A Conversation with Ghost Light: The Band We've All Been Waiting For December 03, 2018 17:22

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

Photos by Donna Winchester

Since the inception of this website, artist interviews have been our bread and butter. If your goal is to be a valuable platform for the bands you love and believe in, you might as well try to find a way to tell their story. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to interview many of my musical heroes, such as JoJo Hermann, Col. Bruce Hampton, Marco Benevento, Luther Dickinson, and Neal Casal

It's a rare opportunity to sit down, face-to-face, with an entire band before their show. In fact, this past Friday night at Atlanta's Terminal West was the first time that I've found myself in that position. Fortunately, the guys (and gals) from Ghost Light are some of the most humble, kind, and down-to-earth musicians I've met thus far. 

Ghost Light took form towards the end of 2017, and they're off to one of the most impressive starts that the jam/festival has ever seen. The band is comprised of guitarist Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo's Almost Dead, American Babies), renowned pianist Holly BowlingdrummerScotty Zwang (Dopapod, RAQ), guitarist Raina Mullen (American Babies), and bassist Steve Lyons (Nicos Band). We discussed a number of topics, including the band's formation, songwriting, improvisation, their debut album, and much more. Read the interview in full, and check out photos from the Terminal West show via Donna Winchester, below. 

I've been a big fan of each of you for several years now, whether it be American Babies, JRAD, Dopapod, or Brother's Past. Where do I even begin with everything you (Holly) have done? Tell me about how Ghost Light ultimately came together.

Tom: Yeah, so Raina and I had American Babies going. We were seeing the writing on the wall with that band. We needed to make a change, and we had been playing with Holly a fair amount. She had been sitting in with us here and there, and it was always exponentially better whenever she was playing. So, Raina and I were sitting wondering, "Do we ask Holly to join the band?" Or maybe we just start a new band.
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We were down in Mexico. I was doing this thing with Bobby (Weir) and (Billy) Kreutzmann, and I was just super stressed. I wasn't having fun. My manager was like, "Hey man, you're at this tropical resort playing with three guys from The Dead and you’re not having fucking fun. You've got to figure something out."

I guess you could say that was the "seed" that made it clear. There's gotta be a change. I saw on social media that Scotty (Zwang) was thinking about moving to Philadelphia, so I reached out to talk to him and check the pulse, if you will. I've known Steve (Lyons) forever. I knew he was in LA and didn't have a steady gig at the moment. I thought that if these guys were available and interested, that would be a pretty amazing group of four. Then I could bring that to Holly and say, "I've got a pretty amazing band here. I think we can do some really great stuff together." So we all talked about it and decided to give it a whirl.

Very cool. So, has it even been a full year yet?
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Tom: What year is it? (laughs)
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It's 2018. December 1st, 2018...to be specific.
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Holly: It's been about a year.
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Tom: There were a lot of moving parts there, and the whole thing is still somewhat of an unorthodox way of going about things, you know? So we now had people. That's cool. We're all in on this thing. It's a band where nothing is centered around one person. Then we had to figure out a way to make music while living in different places. We booked studio time right around this time last year. 
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Scotty: Mid-December. It hasn't even been a year.
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Tom: The mission statement was, "Hey...we're going to get together, as a band for the first time, and we're gonna do this thing. We're gonna sit down, the five of us, play music and see how it goes. That gave us all four months to figure out our own shit. Raina and I got a bunch of LSD and wrote a bunch of songs...
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Probably not the worst idea...
 
