“We’re very much about trying to make a different sound that hasn’t been done before,” Ghoul bassist/rhythmist PavlÃ© says. He is immediately howled down by cries of “all the clichÃ©s!!” from his band mates. Considering Ghoul is one of the few current Sydney bands who might actually be doing that, it’s interesting that the members are wary of such claims.
The members of Ghoul have a long history, in spite of the relatively short life of the band so far. PavlÃ© and guitarist Anthony were friends in primary school. Singer/guitarist/synth player Ivan is PavlÃ©’s older brother by about a year. “I have memories of putting Anthony in a garbage bin sometime around Year 8,” Ivan remembers. “We absolutely hated each other. I was horrible. We were both bullied quite a bit and, you know how it is, you just pass that shit down the line. When I met his parents everything changed. They were so warm and they knew who I was because of PavlÃ©. Anyway, I just felt ashamed of how I had been treating him. From that point on we became friends.” Later, when Ivan was kicked out of another band all three were in, tight loyalties were honoured and the other two quickly followed to form Ghoul. Drummer Andrew had met Ivan at a party in Year 11, and the two had got to know each other in the following years. In need of a drummer, Andrew – the only drummer they knew – was invited and subsequently joined.
That was about two years ago.
My first encounter with Ghoul came one night a year later. Driving home, I caught the tail end of an hour slot they’d spent guest programming and being interviewed on Sydney’s FBi Radio. I only got to hear one of their own tracks, the now near-ubiquitous ‘Swimming Pool’, but that song, combined with their selection of other Sydney bands for whom I have quite a fondness, meant that I needed to check them out as soon as I got home. I did, ending up sending them a MySpace message and downloading their EP, A Mouthful Of Gold. The next day I had a reply message thanking me for the note and asking if I wanted them to send me a free CD of the EP.
Since then, I’ve downloaded 22 tracks plus the aforementioned radio show, all directly from Ghoul’s own websites. Following the initial EP, a bunch of improvisations, outtakes and works in progress were released as Abandoned / Afternoon / Ambient. There’s been a couple of other e-singles and remixes sent out into the ether as well. Why the generosity, I wondered? “From our experiences of going around to gigs, we didn’t have enough money to pay for drinks or anything after we got the door charge, so we just didn’t want people to have to fork out the extra money for an EP we were happy with at the time,” offers PavlÃ©. “We just didn’t think we’d reach enough people if we were selling EPs.” The idea worked and reach people it did. Google A Mouthful Of Gold and most of the important Australian music based blogs will top the list with their various reviews, all of them glowing.
One thing many of these reviews share is an inability to pin the band’s sound down. To my ears, there are shadows of Radiohead in the mix of electronics and traditional guitar/bass/drums alongside a very distinctive singing voice. There are traces of rock technologists like Battles. Other reviewers have heard shades of Animal Collective (Cyclic Defrost), Frank Sinatra playing sloppy highschool punk (Polaroids of Androids), Antony & The Johnsons (Mess+Noise) or Bauhaus (Joe.Blog). But none of that really describes them. The EP itself came early in the band’s life, and they were keen to simply find their feet. “It wasn’t something we were working extremely hard towards refining. We were trying to find a sound of some kind and develop it,” explains PavlÃ©. To complicate things more for the critics, the band sound completely different on stage, though some of the hooks are still discernible. “We couldn’t recreate what we’d recorded. It was too difficult to get an energy out of something that was very minimal,” says PavlÃ©. So why does the recording sound the way it does? Ivan explains, “I was terrible at recording. I was like, ‘I can’t record bass guitar for shit so let’s make this on synth’ or ‘the guitar sounds bad, let’s put that on synth’. The EP was done entirely in my bedroom.”
While the band deny it, there is a current groundswell of artists doing some similar things to Ghoul. It’s not a modernist scene defined by aesthetics (as punk, or techno, or grunge might have been), but a post-modern ‘scene’ in the sense that, while none of the bands necessarily sound alike, all are appropriating from similar places – the shreds of hook-based pop music framed in the clashes between traditional rock and electronic sounds. Their Sydney peers are people they’ve shared stages with – Seekae, Sherlock’s Daughter, Megastick Fanfare – but there are clear links spreading out to bands like the aforementioned Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Atlas Sound or more rock orientated strands like Tame Impala and Parts And Labor or even LCD Soundsystem and Battles. The links are not in similarities of sound, but in similar ideas. The past is used, but never forces the sounds into a retro corner. Traditions are used as signposts to direct the audiences, but none of the artists can really be accused of sounding ‘like’ anyone or any past movement in any specific manner. Technology is not the be all and end all, but neither is reactionary guitar traditionalism. Both are used as needed.
