White Ghost Shivers
By Meghan Player
White Ghost Shivers are an eclectic American band based in Austin, Texas. They mix cabaret, jazz, vaudeville, hokum, western swing, hillbilly, jugband and ragtime into a theatrical and infectious good time. Meghan Player chatted to Shorty Stump [vocals, tenor banjo, ukuleles, guitar, mandolin, kazoo, nose flute, tuba, jug] about influences, pre-war tunes and the impact of SXSW on local bands.
– How long have you been together as a band?
Smokebreak and myself originally met and started getting together and playing some tunes with each other in June of ’99, just about 13 years ago. As far as solidifying the line up and starting to play shows, it’s been about 11 or so years. This current core has been playing together for about 8 years.
– What brought you all together?
At the risk of sounding cheese ball, FATE! We really all came together by accident. We all moved here around the same time, with the same interest in playing older styles of music. We all had very little experience in playing this style at that time.
– Had you each played in bands previously [before forming White Ghost Shivers]?
Yes, I guess you could say we all came from various styles of rock ‘n roll, punk rock, metal, honky tonk, and yes, jazz. In short, some of the band names we all came from were: Utah Package, Bohemian Holiday, Deadites, Negatives, Mighty Blue Kings, Four Charms, West Coast Pinups, The Feekals, The Retards, Flapping Chodes. To name a few.
– There are A LOT of wonderful elements in your songs – from vaudeville to blues to country to rockabilly – were these styles/sounds/genres that the band was always interested in pursuing?
I can only speak for myself when I say that when I moved here, all I wanted to do was play traditional 1920’s jazz, and I was also really into pre-war blues and western swing. When I met Jeremy (3rd day in town), he was into the same stuff, so that’s what we were going for, but we didn’t have the means or talent to start a jazz band, so we went the string band route.
Once we started meeting the fellas and adding to the line up, we just all started getting really excited about all kinds of pre-war music. Hawaiian, calypso, hillbilly string bands, musette, Mexican-American border music, Easter European, Klezmer, you name it! Not to mention some of us were really into silent films as well, which I think planted the seed to the whole vaudeville element a bit. Once we added Cella and Oliver Steck, that’s when the vaudeville element really elevated. It’s always been a combination of having an idea of what we want to do musically/theatrically, but also being open to new avenues.
– Which musicians/bands had the greatest influence on the overall sound of the band?
Well, as far as modern bands, some of the bands that we were digging in the early days were Squirrel Nut Zippers first couple of albums. Also, their violin player’s band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire had a huge influence on us. Most people know him as the whistling indie-rocker, but his first couple of albums were a really sublime mix of styles from the earlier part of last century.
Devil In A Woodpile from Chicago, some great hokum blues. And of course most bands throughout history are influenced by local peers. Hot Club Of Cowtown, Asylum Street Spankers, Shorty Long, Hillbillionaires, Rubinchik’s Orkestyr, Erik Hokkannen, Tosca, and several great pick up bands from here in town all had an influence on us in some way.
A lot of the great local punk rock influenced a lot as well as far as our stage performance, but really, it was all of the original stuff that was recorded pre-WWII that really made us tick. We did a lot of listening to them. The modern bands were great because you could actually have an in person reference for these styles.
– Your style and sound almost step right out of the 1920s – are you inspired by that time period? Perhaps moreso than the present day?
This sort of ties in with the last question. Yes, the 1920’s and early 30’s have a huge influence on us and is where we are primarily based from, but, being that we all grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, we can’t seem to shake a little bit of our adolescence out of our style. We all listened to rock ‘n roll, punk rock, metal, and rap, and it all most certainly looms over us in our song writing and performance.
– Is it difficult to write a song in a modern context, but still have that classic feel and energy to it?
Actually, it’s not at all, it really all just comes out pretty easily. When you love and listen to a certain kind of music for so long, it becomes second nature to write in that style, and again, our adolescent influences seem to just sort of find their way in there by accident. In our mind, we’re a pre-war style band, and that is our intention. What ends up getting written at the end of the day is just and organic mishap.
– Where do you draw that inspiration from?
Again, anything pre-war, as well as what we grew up with. Also, as far as our performance side of things, we draw influences from silent films, musicals, and all of the imagery we gazed upon all of our lives. Also, the great thing about growing up in the 80’s was that even though the world was going through a lot of social change and technology growth, there was still elements of our great grandparents’ youth. On Saturday mornings, you could watch Looney Tunes, The Smurfs, or Donkey Kong the cartoon, and then after cartoons were done, they would air Little Rascals, Three Stooges, silent film comedies, and early talking pictures. So, as a youth, it all just seemed to come from the same place in our minds. Sure, Bugs Bunny’s humor was 40-50 years old, but it my mind, it was a cartoon, and that’s all that mattered!
