff they already know so they can get drunk and not worry about it. I like crowds that are about original music, about creating art, about doing something different and opening their minds to explore new things.

HGMN - Do you feel there's a different level or nature of interaction possible between a band and its audience in a festival atmosphere versus a bar or club show, or vice versa?

DH - The festival atmosphere is so cool because there's so much music going on. You're there for days, too. Everyone's on his or her own little personal journey. At a club you kind of just show up and leave and go back to your house. But at a festie, you're just there hanging out, you know? You may meet a person, and be hanging out with them for the next two days. I love that; people at festivals are always looking to meet new people and to experience new things.

HGMN - So you prefer that atmosphere?

DH - I can't stay at a festival, like...forever, you know what I'm saying? (laughs)

HGMN - My mind would go.

DH - Yeah. But it has its major joys. In a festie atmosphere people are already acclimated to a situation of listening to music -- they're there and ready. And I love people most when people dance. That brings me joy because I can physically see their energy, I can take that energy and give it back to them, and then they give it back to me and I go (makes a "fly away" motion).

HGMN - So it's a reciprocal relationship.

DH - Exactly.

HGMN - How did you get involved with Dogstock?

DH - We just put our press kit in and they contacted us. We have done a couple of things with [Loyal Family, the festival organizers and promoters]. Loyal Family is part of our network and our big family, so hooking up with those guys was a no-brainer.

HGMN - Dogstock is quite appealing to me because of the fact that it's a benefit show, for the Akita Adoption and Rescue Foundation. I find it very unique for a festival of that size -- 100-plus bands on four stages -- to donate proceeds not only to a good cause but to a cause supporting animals. That's pretty amazing, and I'm interested to hear your thoughts on festival culture's role in philanthropy. Do you feel that there's enough of a humanitarian/goodwill aspect there currently? Do you feel that should be hyped up?

DH - Every festival, in my mind, should be serving a higher purpose, for humanity and dog-manity.

HGMN - (laughs) Dog-manity? Maybe animal-manity. "Anamity!"

DH - We're making great new words here.

HGMN - I commend all the bands, like 56 Hope Road, that got involved. If every festival could have that aspect going on, then, when the bands are promoting their shows there they're also promoting the good cause.

DH - Activism, fundraising and philanthropy are really important, definitely. Music is about spreading love, at least for me. That's the main thing. That's why we do what we do -- to make people happy. I just want to make people smile and possibly relieve them of some of the stresses in their lives. Afford them a little getaway. And the songs that I write, maybe they can get a message out of them that can help them understand things within their lives.

- Can you comment on the current explosion of the festival scene, and what you think 56 Hope Road's place is in it?

DH - I'm happy that it's exploding. It's definitely getting bigger and bigger. I wish we had a bigger place in it. We're on High Sierra [in Quincy, California, July 5-8,] this year, and I'm really excited about that. I've heard that festival is the bomb.

HGMN - I've heard that it's on another level.

DH - Another level, yes. There seems to be an increasing presence of cop influence and dirty vibes going around at some of the bigger festivals, and I've heard that High Sierra's not like that at all, that there's this free atmosphere. Everyone's chilling out, having a good time. People don't have to worry about getting searched, undercover cops and all that crap. So I'm looking forward to it.

There's been a switch. When I discovered this scene growing up, it was the Grateful Dead. I was 18, thrown out there, and was like "Wow. This is what it's about. I can't believe people are like this, are so nice like this. I can talk to anybody." The community was there. And then the whole Phish thing started. All those Phish kids... Oh man, I'm just sitting here talking crap. (laughs) I hate that; never mind.

HGMN - It's okay, you should express yourself.

DH - It just seems that [the Phish] scene was all about selling drugs and getting messed up. It wasn't about the music, you know? Things changed. I miss the days of everybody getting together and having a good time for the music and the music being the number one thing. Now, the music seems secondary to the party.

HGMN - Do you acknowledge any specific moment when this turn occurred? I know you mentioned Phish, but is there any specific moment you can recall in the 1990s when it was obvious that it'd started happening? Because festivals basically started to proliferate in the mid-90s, and I'm wondering if you see any correlation.

DH - In '96, right after the Grateful Dead quit [touring], right after Jerry died, is when I started to think about it. I went to a couple Phish shows, and I guess I was just trying to get the same feelings that I got at a Dead show. It never even came close. It was a younger crowd, but that younger crowd is older now. Summer Camp and other festivals are where those kids are now.

HGMN - Okay, last question: If you could give three adjectives that describe 56 Hope Road, what would they be?

DH - "Positive." Positivity is big for us. That's something that we all struggle with within our own lives. We focus on staying positive and keeping that ball rolling [in the music]. "Aggressive." We are aggressive in the way we run our business and in the way we play our shows -- when it's time to play, we're all there, we're a team, and we're going to give the best show that we can. We're aggressive in pursuing positivity. And lastly...we're lovable. Does that count?

HGMN - It sure does. (laughs) So is that what a Dogstock audience can expect, "positively aggressive love?"

DH - Absolutely! Good, we made it happen! I was worried about that one...

Check out 56 Hope Road's most recent studio disc, the sweetly lyrical Drop it All, available now at the link above. Also available is their debut studio creation All Points Connect -- featuring fan favorites "Future Sons" and "New Philosophy" -- as well as the soaring live compilation Once in Our Lives, all available at Home Grown Music. See you on Hope's road.