Ghost Light's Scotty Zwang Talks McGuire Zwang Duo & Life in Lockdown May 15, 2020 10:47

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of the most uncertain and troubling times that the world of music has ever seen. In nearly the blink of an eye, all forms of live music and entertainment were shut down amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic. The mission of Live & Listen has always been to provide a valuable platform for our favorite bands and musicians to build their audience, and there has never been a more important time do so.

Ever since catching Dopapod for the first time in 2014, I've been absolutely blown away by drummer Scotty Zwang. His energy, stage presence, and technique demands your attention and never fails to entertain from start to finish. Zwang has since moved on and toured with a number of nationally touring acts, most notably Ghost Light, which also features guitarist Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo's Almost Dead), keyboardist Holly Bowling, guitarist Raina Mullen, and bassist Dan Africano.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Scotty to learn a little more about his latest project, McGuire Zwang Duo, as well as how he's coping with life in quarantine. While this is a tremendously challenging time for professional, nationally-touring musicians, folks like Scotty are making the most of the situation and preparing to come back stronger than ever. Check out the full conversation below and make sure to follow McGuire Zwang Duo on all major social channels.

Photo by Donna Winchester: DonnasPics

Well, we're certainly in the midst of some crazy, uncertain times. This pandemic has hit the music industry as hard as any. How is everything going on your end, and what are you doing to stay productive and keep your mind in the right place?

Scotty: For sure. It's definitely a big change of pace. For so many of us, it has taken away what we do for a living, which is performing live. The music industry has evolved in a way that the most important thing you can do now is tour, sell tickets, and sell merchandise. Over the years, album sales have been down a lot. So this pandemic has definitely been tough and very different. The hardest aspect for me is that I live in an apartment. I'm trying as many different ways as possible to get creative. I've shifted a lot of focus to writing music. I will produce or write songs in Ableton, which is a digital workstation that I've grown comfortable with using over the years. It's been challenging to figure out what it is that I can do differently from touring. I've been fortunate to be able to play drums on the road so often, whether it be rehearsals or just having a place to play, that I've never really worried so much about not having a drum kit in my living space. My fiance and I had been looking for a more comfortable living situation, and the spot that we found was an apartment. 

There's just no room to set up a drum kit, on top of the noise issue and dealing with neighbors. It's been a major shift, and I've also had to shift my career back to teaching a lot more, which has been incredible. I've definitely realized how much I have missed teaching and just how rewarding it is to teach. Especially younger, or even just newer students, and just kind of kick starting their musicianship with the instrument. I've only been able to do it with a drum pad, but there is so much you can do with just a pair of sticks and a drum pad. Some of my students don't even have a drum pad. They just have their sticks, and they're playing on their bed or a pillow or whatever it might be. In the very early portion of the pandemic, some of them didn't even have sticks. We would just go over rhythm with their hands on percussion instruments or toys at home. I don't have any of that here, so I would just be doing it on a stack of paper plates and bowls (laughs).

Sounds like Trey Anastasio playing on rolls of toilet paper and wine glasses.

Scotty: Yeah, exactly. This pandemic gives you the opportunity to be a little more creative than you normally would have been. So, it's been rewarding in that sense, where I am spending a lot more time writing and teaching. I'm very grateful that I still have some form of income, as well as feeling really fulfilled, finances aside, with teaching, creating new music, or doing whatever it is that I normally wouldn't have time to do because I'm on the road. 

I've heard similar feedback from other musician friends who have had to direct all of their efforts to teaching. It's great to see those who are being able to stay busy and generate some new income. I know that hasn't been the case for everyone though.

Scotty: Yeah, for sure. Fortunately, I have my weekly lessons with students that I have built a strong student/teacher relationship with. With the technology of Zoom, Skype, or whatever it is that you're using, this is something that we can even continue when life gets back to normal when we're on the road. 

That seems to be one positive from all of this. I feel like a lot of musicians have realized that they can continue to teach virtually and generate additional income throughout the year, which is great to see. 

Scotty: Exactly. That's kind of my plan moving forward. Why not? Continue to teach. More so than just the income that's being missed by not touring, it's that much more rewarding to be able to play concerts at night and be able to teach during the day. You can do that from anywhere as long as you have a strong internet connection. That's kind of my plan moving forward from here. 

Well let's dive into the McGuire Zwang Duo. Tell me about the backstory. How did this project get started, and how have things progressed to where you are now?

Scotty: Ian (McGuire) and I have been playing music together since just before 2010. We were in a band called Sonic Spank. That's kind of where I started playing a little bit more in the jam scene and primarily the "livetronica," if you will, genre of music. Ian has always been one of my favorite keyboardists, both classically trained from a young age, as well as jazz trained at the Berklee College of Music. He's always been super fun to work with, and we have a great relationship. We're able to think very like minded, rhythmically, on a musical sense. We feed off of each other in a very special and unique way. 

