Interview: Alec A. Head of Ghostbound

Today we’re interviewing Alec A. Head, guitarist and vocalist of the Brooklyn-based band, Ghostbound. Their new record, All Is Phantom, just came out on June 1st, 2018.

All Is Phantom is grandiose in scale and is an evocative, cinematic listening experience. The opening ambient guitars of “The Gallivanter” and peaceful closure of “Goodbye” bookend a body of work that has many riveting and subdued moments throughout.

We’re going to be talking with Alec about Ghostbound’s debut record and get some insight into his inspiration behind it, the process of bringing it to life, and of course, ask about some of the pedals and effects he used on the record.

So Alec, Ghostbound has been compared to The Smiths meets black metal. How do you feel about that description? And what references of comparison would you offer to new listeners before they push play on All Is Phantom?

First and foremost, thank you so much for having me! While it would be hard for me to dispute the description in question, as the influence of The Smiths (and other guitar-driven post-punk/pop) is probably something that is permanently ingrained into my “musical DNA”, as it were, I do feel that the comparison is a trifle too simplistic for what we do. With that said, my own tagline for the project VERY early-on was “Crowded House gone black metal”, so who I am to judge? It almost goes without saying that I have literally no control over how we are perceived, so if there are those who want to make direct comparisons to specific artists, then have at it!

If I were to break it down on my own, I daresay that we (on All is Phantom, in any case) play an atmospheric and “holistic” blend of metal, post-punk, and ambient stylings with nods toward singer/songwriter-style balladry in the vein of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, black metal, and 80s “big music” in the vein of Big Country, The Waterboys, Crowded House, among many, many, innumerable other disparate genres. In truth, everything is permitted in the world of Ghostbound as long as we err on the side of “atmosphere”. The aforementioned is probably why I do not write the promotional material for this band, specifically 🙂

This record has been a long time coming. When did you first embark on the All Is Phantom journey to start bringing this album to life? And what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this vision a reality?

My, oh my! This is the loaded question to end all loaded questions! In essence, I wrote the introduction to what eventually became “The Gallivanter” in Autumn of 2002. Over the following months and years, I wrote the foundations to what would eventually comprise roughly half of the songs that make up All is Phantom (“Wildest of Rivers”, “Earthen Ground”, “Intermezzo”, “It Goes Away”, and “Tidings”, specifically). Of course, life and other ambitions got in the way of my completing the record in any appreciable way during this time. Finally, there was one particular event that transpired in 2012 that caused me to abandon my other artistic endeavors in favor of focusing on music exclusively. This particular event would inform and enrich the lyrical themes that run throughout the record as well as spur me on to complete the aforementioned songs in addition to composing a few entirely new(er) songs altogether.

In 2013, I ended up joining two VERY different bands as a lead guitarist; a former co-worker of mine by the name of Greg Mattern is a singer/songwriter of considerable ability (I contributed the guitar solo to “Crazy” which can be heard here). He played a brand of folk-influenced indie rock with rather unique chord inversions and orchestral arrangements. More importantly, I joined avant blackened doom stalwarts Kosmodemonic as an additional/lead guitarist. Bozz, KD’s frontman, is able to string riffs and ideas together so brilliantly that it inspired and continues to inspire me to no end. So, at one time, I was in two radically different bands fronted by actual SONGWRITERS. Greg’s project eventually fizzled as far as being a fully-fledged band was concerned (though it would also be where I would meet Noah Shaul, my good friend and the only other member of Ghostbound until very recently), and Kosmodemonic is still together (we have a new record that is hopefully going to be released later this year), but this was essential to my own development as a composer, and I would work on the rest of the songs that make up the record accordingly.

To speak of challenges, I daresay that the biggest challenge we have faced thus far is finding the means to release the record. We had to sit on it for quite a bit before finding a suitable label (or, at least, a label with the means and desire to release it). So far, ATMF Records/A Sad Sadness Song is treating us very well and we are privileged to be among so many great, forward-thinking artists in the form of Deadly Carnage and Forgotten Woods, among others!

