‘It feels pretty good to be 10. It’s similar to being nine, except cooler’

 

Cool Ghouls

San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls (Pat McDonald – guitar/vocals; Pat Thomas – bass/vocals; Ryan Wong – guitar/vocals and Alex Fleshman – drums) turn 10 this year and release their fourth album, At George’s Zoo, in March.

It’s their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.

“We didn’t have any expectations going into this record – we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording,” they tell Say It With Garage Flowers.

Q&A

How’s it going? What’s it like in San Francisco and how has the city handled the pandemic?

Pat Thomas: It’s going pretty good. San Francisco is a little chilly outside. It’s been raining recently. I guess the city government here has done a decent job handling the pandemic compared with other governments, but they could do more. The vaccine rollout could be more aggressive and the mayor seems too eager to “restart the economy.”

How has lockdown affected you – as people and also as a band? Have you had to radically alter any of your plans?

PT: Plans weren’t altered that much, band-wise. Before 2020 we were already factoring in a lot of downtime, as our guitarist, Ryan, is living all the way in Denver at the moment. We wanted to release At George’s Zoo in June of 2020, but had to postpone it, obviously.

Are you worried about the future of live music, post-Covid? What are your hopes and fears? How have you been coping with lockdown?

PT: I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. Bands will tour, people will go to shows, etc. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that. Who knows, maybe people will be moved to open more venues in response. Lockdown is lonely – I think everyone feels that to some degree.

Cool Ghouls are 10 years old in 2021 – happy birthday! How are you celebrating? How does it feel to be 10? 

PT: We’re not really celebrating because we’re all in lockdown. I guess releasing a record is kind of like a celebration. It feels pretty good to be 10. It’s pretty similar to being nine, except cooler.

‘I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that’

Let’s talk about the new album. Was it written and recorded pre-Covid? When and where did you make it?

PT: Yep. We recorded it at our friend Robby Joseph’s house in the Outer Sunset neighbourhood in San Francisco, in the fall and winter of 2018.

What were the sessions like?

Ryan Wong: The recording environment was really important this time around. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to. Robby laid it down on an Otari MX5050 [tape machine].

What did you want to achieve with the new record? It’s your most expansive album yet, with bigger, richer arrangements, and horns and strings. What prompted that move?

RW: We didn’t have any expectations going into it. After recording Gord’s Horse [digital-only EP from 2017] by ourselves, we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording. Ryan was moving to Denver, so we just laid whatever ideas we had to tape before he left. As far as the arrangements, I think we’ve just grown over time and the music reflects that on this one.

Who writes the songs and how do you arrange them? What’s the process?

RW: We all write our own songs. So once the basic structure/idea is hashed out we bring it to the band to work on. Everyone has a hand in the final product.

I think At George’s Zoo is your best record yet. Where did the title come from? 

RW: Thanks. George’s Zoo is a liquor store in the Outer Sunset that we frequented while recording. Robby’s neighbour was also named George and he left some feedback on his garage door a few times…Ha!

Cool Ghouls in the studio – San Francisco.

‘The recording environment was really important. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to’

The opening track on the album, It’s Over, is wonderful. It has a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-style intro and some lovely harmonies. There’s also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it – some psych-soul going on…

PT: Thanks. Yeah. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a great record. I bought the Tibetan handbells you hear at the beginning of the song at one of those hippy gift shops on Haight St, not far from my apartment.

What can you tell me about the first single, Helpless Circumstance? There’s a psychedelic-rock feel to it, as well as more Beach Boys…

PT: It’s a pretty simple tune. One of those songs that sprouts from a dumb riff you play absent-mindedly at practice between actual songs you’re practising. Pat M was feeling lovey-dovey, so gave it some sweet and soft lyrics. He thinks the song sounds lavender in colour.

The new single, The Way I Made You Cry, is a great piece of soulful, Brian Wilsonesque piano pop, with horns and harmonies. It’s beautiful. Any thoughts on it?

PT: Thank you. No thoughts on it really. The song pretty much communicates everything about itself better than I could with words.

Land Song is gorgeous orch-pop. It has a Jimmy Webb / Beach Boys Pet Sounds-era feel. What can you tell me about it?

RW: We’re real proud of this one. The Pats actually wrote this song together. It was definitely pulling from the Jimmy Webb playbook, but we were also listening to a lot of Canterbury bands at the time. Early King Crimson was also in the mix. Dylan Edrich added the strings and Henry Baker laid down the piano. Props to those two.

It’s not even spring yet, but Surfboard is the song of the summer and I Was Wrong has a definite Pet Sounds Surf’s Up feel. You do sound like you’ve been listening to a lot of Beach Boys…

PT: Those songs rule. They’re so good. Surfboard started out as a joke song. I was going to change the lyrics but I just kept coming back to ‘surfboard…’

The song 26th St. Blues sounds more like the Cool Ghouls of old – it’s very ’60s garage rock.

