Give Up The Ghost
A little over a year ago, the band now known as Give Up The Ghost was sued by a band which shared their name and the Nightmare truly began. The record sold out of the pressing and Equal Vision was unable to make more due to the pending litigation; the band toured the U.S. several times without so much as a 7" to sell. After an attempt to change the name to American Nothing was also blocked, the band couldn't even make merch until they settled on a new name. Now it's 2003. The new album is recorded, mixed and mastered. And the band that redefined hardcore with "Background Music" is ready to reinvent music as we know it with a genre-bending album which is simply one of the most outstanding artistic achievements of the year. From "Background Music" to now, this is Give Up The Ghost's story. I interviewed Wes a few days after talking with Tim. After rescheduling a few times due to exhaustion, headaches, etc., we were finally good to go. This is the second part of the interview and contains only Wes' responses.
I know there are bands that have pulled it off, but how do you deal with being on the West Coast while the rest of the band is back in Boston?
Wes: Well, I think the time was right for it. We had just recorded a record so we weren't getting ready to write a bunch of songs, which I would need to be around to do or help out on or whatever. We pretty much just tour all the time. We don't really play a show here and there, we pretty much just tour so I guess what's going to have to happen is that I'll fly back a few weeks before tour and we'll practice. I don't think it will be an issue, really, except me getting to Boston. That's the only difficult part.
Well, there's nothing stopping the band from writing music and from what you had said, you and Tim tend to write separately anyway.
Wes: Yeah, we definitely did, but the last record, we were pretty much all around for us to have our two cents and whatever input we thought of which wasn't very much sometimes and sometimes was very helpful, but yeah, they can still totally practice without me so that's not really an issue. I never really sing at practice anyway. I usually just sit there and wait to go home.
Write down a lyric or two if you think about it, that sort of thing?
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
So let me kick this off with something Tim mentioned. He seemed to think that your lyrics are more focused on "We're Down 'Til We're Underground." Would you agree with that?
Wes: Yeah, I'd definitely agree with that. From the time "Background Music" came out to when we recorded this record, the lyrics are basically just saying what has been going on since then. I think a lot of the record is about whatever was going on in Boston with friends and different relationships with people and the fucked up things that everyone was going through. It's definitely from my viewpoint, so a lot of it has to do with my personal friends and all the shit that we were growing and learning from in retrospect but didn't really know that we were at the time. On a broader scale, it's realizing that we were kind of part of something that was going on that's probably gone on before but none of us knew while it was happening, just growing up.
So looking back at certain experiences and realizing they were more significant than they seemed at the time.
Wes: Yeah, and seeing whatever groundwork we laid for how our lives would develop over the past couple of years until now, whatever the situations may be for each person.
A lot of bands that put out their first record can slump on their second because they spend 20 or 30 years coming up with material for the first record and then they have nine months or a year to come up with the second one. It seems like your lyrics have actually improved.
Wes: I think so. I'm really happy with it. For pretty much everything from the first thing we did up to and including "Background Music," it was all based on kind of the same thing, I was fixated on the same thing, whereas over the past couple of years, I haven't been. I don't want to be a person who only writes about what people are going to perceive as girl problems or stupid, trite stuff like that. It hasn't been that big of an issue or something I wanted to write about where I could express whatever over-dramatic anguish I'm feeling on this record. I just thought there were more relevant things going on and there was a lot more that was important to me while writing it. A lot of it is based on music and what music has done for us and what it is doing for us.
Besides, I thought you were fixated on fixation now.
On the last album, the lyrics seemed bitter and dark. This time around, they seem more like a scream to get out. They seem desperate for actualization and finding something real that doesn't seem artificial or fake or phony.
Wes: Yeah. I think that's a major part of it. I don't have an answer per se of what the solution might actually be, but it has to deal with, over the last couple of years, being in this city where my friends and I are doing nothing, basically. Not going anywhere, not doing anything productive, and I think the group of friends I was involved with, everyone started to feel that nothing good was going to be accomplished and people started moving or looking for real jobs or growing up a bit or looking for other places to move to and start again, even though you might end up doing the exact same thing you were doing in the other town, just with different people.
Is that part of what sparked "Love American"?
