Interview | Ghost Owl | A Phoenix Rising

Written By: Bill Clifford

:: Ghost Owl - A Phoenix Rising ::

Well, it turns out that the groove wasn’t eternal after all! Known by one of the best band monikers on the jam band scene, Perpetual Groove went on indefinite hiatus following a final gig at Athens’ Georgia Theatre in April of 2013. It was an emotional and powerful goodbye for the band and its fans. But musicians Adam Perry, Matthew McDonald and Albert Suttle still carry a tune in their heart, and have moved on sans vocalist and guitarist Brock Butler, with the hope that he’ll continue to get himself healthy after a downward spiral, and both Ghost Owl & Perpetual Groove can continue to make great music long into the future. For now, however, the trio has moved forward with a new band and a new sound that, while resembling the emotional and lively deft of their former quartet, is decidedly different from PGroove, yet equally moving and inspirational.

In early May, Ghost Owl released their debut recording, Say Goodbye To Finland (SGTF). The 10 songs stem from the deep, ragged scars and burns of disappointment and loss, yet also express healing and catharsis in the powerful songwriting of Perry. The trio embarked on a short stint up the east coast early in 2014, debuting the new songs and sound of Ghost Owl, and it was clear by the ear-to-ear grins and the sonic palate that all three were the happiest they’d been in years. And Ghost Owl are soon to announce a major tour with some pretty impressive headliners that will see the trio once again touring the country, performing, deservedly, in front of some large crowds. A tour announcement wasn’t ready as we went to post, but stay tuned to JamBase for such news in the next month.

Last week, Perry, McDonald and Suttle spoke openly and candidly with JamBase scribe and long time PGroove fan, Bill Clifford, about the band and its influences, the changes they’ve gone through, the cathartic power of music, the new album and future touring plans.

Who or What is Ghost Owl and what are/were your influences?

Bill Clifford (BC) - What kind of band is Ghost Owl? Are you guys now making EDM? Is your music space rock? Are you avant-garde? Are you now playing prog-rock? Do you still “jam” or improvise as Ghost Owl? What should readers who are not familiar with Ghost Owl know about the band at this point?

Adam Perry (AP) - Right now Ghost Owl is a rock band with electronic influences. My goal is to have it be what ever it needs to be. I like the idea of skirting a lot of different styles so it can grow with us as musicians. I also like for things to extend during live shows because that is what the crowd is leading us into, not because we have to or because of what is expected of us. Everyone has such a different idea of what music sounds like or what ‘genre’ a band should fall into. I want the fans to decide for themselves where it fits into their lives musically.

Matt McDonald (MM) - I’ve heard the genre post-rock used a lot now that people have gotten the album in their hands. I think that fits the band quite well. We’re definitely not EDM, it’s still rock.

Albert Suttle (AS) – It’s rock with an electronic tinge and a little bit of jam – just enough to keep the arrangements fresh from night to night. This is a new project that is more straightforward in tone, songwriting, and presentation.

BC - At the time of writing these songs, were there any particular bands or musicians that you were listening to that may have shaped or influenced the songs that you were writing?

AP - M83 is a big influence. I was listening to Hurry Up We’re Dreaming a lot. It really struck a chord with me emotionally. It’s a journey listening to that record, it took me to so many different places and I’m still not tired of hearing it.

AS – I wasn’t really listening too much new music, which, in the end, helped me have a fresher approach to whatever I thought the song needed. Adam would have a template of electronic drums on the demos to serve as a guide but there was still the freedom to have my spin on the song. The main challenge was being more specific since the song structure was tightly composed.

Switching things up?

BC - Matt and Adam have switched instruments up a bit – was it easier to write the new music on a guitar or a keyboard rather than on the bass? What was the rational for each of you as to why you moved through different instruments with this band?

AP - I’ve always written with synths and keyboards. The only real difference for me was playing them live a bit more. I love the versatility of being able to switch between instruments in the writing process. Usually it’s the catalyst to new parts or ideas because I approach and play them so differently. More often than not, the bass is the last thing I add now because I can settle into the composition and really make it move the arrangement.