Tom: Yeah absolutely. It was a funny idea. Holly wrote a bunch of material as well. We started sending things around to each other and generating new ideas. With Scott living in Philly, he could come over to the house and fuck around with Raina and I. It got to the point where it was go time, and we got to the studio. Let's play and see what happens.
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You guys haven't released any studio material yet, correct?
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Tom: Not until March of 2019.
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Can't wait for that. Perfect transition into the next topic. You guys already have a lot of material from Brothers Past and American Babies. One song that I've really grown to love is "Boy."
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Tom: Ah yes. That's the first song I ever wrote. I was 16 years old when I wrote that song. 
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Wow. That makes me love it even more.
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Tom: It's fuckin' old. That song can vote!
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Unbelievable. So how did you ultimately decide on which tracks would make the final cut for the band's first release?
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Tom: We wrote as much as we could we when got together. Fortunately, Raina and I have a catalog that we were able to bring in and give to this band. I don't view any of those songs as Brothers Past or American Babies songs anymore. They're Ghost Light songs. We all put our own flavor and stamp on them. To be frank, if it's not for the five of us playing those songs, they don't exist at all. They're our songs, and we get to do whatever we want with them. And we certainly do whatever we want with them. 
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Just take 'em and run with 'em.
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Tom: Yeah, origami these fuckers. Hell yeah. 
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Holly: It's been really cool as a new band. We haven't even been doing this for a full year yet and none of us want to go out and play the same set every night. 
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Of course. That would go against the rules of the musical world you're apart of...
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Holly: Yeah, rules...and also just what we want to do with the songs. If we're gonna be out there doing this night after night, we want it to be fun for all of us. It's been really cool to have a bunch of other songs to take it to different sonic and emotional spaces. And also not to have the people who wrote these songs saying, "Hey, this is how it goes. This is the way my last band did it." We've been able to take a lot of liberties with all of these songs, which has been really fun to explore.
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I can imagine. So I did want to ask you (Holly) about how this experience has been for you personally. It's been at least four or five years since you really blew up on the scene with certain YouTube videos. You've become one of the more popular "special guests" at festivals...
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Holly: Professional set crasher... (laughs)
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What has it been like to finally find your home with such a talented group of musicians? I've never been a part of a real band, but I can imagine that it has to be special when you start seeing the magic happen. The reactions on the faces of fans during shows. What has this been like for you?
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Holly: Honestly, if we're comparing sitting in with different people versus playing in this band and what makes that so much better... it's just getting to know each other musically. Finding that deeper connection. Having to dig further to find new things each night. Having that trust in each other. You know that you can take more risks than if you're sitting in with a band who you're not as familiar with.
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With some people, you can throw out something crazy, and they'll run with it. Other people will be like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on. What's going on?" That's not this band at all. It feels like a very good place to be.
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Scotty: A sit-in can be fun, but you want to do your own thing. With a band like this being so new and just having endless possibilities of doing whatever we feel like in that moment. Like Tom was saying, the song isn't written a specific way. It really go anywhere that we all collectively feel. I think we're very fortunate that within the first year, we already feel this really solid chemistry.
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No matter how talented you are, sometimes the chemistry just isn't there. I think we're very fortunate that all five of us bring something to the table that we all connect with, to some degree, right out of the gate. 
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Holly: It's super communicative, you know? It's not always like that. That's actually one of the things that made me want to play in this band. It's always been like that whenever any of us have played together in the past. You throw something out, and there is instant conversation back and forth. The feeling of listening and being heard. 
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Steve: There's a variety of sounds that are accepted by the audience. People, in general, seem to like it when we go up and down dynamically. Have different types of instrumentation that is up front and in the background. I'm just glad that we're able to go in a direction that people seem to enjoy.
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Raina: It's nice that there is no expectation for us. We haven't released any music, so people don't even really know what we sound like. We can sound like anything we want. 
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Exactly. Most everyone is coming in blindly, unless they've been to one of your previous shows. 
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Raina: Yeah, or maybe listened to us on YouTube. Every show we play is so different. We do so many different genres just in one show. That's what is really interesting about it. 
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How would you compare your experience with American Babies to where you are now with Ghost Light?
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Raina: Personally, as a musician, I have learned a lot in the past year. It's like a master class kind of thing. I felt a little inexperienced before this, but I was still on the road for three years. That band, I felt that they weren't willing to listen. Listen to what each player was doing to propel the song forward to the next level. We weren't adventuring and taking that next step in each song. With this band, it's a totally different experience. Everyone's listening. Everyone is trying something different every time we play a song. It's never the same. That's the best part about it.
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That's amazing, because I wanted to ask all of you about your approach to songwriting and improvisation. Both are key components to this band. Do you follow a particular pattern with songwriting? How do you decide when to just run wild with it?
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Tom: The jam part of it never comes into the room. That's a different thing. The live thing. The idea of what happens on stage. Personally, I try to keep those things very separate from each other. I think the point of a song should be to challenge yourself, challenge your audience, challenge your bandmates.
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It's like writing a tune that you wish existed. I feel like sometimes people will just make a record that they already own. I want to make a record that I wish I had. The song that I wish I was able to listen to. With this band, it's a whole different thing. Writing for a band is way different. Personally, I had an aversion to anything that was too personal. Very conscious of making sure that it is something that could be interpreted many ways over different genders, different ages.
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For this band, I think that is a strength of the song writing. I think there is a voice on all sides of things in most of the songs. I think that is a pretty interesting thing that we just kind of stumbled upon as we were writing. There is a dynamic in the songs that feels very even. Bounces from one side to another of whatever the opposing sides may be. Trying not to think of the live stuff, or any of that shit. What's good? What's interesting? What's artistic that everyone isn't doing?
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That's one of the most consistent questions I ask. Doing these interviews for four years now, I'm always amazed to hear the different philosophies behind songwriting, because there's no one way to do it. 
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Tom: Exactly. I give this example all of the time. Louis CK gave this speech once at George Carlin's memorial. He talked about how Carlin would spend a year writing an hour's worth of comedy. He would film it for HBO then never tell those jokes again. He said it destroyed him to think of that. To think of taking this well crafted, beautiful thing that was an hour long. Making it and then never using it again. It's a devastating thing to think of to waste something like that.
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But then what happens...this can turn into music here... The metaphor is that you write your first song, and usually they suck. Something about love. Then you can't write about that anymore. That's kind of the goal. You throw that out. What do you write about after that? Well, I don't know. Maybe you write about your dog. Now that's off the table. Then you write about your family. Now that's off the table. You keep going and you have to dig deeper and deeper until you get to the shit you don't want to talk about. 
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That's the stuff that I feel is kind of the art of things you need to talk about. The things people need to hear or want to hear. When I'm writing, if I hear anything that sounds like it anywhere else, I throw it in the trash. 