Pat McDonald: It’s ‘60s garage rock for sure. And it was inspired by the dire housing crisis in San Francisco. It’s pretty wild to see a place change so rapidly before your eyes. There’s a lot of frustration and powerlessness in the song, which gives it its rougher edge.

What music new and old have you been enjoying recently? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?

PM: Fun House by The Stooges. Pretty much exclusively that.

What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?

PM: In my headphones at work, so I don’t have to hear my dumbass co-workers talking about GameStop stocks.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

RW: We’re not really sure. This year kind of seems like a wash too. We’re looking forward to playing these songs live at some point.

At George’s Zoo by Cool Ghouls is released on March 12 Empty Cellar / Melodic Records (UK).

https://coolghouls420.bandcamp.com/album/at-georges-zoo

https://music.emptycellarrecords.com/

https://www.melodic.co.uk/

Best albums of 2016

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Uneasy listening was the musical genre that defined 2016.

The spectre of death loomed large over several of the year’s best albums, namely David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – both artists died in 2016, shortly after releasing their records – and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, which, in places, dealt with the grief and sadness he felt following the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.

All three albums were masterpieces and highlights in their creators’ impressive back catalogues, but were difficult to listen to.

Songs such as Bowie’s vulnerable, jazzy Dollar Days – my favourite track on Blackstar – and Cohen’s twangy, twilight ballad, Leaving The Table, were undeniably beautiful, but eerily prescient.

I defy anyone not to shed a tear while hearing Bowie croon “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”, or Laughing Len intone, “I’m leaving the table – I’m out of the game.”

When Danish soprano Else Torp duets with Cave on Distant Sky, her beautiful vocals could break even the hardest of hearts.

On a personal note, I had a difficult 2016, having to cope with illness, anxiety and family bereavements, so these three albums often suited my mood, but, strangely, I haven’t chosen any of them as my favourite record of the year.

I so nearly opted for another dark album as my top choice – Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To – the final long-player from Willy Vlautin’s Portland-based, alt-country band who’ve now split up – but I didn’t.

Instead, I went for a record that always made me smile and cheered me up whenever I listened to it, thanks to its wonderful arrangements, sublime melodies and unashamedly retro vibe. 

My favourite album of 2016 is Over The Silvery Lake – the debut record from London’s The Hanging Stars. 

Released in March, Over The Silvery Lake was recorded in LA, Nashville and Walthamstow. It’s a gorgeous psych-folk-pop-country-rock record that owes a debt to The Byrds and the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons, but also Fairport Convention’s pastoral ’60s English tune-smithery.

It’s laced with pedal steel guitar and shot through with blissed-out harmonies. There are songs where willows weep and ships set sail on the sea, hazy, lazy, shimmering summer sounds  (I’m No Good Without You and Crippled Shining Blues), as well as brooding desert-rock (The House On The Hill], trippy mystical adventures (Golden Vanity) and, on the closing track, the beautiful Running Waters Wide, rippling piano is accompanied by bursts of groovy flute. 

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The Hanging Stars

Earlier this year, I interviewed The Hanging Stars about the writing and recording of the album – you can read the article here.

The band have just finished making the follow-up and it will be released next year. I’ve already reserved a place for it in my Best Albums of 2017 list… 

Here’s a list of my favourite 35 albums from this year and a Spotify playlist to accompany it, where possible – some of the albums aren’t available to stream.

This year, I interviewed several of the artists featured, so I’ve linked to the articles below. Happy Christmas – all the best for 2017 and I’ll see you on the other side…

  1. The Hanging Stars Over The Silvery Lake
  2. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
  3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key
  4. Peter BruntnellNos Da Comrade
  5. Vinny PeculiarSilver Meadows
  6. David Bowie – Blackstar
  7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  8. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
  9. Ben Watt – Fever Dream
  10. Quiet Loner – The Battle For The Ballot
  11. Britta Phillips Luck Or Magic
  12. Nick Piunti Trust Your Instincts 
  13. Cotton MatherDeath of The Cool
  14. Robert Rotifer Not Your Door
  15. Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
  16. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  17. The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
  18. Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
  19. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust
  20. Teenage Fanclub – Here
  21. Wilco – Schmilco 
  22. Dr Robert Out There
  23. The Explorers Club – Together
  24. Cool Ghouls – Animal Races
  25. John HowardAcross The Door Sill
  26. The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
  27. 8 X 8 – Inflorescence 
  28. Ryan Allen & His Extra ArmsBasement Punk
  29. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
  30. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
  31. Paul McClure Songs For Anyone 
  32. The Monkees Good Times!
  33. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
  34. Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [Japan only release]
  35. The Hosts – Moon

Best Albums of 2014

Pete-Fij-Terry-Bickers-Broken-Heart-Surgery-Signed

This year’s Say It With Garage Flowers number one album can be easily filed alongside Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker as one of the greatest breakup records of all time.

