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City of Ghosts
Careful with Those Axes, You Mean
By David Lilly
Have you been fooled by rumors that this is an article about things of a supernatural inclination instead of MUSIC? Fear not, music lovers! I bring you tidings of the great joy of progressive and psychedelic music which, incidentally, a lot of people probably thought was, um...dead. Well, faithful readers, pull up a log, gather around the campfire and allow me to regale you with a not-so-scary - nor supernatural - tale of four local musicians who understand that prog/psychedelic music is alive and well. They can be seen as, if you'll pardon the wordplay, a living embodiment of this timeless music in its modern form. They call themselves City of Ghosts (not their take on Louisville; in fact, far from it). They'd like you to call them fun, not to mention worthy of your time.
In the Beginning there was Syd...
If you know the history of progressive rock, the name Syd likely sends you right back to 1967 and the early days of Pink Floyd with their legendary enigma and co-founder, Syd Barrett. When I first read the liner notes of City of Ghosts' Ikiryoh CD (about which my only complaint is the short (25-minute) length), that's what came to mind. However, twenty-three year old Syd Bishop (not to be mistaken for the infamous - and deceased - punk rocker of a very similar sounding name) was born at about the time Pink Floyd began to dissolve. Ironically, the music Bishop writes and plays is evocative of the strange and experimental sounds the Floyd and other bands were creating about a decade before Bishop's birth.
During Bishop's 1993 freshman year at North Bullitt High School, a Louisville friend of his developed both an interest and involvement in the underground/indie music scene. Syd took the same path, as he related, "I started listening to bands like Fugazi and I was a big fan of local bands like Sunspring and Dim Point." Progressing further into the underground scene from there, Syd added, "I got into more different, local things. I was a big fan of a band named The Telephone Man and was into Crane and Rodan. I got to see Sunspring play once. They had a big impact on me when I was starting out. A band called Slint was also very important to me."
A steady diet of this stuff only stoked his desire to play, so he acquired a bass guitar and learned how to play some fairly easy Nirvana songs. During the summer of his high school graduation, having saved a significant amount of money from working at UPS, and while the company was being struck, he bought a guitar and amp and used the free time to play the instrument. A few months down the road, Syd and a friend got together to start a band.
At twenty-three years of age, Jacob Miller, a guitarist (and maker of various other musical sounds) with a dry and self-effacing sense of humor, is also a Bullitt County native. His formative years were spent being exposed to the musical influences of - as he puts it - "my brother, who unfortunately was obsessed with Van Halen. All-things-Van Halen and that's about it." At one point, "Weird" Al Yankovic entered Miller's life via radio or television and made a huge impact on him. Miller has a way of talking that keeps a listener off balance as to whether he's putting you on or being sincere. Because of that, when I questioned his sincerity regarding his lofty praise of Yankovic as an important musician, he assured me, "I'm being dead serious. It's the God's honest truth." At that enlightening moment, I caught on and could pretty much tell which he was doing from then on. Shortly thereafter, a humorous-yet-pathetic look came over his face as he added, "I later developed an unfortunate taste for Motley Crue. Actually, my first concert was a Motley Crue show in 1989. Lita Ford opened for them and, yes, Tommy Lee's drum kit floated over the crowd. At that point, when I'd witnessed the `magic' of Motley Crue live, it was the death of that obsession."
Miller began developing a fondness for "alternative" bands like Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana and developed a desire to play music. However, as he so self-mockingly articulated, "At the time I was a very fat child without [the] self-confidence to even pick up an instrument," adding painfully but with a smile, "many years of untapped potential would go down the drain due to my nonexistent self-esteem." Miller continued listening to music, though, and at some point a high school friend who had a guitar recruited him to take part in a curious music "project." As Miller explained, "He would bang on the instrument while I screamed obscenities and unleashed aggressions (about being fat) at the top of my lungs as a tape recorder captured our cacophony for inspiring future generations of musicians." Legend has it that thirteen or fourteen 90-minute tapes were recorded. A year or so later, for reasons even he can't fathom, Miller bought a bass guitar that he knew nothing about. During that year, he met and befriended Syd, who had an Abilene electric guitar he knew little or nothing about.
Jake elaborated, "We recruited a drummer that didn't know much about drums and a singer who was likewise uneducated about singing." They actually recorded a few songs before the winds of change blew again to find Miller, as he put it, "down the road in another band called Seaside Panel, where I played bass and sang like a southern California punk rock nightmare." Other commitments and desires would take him here and there and back to here. Now let's meet the timekeeper.
