Ghost Light's Scotty Zwang Talks McGuire Zwang Duo & Life in Lockdown May 15, 2020 10:47
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.
An Evening with Ghost Light: Presented by Hog Days of Summer February 21, 2020 15:45
We could not be more pleased to partner with Druids Charity Club for an amazing night of live music at Montgomery's Capri Theatre on Wednesday, March 25th. One of the hottest up and coming acts in the country, Ghost Light, will make their first ever stop in the capitol city. Led by guitarist Tom Hamilton (of Joe Russo's Almost Dead), the band also featured famed pianist Holly Bowling, drummer Scotty Zwang (formerly of Dopapod), guitarist Raina Mullen (formerly of Tom Hamilton's American Babies), and bassist Dan Africano. They will be fresh off a major national tour with Greensky Bluegrass, which saw the band play in many of America's most prestigious venues.
Earlier this week, Ghost Light released HD, multi-cam footage from their recent performance at Thunderbird Music Hall in Pittsburgh, PA. Check out the complete footage below and make sure to RSVP to the official Facebook event for their upcoming show in Montgomery. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased by clicking here.
We recently caught up with two of the founding members of Druids Charity Club, Inge Hill and John Sullivan, who gave us a little more insight on their overall vision for the non-profit efforts and Hog Days of Summer:
"We have diverse musical tastes, but it is our opinion that nothing pairs with BBQ quite like blues and authentic country music, and all of their respective blends and offshoots. With that basic idea in mind, we strive to bring in a first class, family-friendly bill which loosely spans ‘Americana’ and roots influences such as blues, country, folk, bluegrass, and rock & roll.
So much of the popular music we hear on the radio today can be traced back to southern backroads and porches; we feel fortunate to be playing our small part in keeping these musical traditions alive in our community. Community has always been an integral component in both BBQ and this style of music, and therefore, our event. Our focus on the family is why we think the train shed is the best venue around for a multi-generational celebration such as Hog Days. It warms our heart to see kids dancing up front to the same music that is moving their parents. A statue of Hank Williams stands guard outside our venue, so that is a high standard and a long shadow which we try to respect."
- Inge Hill: Druids Charity Club
"We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization made up exclusively of volunteers. We give all of the profits from this event to Hogs for the Cause, a charitable organization which provides financial grants to children with cancer. Often overlooked in the spectrum of cancer treatment is the financial strain placed on a family when their child is diagnosed. Parents are forced to miss work for various reasons, whether it be to sit with their child during treatments or care for them when they are struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy. Many parents lose significant wages or even their jobs in this process. They often get behind on their mortgage, struggle to pay for utilities, or simply cannot afford to drive to Birmingham for their treatments. Our efforts lessen this burden."
- John Sullivan: Druids Charity Club
Year Two of Ghost Light: An Interview with Tom Hamilton April 16, 2019 13:47
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Photo by Donna Winchester: DonnasPics
In preparation for Ghost Light's upcoming run through the southeast, we recently sat down with guitarist / vocalist Tom Hamilton to learn more about what what we can expect from the band in year two, their recent album release, and much more. With scheduled performances in Nashville (4/16), Asheville (4/17), Charleston (4/18), Atlanta (4/19), and Charlotte (4/20), southern jam fans have plenty of options. The tour continues on April 24th at Zydeco in Birmingham, and you can enter to win a pair of tickets by sharing this interview from the Live & Listen Facebook page. See below for our full conversation with Tom, and make sure you don't miss out on this run!
Let's start off by talking about your personal journey. You've toured the country and been involved with a number of projects. How would you describe the journey thus far?
Tom: Yeah man. It's been a long go, I guess. I started playing at bars when I was twelve, and I just turned forty. That's a good amount of time. It's funny. Starting that early, there was never really an option. There was no "plan B," so to speak. This is just what you do, because you love to play music. Starting in middle school, I was a student with a part time job. On the weekends, I played concerts. It's always been like that. Up until about four years ago, I always had a job as well. It's something I did because I loved to do it.