To which bands and albums would you give credit for inspiring such a sprawling, theatrical release?

Of course, there are too many to mention, BUT there a few specific bands and artists that inspired the idea of the “expansiveness” of the music that comprises All is Phantom.

Devin Townsend’s Ocean Machine – Biomech record was a massive inspiration as it pertains to the “size” of the music; essentially, it is a collection of intensely personal songs that was then densely layered with a massive wall of heavy guitar as well as effects-laden, pad-like guitar lines on top of Queen-like, overdubbed vocal arrangements. His recent material has not been as inspiring to me, but Biomech and Terria are both essential to the foundation of All is Phantom.

In The Woods… – Omnio was also a very important record for me. While they had their roots in black metal, the band would eventually evolve into something a little more “special” via sprawling, meandering songs and almost exclusively “cleanly sung” vocals along with ethereal atmospherics without abandoning black metal’s hallmarks of tremolo guitar lines and blast beats.

Agalloch – Pale Folklore. This record came out in the midst of a very fertile period for me. Once I heard this album, I stopped thinking of metal as being merely “heavy”. This was metal that also had a very strong sense of cinematic atmosphere and dynamics on top of a very “visual” quality. It stands as truly “transportive” music. The same idea applies to Ulver’s Bergtatt record. I daresay that this is what caused me to gravitate towards black metal as a genre – the idea that something could have all of the things that one can associate with metal, i.e. aggression, speed, and forward motion, while being simultaneously expansive and evocative.

Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden AND Laughing Stock – I keep going back to this idea of “expansiveness”, and this is not better exemplified than on these two records. Of course, one can argue that Post Rock was born after these records came out (though it would officially be coined in the wake of the release of Bark Psychosis’ masterpiece, Hex). These albums are almost beyond what we have come to know as “western music”, for me. I feel that these records are what happens when rock music reaches enlightenment; I hope to eventually get to a similarly ecstatic place with my own music at some point down the road.

Naturally, there are innumerable other bands and individual albums that inspired the “spirit” of this record (Alcest, Anathema, Wovenhand, to name but a few more), but I do not feel that there is enough bandwidth or space available via the internet itself for me to list them. It also bears mentioning that I am a massive film nerd, and the movies of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky can also be seen as direct influences on the album.

Who are some of the songwriters and guitarists who’ve had an impact on your compositions and guitar playing?

I tend to be a fan of more guitarists who play in a more “textural” way than ones who are known to “play well” – I will take an interesting riff or arpeggiation over a sweep-arpeggiated tappy guitar solo any day of the week.

I, of course, bow at the altar of Johnny Marr; His ability to invert rather simple chord arrangements into deceptively clever riffs is something that will always inspire me. Geordie Walker of Killing Joke is PERHAPS my favorite guitar player ever, mostly due to his sense of economy and completely incredible, individualistic, atmospheric tone. I had this brief period around 2005 where I would try my damnedest to rip off Michael Hedges at every turn, and while I have since abandoned the “touch/tap” technique insofar as my own playing is concerned, his ability as a composer and player continues to influence me greatly – he was able to occupy the biggest amount of space with a single recorded guitar track. Alex Lifeson of Rush fame, Peter Yates and Nod Wright of Fields of the Nephilim, Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column, John McGeoch of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame, Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies of The Chameleons, the list goes on and on!

As far as “soloists” are concerned, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, and Steve Rothery (Marillion) are all beautifully expressive in their playing. On the more “metal” end of the spectrum, Luc Lemay and Kevin Hufnagel of Gorguts, Christian Bouche of Deathspell Omega, Devin Townsend, Bob Vigna of Immolation, Paul Masvidal of Cynic, Don Anderson of Khôrada/Sculptured/ex-Agalloch, and ESPECIALLY Piggy from Voivod will always be big inspirations for me and my playing.