At nineteen years of age, drummer Jon Hill is the youngest member of City of Ghosts. He is also one of the original members and one of the most soft-spoken persons I've ever met. Having grown up on a diverse diet of jazz and classic rock (with a strong preference for the former), he said, "I did the stereotypical kid drummer thing and banged on all kinds of coffee pots and things. At a very young age I was given a toy drum kit, which," he continued, "was like a real drum to me at that time, but was actually cheaply made and it broke after a few days." Undaunted, he decided to take his fingers spidering up and down the neck of a guitar. After three months of that, he decided he hated playing guitar and returned it. Still determined to play music, and wiser due to experience, at age twelve, Hill rented a real drum kit and practiced on it for a couple of years. Unfortunately, due to familial and financial difficulties, that kit had to go. Jon spent the next year making the best of it with a practice pad until, as he explained, "my mom bought me another kit from a pawn shop and that is actually the one I still use." Other than creating the thunder in City of Ghosts, one of Jon's previous musical endeavors involved "a couple of guys fooling around with electronic stuff." He recalls, "It was fun at the time, but for two years we didn't go anywhere; we just had these jams in this guy's basement and I experimented with midi sampling." You know what they say about drummers, don't you? A good drummer should have a good bassist in order to carry the band.
Eventually, Then Came Guy
Guy Kelly a is twenty-three-year-old, lean, mean, bass-playing machine. He and his four siblings spent childhood away from this quasi-cosmopolis in Springfield, Kentucky. As Guy tells it, "My dad really enjoyed playing guitar and he would play and sing for us a lot, so there was always music around." As quaint as that might sound, Guy and all his siblings were, as he recalls, "forced to take piano lessons. I think mine lasted for seven years." While Kelly is the only member of City of Ghosts who has had music lessons, he no longer plays piano. However, the experience revealed his aptitude for musicianship.
"At age eleven, I was given a really cheap acoustic guitar, which I worked at for a while but didn't really keep up with." However, his brother began practicing with the instrument and according to Guy, "started to get really good at it and I became jealous, especially when he and dad started playing together a lot. So, in an attempt to ease that tension between my brother and me, my dad got me an electric bass guitar. The word "electric" is what really sparked my enthusiasm. I took a few lessons on bass but the lessons were boring," and he chose the path of learning to play by ear.
In 1994, he discovered the underground music scene in Louisville (where he currently interns at U of L in graphic design and art) and attended a show featuring Endpoint and Sunspring. At that point, he added, "I threw away Metallica, Guns `n' Roses and everything else I'd been listening to." Eventually Guy merged his audience-member status into that of a participant in the scene. Along the way he got involved in a band called Telavet. Kelly elaborates, "I'd played with a few other bands, but Telavet was my first real band of note. We played out regularly a couple of times a month for about a year. I actually just played that band's last show this past July. It was through Telavet that I met Syd, because he'd seen me play."
Broke and Evolving
The gospel according to Bishop goes something like this: "The first band Jacob played in was also my first band." Appropriately named Broke, Syd admitted, "It was terrible. We'd been playing together about three months and went into a studio to record and, in retrospect, the results were just awful but at the time we thought we were pretty cool." During the process of breaking up Broke, things instead began evolving. Syd continued, "If you can believe this, the drummer we'd had didn't even like music. We sent him away and found Jon, who is a great drummer. We went through a series of names for the band and ended up with Seaside Panel, which is a play on words that I prefer to let others figure out for themselves." That band lasted longer than the previous band but Miller was uncertain about it all and left.
"The music was just bad and not going in a direction I was interested in." Syd added, "It was actually kind of good for that time and it did progress from what we had done before, in Broke." For a brief period, Syd played in both Seaside Panel and another group called Black Action. He disclosed, "Seaside Panel then split up and I was playing in Black Action along with City of Ghosts, which was then a side project. The initial idea behind City of Ghosts was, since Jacob, Jon and I had all played together on and off and we're very compatible, to get all of us into the same band."
Thus, City of Ghosts began in April 2000 as a trio of musician friends searching for their own musical direction and distinctive sound. If my hunch is correct, the burning question that's screaming in your mind at this point is, "Where or how did they get that name?" Good question; there's an interesting answer.
When All Else Fails, There's Cable TV
Knowing the potential dangers of assuming anything, particularly when writing a factual story, rather than assuming or guessing the name to be some kind of literary reference (since the bulb in City of Ghosts' collective mind is high wattage), I inquired about the origin of the name "City of Ghosts." Syd explained, "I love The Discovery Channel and the name refers to a show I saw on there. It was the name of a place where archeologists found a `community' of mummies, basically. It wasn't just a bunch of corpses dumped in one area, but appeared to have been a ceremonial type of burial site, so there was something meaningful involved in it. To break it down a bit, a city could be seen as a collection of things, but nobody really knows what ghosts are, so "city of ghosts" is a loaded phrase or name."