With my first band, Brothers Past, that was a college experience. I lived with a bunch of dudes. It was like living in a frat house. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing...with any of it. That was a van full of 21 to 24 year old kids with no internet or iPhone. We had an atlas and a van. It was just like, "Ok...I guess we're gonna drive to fuckin' Cleveland today!" That kind of fell apart unfortunately, or I guess fortunately, because I'm ok with where I am now. I love being in a band. I've always enjoyed that comradery and the hang in general. It's something I've always been super into.
Clearly. Things have obviously come a long way since then. Joe Russo's Almost Dead has really taken off. I'm sure that's been a bit of a game changer for you personally. How much have things changed since then?
Tom: Hmm...I don't think things have changed personally. You're talking to me right now. I'm in Columbus, Ohio at a 300 person venue that I've played a bunch of times over the course of my life. I've been on the road for four weeks. I'm in a van with five other people. This could be April 11th 2019. This could also be April 11th 2001. There's not that much of a fucking difference.
The JRAD thing has been amazing. You're right. It's provided so many opportunities and has made it more feasible, or maybe more comfortable, to do what I'm doing right now. I'm still doing the same shit though. I still have the same goals. I started Ghost Light last year, and fortunately, my experience over the years and the entire organization has allowed us to grow a lot in our first year of existence. It hasn't changed my goals, which are to be in a band with a group of people that is based around original music.
That's what I like to do. I like to make interesting records. I feel like I've stuck to my guns, you know? When I was a kid, in my mid-twenties, someone asked me to take a gig with this band that just wasn't my cup of tea. It wouldn't have been something that I believed in and enjoyed. I would have just done it for the money. I turned it down, and at the time, I was fucking poor. I had been living on Joe Russo's couch for the better part of four years. I had changed my residence to a couch in The Disco Biscuits' studio in Philadelphia. I was sleeping on that couch or in my car, so it's not like I was in a position to be picky about gigs. I didn't want to just do something for the money. My buddy thought I was crazy. I told him the only gig I'd ever consider doing that wasn't my music was something related to the Grateful Dead. That's how I started listening to and playing music.
So when the JRAD thing came together, I was all about it. I love the Grateful Dead. That music is a part of my DNA and a part of my existence. I've been lucky that I've been able to get to this point. I'm not fucking Bono or anything. I'm just a working musician, but I'm able to make a living doing it. I can look in the mirror everyday because I got here doing what I wanted to do. I didn't have to take a bunch of bullshit gigs that I didn't believe in, and there's a small sense of satisfaction with that.
Photo by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography
I can imagine so. So more specifically, Ghost Light is entering year two now. You guys have covered a lot of ground thus far. Packing out venues from day one. How has this experience been for you thus far, and what stands out the most when looking back on year one?
Tom: Oh man. It's been really interesting. The response has been crazy...and heartwarming. It's really nice that people are taking a chance on coming out and seeing this band. I feel like most of the reaction has been very positive. Those people seem to enjoy it and are likely to come back again. That's a nice feeling, because there's a lot of stock in the tribute thing right now. It's nice to know that people are still open minded enough to come check out a new original band that isn't playing Grateful Dead or Phish tunes.
That's gotta be encouraging, especially considering that this is a brand new band performing new original material. A lot of people are coming out and giving you guys a chance without having a whole lot of familiarity with the band's catalog.
Tom: Absolutely. I'm really proud of our management team. They've done an amazing job getting our live material out there into the ether and consciousness of the listener. Whether it's through live recording on Archive.org or video clips, it's been great to see the positive reaction. People are willing to pay their hard earned money to see us play. There's only so many people and only so much money people have to spend. When someone chooses to spend that time and money on us, it's a pretty special feeling.
It's been about three weeks since the release of the band's debut album, Best Kept Secrets. The band ultimately decided to release two singles prior to the full album release. What do you feel are some of the positives and negatives of releasing a new album in the modern digital era?
Tom: Honestly, I think it's all positives. You're putting out an album. You create a piece of art, that is ideally something that really matters. It's part of being a creative person. I've never taken that lightly. I love albums, but I do realize that, in some ways, it is the less desired form of consumption. That doesn't mean you stop cutting albums though. There are plenty of people that still appreciate it. So yeah, I think it's all positives man. I look at as a piece of art, a statement, and piece of yourself. It's a very important landmark in your life. I look back on my life and career thus far, and the albums reflect my experiences. They're great chapters. It's a really exciting thing for me.