MM - The biggest reason as to why [we switched instruments] is because we could. I’ve played guitar almost as long as I’ve played keys, so it felt pretty natural to move to more guitar. I’ve always done the majority of my writing on guitar in the past. Now we’re switching it up even more at recent rehearsals between everything but drums. Albert is the drummer - no way Adam and I are going near that one.

AS – Nothing really new for me to learn, the main challenge was how best to produce and perform the songs live. Certain sections could be open, but that meant using Ableton [a music sequencer] in a way that I didn’t with PGroove. Other songs were start and go. After getting used to the arrangements, with a lot of practice, we were all good.

Emotional Rescue?

BC – Loss, hurt and darkness are clearly a subjective theme throughout the lyrics and new songs. Taking your history into account, would it be safe to say that writing these songs was a cathartic experience for each of you? Can you elaborate on the emotions and feeling that you’ve expressed in the music of Ghost Owl?

AP - We have been through a lot. The things that trickle down and resonate in your life when you go through drastic changes, which nobody can be prepared for. Things I care not to discuss, but every aspect of life is affected and that can really spin your head into a lot of different places. Some good, some not so good. During that time of transition, all I knew was that when I woke up, the only thing I had control of was music, and I sunk myself into it. I let it help and heal me, as it always has.

MM - Adam is the primary songwriter for the band but he’s really great about letting us have a voice in the process. Adam did an outstanding job at conveying the whole gamut of emotions that we were all going through both musically and lyrically. I agree that there is a theme of loss, but more importantly, there’s a constant underlying theme of hope too.

AS – If you’re aware of the history of both Perpetual Groove and Ghost Owl, then the lyrics would seem to be an obvious extension of the situation we went through and deeply cathartic. But loss is a pretty universal constant that everyone goes through. The beauty of the lyrics on the album, at least for me, is that they can apply to anyone.

BC – Yet, on “Clouds Will Lift” and album closer, “Sun Will Shine,” it does sound as though you’re at peace with the situation and that you’ve found...a way to move on?

AP - Ultimately it came down to a few things. I started saying to myself every morning: work hard, stay positive, good things will happen. Today is a new day - make yourself better. “Clouds Will Lift” is actually about a very dark place I found myself in last year. Things just seemed like they were really getting the best of me. “Sun Will Shine” that closes the album after “Clouds…,” helped me come out of that darkness.

MM - I know it’s a bit cliche, but it’s true that the one thing you can count on in life is change. Change is always difficult at first, but once you learn to embrace it, often times it has an incredible healing nature to it. That was definitely the case for my personal experience with the album this past year.

AS – Again, these lyrics are pretty universal. We as individuals and as a group have to look forward and decide where we’re going from here and how best to get there. It’s different for each of us. But we can also get together and agree on a direction, a destination, and a mode of transport that’s beneficial to all.

BC – Having seen Ghost Owl perform a number of times at this point, it was very evident to this journalist that each of you was in a very happy and refreshed state of mind. Ear-to-ear smiles could be seen on your faces as you played, and visual nods in each others directions for signals on where to take the music as you played it live. Is it a fair observation to say that you’re in a great state of mind and refreshed and enjoying writing/making/performing music again?

AP - I’m enjoying it - very, very, much. The drive to make it better every time is a refreshing and rewarding feeling. Through the doubt and dark rose some real great potential and we plan on grabbing hold and not letting go.

MM - Yeah, it’s been awesome! We’re having a lot of fun and we haven’t had to deal with the business of being in a band where there are already expectations from the fans. Nobody really knew the music this past year because we had only released a few songs from the live show, so people were pretty open to hear what we were still very much in a state of creating.

AS – I think we always enjoyed making music. But music can also be a representation of something heavy, negative and sometimes dangerous. It can be a song that reminds you of a lost love, a broken friendship or someone no longer with us. Music is what you make of it, and sometimes the best thing to do is to step out of your comfort zone and listen to/write some new music. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some people to go along with you because together it’ll be better, together it’ll be easier and together it might just be fun.

