A true human jukebox if there ever was one, songwriter/producer Oliver Ignatius is the mastermind behind the ever eclectic Ghost Pal. The project starts with a rock 'n' roll template and finds strength with deep roots in old school soul and R&B. Things aren't textbook here, though, as elements of psychedelia, funk, and garage rock all find their way into the fold. Not only is Ignatius a prolific songwriter and bandleader, he also runs Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen where he engineers and produces records, too. Simon recently had the chance to interview the busy Ignatius about everything from Ghost Pal to Michael Jackson's connection to the Occupy movement.
Interview by Simon P.
Mixtape Muse: You've got lots of credits listed online, but who's really in Ghost Pal?
Oliver Ignatius: Well Ghost Pal has always had an open door policy in many ways, because I've always felt that was crucial in terms of the fight to make music that is new and interesting and free and also loving. And our membership has sort of expanded and contracted naturally. For instance, I recorded my good friend Ezra's band Sons of an Illustrious Father about a year ago, and shortly after that he joined Ghost Pal on drums and harmony vocals for a few months, with the full understanding that he was a busy kid and probably wasn't going to be able to stick around. But he was just helping us with his blessing, playing with us at our first few shows. At this moment the live line-up at least of Ghost Pal has solidified: there's myself on electric guitar and lead vocals, Justin Coles my business partner in the Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen venture on electric guitar, Alexandre da Silva a great friend and the editor of an online music magazine we're putting together called Basement Sprawl, he's on electric guitar as well as harmonies, (I know, three guitars right!) then Justin's little brother Dominic Coles is on virtuosic organ and keyboard stylings, my old high school teacher and essentially mentor and guru Henry Kandel is on saxophone, other horns and harmonies, Josh Barocas who is a genius that I've been collaborating with for over 8 years now (he was in my high school band Hysterics which got a weirdly large amount of internet buzz when we were all 14) is the bassist in the band, and finally drummer Carson Moody, who is just a delightful dude I met pretty recently.
MM: Is that how Ghost Pal has always been? Where did the band come from?
OI: Ghost Pal has been a pretty steady evolution since it began as a project in, I think, October 2010? I was in a different band at that point, but it was kind of faling apart, and I started Ghost Pal as an outlet for my own solo music cause I had so many songs; I liked the idea of Ghost Pal being this sort of other entity that I could hide behind, rather than having to make any kind of declarative statement about going solo -- I felt that would just be silly. And over time the parameters of Ghost Pal gradually expanded, until it became a full on band.
MM: I think way back in middle or high school, Doug played me a track of you covering a Beatles tune (don't remember which one). That may color the way I listen to some of your songs, but am I right in thinking that brand of songwriting/pop has a large influence?
OI: Well yeah, of course, that's the music of my childhood---psychedelic music colored my whole life. I grew up overseas in Asian countries, too, so I'm actually inclined to believe the droning tonalities and scales in that music became the most readily accessible form of pop to me. The Beatles for sure, the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson is an all-time genius and I'm a pretty geeky Beach Boys diehard), Syd Barrett, Sly and the Family Stone -- all beautiful and important shit.
MM: Tell me about the inspiration for the Michael Jackson cover. You mentioned Occupy online, and we can hear something suggestive of the removal in the background towards the end of the track, but is that actual audio? What was your involvement connection at the time?
OI: The idea of doing that sort of spooked out spiritual drone cover of Michael Jackson that was gestating for a long time; I've always been into the idea of suspending songs like that that we take for granted as upbeat pop songs, and then revealing the strangeness and darkness that is lurking within. And Michael Jackson was my first hero, when I was 3. I mean he along with the Beatles are what set me on my path and made me know I had to do music. The Occupy audio is used throughout the track, and those are real field recordings I made in November. I can't say I was deeply involved in the planning committees for occupy or anything, but I was deeply excited about what was happening as it seemed to represent a real sea change in the collective consciousness of my generation -- as, finally, the most notoriously apathetic generation of all time was getting angry, plugging in, really trying to engage with something. As vague as the movement has been up to now, I think that's the inherent beauty of it. It's a forum for people to express their unhappiness, but also their visions of a better society -- their hopes and their dreams for it. Of course the inevitable flipside of social action is usually violence, and I was really disturbed by the clashes with the police...I didn't want to see things erupt into some kind of apocalyptic scene, which thankfully it hasn't up until now. But the Michael Jackson cover was sort of trying to portray that, this eerie sense of calm that would surely enwrap the city once something truly violent and dreadful had happened there...which thankfully it still hasn't and hopefully never will. But the world is a strange place and people are very complicated and unpredictable.
MM: "Nathan Jones is Dead." He is?! Tell me more. You've got a whole lot of material via the compilations. Is there a direction Ghost Pal is headed with the LP that's going to syphon some of that stuff into it? Is there a ton of unreleased we haven't heard yet?