In Ghoul’s case, there’s a great sense of rhythmic intricacy. Andrew’s drumming is syncopation based and is often reinforced by PavlÃ© on his own floor tom or drum synth. Hi-hats are often traded in for drum rims, creating a rawer, less ‘rock’ feel. Time signatures shift seamlessly around and the two guitarists lay their colour over the foundations. Often playing in unison and often sitting on single chords rhythmically, they help enhance the polyrhythmic pulse. Synths and sequencing accent these foundations, but the sound can turn from gentle propulsion to immersive, beautiful noise in an instant, as a battery of guitar pedals kick in and shoegazing buzz is manically deployed. The music is tightly rehearsed but retains an appealing edginess. And then they slip into pure ambient backwash with plaintive singing.
With such reliance on ideas instead of stock sounds, one resulting feature of Ghoul’s recorded tracks is their brevity. “It wasn’t really getting bored with it. It was more like…we didn’t…we don’t…we don’t really know how to write songs properly!” guitarist Anthony explains. “I think we were over-worried that we’d let a song go longer than the idea was worth,” adds PavlÃ©. On stage, the tracks extend outwards, with minimalism often making way for euphoric percussion interludes and guitar freakouts. Ivan suggests, “if you play something for two minutes, you’re not really rewarding an audience for listening at all. For a person to grasp an idea, it takes [them] a while to understand they’re hearing a four on the floor kick (for example), so it takes 16 bars then it’s, ‘Alright, this is the mood’. If you’ve got something that only goes for a minute and a half or two minutes, they’re like, ‘All these things are happening and then it’s over’, and then they don’t know what to do.”
“But that wasn’t originally why we did it,” counters PavlÃ©. “Originally it was because we just couldn’t get it to sound right live, and then we just fleshed it out.” Conversely, as the band members have collected gear – synths, midi controllers, an Akai MPC – some of those recorded sounds have made their way into the live set, so there is quite a range of timbres now. This tension between the different faces of Ghoul seem to be resolving as the band settles into its skin. The Abandoned / Afternoon / Ambient release demonstrates a closer integration between the music the four members make as a band and the studio experiments that initially propelled them. The band say this is also reflected in new recordings for their debut album. This time, the tracks have often been written and played out live before being committed to hard disc.
Discuss Ghoul and it’s virtually impossible not to address the issue of Ivan’s presence. Live, he often commands half the stage, the rest of the band a tight unit stage right. From here he jerks his tall figure in rhythm, picks at his instruments and sings with pained smiles and closed eyes. He is captivating to watch, even more so when contrasted with Andrew, Anthony and PavlÃ©, who lock eyes and rhythms with each other, creating the alternating calms and maelstroms as Ivan engages the audience. The other factor that pulls him and Ghoul above the crowd is that voice.
“When I started singing, like really trying to develop my voice, I listened to a lot of [Jeff] Buckley. Day in, day out I would just listen to Buckley. Singing along to him in the car is really where my voice came about. Listening to the way he phrased things, or emphasised things, where he breathed… I just listened and copied and listened and copied. Stuff like vibrato was totally unconciously absorbed. Now when people say ‘turn down the croon’, I can’t. Fuck it, I croon. I can’t stop it, it just happens.” As with the music, these foundations don’t result in copyist tendencies. He doesn’t sound like Jeff Buckley to my ears, nor have I noticed any other reviewers picking up a similarity. But, when highlighted, the connections can be seen. Ivan’s voice has become one of the band’s calling cards, one of the things that sets them apart. Not because it sounds like anything else, but entirely because of its disjunction from other singers, as well as the ease with which it sits into the flow of Ghoul’s music.
“If you listen to Buckley, a lot of the actual words he sings are pretty lame, but it’s the way he sings them,” Ivan says when I ask about the lyrics. On another occasion he confesses, “Lyrics aren’t really my fortÃ©, but they’re heartfelt. My favourite lyricist is Morrissey, and he’s great with wordplay and connotations. I’ve been trying to get some of that in my writing. Just funny associations or things people will hear and go, ‘What?’ David Byrne is great too. And Dave Longstreth – he’s got great phrasing. It’s also really interesting to take on a character or persona, like Nick Cave does. I’ve been trying some of that as well. Writing is really where I need to be focusing right now.”
That Ghoul have appeared with such a distinct personality at such a young age is fairly remarkable, seeming to have leapfrogged the stage of development where most bands pastiche their idols. Their stated aims are modest, but they want to be the best they can be (the recording of our main interview begins with fierce discussion about how to fit second and third days of regular rehearsals in between their university study schedules – “9 to 12! That’s only 3 hours! Not enough!”). Ultimately, the band is showing the exploration of the borders between electronic and traditional instrumentation is no longer of interest in itself. The resulting music can be exciting in it’s own light. Typically, Ivan prefers to understate things – “It’s really funny, I remember everyone saying we’re an electronica band, or glitch-pop, but I think we’re just a guitar band who like to fiddle with stuff.”
Ghoul’s A Mouthful of Gold is available for free download from the band’s MySpace.