A new album – a new beginning?

BC – Where was SGTF recorded – a home studio? A recording studio in Athens? Mastered? Can you compare and contrast the process for this album to those that you have made previously with PGroove?

MM - We recorded the album over the course of nine months at Studio 1093 here in Athens. Many of the overdubs and vocals were recorded at Adam’s house or at my house and then we would bring those parts back into 1093 to further expand upon. We’ve always had a time/money clock running in the background on previous albums. There were deadlines and only so much time in the studio in the past. It was nice to not have that gun to our head and really have the freedom to take the time we wanted to make it the best we could.

AS – It was mastered by Tom Lewis there as well. We didn’t have any sort of serious deadline for this album. We had a self-imposed release date but everyone involved wanted this project to be the best that it could be. We moved the release date back a few times, but all that really meant was that we could spend more time to release a better album.

BC – Did you work with a particular producer? What effect did he happen to have on the songs that you had written? In what ways did the songs evolve as you moved from a bedroom demo to a full studio recording?

MM - Newton Carter was our producer. Newt ran front of house for PG years ago and has been a very close friend of ours for a long time. We have always talked about doing an album together so it was nice to finally make that a reality. He was a producer in the truest sense of the word. He took our demos, which were the same way we had been performing them live and helped us immensely with arrangements and making the songs tighter and more potent. I had worked with Newt and Tom Lewis on a Brantley Gilbert album a couple years ago and really wanted that team once I saw them together in the studio. It worked out. Richard Salino was the engineer on the album and really understood what Newt was looking for, combined with what we were trying to convey. Tom Lewis did the mastering. Anyone in the Athens music scene will tell you we had the dream team for this album.

AP - Newton is an incredibly gifted man and even better friend. We've always wanted to work together in this capacity and I learned so much from him just watching how to make a record. The right way. Newt really helped all of the songs reach their potential. Richard "Slick" Salino, our engineer, was fantastic to work with as well. Their input and tireless work were vital to this album being what it is. The experience as a whole had some crazy ups and downs that very much mirrored my life at the moment. I’ll never forget those days and one day, will look back on them very fondly.

BC – What’s the future for Ghost Owl? I believe I had heard that Albert had moved back home to Oklahoma? Correct? I know that Matt and Adam each have families now. Are you each working on/at something else full time to support yourselves and your family?

AP - I’ve got almost enough material for the next album. I’m ready to get back in the studio!

AS – I moved back to Oklahoma for personal and family reasons. This is a new project with new music, new rules and ideas that we’ll need to implement for it to work for everyone. It’s entirely possible and I’m looking forward to it.

MM - Fortunately, we’re in a position like many bands are nowadays, where we don’t have to all live in the same town anymore and can all have our individual space and lives. It makes for a healthier band working relationship. Over the summer we’re getting together a few days a month for rehearsal leading into September, when we will hit the road again. Fortunately, I’m able to do all sorts of different gigs nowadays ranging from studio musician work to cocktail music at the Athens Country Club. Mostly, I am enjoying spending my days with my six-month-old and the summer with all the kids. I have a small Army now.

BC – Will Ghost Owl tour again in support of the new recording? Outside of Georgia and the Southeast? Can an independent band make a living selling music today in the Spotify age? Can you support yourselves touring? Is it something that you want/hope to do?

MM - Absolutely. Like I said, we are hitting the road again in September and plan on going nationwide over the course of the next year. We’re even in the middle of plans to make it out West again to California, which we haven’t been able to do in years. It’s going to be great getting back out there again. Although the Spotify age presents a new set of challenges, it has also opened up new opportunities, such as sync licensing and YouTube. Like most bands out there, we are definitely pursuing all possible revenue avenues nowadays.

Keep an eye on JamBase for news of Ghost Owl's fall tour plans. And if you they come to your town, be sure to get out and get your groove on with Ghost Owl.

[Published on: 6/6/14]

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