Voted album of the year 2013 by Famous Last Words, Willard Grant Conspiracy’s ‘Ghost Republic’ is a dark atmospheric masterpiece
When Famous Last Words (FLW) compiled its overall list of the most impressive albums of 2013, there was only ever going to be one winner and that was Willard Grant Conspiracy for their latest and possibly greatest album ‘Ghost Republic’.
With songs conjuring up images of barren landscapes, it is fitting that ‘Ghost Republic’ reflects a worrying state of affairs whereby the very foundations of communities working together for a common goal is steadily becoming a thing of the past due to a growing shift in attitudes, but also as a result of an increasing number of towns losing their status due to an ongoing (world) recession.
The finer details of everyday living is also present in the songs of ‘Ghost Republic’ as Willard Grant Conspiracy has managed to capture lyrically and in sound, for example, the daily commute of passers-by or the occasional snap, crackle and hiss of inanimate objects giving the impression of a general live quality to the overall recording.
Recorded in Massachusetts, David Michael Curry and Robert Fisher alias Willard Grant Conspiracy utilised the barest of instrumentation in order to capture the often fragile, hushed tones and atmospherics flittering in and out of the shadows of ‘Ghost Republic’, bringing to life songs such as the wonderful ‘Rattle and Hiss’ where genuine fears are played out, to the howl of feedback illuminating the climaxing tension of ‘Incident At Mono Lake’ that almost threatens to outstay its welcome by overlapping into a brief yet forceful ‘New Year’s Eve’.
Thankfully, the same conciseness did not apply to the conversation Famous Last Words (FLW) experienced with frontman Robert Fisher prior to Willard Grant Conspiracy’s performance in Oslo at the tail end of last year. It was quite the opposite in fact as frontman Robert Fisher bravely stepped forward, despite battling with a severe bout of flu, to wax lyrical about the band’s ‘Ghost Republic’ and its underlying issues regarding social morality, cohesion and increasing levels of poverty found throughout the various social strata of different societies.
“There is a conversation in the US right now about the disappearance of the middleclass and it’s a huge important issue because the middleclass foundations of where these countries got their moral culture is from the middleclass,” says Robert between fits of coughing and several apologies due to feeling rather unwell. “You’re not going to find it in the upper-class where people of privilege have much less foundation in reality than anyone else, so they just do what they want and with whom they please. The poor don’t get a choice about morals as they just do what they have to. So there is this huge middleclass where it’s becoming a ghost town due to an increasing number of people in this category. Therefore, it’s not just the poor anymore, as it’s a whole other part of society. This started to resonate with me and started to make sense as those are the characters that I have always written about – the marginalsed people and those who have been forgotten and therefore it was kind of an easy connector to make all of that work.”
There is no doubting the social messages often subtly embedded throughout ‘Ghost Republic’, as well as more openly obvious examples with the striking imagery of the American flag with its ragged and threadbare appearance that really does set alarm bells ringing regarding the graveness of the world’s financial and social dilemmas.
“When you think about it [‘Ghost Republic’], it’s a comment about the States but it’s also a comment about every place,” suggests Robert. “In our obsession to be successful and have money and climb to the top, we’ve lost track of the humanness of ourselves. There used to be a social contract in the US whereby even if you got to this rarefied place and were privileged enough, you understood that there was a certain amount of luck involved. Now, I think, when certain people get to that place, they somehow think they were owed it to begin with, so they don’t really see it as luck at all. Along with that comes a certain kind of superiority or a certain kind of specialised behaviour that you wouldn’t find necessarily elsewhere. For example, first generation wealth always had that kind of attitude and now all money has that attitude as it’s me first and everyone else can do whatever they want. I think no matter where in the world we go, we’ll find that [attitude] and that’s sad as it’s leaving a lot of people side-lined. The reason I said it that way is because I don’t want it to be seen as an anti-US diatribe because it’s not. The notion is not just about it being anti-US because it’s a comment about how people are too willing to let other people disappear, and that’s not healthy.”
There is a large grain of truth in the words of Robert Fisher, especially when it comes to communities disappearing as Willard Grant Conspiracy’s ‘Ghost Republic’ is also a reference to a once thriving town that teemed with life by the name of Bodie in California.
“It was actually quite a big town at one point, with approximately 65-75,000 people,” Robert elaborates further regarding the town of Bodie. “However, by the end of its life, it was down to about 150 people or something like that. The government intervened and said that it wasn’t a town anymore and that the people had to leave. So they sent the people packing and gave them money to relocate. I guess they [government] were very concerned because it’s remote and you can’t get there in the wintertime. The government set up a gate on the road with a padlock but there is no fence and you can walk around it, which is just silly. But in a way, when you walk through this town it’s the Twilight Zone with dinner tables [still] set with place settings and everything.”
