It's 10 p.m. at Live Wire and Gray Ghosts are two drinks deep into an exploration of what it means to be indie.
“There are two types of indie bands,” offers lead guitarist Frank Green. “Those who sound good and don't care what they look like and those who look good and don't care what they sound like.”
It's safe to say that Gray Ghosts, a self-described mixture of pop, rock, doo-wop and bubblegum, fall squarely into the former category—not on account of any aesthetic shortcomings, but because of their surprising level of depth.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that on the night we meet at the band's cramped rehearsal quarters in Mission Hills, I'm wearing my brave face while quietly nursing newly inflicted psychic wounds. Doo-wop, bubblegum and pop (basically anything with hand-clapping, really) are pretty much the last things on my emotional playlist. But as it turns out, ruminating on nihility and the fleeting nature of love has put me in the perfect frame of mind to really hear Gray Ghosts' music.
Within the first few bars of “Invite the Moon,” a song that'll be featured on the group's upcoming debut EP, it would be all too easy to surrender to the poppy familiarity of a sound that evokes comparisons to Weezer and The Shins. But it's the sensitive (or injured) ear that detects an undercurrent of complexity, confusion and heartache—that one discordant note hidden within a cascading choral harmony.
“You say so long to the friendly fairytales that we all know / Now the world is full of ghosts in living clothes.”
“What motivates me to write music is the hope of capturing or articulating something meaningful in my life or memory that words can't seem to wholly capture,” explains guitarist and lead vocalist Dusting Illingworth, a refugee of San Diego's defunct Kite Flying Society. “You see a bird with all its innate grace, and there's a strangeness and beauty to it that can't be encapsulated by turning to your friend and saying, ‘Hey, check out that bird.' A well-chosen chord progression helps get across the total experience of what you've been a part of much more than speech alone.”
When I point out that the catchy nature of his songwriting belies a lot of its emotional intensity, Illingworth replies,
“Yeah, our music is accessible. I want it to be accessible. But that doesn't mean it's easy.”
Back at Live Wire, conversation shifts to less weighty topics. Like the band's anxiety in recruiting drummer Matt Bennett of the hard-rocking, punk-driven The Bloody Hollies.
“Matt's a real rock star,” mock-whispers co-vocalist and keyboardist Kelly Duley, the other member of Ghosts who used to play in Kite Flying Society. “We were worried we weren't going to be able to bring him down to pop. You know, make him fey.” She laughs as Bennett mouths a silent “What?” from behind the bar. Like all of the Ghosts, he has a second job.
“Good musicians can genre-jump,” Illingworth says. “Matt's just as comfortable with The Beach Boys and The Beatles as he is with the other stuff.”
The band's real challenge came in courting bassist Kevin Gossett of The Exfriends and formerly of Rookie Card.
“Bass players in San Diego are really hard to find,” Green explains, “and Kevin was, well, reluctant to come on board.”
“I didn't want to do it,” Gossett clarifies. So what changed his mind? “Dustin's songwriting,” he answers.
The band was complete with the addition of Louisville transplant Melanie Gilbert, who, of all things, responded to an ad on craigslist. “It occurred to me on my way to audition that I could be walking into some sort of weird, perverted situation,” she drawls with a sincerity unique to natives of the South. “But, fortunately, it was just Frank and Dustin.”
For the rest of the night, conversation meanders from Pandora Radio (“It's the end of free thinking”) to the prospect of selling-out (“Fuck being indie and working five days a week”) before finally stumbling upon what truly makes Gray Ghosts unique.
“There's no band asshole,” Green says. Gray Ghosts will play an all-ages X1FM Open Door Session at 7 p.m. Friday, March 13, at the X1FM studios in National City. www.myspace.com/grayghostsmusic