– You’re based in Austin, so you would have seen your fair share of SXSW – how does the festival/conference impact local musicians such as yourselves? Positively? Negatively?
Well, when you’ve been here long enough, it’s easy to be grumpy about a bunch of people coming to your town and walking around like they own your town, but, I think the trick is to just go into it with a positive attitude. Honestly, on the surface, it seems that SXSW does very little for most Austin bands, unless you are a “buzz” band, but then it doesn’t matter where you’re from if you’re one of those.
If you’re the coolest new band out there, it’s a good place for you to be. Sure, it never hurts to play in front of a lot of people from all over the world, and there certainly are a lot of those people here during that time. But, I would say the biggest benefit is that it brings in tons of money for people who work in the bar and restaurant industry, and also the overall all economy for the city, which in turn, is good for local bands. The better local business’ do here, the more business’ there will be to hire bands, and pay them.
SXSW is also responsible for getting people to move here. Most Austinites don’t want to see anyone else move here, but at the same time, that’s an extra person to have come out and see your band.
– Is it a good platform to showcase your music to a new audience?
Again, any time you can get in front of a lot of people from all over the world, it’s a good thing, but, there are so many people, and bands, and things to do here during that time, most of the time you’re just another blur to all of those drunk hipsters.
– Would you recommend SXSW to other bands?
Uh, if you’ve never done it before, sure, why not? Try it out and see if you like it, you’ll know if you ever want to come back. I would not suggest for bands to yearn for an “official showcase”, I would suggest they get on the free show train, that’s where it’s at. Of course, I’ll probably be exiled for saying that.
– Do you have any advice for a band that might want to come to Austin for SXSW?
YES! Pace yourselves! Drink lots of water and keep up with electrolytes. Don’t book too many shows. Give yourself enough time between gigs, the traffic here is horrendous here during that time and you’ll miss shows. If you can do it, and you don’t have a lot of gear for gigs, bring/rent/borrow a bicycle. Most importantly, don’t come her with hopes of getting “discovered”, just have fun.
– Your latest album, ‘Nobody Loves You Like We Do’ – can you tell us a little about recording it? Did you approach making this album to previous albums?
One thing that was in common with our previous records is that we recorded it all live in the studio, with minimal over dubs. Something we did different is that we rehearsed five days in a row for four hours a day, just tightening up everything before we went into the studio. That really made the process so much quicker and easier. We recorded it with our now pal, Marty Lester, who was just really a joy to work with. We really felt a great bond with him and he really reminded us of ourselves, so that just made the whole process really comfortable. Plus, the studio and facility were also extremely comfortable and welcoming and made us feel at home. It was really low pressure.
– How have people been responding to it?
Well, the people who listen to it really seem to enjoy it a lot, we’ve been getting great feedback. Comments from old fans seem to be pretty consistent as far as them saying that it sounds like we’ve definitely done some growing, without compromising ourselves, and that’s some pretty important feedback to hear from folks, that’s pretty much what you hope to hear.
– Are you working on anything new at the moment, or focussing on this album for the time being?
Right now, we’re trying to focus on this album, but, we have already started talking about the next one. We waited something like 4-5 years between the last two albums, and that’s just ridiculous, so we would like to avoid that from here on. We have several ideas in mind for future albums, but the one that seems to be popping up more is the idea of doing an album that features our big band version of what we do, and we don’t mean swing era big band.
On ‘Nobody Loves You’, we did a version of ‘Short Haired Girl’ that featured a bunch of our pals and gave a nod to the early big bands of the mid to late 1920’s like the Goldkette Orchestra, The Missourians, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, etc. We ended up arranging about four tunes in that style for our record release in December, so we thought it might be fun to do an entire album like that. It’s not set in stone, but it’s on the table.
-What’s next for the band?
Well, as we speak, we’re trying to prioritize how the next year is going to look. Obviously, a new album is in there somewhere, as well as our 9th annual Halloween Ball. Also, some touring in the states, and even possibly getting back over to Europe. We’ll also be doing some big band shows that I just spoke of, as well as doing our punk rock version of ourselves, Boomtown. We love doing special themed shows as well as secret intimate shows. This summer, we will be working with local puppet theater group Glass Half Full, we will be re-staging a puppet show we did with them called FUP Duck. We write all original music for the show and will be performing it live. Plus, early talks of a very special event next spring that will take Austin by storm are happening right now!
A huge thanks to the White Ghost Shivers for taking the time to chat to us.
For more information about the band, check out their website: www.whiteghostshivers.com