In terms of songwriters, I daresay Nick Cave, Michael Gira, Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Nick Drake, Mark Eitzel, Jeremy Enigk, Stephen Sondheim, Mark Kozelek, Danny Cavanagh, Kevin Coyne, Scott Walker, Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Part, Mike Scott, Stephane “Neige” Paul, and Neil Finn are but a few of the individuals whose work continually informs and inspires me.

You’ve said that Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) is your single biggest influence as a singer. What are some of his works that have had the most impact on you, lyrically and/or stylistically?

Yet another “can o’ worms” question! Faith No More’s Angel Dust ranks as my favorite record ever. It is arguably the most challenging record ever released by a major label, and I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the meeting between executives expecting another “Epic” occurred. I like to imagine that they all put their heads down on the table or ran away screaming by the time “Malpractice” came on. I have quite the affinity for King for a Day/Fool for a Lifetime, as well. Both records are meant to be experienced on a whole, and yet no two songs sound alike in any way. Also, both records saw Mr. Patton truly coming into his own as a vocalist, whether he was crooning, rapping, growling, or shrieking like a banshee. No one can match his versatility. I have made own attempts to do so, most notably on “Roof and Wall” off of All is Phantom. The jury is still out as to whether or not I was successful.

I would also like to give a quick shout-out to other singers that helped shape my voice in the form of Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Dax Riggs, Alan Averill, Jaz Coleman, Dominic Appleton, and Krister Linder.

I appreciate All Is Phantom when experienced as a whole as there are some recurring moods and a cohesiveness to the overall sound, but many of the songs can certainly stand on their own. Was the record intentionally written to be experienced as a singular event, or did you focus on the songs individually and just let them take form as a record?

I wholly appreciate you saying that! Thank you! In short, the record was written in an effort to be experienced in one sitting. I am of the generation where a record must have a beginning, middle, and an end. I want there to be a certain sense of “journey” to the music with branching paths and/or hidden doorways, to put it somewhat pretentiously.

Which song on All Is Phantom is your favorite and why?

Without question, my favorite song on the record is “Night Time Drowning”, mostly because it was one of the more recent songs written for the record. Additionally, it is the song where I wear my influences furthest out on my sleeve. One does not have to listen too deeply to realize that it is a homage to some of my favorite post-punk/goth/death rock recordings of yesteryear. I feel that it exhibits a certain tribute without being too retro or pastiche, and I also like that there is a genuine sense of looming menace/dramatic tension that runs throughout the song.

Any favorite moments on the record?

At around the 4:23 point of “Night Time Drowning”, there is a certain clean guitar part that comes in – it is mixed rather low and sits right underneath all the grandiosity and layered guitar tracks. I feel that it “breaks the song open” in the best way possible. Incidentally, it was something that occurred at the last possible minute and was not really “composed” beforehand.

In “Tidings”, I am rather big on the “bridge” sections that occur at around the 2:40 and 4:57 points. I feel that the clean/center-guitar parts and acoustic guitars are mixed rather well, and that combined with the overdubbed harmony choirs makes for a rather “lush” atmosphere.

I am also quite fond of the clean guitar tone I was able to achieve for “It Goes Away”.

Lastly, when I first heard the heavy guitars come in through the studio monitors while listening back to “The Gallivanter” after recording the main guitar tracks, I realized that this record was shaping up to be exactly how I envisioned it after so many years.

Can you tell us about the guitars and amps used on the record?