Scotty: What I love about this is that there are so many different voices and experiences through writing music. I don't really have much experience writing any music. Anything that I have written is kind of recent. There is a sense of self awareness. You're almost embarrassed to show anyone. It's just pieces and chunks and not a full idea. Fortunately, I get to work with people who are classically trained in reading, writing, and studying piano. Then you have Steve who has a wealth of knowledge with writing songs and producing music.
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What really makes this band interesting, for me at least, why I love it so much is that when someone does come with an idea...no one decides they want it to be a certain way. It's more about hearing everyone's ideas about. In the end, it's really whatever is best for the song. That's the only important end result. I feel like we are all very open to those ideas. Sometimes it can be hard. Not all bands are like that.

Some will have an idea and not want to drift away from it. I feel like we try to throw that completely out the window. It's a very similar approach with improvising. Going deep off and not rejecting ideas. Everyone is listening and being patient. That's a cool thing and we need to tap into that.

Steve: I think we're all looking forward to the next chance we have to bring new ideas to the table. The way we made the first batch of songs was very much so in platforms. If you bring a platform in, maybe it needs a bridge or something else that I can't quite bring to it. Luckily, there are four other people who can. We seem to be pretty good at that so far, as far as giving our two cents on what a tune could use without someone saying "I want it to be this way." Even if someone starts to be aggressive about what you can do with an idea, then we are pushing each other.
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Raina: I think coming from a place of fear and intimidation is a good vehicle to use. Doing something that scares you makes you grow more. That's what I feel that a lot of us do in this band. I'm a little scared of playing with people much more talented than me, but there is something to learn from that. Why not use it?
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That's a great philosophy towards life in general. I've worked in sales for about ten years now. You go out and make calls and what's the worst thing that's going to happen? Someone is jerk and tells you no? Oh well, see you next month. Keeping that mentality at all times is the challenge. 
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Raina: Because ego gets in the way, so it's like, "Well, fuck my ego." 
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Tom: Not to get too deep on it, but the idea of how things are today. There are no dissenting views in peoples' lives. If you don't agree with me, you can unfriend me. Some bullshit like that. The idea of surrounding yourself with only likeminded people... "I consider myself this column, and I will only associate with people who agree with me."
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With anything, if you put the same fucking ingredients into something, you'll never get different results. It's the same old shit. I feel like whether that is a social circle, social platform, music...it's about the variety. It's about doing different things. If you think the opposite of me, we should at least have conversations. Interesting things might come out of that. 
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Like what Steve said earlier, if everyone is working with the same confines, then everyone is going to sound the same. What the fuck is the point of that? You don't want 17 records to come out one year and sound the same. That's not art. That's just consumerism. 