Absolutely. I'm sitting here looking at Spotify right now. The first single you released was "Best Kept Secrets," and it's already sitting with 72,000+ streams. The various streaming networks certainly give you the ability to reach a wide audience quickly, which is valuable.
Tom: Yeah...it's all good man. Even if people don't like it, I'm cool with it. As long as it's out there.
You mentioned that you're a few weeks in to a three month tour across the country. What habits and patterns have you developed over the years to keep a sound mind and body while living on the road?
Tom: Oh man. That's a great question. I try not to take anything too personally. We're out here, and we have a mission. We're out here to make this music and present ourselves to the masses. Personally, I just try to keep my eye on the ball. Obviously, the hang is important. Having fun is important. At the end of the day, I try to keep my head on straight. Be conscious of what the goal is. There are days off, and someone might want to go for a hike. Maybe it's best for me (and best for the show) if I just chill and recharge the batteries. Maybe going for a hike is the best thing another day. Being self aware and always trying to do what's best for the three hours you have to put everything out on stage, you know?
That makes sense. I know that you take a lot of pride in keeping things fresh and putting on a unique show every night. How does each set play out with preparation vs. improvisation?
Tom: It's one of my favorite parts of the process. We don't ever have a setlist. We have a song list, maybe eight songs, that we know we want to play. We just go out there, play, and figure it out as the show unfolds. As we're walking on stage, we'll decide on a starting point. That's about the extent of the planning. Whatever happens happens. We try to have strong communication on stage, and if someone brings the band to a certain song, then that's where we go. We get there, play that tune, and keep moving.
Photo by Donna Winchester: DonnasPics
What is the band's approach towards covers? Is there much focus on keeping a fresh rotation?
Tom: Here and there. Personally, I don't care that much about it. I get my fill playing covers with JRAD. With Ghost Light, we try to throw in some covers to keep things fresh. I try not to give too much credence to that shit. A lot of the blogs out there focus on when a band plays a certain cover. Why not give more coverage to their original music, you know? (laughs). Personally, I try not to put too much weight into the cover thing. We have some cool ones on the list that are certainly outside the box. We do an 80's Kinks song and a Shins tune. Those aren't covers that a lot of people in our scene are going to expect.
I like that approach. It's always refreshing to hear a cover that hasn't been done a million times.
Tom: Yeah man. We like to try some different things and throw in a few deep cuts.
Before we wrap things up, I was curious to know how you're balancing things out between JRAD and Ghost Light. How do you see the calendar playing out for the rest of 2019?
Tom: Honestly, balance isn't really a luxury that I have. JRAD does 40 shows a year, and that's that. Ghost Light is probably going to do 80 to 100. That's what you have to do to grow a band and build something new.
That's almost half the year already.
Tom: Yeah...it's a lot of fucking time (laughs). To quote The Godfather Pt. 2, "this is the business we have chosen." I don't know man. I've just always tried to work as hard as I can. Put your head down, dig in, and do the job. Good things will happen. They might not happen right when you want them to. I would have rather had this kind of success when I was in my twenties, and not have to wait 'til my late thirties, but it still came. I believe it's because I work very hard. I think that's a truth that anyone would try to deny. It is what it is.
Balance is something I'll worry about in a few years. Maybe when I get to fifty, I'll try to find some balance. At the moment, I love the JRAD thing so much. I love the hang. I love that music. With Ghost Light, we're building something here that people are reacting to. I'm responsible for my bandmates as much as they're responsible for me. I need to work as hard as I can to make sure that their careers are as successful as mine, if not better. There's a lot that needs to happen, but balance isn't really a part of it for me.
There's a time and place for everything. It's been a pleasure catching up with you. I really enjoyed interviewing the entire band back in December, but I wanted to make sure we covered some different topics today.
A Conversation with Ghost Light: The Band We've All Been Waiting For December 3, 2018 17:22
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Photos by Donna Winchester
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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 Bowling, drummerScotty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.