Broken Heart Surgery by singer-songwriter Pete Fijalkowski (Adorable and Polak) and guitarist Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) is intimate and stripped-down, with nods to Johnny Cash, Spiritualized, John Barry and The Velvet Underground. A raw, deeply personal, melancholy album, it documents the breakup of a relationship and the aftermath, but is shot through with plenty of gallows humour and deadpan wit. 

On the record, there are several lyrical references to material possessions – leaving them behind, or being saddled with someone’s else’s old stuff. There’s a lot of emotional baggage involved, but also a lot of physical baggage, too… There are some brilliant lyrics on the album – some of which made me laugh out loud when I first heard them. For example, “Hope – it’s more addictive than coke. Yeah – it’s cupid’s cruel joke…” (Betty Ford) and  “[she] just left me with cutlery and a whole pile of her duff CDs…” (Queen of Stuff).

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When I spoke to Pete earlier this year, he told me: “I wanted the album to reflect the various aspects of a breakup, so while some of the subject matters are taking place more in the head, there are others that have a very physical location and an obsession with small details – the division of objects between a couple (Breaking Up), the forgotten objects left behind in a now half-empty flat (Queen of Stuff) or the changing soundtrack to a couple’s life as their relationship deteriorates – from furtive whispers and kisses, to slamming doors and uneasy silences (Sound of Love).”

Asked what he wanted to achieve with the album, Pete said: “First and foremost, I wanted to make an album that I was proud of.”

Rest assured, he can hold his head up high – it’s a stone cold classic.

While we’re on the subject of masters in melancholy, Morrissey made a welcome return this year with World Peace Is None Of Your Business – his first album in five years. His best long-player since 1994’s Vauxhall & I, it was a glorious comeback record, with epic ballads (I’m Not A Man, Mountjoy), unabashed pop songs (Staircase At The University, Kiss Me A Lot, The Bullfighter Dies ) and lavish, exotic arrangements, including mariachi brass, strings and flamenco guitar.

Alas, due to a dispute with his record label, Harvest, the album is currently not available on Spotify or iTunes, so, instead, here’s a YouTube clip of the mighty Staircase At The University…

Other notable 2014 albums included Fair Warning by folk-rockers The Rails; Charade – the debut album from LA-based country singer Meg Olsen; A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye by San Fran garage-psychers Cool Ghouls ; Phantom Radio by the Mark Lanegan Band, which explored dark, electronic territory; The Breaks by former Boo Radley Martin Carr – gorgeous, lush guitar pop – and Alexandria by alt. country artist Chris Mills, which was his first album in five years and saw him team up with a new backing band – The Distant Stars.

Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt impressed with his solo album Hendra, which featured former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on a poignant set of songs that, at times, recalled the legendary John Martyn, while Cherry Ghost’s latest record, Herd Runners, was a soundtrack for the lost and lonely, similar to Richard Hawley’s late night laments…

Chris Mills
Chris Mills

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention News From Nowhere – the ‘long-lost’ debut by ’90s Britpop band Speedy. Recorded in 1997, the album finally saw the light of day earlier this year and was well worth the wait. The band even reformed and played live for the occasion. 

I  played a small part in getting the album released – a 2009 blog I wrote about the record attracted some interest and one thing led to another…

Here’s a list of my favourite 30 albums of 2014 and a Spotify playlist to go with it. 

1) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers – Broken Heart Surgery

2) Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business

3) The Rails – Fair Warning

4) Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio

5) Martin Carr – The Breaks

6) The New Mendicants – Into The Lime

7) Chris Mills & The Distant Stars – Alexandria

8) Cherry Ghost – Herd Runners

9) Ben Watt – Hendra

10) Meg Olsen – Charade

11) Johnny Marr – Playland

12) Cool Ghouls – A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye

13) Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

14) The Delines – Colfax Avenue

15) Beck – Morning Phase

16) Speedy – News From Nowhere

17) Temples – Sun Structures

18) Cleaners From Venus – Return To Bohemia

19Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

20) Kings of The South Seas – Kings of The South Seas

21) Gallon Drunk – The Soul of the Hour

22) Len Price 3 – Nobody Knows

23) Little Barrie – Shadow

24) Tweedy – Sukirae

25) The Autumn Defense – Fifth

26) Neville Skelly – Carousel

27) Johnny Aries – Unbloomed

28) Pete Molinari – Theosophy

29) Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham

30) Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything

“For Halloween, we dressed up in lipstick, sequins and gowns and did a covers set of Supremes songs!”