So the former residents have just left everything behind?
“Yeah, they just left everything. The thing about it is that it made me start thinking about when someone mentions ghost town there’s this classic western image of a ghost town in everybody’s head. I don’t care if we’re talking about somebody in Croatia or Norway or Uruguay or whatever, there’s a classic image that pops up in peoples’ heads and this place [Bodie] is that. However, there is another form of ghost town that is happening now, which involves any town in the world where there is a section of the town, either by design or by accident, that others have decided they’re going to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s still there and there are people still living in it, but they might as well be ghosts to the rest of the people in the town because they’re so marginalised that they don’t exist.”
When listening to ‘Ghost Republic’, there is a real sense of transition in the lives of people and attitudes held that is also tied to a steadily increasing decay in the urban environment. Such transition also extends to the working practices of Willard Grant Conspiracy, especially when performing live, as they have been known to tinker with songs and in the process offer slightly different interpretations. Such flexibility within the Willard Grant Conspiracy trench has also extended to visual imagery being used during their recent tour, as the band decided to screen a film to add another layer to the tales spilling forth from ‘Ghost Republic’ as Robert explains.
“During this tour, we have been showing a film so that people could see with the soundtrack of the record. The film has images of the desert where I live and text from a book called Ghost Republic that I have participated in. When you’re showing a film with images and performing music that’s not choreographed, there are these accidental things that happen between all of that. It’s like when you turn your television sound down and you listen to your music, there’s always some weird connectivity going on that you just don’t expect. For example, the other night Dave was looking at the laptop as he was playing and noticed that the minute after I had sung a line, that line appeared up on the screen and there was no way that was planned. The film loops twice when we play and it moves slowly, so the audience don’t have to watch it as such but just let it happen to them. It’s the same feeling when you go to see a band for the first or second time and [often] there’s so much stuff going on that it’s hard to hear the words and absorb them. So when the words are important and the storytelling is important, it’s nice to add another dimension in order to allow people to travel there if they want to.”
Who was responsible for the visual imagery in terms of the film?
“The photographs that are in the film are by my friend Jason Hughes, who is a very talented young photographer from Brooks Institute of Photography. He has access to this desert that not many people get to see, as he has lived there all his life. As a photographer, there is an intimacy that is rare and we had those photographs in the book.”
Can you elaborate further in terms of the actual book Ghost Republic that you mentioned earlier?
“The book itself is kind of an imagined thing as it’s a hallucination on a ghost town that exists called Bodie in California, which we discussed earlier. The idea came from a friend of mine, who is a poet and wanted a whole bunch of people to write characters and imagine them living in this town. My friend came to me and asked if I could write a character who wanders through this whole thing and sort of ties it all together. So I came up with a single man Greek chorus in the sense of an old prospector who didn’t intend to end up at this place at the end of his days but somehow did. So he comments on a few things as he goes and he hopefully connects the narrative a bit since there was no planned narrative.”
With Robert Fisher describing Willard Grant Conspiracy as “like the weird cousin of Americana” due to arriving on the scene during its second wave and creating more of a hybrid version of this genre due to “not really [being] a roots band” in the traditional sense, the songs making up ‘Ghost Republic’ definitely draw on various elements of country and folk yet cross that divide due to being equally at home with an indie market with its acoustic guitar rock. To be more precise, the latter songs ‘The Early Hour’, ‘Incident At Mono Lake’ and ‘New Year’s Eve’ bring out such comparisons, especially when it comes to seminal 80s outfit Talk Talk and their swansong album ‘Laughing Stock’ with its loose textures ranging from moments of extreme fragility to transient stinging feedback. Such improvisation has borne out from a lengthy partnership spent writing, recording and performing where the dynamics between Robert Fisher and David Michael Curry are clearly understood.
“I wanted this record [‘Ghost Republic’] to be a lot about who Dave is as a musical collaborator in terms of what that means to the band because he’s been there since the very beginning,” explains Robert. “It has been the longest standing musical collaboration in the band, and he’s always been an important wildcard member of the group, so it was really important to me to create something that was a document of the thing that we do together. When we perform together, it has this fresh looseness to it every time that doesn’t get bogged down with playing the same set again. That is really special and rare and kind of where the origins of the record came from and the idea of recording in this way”
Despite the loose feel of ‘Ghost Republic’, was there much preparation for this album before you entered the recording sessions?
