Hitting the hooks with S.F.’s Cool Ghouls
When you’re in a band that has zigzagged the country as often as San Francisco psych-garage foursome Cool Ghouls, you learn that one of the keys to keeping spirits up on the road is to make a point to stop and smell the roses.
“It’s really pretty over here,” guitarist Ryan Wong said during an interview from the road as the band toured along the East Coast toward Philadelphia. “It’s more of a vacation this time around. We’re being a little more wise with our time, sight-seeing and stuff like that.”
Given how busy they have been—not just on the road but also with writing and recording music as one of the younger acts in San Francisco’s cresting psych-rock revival—Cool Ghouls need to enjoy whatever down time they can get. Starting out, the Cool Ghouls took its time, booking no shows for a long period of time until they felt they were absolutely ready, Wong explained. But once they released their self-titled debut album in 2013, they were off and chasing after the hard-working torchbearers of the scene such as Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees.
“Being surrounded by people and groups that are prolific, that were putting out two or three albums in a year, you get swept up in that mindset,” Wong said. “It’s less being hyper-busy, but kind of constantly creating and making music all the time.”
The most recent fruit of of the band’s labors is the 2016 full-length Animal Races and a just-released tour tape, Gord’s Horse. Holing up in the rehearsal space every day for the month prior to their current spring/summer tour, Cool Ghouls recorded the latter themselves, hoping to capture the band members’ disparate musical acumens and influences. That’s a strength that threads its way through the band’s entire catalog: having multiple songwriters—Wong, guitarist/vocalist Pat McDonald, bassist/vocalist Pat Thomas—all contributing ideas to the kind of rock ’n’ roll best consumed with an open third eye and a beer. The Cool Ghouls sound is as fluid as it is collaborative.
And on Gord’s Horse, the exercise resulted in something that comes across as a DJ playlist, with the band—also featuring drummer Alex Fleshman—employing expansive, looser modes of sound (including a few fun Easter eggs).
For evidence, “What It’s Like” finds a countrified groove in a song about the abandonment of machismo in order to find your feminine side, in what Wong described as “a Merle Haggard song that he would never sing.” A little earlier on the recording, a raga soundscape on “Legs in September” is nuanced by the addition of a distant broadcast from a Giants-Dodgers game, with the familiar banter of S.F. announcers Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow ruminating on defensive strategies. For Wong, the playfulness of the recording was liberating.
“We’re going to record in the fall again, and I think a lot of these songs are precursors to what we’ll do then,” Wong said. “There was a lot less pressure and expectations [on] it, so we were able to do a lot of different things that wouldn’t normally be on something.”