A conversation with Ghost Pal frontman, Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen owner and DIY music hero, Oliver Ignatius:
Dingus: For the folks at home, who is Oliver Ignatius?
Ignatius: I may have to turn to the author Joseph Heller here who documents the following exchange in his “Catch 22,” my favorite book:
As far back as Yossarian could recall, he explained to Clevinger with a patient smile, somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him. There were people who cared for him and people who didn’t, and those who didn’t hated him and were out to get him. They hated him because he was Assyrian. But they couldn’t touch him, he told Clevinger, because he had a sound mind in a pure body and was as strong as an ox. They couldn’t touch him because he was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. He was Bill Shakespeare. He was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; he was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees. He was miracle ingredient Z-247. He was —
“Crazy!” Clevinger interrupted, shrieking. “That’s what you are! Crazy!”
“–immense. I’m a real, slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger. I’m a bona fide supraman.”
“Superman?” Clevinger cried. “Superman?”
“Supraman,” Yossarian corrected.
This excerpt makes me think two words: delusional yet introspective. How did you come to be a musician? What was your calling?
My coming into music was also primarily delusional and yet, introspective. The first group that pulled me into music hard was the Beatles; I was about 3 years old at exposure and the feelings of peace and relief that music brings has never changed for me. I grew up overseas, so at that time I was living in Moscow, and I remember a really early cathartic experience with a Russian choral version of “Silent Night” that just had me sobbing; Michael Jackson was the other lynchpin for me as a little kid, all his eras but at that time particularly the “Dangerous” album. There’s still some great singing and such obtuse interesting pop music on that record. It was always pretty direct, I wasn’t satisfied with loving music so much, I wanted to embody it and be inside the people singing, feel their feelings and have their minds. So every year growing up I’d ask my parents for recording equipment, which they obviously weren’t going to give me, although I did start learning instruments when I was six. We were living in Hong Kong then. There was a lot of isolation in the way I grew up, we moved every few years from country to country so I think music always provided a solace and a kind of steadying home base for me to touch back to, and I was a very emotionally disturbed child and was in a lot of pain growing up, so music filled the void and took over the role of guru for me at that age. For as long as I can remember now, I haven’t been able to live without it.
What are some of the major themes Ghost Pal’s songs touch on and how do they relate to you as an artist?
Ghost Pal songs have been continually embracing and exploring the paranormal and esoteric side of the spiritual experience as filtered through life on this planet as we know it. I had this feeling for years that there were ghosts haunting my house and that the quality of my recordings or songwriting were entirely dependent on how much juju the ghost companions were willing to provide. Calling the band Ghost Pal and opening up the roster, as we have, was our way of letting the spirits in to haunt us totally in hopes we could merge with them and manifest their music. Of course death is a theme that haunts humans constantly, probably the central theme of human life is the knowledge of death; it’s what differentiates us from the other animals. And exploring existence beyond the veil of death, as a negative image of our walking human reality, is a way to explore my own human feelings of loneliness and isolation. We’re currently working on an EP, our first full length statement, which is a concept-record song-suite called “Nathan Jones is Dead.” It’s about a young man who can’t cope with the pain of existence on this plane, and actually decides to end his own life a couple songs in. It sounds dismal, but there’s actually a lot of black humor, we’re creating a pretty entertaining little musical. Once he tops himself, he’s thrown into a state of total confusion and spends a couple hundred years wandering around, not knowing he is dead but wondering why he is continually haunted by ghosts and where his friends have gone. When he realizes that he is a ghost himself, he totally flips out and tries to retrace his footsteps as a human by falling in love with a young, living girl; of course this doesn’t work out and her father ends up having her committed to a mental institution. The story does end on a vaguely positive note, Nathan Jones the ghost is now bumming aimlessly around Hades, totally depressed and fed up with the whole thing, then he hears in the distance some strange sounds which draw him closer, at length he discovers a secret faded juke joint housed in a great hall, some old dusty church down there, where the skeletons get together each night to dance to their skeleton music and clack their bones together madly in the Skeleton Dance. And Nathan Jones ends up reasonably happy, having discovered this relief. Not overjoyed mind you, but it seems he’ll be alright after all. The story’s a metaphor.
That entire story in 4 songs. How do your singles compare to a project like this?