Wes: Yeah, that definitely is. That's definitely what that song is about, just fucking looking at everything that's going on and what people you're surrounded by are doing and just trying to realize why you're doing this, why you're in a situation and how this ties into a bigger picture, if a bigger picture is even something you want to be concerned with at the time. If it is, it can get scary and that's basically what the song is about, but at the same time, a problem I have with the title of that song is, with everything going on, I don't want it to be perceived as a pro-American song. I think if people read the lyrics, it won't be, but it's kind of a play on words from "Love American Style."
The old TV show?
Wes: Yeah. Typically, if you look at the word love, it's going to offer ideas of happiness and stability, all good, secure things, but that's not what it is for me or for friends of mine who are loosely mentioned in the song. That's not what it's about, but I do think there's something lovely about all the stuff that we were going through and learning and living. I think there's a piece of the word love in all of that as well. That's just what it is to me.
One of the things that really interested me was the line, "We love the songs because we live the songs." I know that when I hear a song, I love it because it speaks to me.
You and I have talked enough for me to guess that this line is your way of saying the same thing, paying tribute to all the songs that you've lived.
Wes: Yeah, it definitely is. Some people think music is the most important thing. It speaks to you. I think a lot of the record, especially that song, was about hearing songs that describe different loves in situations that you might dream about being in, but then I always wonder if the person who wrote it was fortunate enough to see that while they wrote it, if they were in a good place or if they were writing about it because it was the place they'd like to be.
I have to ask - the line about "Guys And Dolls." Are you referring to the musical?
Wes: No, I wasn't referring to any situation. I just borrowed the name.
I was just curious about that because of other things like "Young Hearts Be Free Tonight," the line from Rod Stewart's "Young Turks."
Wes: "Young Turks," yeah. I just think that song is great and that line, I just think it's awesome. It's just an inspiring line that I wanted to borrow so we always joke that it's a little nod to Rod the mod.
So here's a Boston hardcore band tipping their hat to Rod Stewart, but on the other hand, that song was about people who bailed out of a situation that was trapping them.
Wes: Yeah, exactly. That song means a lot. It's not my favorite song in the world, but when I hear it, it makes me excited. I definitely like the message, the story that's in the song.
I had a couple of favorite lines from that song. The first one was "Sing the ones that make you want to live." That made me think of the Nick Hornby line about kids listening to thousands of depressing pop songs and almost seemed like a reaction to that, like saying, "Why the fuck are we sitting around feeling shitty all the time? Let's feel great, even if it's just for a second."
Wes: Yeah. That's definitely what I was thinking when I wrote it. It's just fucking tired, oftentimes. There's a line in the song, "I'm half-dead from all these love songs" - again, love not being a good thing - and it was like, "Fuck it, just live." I guess that's how the title ties into it.
Again, this song seems to tie into the idea of wanting something more, maybe not knowing what it is but knowing that what you currently have isn't what it should be, particularly the line, "These are songs the world would sing but they're too deaf to honesty. These are lives the world would lead but they're against injury," suggesting that you're aware that life hurts and living means you're going to get burned, but it's better to be burned than numb.
Wes: Yeah, that's pretty much it. That's pretty much right on.
"The Last Supper After Party." That's one of the greatest song titles I've ever heard. It's the same kind of dark, sarcastic humor that the last album had, but it's one of several references to religious iconography like confessions, blessings, the Last Supper, testaments, the line about "The First Church Of Stereo Activists." There were a lot of allusions to things along those lines, seemingly suggesting that rock or music is a religion.
Wes: Yeah, that's what it is. In that song, it talks about "the holy healing" which has been friends and music and everything. For whatever reason, I think it's working on me and everyone in our band, just to help us get through things. Religion really intrigues me in a way. I still don't know how I feel about anything. After 24 years, I still don't know how I feel about anything. I still question everything and I still have not made up my mind about what's going on, but I like the idea of toying with religion. You're right, there are a lot of ties and mentions and references to different religious things but it does tie more into music than actual religion.
I know for me that music almost is a religion. I have the same kind of faith in it that I see in people who go to church. I have the same kind of commitment to it that most people who go to church have.
Wes: Exactly, but I don't think people like us look at music like a crutch the way that people use religion as a crutch. It's more than that.