OI: A few of the songs that we previously released as singles are being completely re-arranged and re-recorded for the Nathan Jones LP, along with a bunch of new material. "Nathan Jones is Dead" is actually a concept record we're telling a story in, about this young man Nathan Jones who can't handle his life, as beautiful and fascinating as it is, and is lured by ghosts from the past to kill himself. Once he does kill himself, it's a long time before he's able to even realize he's dead, and he spends hundreds of years wandering the earth as a lonely ghost, getting into all kinds of lonely foibles. The joke essentially is that life after death is so much worse for him than what came before. He goes through a lot of things. It sounds dark, but there's a bunch of sardonic stuff on the record, too. In the end, he finds some sort of redemption though, discovering a top secret juke joint deep in Hades where the skeletons get together at night and dance to skeleton music and clack their bones together. He's saved by the skeleton dance, because it's the only real beauty he's found. I guess the plot is sort of a metaphor for some things. This LP, though, is the first thing we've done which is essentially built on live back-bone tracks that feature the whole band. So, there's a very heavy, powerful live feel to the music, and yet it's filtered through lots of experimentation and psychedelicism, as is our wont. Personally, I'm hugely excited about it; I think it's the best thing I've ever made.
MM: There's a connection to the studio (Mama Coco's) in the band as well, right? Does that mean Ghost Pal is going the Steely Dan route and being a studio band only? Are there shows in the works?
OI: Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen is the recording studio I started a little over the year ago. It's pretty much my full-time job at this point, and I produce a lot of bands, of which Ghost Pal is one. They're separate entities, although I could talk at length about Mama Coco's, too, because I'm hugely excited about the work we're doing there. We're trying as best as we can to really nurture some warm, giving kind of community for NYC musicians; the scene here is generally so cutthroat, we want to offer something different where people really feel nurtured and supported in achieving the sounds they want to hear in their own music -- and then we all promote each other. Mama Coco's also actually just got approved for the lease to move into a new big commercial space, so things are really moving forward and we're very excited to see where it goes.
Ghost Pal has never been intended as a studio band only, we've done a bunch of shows in the last year, but we've been on a performing hiatus recently so we could really regroup and focus on the LP and all these things. We kind of decided we'd rather play rare shows amazingly than a bunch of shows not so well. Our next gig is February 4 at a warehouse party in Brooklyn organized by the blog Dingus, and we're going to perform Nathan Jones is Dead in its entirety, so hopefully that'll be a show worth catching!
MM: "Arkhenaten." Great tune. "Calling Rasta Far I," another great one. But the styles differ so much from everything in between them on the second compilation. Where'd the funk come from? Is there more to look forward to?
OI: Thank you, sir. "Calling Rasta Far I" is a cover of an old reggae song by Culture, one of my all-time favorites. "Akhenaten" is built on top of a sample from "Poet" by Sly and the Family Stone, another of my favorites. I'd put the Michael Jackson song in the same category, and argue that "Retribution" and maybe even parts of "All Right" and some others have that funkiness. That funkiness is an inherent part of what we do and what I love, and it will certainly be creeping in and out. We want Ghost Pal to be very loose in terms of genre. It's just music we want to make when we want to make it. But yes, R&B music is deep rooted for all of us.
MM: Ghost Pal's style in 3 words or less. Option A: Tell me why you enjoy answering questions like these. Option B: Tell me why you don't enjoy them.
OI: Paranormal psych-soul.
I enjoy answering questions because it gives me some way to think about things!
MM: Best way for people to hear the band?
OI: Definitely the Bandcamp -- all our music is available there and all our upcoming EPs and the Nathan Jones album will also be available there. It's also nice because we get to see all kinds of statistics about who's listening and visiting and all that. It's a great platform!
MM: You recently covered "Tears of Rage" for our "What's Your Muse?" segment. First of all, did you have Bob Dylan in mind or the Band? Also, tell me a bit about the significance of the song. Is it an old favorite or a new favorite? What aspects of it speak to you?
OI: Well the version that Dylan sings on the Basement Tapes has a lot charm (Basement Tapes is probably my favorite Dylan record to this day), and it's gorgeous in its own right. But it's the Band version sung by Richard Manuel that has always gotten me -- every element is in its perfect place. The drums and electric guitar interact gorgeously with this sense of suspended motion; the horns are some of the drowsiest I've ever heard and are rendered so sublimely melancholic in the most subtle way, simply by one choice of a note here and there. It's really a perfect record, and it's capped off by certainly one of my favorite lead vocal performances of all-time, which I was really just trying to get in the vein of with that performance. My original plan was to record "Surf's Up" by the Beach Boys for fairly similar reasons, but my voicebox has been real rusty this week and that song has a high F two octaves above middle C, which is insanely high. I can hit it on a good day, but it just wasn't happening the other day!
MM: Something I've missed? What's one super important item of info for the public to have about the band and it's work?
OI: What's there to say really? We are loud proud and weird and sticking around for a good while.
More @ ghostpal.bandcamp.com
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Well, it's been a while, but "What's Your Muse?" is back with a bang thanks to Oliver. You can catch his emotionally-fueled performance of The Band's "Tears of Rage" below, which really soars -- the mic can't even handle him right now. I find the unintended distortion in the video sort of adds this level of intrigue; you fight to catch everything Ignatius sings as he gives himself completely to the performance. He gives you the impression that he lives out the meaning of the words as he plays, placing himself mentally in the shoes of the writer. It makes you wonder how much more intense and enthralling his cover would be if it were properly recorded in the studio. One can only hope that becomes a reality.