Ghostplay's music is just two guitars and a beat
The local indie band’s members explain why they’re not all about that bass
Sometimes guitarist-singer Jason Hess will play demo recordings from his indie band Ghostplay for his friends. And each time, he says, he gets a similar response: “I like it, but I can’t understand what you’re singing about.”
That reaction is understandable, actually, considering how low Hess’ vocals are mixed into the music’s bed of lush, dueling guitars and dynamic drum beats.
“That’s intentional. [The voice] is just another instrument, it’s not the lead singer—it’s not natural for me to be up front and center stage,” Hess says.
Recently the band, rounded out by guitarist Leticia Garcia and drummer Mando Gonzalez, has been working on an EP. The songs, recorded at Ruminator Audio in San Francisco with engineer/producer Monte Vallier, will retain the demo’s lo-fi vocal quality, Hess says.
But while Ghostplay’s lyrics will probably still be difficult to make out, that’s OK—after all, they’re the last piece of the puzzle when the band writes songs, Hess says. Rather, the songwriting process, he says, starts with Gonzalez, who generally builds the foundation for each track with the rest of the band jamming on ideas, often for hours, as Hess sings whatever words pop into his mind. Real lyrics come much later.
“The lyrics are very secondary to mood. We’ll record jams on our phone, and listen to [them] in our car for a couple months, trying to figure out how we’re going to make those moments happen again,” Hess says. “It’s just about capturing an emotion.”
When a song is complete, each one tends to follow an arc, rising and falling with varying levels of intensity and feelings. Sections build off of each other, like waves of an ocean.
With only three people—and not a bass in the lot—the trio produces a surprisingly thick, layered sound. Garcia plays a standard guitar, but Hess’s guitar is strung with baritone strings, which puts his sound in a lower register. The musician then feeds his signal into a guitar amp and a bass amp.
“We have all this weird stuff going on. I might use some reverb to spread it out. It has this fullness, like multiple frequencies coming through at once,” Hess explains. “We don’t need a bass player. We can just use technology.”
The band started with just Hess and Garcia three years ago. Back then all the pair knew for sure was that they liked each other’s sounds and wanted to see where it would go.
Hess comes from a singer-songwriter background, but also grew up listening to dark, heavy music such as Black Sabbath, the Melvins, and Butthole Surfers.
Garcia, who grew up listening to moody, eclectic stuff such as Radiohead and The Walkmen, spent much time playing guitar alone in her room, building riffs on a looping pedal and jamming over it. The result, she says, was a lot of songs with weird time signatures.
“I have no idea what I’m playing. I was really shy growing up. I didn’t have anyone telling me, ’no, it’s 4/4.’ I just played whatever came natural to me,” Garcia says.
Initially, Hess and Garcia weren’t sure they wanted a drummer, and considered using a drum machine instead. Eventually, however, they brought in a friend to sit behind the kit. When that friend left to join another band, they connected with Gonzales.
That’s when Ghostplay’s sound really clicked, Hess says. With Gonzales, the band was finally able to explore fluctuating dynamics, atmosphere and a range of emotions.
“There’s a big difference between two people doing a project and three people—that makes it a band,” Hess says. “This works for us. I’m glad we didn’t stick with the drum machine.”