Happily! For this record, I utilized two different tunings. The majority of the songs are in E Standard/A 440, and a few of them are in D Standard (“Keep My Dreams Inside”, “Roof and Wall”, and “Goodbye”, respectively). For the songs in E standard, I utilized my custom-built Heritage H555. It is, in essence, an ES-335-style, semi-hollow guitar as it was built by a number of the original Gibson builders out of the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It boasts a set Mahogany neck into a Maple center block with curly Maple back, top, and sides, not to mention an ebony fretboard. At the time of the recording, I had a Seymour Duncan Custom Custom in the bridge position, and a Duncan ’59 in the neck position. For 99.99% of the clean tones, you hear the Duncan ’59, specifically, though the Custom Custom is used for the clean tones on “It Goes Away”. It bears mentioning that for a number of the rhythm tracks on “Tidings” and “Wildest of Rivers”, I also made use of an ESP E-II Eclipse that I had gutted of its active electronics in favor of a Bare Knuckle Rebel Yell in the bridge position and a Cold Sweat in the neck. I have since sold the ESP E-II, and I have also replaced the pickups in the Heritage with a set of Bare Knuckle Mules. I believe I was using a set of Rotosound 11-48 strings.

For the songs in D standard, I used my custom-built Monson Nomad, which was built by a wonderfully talented, Washington-based luthier by the name of Brent Monson (www.monsonguitars.com). This instrument is a unique beast in and of itself. It weighs in at around 12 pounds, and it also boasts a Mahogany neck-through construction at 25″, PRS-like scale with a Sapele body/”wings”. It has a Claro Walnut top that was salvaged from a 160-year-old dead tree, and an ebony fretboard. Surprisingly, its attack is somewhat “strat-like” in terms of the “snap and sizzle” thereof, but it sounds like no other guitar I have ever owned or played. At the time of recording, it had a set of Bare Knuckle Rebel Yells in both the bridge and neck positions, and a set of DR drop-tune strings in 11-54 gauge, but at present it has a Bare Knuckle Abraxas set resting comfortably in its woodsy contours, and I could not be happier with how it sounds. In point of fact, I love this guitar so much that I have since “retired” the Heritage from live use, and I have set the Monson up in E standard for any and all live performances going forward. I have since procured a Dunable Yeti for the D-standard material.

The smattering of acoustic guitar you hear was done via my Larrivee D-05 in standard tuning along with a set of John Pearse Phosphor Bronze 12-53 strings.

Amp-wise, all of the dirty/distorted tunes you hear were achieved via my trusty Orange Rockerverb MKII head through the studio’s own Bogner 4/12 cabinet, though for “Tidings” and “Wildest of Rivers”, I had split the signal between the Rockerverb and the crunch channel of the studio’s Bogner Ecstacy. 98% of the clean tones on the album were achieved through the studio’s old VHT (pre-Fryette) Deliverance, though I do recall that the clean tones on “Earthen Ground” were actually done via the clean channel of the Rockerverb itself.

Let’s talk about specific effects used to create sounds on the record. What reverb did you use in the opening guitars of The Gallivanter?

For the introduction to “The Gallivanter”, I used my Strymon blueSky set to maximum shimmer. There was no other pedal used for that part as I can recall.

At the end of The Wildest of Rivers there’s a cool droning ambience as the song fades out. How did you create that sound?

I believe that was achieved via the aforesaid Strymon blueSky with the mix set to its highest setting combined with the my Strymon El Capistan via the clean channel of the Orange Rockerverb.

I hear some modulation and delay on the opening guitar in Earthen Ground. What did you use there?

You heard right! If I am remembering correctly, it was the “Saltwater” preset of my Strymon TimeLine along with the studio’s ancient Ibanez CS-9 chorus pedal that was apparently once owned by Simon Gallup of The Cure (our engineer, the great Jesse Cannon, had worked on The Cure’s 2003 self-titled effort and Robert Smith had given it to him as a gift).

There’s some chorus on the intro guitars of (I Will) Keep My Dreams Inside; what’s your go-to chorus pedal?

The aforementioned Ibanez CS-9 was what I used on all of the clean guitars on which there is a chorus effect. I absolutely LOVE the tone that I captured on the record and, of course, the idea that the pedal may have once been owned and used by a member of one of my favorite bands ever gave it a little extra “mojo”. However, I then acquired one for myself only to have the thing break on me twice. I have since procured a BOSS CE-2W, and I daresay that it is the finest chorus pedal I have ever heard or used.

