Despite their reputation as darlings of the Vancouver underground, the five members of Dead Ghosts have recently become, well, ghosts on the local circuit. But there’s a good reason for the band’s quietness.
Formed nearly a decade ago in North Delta, the garage-rock group grew out of founders Byran Nicol, Drew Wilky, and Mike Wilky’s desire to hang out and play music with a “bunch of skaters and cool people”. After the trio uploaded a few demos to Myspace—this was 2008, after all—a producer from Iowa reached out and asked if they wanted to do a single. He turned out to be uncommonly well-connected, and traded the resulting 7-inch with a number of distributors until the record ended up in the hands of a label. Then came the group’s first full-length album, the self-titled Dead Ghosts.
“We got really lucky,” Nicol, the group’s frontman, recalls on the line to the Straight from a Vancouver back alley. “When we started playing, we were just messing with recording, and generally goofing around. We had no vision at all. We maybe wanted to play house parties or something—that was the limit of our aspirations.”
Defying their own expectations, by 2015 the group had released two more albums—Can’t Get No and Love and Death and All the Rest—and embarked on a number of lengthy tours across Europe and Western Canada. Playing a distinctive brand of swaggering, blues-infused lo-fi rock, the five-piece quickly won over transatlantic fans and scored fresh fodder for their lyrics with their punk-rock antics.
“We were in Torino in Italy,” Nicol recalls. “We ran into this band called Movie Star Junkies, who are an Italian rock ’n’ roll garage group. They took us out on the town to all these crazy, off-the-wall places. One of the first spots we turned up to was an illegal bar where they made bizarre, high-alcohol drinks which were totally not legal. They just gave you a plastic cup and you dived right in. I don’t know if there were hallucinogens in these drinks, but you had one sip and your whole body was just throbbing in pain. Then we set off walking around the town, drinking this insanely strong shaman drink. It was basically this really fun night. We ended up at a rave in a park. That was the basis for the song ‘Drink It Dry’ from Love and Death.”
Touring was a constant for the group in its early years, with the band trying to cram experience in before, as Nicol suggests, its members stopped being so young. Now shifting its focus to playing in Vancouver once every three months or so, the group has a reasonable justification for toning down its live schedule.
“We’ve started working on our new album,” the frontman reveals. “If we want to play a show, we have to stop that rhythm of doing a bed track and perfecting the song. So far, the record is sounding really good. We’re still figuring out a clear vision for it, but we have 12 songs that we’re really stoked on, which are all really, really different. It’s definitely sounding a little more poppy in a sense—a little cleaner. But also way weirder. We’re getting more comfortable with the recording process.”
Even more than the band’s previous albums, its new offering will spotlight a strong DIY ethic. Nicol recounts the group’s past experiences of laying down its second album on an 8-track picked up from Craigslist, and putting its third on tape in a freezing, falling-down barn on the site of a blueberry farm in Ladner. Those unorthodox recording techniques, he suggests, are why he’s surprised that the band has so many followers—but he’s quick to point out that Dead Ghosts makes music primarily for itself.
“We’re really recording ourselves on this album,” he says. “The first couple were half done by us, and half done by studio engineers—whenever we’d get money we’d go in. Early on, we didn’t know enough about what we wanted so we needed someone who could push the buttons and connect the cables. We still don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but Drew has a studio now, so we go there. We’ve got a lot faster.”
Despite its newfound recording chops, though, Dead Ghosts won’t be trading in its gritty, distorted vocals and ’70s-infused guitar washes anytime soon. Still influenced by Crypt Records’ seminal Back From the Grave compilation series, Nicol’s manic energy and guitarist Drew Wilky’s earworm riffs are a welcome throwback to a musical era that focused less on production than solid songwriting. Taking to the stage as part of Festerval—a multivenue, three-day minifestival billed as “loud and fuzzy music for weirdos”—the frontman is excited that this show will be one of the group’s last before it drops the new album.
“We’re on with Meatbodies from Los Angeles,” Nicol says. “We played with them before at a Tofino Brewery party in front of about 500 people. One of the guys had a massive beard, and was shaving it off while crowdsurfing. At the end of their set, the whole stage was just soaked in beer and covered in beard hair. It was a pretty incredible moment. I’m excited to see them again.”
Dead Ghosts plays the Cobalt as part of Festerval on Thursday (November 9).
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