Yeah. It's not like I use my music as a justification to tell someone else that they're wrong about something they do. It just struck me as odd because it stood out, like "We made a comeback and it was received quite well." There are two ways I can look at that line - in some ways it's hard not to look at that line and think of it as a response to the lawsuit and in others, it's almost like it's hinting that this is the second coming of American Nightmare as Give Up The Ghost, again tying into the religious iconography and at the same time having a larger meaning.
Wes: Right. I definitely think it's larger. I thought, even when I wrote it, that it would be perceived as the lawsuit but that's not what it's about. That song was kind of written about a friend of mine who's in jail right now - just about all the things we've been through and it all kind of circles around music. Just thinking about it now, music seems to be the basis of a lot of things. That song also holds the LP's title.
"We're Down 'Til We're Underground."
Wes: Yeah. It's just a way of living until you're dead, basically.
So did the lawsuit give you time to rework or change lyrics?
Wes: This is basically how it works. For this record, we already had three songs done and demoed - "Love American," "Since Always" and a song called "Calculation Nation." Then we go to the studio and I just bring about 10 blank books that I've written in every day with me. I write in the studio all day and I really don't ever think about writing songs or writing lyrics or whatever until we're in the studio and then they'll track a song or how many songs get done, give me a recording of it and then I'll usually just sit with headphones or in a car in front of the studio. I'll take a line that I think fits the mood of the song and then just start writing everything from that. Usually, I'll just do it and it's done and I like it. That's basically how it works. I kind of wish I put less subliminal thought into it but, and I don't know why, it just comes out and it works. That's the method that I've been using and I think it works well.
Well, you are doing some fairly complex things with your lyrics, like near rhymes. You aren't necessarily doing straight-forward verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus. The lyrics don't necessarily repeat; they read and sound more like poetry than traditional hardcore lyrics.
Wes: I guess it's just how I write. I'm starting to come to the conclusion that writing is something I seriously want to do and maybe even being in a band sometimes is just a medium for me to practice writing. I don't know if that's a bad thing or not, but that's what I'm interested in right now.
Why would that be a bad thing?
Wes: I don't want to sound like I'm just in a band because I want to write lyrics and I don't know what else to do. That is what I want to do. I guess right now that music makes sense but, in the future, I think I just want to write.
Well, there's a long tradition of musicians who have written really good books.
Wes: Yeah, but it's scary. When you're writing, it's just your name on it. Whatever you do is pinned to your name. If it sucks, it's your name sucking. When you're in a band, it's a combined package. There are different elements that attract different people. The world of writing just seems so, and I guess music is just as big, scary. Some people like what I write but it's in a band, it's for a band, but that doesn't mean that whatever I write would hold up if there wasn't music. I don't know if it would. If you just took the lyrics of songs and put them somewhere and someone who wasn't into hardcore punk read them, they might be like, "This is okay," or "This sucks." I think the words with the music add a lot as far as emphasis and urgency, so I don't know if it could hold up.
For what it's worth, I don't think you'd have any trouble. You have a very compelling sense of imagery and a knack for turning a phrase, like "Celibrate" in "AEIOU" - it looks like a cross between celibate and celebrate. It's a twist of phrase like Paul Westerberg might have used. You have a talent for taking a common phrase and inserting a word or changing it just slightly - whether visually or lyrically - to give it more irony. If you can do that as a writer consistently, it will catch their attention. I know what you're saying though because it seems like people pay more attention to music than writing.
Wes: Exactly. Thank you very much for saying that. I don't really know what's going to happen.
You ought to send some of your writing to Black Sparrow and do a chapbook or something like that.
Wes: Who does that? Do you know them?
I don't know who does it, but I know they did a bunch of Bukowski books, John Fante, it's a really well-respected press but I think it's small enough that you could actually talk to someone there. Anyway, going back to "Crime Scene," and I realize I'm singling out one line here but it's because it hit me like a sledgehammer, "The songs we own make our hearts beat." I know that you aren't talking about buying a record, I know that you're talking about the stuff that sticks with you, that fuels you.