When the break hits in Tidings around 3:12, what are you using for the dirt on that single note riff? Was that just your amp? And did any dirt pedals make it on that or any other parts of the record?

That is a very good question for which there is not one ounce of mystery! That was entirely the Orange Rockerverb and no, there were absolutely no dirt pedals used on the record. I am a strong proponent of amp distortion, though I did recently purchase an Earthquaker Devices Dunes pedal, and I am using it as my “always on” overdrive for live use. I love it, so far.

Are there any other noteworthy effects that were used on the record?

Not as such! Essentially the only pedals used were a holy Strymon trifecta variation in the form of the blueSky, TimeLine, and El Capistan along with the old Ibanez CS-9 chorus.

What’s currently on your gear wish-list? Are there any interesting new pedals you’re looking at that might become part of the Ghostbound sound?

I wish I can say there were not! As an unabashed gear-head, I am always pining for new pieces of gear in every form! Of late, I tend to gravitate towards pedals that can only be described as “a little weird” as those are the pedals that truly inspire me to create. I am currently enamored with my MWFX Judder, and although I have yet to figure out a way to use it in our current set, knowing that it is on my pedalboard warms the ol’ cockles of my heart. I am currently hungering after the Meris Polymoon. I got to experience it first-hand at the Brooklyn Stompbox Exhibit, and I was surprised at how intuitive it was in terms of the hidden functions, et cetera. Also, it goes without saying that it sounds absolutely inspiring. I would be able to achieve the ultimate in ethereal soundscapes with the Polymoon along with their Mercury7 reverb. I never thought I would find a company that could top Strymon in this arena, but it looks like Meris is definitely it. It also bears mentioning that both of the fellows who run the company were incredibly nice and informative.

I also recently caught a YouTube clip of the Dwarfcraft Ghost Fax phaser pedal, and my jaw dropped to the floor. I have sold every phaser I have ever owned, but this one is looking to do something a little bit different. Additionally, the Red Panda Tensor pedal looks amazing; I have no real idea what it is supposed to do, but I know that I need it in my life.

Lastly, the Earthquaker Devices Transmisser is something that I have had my eye on for quite a bit. Virtually anything with which I can create an unearthly, synth-like soundscape is something I will want on my pedalboard forthwith!

What are your plans now? Any touring plans or other projects in the works?

At present, we are aiming to play live as much as possible. Noah and I made the effort to expand the line-up through numerous abortive attempts to play with potential additional guitarists and drummers, and we finally solidified the line-up earlier this year. We have the great Talha Alvie in our ranks. He also plays guitar and is the primary songwriter behind Karachi-based progressive rock band The DA Method. In addition, we are joined on drums by Jimmy Duke, who has years upon years of experience in innumerable Brooklyn-based hardcore/punk outfits. We recently played our FIRST SHOW as a live unit, and we are aiming to play our official album-release show in early August.

We are also in talks with a few visual artists in an effort to make a musical video for one or a number of tracks, though nothing has been set in stone as of yet.

Of course, we would love to go on tour, but we all have day jobs, careers, and/or families. We hope to do so soon, but the circumstances would have to be right.

Lastly, we are going to be commencing work on the follow-up to All is Phantom. Here is hoping that it will not take as long from inception to completion!

Is there anything else you’d like to share before we go?

I would just like to take the time to say “thank you”, Gabe, for your attention and support. It is greatly humbling to know that there are those who are interested in our work. I would also like to thank any potential fan that may be lurking around the proverbial corner. Feel free to give us a listen at www.ghostbound.bandcamp.com, and/or give us a visit at www.facebook.com/ghostboundthrone.

Alec, thanks again for joining us. We wish you the best!

Gabriel Tanaka

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