Tim Fowler and Patrick Girard from Ghosts of Electricity
by Ian Duggan
‘Ghosts of Electricity’ were formed in Hamilton, but despite now being based in Auckland, they are still good enough to come and visit. With their upcoming appearance at the Hamilton Underground Press Xmas party, I talk to guitarist and vocalist Tim Fowler and drummer Patrick Girard about being labelled ‘White Collar Punk’, their lyrics, and the communal nature of their name.
GoE, let’s talk first about your sound. Most of your songs I would describe as archetypal punk; they are short, fast-paced and riff heavy. And from various sources, I see you have firmly acquired for yourselves the genre description of ‘White Collar Punk’. However, in one interview you have stated “people said we were punk so we just took that, really”. Was having a punk sound not your aim for the band? And do you think your songs have increasingly become more influenced by punk bands the more these comparisons are made?
Patrick: We’re not into performance music. Writing punk rock is fun and efficient. You don’t need many chords, you don’t need solos or any kind of paraphernalia. You don’t need a fucking double-bass drum pedal either. It’s also a style of music that works well with Tim’s sardonic writing style. And since there’s no glamour in playing it well, we don’t suck at it. I guess we naturally gravitated towards it. The white collar thing is because that’s what we are: three professional dudes who go to bed at nine. Nothing punk about us. But is that necessary to play three chords at a fast pace for two minutes while screaming ludicrous shit?
Tim: In terms of the punk thing, I’m really hoping the next album will surprise some people. There will probably be at least one or two straight ahead punk songs and some people will probably still hear most of the rest as punk, but I’m hoping to get in some stuff that’s a bit more like Princess Chelsea, with quite prominent glockenspiel. We’ve only got one demo fully finished with the whole band, overdubs and vocals for the next album, and that’s 120bpm and in 5/4, which isn’t something you’d normally associate with punk. It does have some atonal vocals and heavily distorted guitar, so I guess it depends on what you consider punk. Ultimately no matter what we do, we’ll sound like us, and we’ll never escape that and shouldn’t try. We sound basic and rough and probably always will, and we love playing fast and distorted and probably always will, so I think we’ll never escape the punk thing completely. In terms of whether the tag has pushed us to be more like the tag, it’s double edged I think.
Tim: That’s a timely question. I’ve always been interested in lyrics, often a lot more than the melody. Up to and including [our 2014 EP] We are all Bigots I put no thought into melodies at all, I just put my words into the song and if I could force the meter to work then that would be the song. On Trolls one of the big differences in my approach was to try to get a song with a melody before I added lyrics. For On the Beach, for example, the rhythm guitar was written first, then I recorded that and overdubbed a solo, then tried to use fragments of the original solo as the vocal melody and had to force the words to fit into those. Four of the songs on Trolls were written like that, which is still the minority, but I think as a tendency I’m in the process of taking out some of the early focus on lyrics. It’s not to say that I’m not trying to write good ones, just that I’m now trying to write a melody more than I’m trying to write lyrics. There’s that Talking Heads song Naïve Melody which is a fantastic song in my opinion and I love everything about it. I found out the vocals to that song were written by David Byrne mouthing different letter sounds until he found what fit, then choosing words that fit the sound of the letters he was singing in any given place. Yet to me that piece of music is totally coherent as a whole and I still think the lyrics are perfect. I think they match the mood of the song, and although I couldn’t tell you what the song is about exactly, I think I know the feeling that the song is about and it’s a feeling we don’t have a word for. Now I’m still a long way from using that approach, and I don’t think I could even get that method to work. However, it did really make me think about what I was doing and why, and whether that was the best way to do it. In terms of writing lyrics I will still use basically the same process and themes, but it will now tend to follow other parts of the song. I don’t think that that’s necessary a bad thing for lyrics either, just a neutral thing. My opinion has always been that the concept is more important than exact word choice, and there’s a million different ways to express a given concept once you’ve thought of it, so you can always modify lyrics to fit meter without too much trouble. Getting back to your question though, I think you can expect a bit more thought into the way words fit the song, but not necessarily too much difference in the focus.
Patrick: There’s plenty to be angry about, and I share that anger with the punk movement. I’d say Tim has it too, though he’d probably not admit it. But it’s definitely there in the lyrics. Is that what leads to the punk comparison? That’s an interesting point. You’re right, there’s a lot more to punk rock than short fast songs with three chords. I thought it was more in the way we sounded, but it might be about the content of what we say. Choice. Anger gets old though. It’s simple things in life that reconcile me with the world. The local, small things that people create, or that the world provides. It doesn’t take much. A beach, a partner, a tree… that’s what I like about On the Beach, Tim. It’s simple, it feels good. But don’t put glockenspiel all over the next album! Actually, glockenspiel is alright. But one fucking tambourine and I’m out!
Tim: It’s so hard to try to measure your successes in the local NZ music scene. It’s certainly nothing like what a lay person would assume is success. If I go to play in another town and a single person turns up to see us specifically, and that person isn’t a friend of the band, to me that is tremendous success. When people ask me socially about how my band is going, a question I get all the time is whether I make any money off of it. Other musos will know the answer to this already, if you’re in it for the money, the best decision you can make is to choose another hobby. Being less cynical, we have got a lot of really positive press which is great and Trolls has been received better than anything else I’ve worked on, which I’m really stoked about.
Patrick: We put a lot of work in the pre-production of Trolls. We recorded demos of all songs, and took the time to discuss what worked, what we liked or not, etc. We even made spreadsheets — fucking engineers! But that made recording the album very efficient, and it also made the band a lot tighter. That definitely payed off live.
HUP: I note that there are a few bands around the world called Ghosts of Electricity. With a quick look on Facebook I can find namesakes in San Francisco (California), Austin (Texas), Berkeley (California) and Duluth (Minnesota). Any regrets?
Tim: I think the San Francisco band (who are a Dylan covers band) were around when we chose the name, but I honestly thought that one of us would have given up by now! They seemed tiny when we started, but they’ve hung around and so have we. I know there was also an electronic act that went by the same name for a while, not sure if that’s one of the ones you’re referring to. It’s just a result of the internet age I think, there was probably a bunch of bands around the world called The Dudes when Th’ Dudes were starting out. I thought of a few names at the start, and every one I thought of had a couple of bands somewhere called that already. The Dylan covers band is on itunes and so are we, so that does kind of annoy me a little bit because there’s an obvious opportunity to listen to the wrong thing for them and us, and both sets of people will be disappointed. In fact some of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the San Fran GOE, which I assume is a mistake instead of a love of Bay area covers bands. It has occurred to me to get a name that is unique, but even if we do that, we have to wait until publicity for Trolls has subsided. It’s hard though, because if we did change our name we’d lose some of ground that really hasn’t been easy to make.
HUP: Each band has a pretty limited time to play the Hamilton Underground Press Xmas party. What might we expect to hear?
Tim: We’re really looking forward to the HUP Xmas gig. The last show we played in Hamilton was a lot of fun. We’re not quite there for playing anything post-Trolls live yet, and we’ve only really been practicing stuff off of Trolls, so fingers crossed we don’t get any requests, haha.