San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls are named after a phrase used on stage by Funkadelic’s George Clinton, when he walked out of a big mother ship and addressed the crowd: “Hey, all you cool ghouls.”

And if that’s not, er, cool enough for you, their latest album, A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye, is a great garage-psyche-surf-rock record that is steeped in ‘60s sounds, high on harmonies and full of fuzzed-up guitar and jangling riffs. Think Nuggets meets The Beachboys, The Byrds and The Beatles, with a nod to The Velvet Underground.

I spoke to bassist Pat Thomas about the San Francisco scene, classic ‘60s music, what Cool Ghouls got up to for Halloween this year and their plans for 2015…

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Your new record is one of my favourite albums of 2014. Can you tell me about the writing and the recording process behind it?

Pat Thomas: Thanks. We recorded it with Sonny Smith [Sonny & The Sunsets] at his house in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. We tracked all the guitars and drums live. We wrote all the songs over the course of about a year. We’d been playing a few of the songs live at shows for a long time before going in to record them.

The title of the album is from a lyric in the song Reelin‘, which was written by Pat McDonald [guitarist]. It’s an image of destruction – an unstoppable, devastating force. He’s thinking about San Francisco and some of the cultural changes that have been happening there recently.

Your sound is steeped in ‘60s garage rock, freakbeat and psyche. Some of your songs, such as And It Grows and The Mile, sound like long-lost ‘60s tracks. Did you all grow up listening to ‘60s back catalogues?

PT: Kind of. Pat McDonald grew up with a Bay Area oldies station called KFRC constantly playing in his family’s garage. [Drummer] Alex’s dad weaned him on Dylan and Springsteen. My parents listened to more ‘80s stuff.

Why are you attracted to ‘60s sounds?

PT: When I was first learning guitar, I was drawn towards classic rock. Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones resonated with me more than the popular contemporary rock music at that time, like Blink 182, Green Day etc. So I spent high school digging into older shit from the ‘60s and ‘70s and old folk and blues. It was easy to get into music from any time, as it was around 2003 and there were sites like Napster and Limewire. Classic rock was a popular radio format.

With the end of the 20th century, I think there was a general ‘Best of the 20th century’ recap that led to a lot of greatest hits collections being released on CD. But I think my attention was pointed specifically towards garage and psyche by a group of bands who were popularising that sound here in San Francisco, starting around 2007 – bands like Thee Oh Sees, Fresh & Onlys, Sic Alps and The Mantles. There were bands outside of San Francisco, too – The Black Lips, Strange Boys, King Khan & BBQ Show… Garage was the hot new shit. This was right as we were starting college.

We definitely take some cues from ‘60s bands – The Great Society, The Byrds, The Creation, The Grateful Dead – those guys were some of the best to ever play psychedelia. But we’re primarily engaging with a musical conversation that’s currently taking place on the West Coast.

 

cool ghouls

What’s it like being in a band in San Francisco at the moment? Is there a scene? Where do you guys fit in? 

PT: It’s a good place to have a band. A pretty big chunk of the scene packed up and left for LA last year, so it’s kind of all over the place right now. But there’s definitely still a ton of music going on… You gotta ask someone else from San Francisco if we’re hip!

Can you recommend some San Francisco bands?

PT: Magic Trick, Sonny & The Sunsets, Useless Eaters, O, Scraper, Meat Market, Violent Change, Skygreen Leopards, Air Surgeon, Sandy’s.

Who are your main influences?

PT: Our main influences are probably the people and artists immediately around us – our friends, people we see around town and bands we play with at shows. I think these people are the people we’re thinking about when we make music.

 

 

Can you tell me some of your favourite albums?

PT: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Person Pitch by Panda Bear, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, Marquee Moon by Television, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’s self-titled album, Moondance by Van Morrison, Putrifiers II by Thee Oh Sees, Europe ’72 by The Grateful Dead…. There are so many more.

How are you feeling as we head into 2015 and what are your plans for next year?

PT: I feel young, but also like I’m getting older… We’re gonna do a national US tour in March. Between now and then we’re gonna keep it on the West Coast and write and record an LP. We hope to release a couple of 7 inches that we’ve been working on.

Can we expect any UK live dates soon?

PT: We want to get over there next year. There’s nothing in the works yet, though.

Finally, what did Cool Ghouls do for Halloween this year?

PT: We dressed up in lipstick, sequins and gowns and did a covers set of Supremes songs!

 

A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye by Cool Ghouls is out now on Empty Cellar Records .