We're trying to say something. We're trying to do something. We're trying to help people and push the art forward. We're all chasing the Beatles. They were true to art and what they wanted to do is create the best things that you could create. What that led to was a complete change in the world. 

Scotty: It's also a very healthy competition. If you are intimidated or the ego comes out...in this instance John Lennon just wrote an awesome song. Well, Paul is like "I gotta one up him." There is a friendliness to it, at least in the beginning it was kind of friendly. 
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Tom: The idea of Paul bringing something in, and it was cool, but it was "super Paul" and super vanilla. Then John comes in and just crushes it. You listen to a song like "We Can Work It Out," and it's the most Paul McCartney sounding tune ever. Then you get to the bridge, where you know John Lennon wrote that shit. It's that black cloud coming in. That's what makes the song great. It's the idea of bands. Bands are the things that people will always fucking remember. The biggest things that ever happened are The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Radiohead.
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All of these bands were bigger than anything any of them did on their own. You'd be hard pressed to find more than, say Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, people that did it without a band. Springsteen actually did it with a band, so I take him off the fucking list. 
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I think there is one that you left off the list: The good ole Grateful Dead.
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Tom: There it is. The good ole Grateful Dead. 
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Two more things before we wrap up. You've already mentioned you're planning to release the album in March of 2019. How much material are you guys working with for the album?
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Raina: We wrote maybe 10 songs, and we stuck with 8. A few are instrumentals. 
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Will there be any tracks that have never been played live?
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Raina: Yes. There will be one that we've never played. It's an instrumental.
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It's obviously been a crazy year. So much happening at once. I was hoping you could share a few of your favorite moments thus far. Also, what's on the horizon for 2019?
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Scotty: Playing festivals like LOCKN' and High Sierra were really great moments. Having the first tour be so successful with sold out shows, it was great. Honestly, this run, for me, has been great. Still being a new band and doing a festival every two weeks, there is a learning curve. You go up and down quite a bit. I feel like now there is a consistency where I feel that even though it's only been a year, we're really a tight unit now.
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Not that we weren't on the first run, but we're just that much tighter. This last week specifically, it's been very consistent and solid. Every show has been very different. I'm just excited for this record to come out. It will be great to hear the contrast of what we do live versus in the studio, because they're two very different things. 
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Holly: People who are familiar with the songs already from our live shows will hear them presented in a very different space and very different light. For me, in terms of highlights, it's amazing to play bigger stages and all of the festivals. We are grateful for those opportunities.
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The thing that matters more for me, it's just the little moments on certain nights where everyone is completely locked into the same idea. Sometimes you try and try, and it just doesn't stick. That's the whole point though. Take the risk. Sometimes it's gonna be something better than you imagined. The times that we've managed to hit that all together as a band really make me happy.
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Steve: For me, a lot of it is mood based. I will feel like I struck gold and hope people will really like it. Other times I feel like I missed, but people really liked it. The uncertainty makes it exciting. I think we've all done things we didn't think we could do.
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Raina: I agree with all of these things. I'm looking forward to releasing the record, but I just want to write more songs and play new stuff.
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Please do.  Last but not least, what can we expect from Mr. Tom Hamilton in 2019?
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Tom: More Ghost Light. 
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Yes! Great answer.
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Tom: I think this record is interesting. It will show a different side of the band. What we're capable of. At the end of it, you look at bands that are good at doing what we do. It's like, "Wow. This is working, and it's only the beginning."
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You've just scratched the surface. Please keep this going for a long, long time. 
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Tom: It'll be interesting to see how things progress. Where are we in six months? I can't really imagine what better is. It's like 1985, you've got a cell phone with a backpack on it. How's it gonna get better than this? Magnum PI's on TV. I'm driving my convertible. It doesn't get better than this. But you couldn't have imagined an iPhone. So, I have no idea what it's going to be like. 
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I suppose we'll all have to wait and find out. The future certainly seems very bright. Thanks so much, to all of you, for taking the time to sit and talk with me. Looking forward to the show!
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Watch Ghost Light's full show from Brooklyn Bown (11/21/18) here:
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