Free as a Ghoulie
Sacramento legend Kepi doubles down this Friday, then hits the road with Pets and Dog Party
Classic 1990s pop-punk band the Groovie Ghoulies had a strong 15-plus-year run with nine LPs to their credit. When they broke up in 2007, lead singer Kepi Ghoulie didn’t take a day off before embarking on a prolific solo career, which includes playing hundreds of shows annually.
“A friend of mine calls me a rock ’n’ roll shark, ’cause I never stop moving,” Kepi said. “If I want this life, I have to stay busy. I don’t get time off, but I don’t need time off.”
These next few weeks will be busy: Ghoulie will embark on a West Coast tour with locals Pets and Dog Party, the latter band’s first jaunt ever. The three bands also will headline Friday Night Concerts in the Park this week, July 1.
The Groovie Ghoulies were known for writing fun, catchy three-chord punk songs about monsters, vampires and other B-movie creatures. They also famously recorded several covers on each album, which included everything from the Ramones, Super Furry Animals, Love and Daniel Johnston.
Five years after the Groovie Ghoulies broke up, Ghoulie has so far released four solo albums, a bunch of 7-inch splits and contributed to several compilations. And he’s just getting started.
In 2008, Ghoulie released his first two full-length solo records on the same day. Hanging Out is a rock ’n’ roll album, while American Gothic is an acoustic, Americana record, something he’s never done before.
“It’s the best job in the world. Every year I go, ‘Can I do this another year?’ and I get a couple tour offers and say, ‘Why not?’ I guess when the shows run out, I’ll think about getting a day job.”
He stays busy by touring all the time. In fact, his tour schedule is busier now as a solo artist. In 2009, he played more than 175 shows, his most ever.
Part of the reason he plays so many gigs now is that he mixes things up: Some nights he goes alone with just an acoustic guitar, others with a backup band; sometimes electric, sometimes not.
Just recently in June, he was offered one show in Norway at a music festival. They flew him out and told him they’d set him up with musicians there to be his backup band. Ghoulie agreed, but brought his acoustic guitar just in case. “I’m always ready. I can play solo, but I like playing with a band, too,” Ghoulie said.
Ghoulie earns money as a solo artist by selling his artwork at shows. Anyone that has ever loved the Groovie Ghoulies album covers can now buy a Ghoulie original of their own. His work is distinct. His paintings are reminiscent of Daniel Johnston’s weird but innocent cartoon-style art. Just like with Ghoulie’s music, B-movie creatures are a big theme in his artwork.
“If you can sell three pieces of art at a show, that’s 100 bucks that you would not have made otherwise, which is a lot for a punk show,” he explained.
The other way to survive as an artist is to live modestly, which doesn’t bother Ghoulie. “I live in an apartment with low expenses. I don’t have cable. I don’t have Internet. I don’t miss any of that,” he shared. “It’s not like I eat ramen every night. If I got to that point, I’d probably get a job.”
What’s interesting is that Ghoulie hadn’t planned on a solo career: Right around the time the Groovie Ghoulies broke up, he got a phone call from Swell Productions, who just happened to be interested in booking him on these punk-rock-Americana shows they were organizing. Ghoulie ended up opening for Tommy Ramone’s band Uncle Monk, Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats and David Finely from Tom Petty’s band.
“Every now and then some magical, wacky timing happens. Right when I needed a lifeboat, [Swell Productions] floated through.”
Later, Ghoulie met Mike Park of Asian Man Records. Park not only was interested in putting his music out, he also booked Ghoulie on the 2008 Plea for Peace tour. This was Ghoulie’s first full U.S. solo tour, where Ghoulie met a lot of the new and old punk bands. “I met Andrew Jackson Jihad, Bomb the Music Industry, Lemuria, and we all became friends. I became reacquainted with Kevin Seconds and the Queers.”
Times have changes since the Groovie Ghoulies’ heyday in the ’90s, when they were on Lookout Records, the label that released Green Day’s first two albums. “It was the post-Green Day magic. I’d sell 4,000 to 5,000 albums right out the gate. Nowadays I can sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies, which I think is considered a success.”
Before Ghoulie went solo, he was already moving away from writing songs about monsters and Bigfoot. He’s currently thinking of new solo records he can make that are also nothing like anything he’s done in the past.
For instance, he is currently working on an electronic album.
“[The Groovie Ghoulies] didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before. We just revved it up and put some love in it. I feel more like an artist now than ever before. My priority is to make art, even if it’s not profound.”
And he embraces this solo-artist flexibility. “I’m not married to an image. I’m not a rock ’n’ roller or a singer-songwriter. I’m free.”