The EP’s gonna tell the story over six songs, but yeah, same difference. It’s very different from making the singles. The process of recording the singles very much extends out of my own neurotic practices; I have a lot of anxiety about capturing ‘definitive’ versions of things, because ideas are always evolving and one day’s performance always is or should be so different from the next. So when do you call something complete? The singles have been a Ghost Pal-waged battle against these notions of completion, simply because we crank ’em out so quickly with practically no looking back or second guessing. It’s always an exercise in immediacy and a lot of the time the Ghost Pal guys leave the sessions kinda wigged out and frustrated because the parts get knocked out so quickly. It always turns out great, and I like the sort of jumpy creativity that is inspired by a process like that, but working on the EP is a totally different process. Deciding we were going to string the songs together in this story kind of took away all my concerns about how to represent the songs, because it became more about how best to represent the story, definitive versions of songs be damned. And as a result we’re doing it much differently; for one thing, all the tunes on the EP are built on live tracks that feature the whole band, rather than built layer by layer from acoustic instruments like the singles have generally been. For another thing, we’re going to spend months literally slaving over this thing until it’s perfect.
It’s a little weird to not be getting a new Ghost Pal single every month. What kind of sound can we expect from the EP?
We’re gonna get back on our grind with the singles very soon, the recent flood and theft we experienced kinda caused us to take a little step back and use this period of time to meditate on our craft and presentation and on what we want to do. We also have been working like motherfuckers on our live show. We have a few singles gestating at the moment, including a very psychedelic drone-spiritual cover of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” which is gonna feature a lot of vocals from our drummer Carson. I miss the singles too, but we’ll be resuming soon. The EP sound is going to be very different though, very full, with a live energy that we haven’t had on anything yet but also with a precision and care for detail that we also have never evinced before. Ultra-rhythmic, very psychedelic, but danceable also in a way that we’ve never been. Better than ever, honestly.
I’d like to shift gears for a second. Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen is a diy recording studio in Brooklyn that you own and operate. You have a solid line up of artists, an amazing knack for A&R and a unique recording quality that ties your curated group together like a family. As you see it, what is your roll or your responsibility to the diy music community?
I guess rather than try to define and understand my own role in the community as a whole, which could lead to all manner of delusions and neuroses, I think of it on the smaller scale. It’s about helping musicians directly on a spiritual, personal level, to realize the music that they want to create. Sometimes I’ll have more of my creative input in there than other times. But it’s really just about making great music, and making it affordable too. In that sense it ends up being something I’m giving back to a larger community, just person by person. I also like to offer Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen as not just a setting for production, but really as an invitation or an open forum to figure out what we’re all doing here in post-modern music, to experiment and really play around.
Is there any criteria for a bands admittance? The bands that you produce feel like a family, like the belong there.
There’s no criteria, I’ll work with anybody who wants to put it all in and try to make something great. Unfortunately life being the way it is, I do usually have to charge people, so I guess that’s my only limitation. But, I keep my rates as low as possible, and do flat fees for projects instead of hourly rates – those I feel are very clinical, and detrimental to creativity and the artistic process. More than anything I want Mama Coco’s to not follow the pattern that is so often associated with studios, when you go in and struggle to capture your live energy or little unique spark or whatever. Although the process is very tight, we conduct it as informally as possible to try to catch the artist off guard; that’s when the best stuff happens and the best ideas come through. That’s going off topic, sorry. If the bands feel like a family, it’s because everyone’s head is in the same space and everyone is excited about doing this engaged workshopping process in the music; I think there’s a lot of cross pollination of genre, and increasingly so, and what a lot of bands have in common is this joy in the act of creating.
Have you ever considered becoming a netlabel?
Eventually we’re going to launch some kind of music-releasing wing. Not quite yet though. The situation in the music industry is changing, has been changing for years in that it totally collapsed about a decade ago. It was a big swell-up from the 50’s on with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and before long we were at the point where stadium tours were de rigueur, it was just a hugely bloated industry. Then the bubble burst and I think things will go back to as they were in the early 50s, when there was more emphasis on smaller studios that were also labels, and more emphasis on the regional charts than national. I could see things getting back to a similar place, and then the whole cycle all over again.
Do you think that the public is capable of returning to that music model? After years of being led by artistic monopolies like MTV, people have grown accustom to following the trends. Will they really be open minded enough to even know this cultural shift exists?
No, honestly, I think there’s no telling or predicting what’s going to happen at all. What I posited is just one possibility. What we can’t ignore or deny is that music has always meant something to people, has always moved people deeply as some kind of evolutionary function, and that goes beyond trends and hype and the machine. When everything else gets washed away there will still be that. Anything else is anyone’s guess.