And the Ghost Played On
Young bands don't go to places like Freedom Hall or Madison Square Garden to rehearse and develop their skills and acquire chops. I'm sure we can all agree on that, so let's resume with our progressive heroes in their halcyon days, spending a lot of time practicing and writing in Miller's basement, as City of Ghosts.
One of their initial goals was to use the same instrumentation as another local band, but, as Syd put it, "to show them how it's done." As fate would have it, they didn't have the equipment needed for the task, nor were there funds to get it, so they continued as they were. Further down the line, Jacob left the band to commit more time to studies and his girlfriend (now his fiancée) and, he added facetiously, "I joined Fugazi and bungee-jumped off the Washington Monument." Because these guys are not just bandmates but actually friends, even though it meant finding a different practice facility (and perhaps someone else's dad to yell at them to turn the volume down), he and the others parted amicably.
The Revolving Bass Door
The first bassist to succeed Miller was Mike Seymour, whose bass playing in the band, Red Sun, had impressed Syd enough that he still refers to Seymour as "an excellent bass player." That was a time Syd calls, "our formative period...we really started to develop our own sound. We were just cranking things out. It was an incredibly creative period for everybody involved." As successful a time as it was, Syd remembers it was a jolt when Seymour quit. "We didn't see it coming, so there was some friction and it was very difficult at first," so Syd is glad to add that things did get ironed out between the band and Seymour. On Seymour's four-string heels came Garrett Petters with a lengthy player's résumé. Unusual as City of Ghosts' music is, they remember Petters as an interesting player to have been involved with. Syd illuminates that comment with the observation, "he plays with his fingers and uses a lot of pedals and a bass synthesizer, which is weird. He's very into funk and loves dance music, which is the antithesis of what we're about." With clearly irreconcilable artistic differences, Petters and the band parted company.
The next bassist didn't work out at all, leaving Syd and Jon feeling a bit frustrated and uncertain about the next step.
Meanwhile, Guy Kelly was providing bottom for Telavet, which Syd noticed after a mutual friend tugged on his sleeve about Kelly. Without further ado or an audition, Kelly was hired to play bass for City of Ghosts, based on what Syd had seen and heard at Telavet gigs. The humble but talented bass player recalls, "I was definitely not accustomed to landing a job in that manner, but I was very interested and accepted the position."
Interestingly, on the night of April 6, 2002, Kelly's first on-stage appearance with City of Ghosts, he also played with Telavet as the warm-up band. Beyond that, during Kelly's first few months with City of Ghosts, he recalled, "I was studying for finals at U of L and there were several shows scheduled with Telavet and City of Ghosts. So there was a period of about five weeks there when I performed at least seven times while in the midst of taking exams and writing papers." He added that it was definitely a crazy time but was also fun. Bless those who are able. Recently, Miller was invited and able to rejoin City of Ghosts, which he did, playing the six-string ax and other computer oriented electronic sounds.
What the Hex?
"Do these guys have anecdotes from the their career?" you will surely wonder by now. Well, there was this one time they played Artswatch, which they remembered as "awesome," when, as Syd delighted in repeating, "There was this crazy person who lived nearby that came over cause we were playing so loud. She cussed at us, put a curse on us, hexed the crowd and did some voodoo on us." So, if you're looking for a hot time on the old town some night soon, you'll probably want to check various media sources to find out when and where City of Ghosts is playing.
Applause from the band
Through their enthusiasm in talking, it is obvious that the guys are extremely grateful to the following people for helping them out: Kudos, hugs and kisses to Abigail Gardner for the idea for the Ikiryoh cover and Paula Becanini for making that idea a reality. Handshake and friendly hugs to Tyler Trotter of Strike City (a Louisville band Syd loves & hopes we do a cover on) for recording City of Ghosts on reel-to-reel 8-track and Mike Lewis (of Three Nails for a False Prophet, another of Syd's faves) for handling the website.
And by the way
The band continues to work on new material. While Ikiryoh is their latest CD, they have no intention of stopping there. They're also interested in playing out of town, but have no plans to ditch Louisville. Off stage, in case you get a chance to meet them, these guys are as mellow a foursome as you'll find and are pretty content to keep working in their current state and direction, taking things one day at a time.
Check in with City of Ghosts as they haunt the web at http://www.rkt327.com/cityofghosts/news.htmand contact Syd at firstname.lastname@example.org