When I moved to Philly in 2017, we had talked about doing a new project. There would be these opportunities where someone might need a band to open on a show they're putting together, but there isn't much of a budget. So I was thinking about how I could put something together with as few musicians as possible, in order to get the best bang for our buck. That kind of formed this band, which was originally called McZwang, and we decided to change the name to McGuire Zwang Duo. It sounds a little more profession, and it really helps showcase that it's just the two of us in this thing. Plus, it doesn't sound like a fast food chain (laughs). 

It worked pretty well for the Benevento Russo Duo.

Scotty: Exactly. We kind of took a page out of their book. I know they started similarly. There wasn't much of a budget. One of them had a residency at The Knitting Factory and had to figure out how to make that money go around and put more of it in your pocket. So, we've just been working on that. We've been working on an EP and putting out a record, because we haven't had much music out. When we changed the name, we had a little celebration show at this studio here in Philadelphia that also does smaller live shows. We had a gathering where we could capture that energy of a live show, but in a much more intimate setting. 

We just released our first set. Which is really the first half of a show with just Ian and I. During the second half, we had Danny Mayer on guitar, who plays with Eric Krasno Band. He's also in Star Kitchen with Marc Brownstein. We also had Jon Coleman, who is one of our favorite bassists. His band is called Muscle Tough. He does a lot with the Philly music scene, so we invited those guys to play the second half of the show with us. In the next few weeks, we will put out the second recording. For now, we've just released the first half, which focuses specifically on Ian and I as a duo. 

Very cool. You've obviously been involved with several major projects at this point in your career. What has this project allowed you to do differently as a musician? What about this duo excites you on a creative level?

Scotty: This kind of combines everything that I have learned over the past decade of touring full time. It takes all of those nuggets that I have learned over the years and combines them into a small, compact project. When you have several other musicians involved, whether it's a trio or even five people, as we have with Ghost Light, it can become harder and harder with all of those people connecting. It takes a lot of practice, but you can have that connection with however many people in a band. When you can have that connection between just two people, that stream of consciousness can happen so much faster. Especially with Ian, who at this point I've been playing music with longer than anyone else I've played with in the 20-25 years I've been playing my instrument. 

There is a connection there that is very different than anything I've ever done. It kind of takes everything we've learned from live improvisation and electronic dance music, and it incorporates more of the modern jazz approach that is happening now with people like Mark Guiliana and his band Beat Music, which has been a big influence on us. He also has a project with Brad Mehldau which is called Mehliana. Taking more of that jazz approach and the fusion on danceable jazz and electronic music. Maybe some of the Squarepusher influence as well in there. Trying to cater to not only what we're used to in the jam band scene, but also trying to stretch out into new avenues that we've never played in before. 

Listen to set one from McGuire Zwang Duo at Boom Room Studios here:

That's awesome. So you guys just released the first set of the live session. Have you guys released any studio material at this point?

Scotty: We've wrapped up production on our first EP. It's not quite a full album. It should be out later in the year. We're still wrapping up a few things there. We were going to try and release it pretty soon, but then all of this other stuff happened. It had to take a back seat, so we could figure out what life during a pandemic was going to look like. 

Well, I know it's hard to figure out exactly what the future is going to look like. Hopefully, you'll be able to get back to touring before too long. You obviously have Ghost Light continuing to take off. I'm sure that will continue to trend in a positive direction. How do you foresee the balance working out, and just how active do feel that the duo can be on your calendar?

Scotty: Over the last year or so, I've been having a much bigger focus on my life and work balance. When I was with Dopapod, we were playing anywhere from 120-150 shows a year. It was a lot of touring, and there wasn't much balance with my life. It was easy to feel a little burnt out. With Ghost Light, that has obviously been my main focus, but I did want to have something else to be able to focus on as well. Something to divide my time musically when Ghost Light is not on the road. We're only doing about 70 shows a year, and there is definitely some extra time in there to have other focuses creatively. I'm still balancing things out and making sure I put time aside for myself, life with my family, and obviously my fiancee. It's looking like I'll be doing Ghost Light about 1/3 of the year, and close to but not as much with McGuire Zwang Duo. 

Our aim is about 50 shows a year, maybe a little more depending on where it goes. We're going to try to do baby steps from there. Before any of this happened, Ian teaches a lot of students. He also has a few other projects. He is a full-time member of Lets Danza, which features the other members of Brothers Past, which is Tom Hamilton's former band. When he's not busy doing that, or his other project CIA (which features Clay Parnell and Allen Aucoin from The Disco Biscuits), he is teaching a lot. This is kind of a way for us to focus musically on something else. Something we can be creative with and have a little more control, with it just being the two of us. Once things open back up, we're hoping to continue with that goal of at least 50 shows a year and see what happens from there. 

Love hearing that. Is there anything else pertaining to the Duo that you'd like to mention?

Scotty: Well, we will definitely have set two, featuring Danny Mayer and Jon Coleman, coming out May 22nd. A little later in the year, you should definitely be keeping an eye out for our first studio release.

Can't wait to hear all of this material. Please keep us posted and let us know whatever we can do to help spread the good word. Always a pleasure chatting with you man. 

Scotty: Likewise. Thanks so much Jordan.