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…
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.
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 .