Wes: Well, I have so many friends and all they want to do is create, whether it be art, whatever form of art, but the problem is that when you create something and you want to release it to the public or whoever might be interested in it, you're typically going to need someone else to help you do it unless you don't care how many people get it. If you want to put it out yourself, that's fine, but that song is about the frustration of so many people who live to create getting fucking ripped off all the time by non-creative people who are living more than fine by putting out other people's art. It just seems so fucking backwards that people are making more money than artists, who are doing it because they have to do it to live, whereas these other people are just capitalizing on people's wanting to get something or create some sort of art form. It's just so shitty. It happens all the time. Pretty much everyone I know in bands is fucked. It's just shitty and frustrating. You can definitely argue the point, but there is a line of what's right and wrong and I think it's crossed a lot of times. I'm not saying everyone who owns a record label or publishes or whatever is a fucking bad person because that's obviously not true, but I think there are a lot of people in the community that we're involved with who don't always practice the right or any good intention, like the label signing a bunch of bands and hoping one of them does well. It's just frustrating, and all these bands are getting signed and they just want to play in bands but they're getting taken for a ride, pretty much.
Well, you know that I was doing a label for a while and that I had to fold it because I didn't have enough money to keep it going. I freely admit that I made a lot of mistakes with it, but the bands left with the rights to the masters and I didn't make mistakes because I was trying to screw anyone. Every mistake I made was for the right reasons.
Wes: Yeah. That's rare.
Well, the point is getting the music out, right?
Wes: Well yeah, but I also think there are pretty successful bigger labels who are still in it for the right reasons, who still put out music that they genuinely like and the first thing they think about isn't how many they can sell, you know what I mean? I understand anyone's point of view from a label or whatever, but I just think that there's a line that is crossed a lot of times. We've had some problems and a lot of other friends have had problems and that basically just says it all.
It's time for the obligatory Replacements reference question. "Anywhere is better than here" from "We Killed It." Replacements reference or not?
Wes: No, not at all.
I just had to ask because that was a song from "Don't Tell A Soul."
Wes: Yeah, I know that song, but it's not a reference. I don't really want to give away the meaning behind "We Killed It." It's for everyone who knows what it's about. Our friend kind of came up with the idea behind it and we really like it. It's for us.
It has some of the most beautiful lyrics you've done in it, like "I want out of here, I need to find the stars. City skies hiding them, as if we're ashamed of what we've ruined." I'm living out here and I'm seeing stars with my naked eyes for the first time in about a decade, you know? You can't see stars in San Diego.
Wes: Yeah, you can't see them in Boston at all either.
Where you're at right now, if you look west, you can probably see that ugly brown layer.
Wes: Hold on, I'm on my porch. Yup, it's there.
It's all the fucking smog from San Diego and L.A.
Wes: Yeah, a Fed Ex plane just disappeared into it.
It's just fucking disgusting and depressing. That line just made me think about it because I've been hanging around out here watching squirrels and catching fireflies and looking at stars and I can actually see them. In some ways, it makes me think of things I either never had or I'm just starting to remember. So overall, it seems like the lyrics on the new record are more hopeful and positive and upbeat, somewhat guardedly so. I know when we talked about "Background Music," we talked about the last song and it seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel, but throughout the new album, the lyrics seem a lot more determined. It seems like there's a lot more fight in them.
Wes: I'd agree with that. I'm kind of at a loss for words. I don't want to generalize, but I think at the time that record was written, we were a few years younger but I think those were pretty crucial years as far as growing and learning. I definitely think things looked a bit more bleak. Well, before that record was written, we had done a few tours. I had lived a lot of places but they were all brief stints in different cities and I think after touring a lot and meeting so many amazing people, that's very hopeful right there. There's a lot more in the world, there are a lot more things in the world to participate in and dwell on than one person or situation in some forgotten city that you don't even live in anymore. I think that played a big part in our lives and the way we think over the past couple of years. Again, I think the record is just saying what we've been up to. Nothing's perfect, still, but some things are better. There's a lot more in the world, I think, that just fucking nihilism, basically. I guess that's it, really.
So just looking for a little bit more meaning.
So would you say that it would be fair to characterize the new album as something that's searching or questioning?
Wes: Yeah, definitely. I'd say it's searching, but not like a direct search. Life's not like Google. You don't put in a question or something and find out it's going to give you answer in three seconds, but I think it's good to start thinking of questions or things you might want to be interested in or looking at something that could equal something more.
That's the last question I had unless you want to add anything or thing I left something out or want to clear something up.
Wes: No, I don't think so. I don't want to go back on anything I said or rethink it. I think if you had sent me the questions to write, I'm sure you would have gotten different answers but I think it's better this way.