“Truly, the record is the music that is in our heads,” responds Robert. “It took about four weekends in Massachusetts a little over a year ago, and we didn’t have a clock [deadline] or anything. We had a really good recording set up and we just recorded what felt right to us. It was on purpose that we did it in that way. I had some songs and some sketches of songs, but I wanted to show up with not much in the way of material as I wanted to create some things in the studio to see where our inclinations went.”
Can you provide an example of one of your songs that was greatly improvised during the recording sessions for ‘Ghost Republic’?
“‘Good Morning Wadlow’ was interesting because it was totally improvised,” reflects Robert. “I was sitting in a chair in the living room one morning when Dave walked in after an all-night ride one Saturday. Dave rides tall bikes – which are art bikes and double in height – and he rides with a gang called SCUL. Part of the inspiration for this song came from Dave’s bike named Wadlow, which is named after the tallest man in the world. So the bike was sitting outside and I was sitting looking out the window and playing the guitar and improvising with some words. The other part of the song was inspired by a monastery that is next door to Dave’s [apartment] and is full of bearded priests who wander around a lot of the time. So I just started improvising with these words and singing it to myself when all of a sudden Dave suggested that we should record it. So we turned everything on and recorded it and the song came out like a whole piece, which was really lovely. There are some lines in there that if I had spent a lot of time trying to create, they would have taken years because they were a complete gift.”
With the album title also being utilised for one of the songs, there seems to be a double meaning when it comes to ‘Ghost Republic’ as it refers to desolated areas but also appears to hint at considerable low self-esteem due to the line, “When I think of you, I think less of me”.
“That’s interesting because sometimes I hear the audience make a sympathetic noise in response to that song due to thinking that I think less of myself, but that’s not actually what it means. It’s really more about geography than anything else, as I kinda twisted it on purpose to leave a bit of doubt in there as to what it was about. When I first moved back to the desert I had missed it a lot, but like with a lot of things when you get back there, you start to remember why you left to begin with, but there’s still something in it. So in that way, it’s like an old girlfriend whereby if you were really in love with somebody, you may not be in love with them now but there’s still something that you can’t dishonour in terms of its origins by pretending that it didn’t happen; therefore, the two things kind of fit together very nicely.”
Just as Robert’s flu seems to step up a gear in terms of its severity, FLW decides to wrap things up so that Willard Grant’s frontman can take a well-earned rest before this evening’s performance which, by the way, was nothing short of mesmerising considering the aforementioned influenza that claimed only one solo effort being aborted. Therefore, all that remains is to establish what plans rest in the pipeline for Willard Grant Conspiracy after producing, in our opinion, the runaway success of 2013.
“Dave and I have already recorded eight new songs, which we have with us as a tour-only CD, but it’s a working progress and we’ll probably finish that up. In terms of the music business right now, you have to think that every record you do is your last record because to think otherwise would be foolish as you don’t know what’s going to happen [next]. For example, record labels can’t sell music [at the moment] and magazines don’t want to write about it unless it’s got a record label behind it, so people release self-released stuff. Also, not everyone is on the same page when it comes to business, and the recession has taken a huge toll. The other night we played a punk rock club, and it was a really great club, but it was mostly underground punk and death metal and there were very few people there. The promoter was upset and [left me thinking] ‘Why did you think this was going to work?’ I guess what I’m trying to say is that you never know when somebody’s going to say that we just don’t think you’re viable enough to keep putting out records – you don’t know that.”
Willard Grant Conspiracy’s ‘Ghost Republic’ is available on Loose Music
I don't want it to be seen as an anti-US diatribe because it's not. The notion is not just about it being anti-US because it's a comment about how people are too willing to let other people disappear, and that's not healthy."
Robert Fisher, Willard Grant Conspiracy
FLW - From the Tapes
Robert Fisher reveals to Famous Last Words the fear behind the song ‘Rattle and Hiss’ from current album ‘Ghost Republic’.
“‘Rattle and Hiss’ was an improvised song but the lyric had been floating around for a really long time. I’m not sure why it came together or the way it came together exactly, but it’s about nightmares and about nightmares that become real. If you’ve ever been in the desert and faced with a rattlesnake it’s both fascinating and incredibly dangerous as I have faced a number of them in my years. When I was a kid, it used to haunt me this notion that they could get in the house and be under the bed and it was a really scary thing. So it’s a combination of a lot of different things and because I was writing about this place up in the Sierras, I thought to myself it’s a small creature in the greater scheme of things but it’s a terrifying one and it’s one that if you were out in the middle of nowhere and you ran across it, you wouldn’t forget about it even in the hours when you’re pretty sure that they weren’t around because you would still be worried about it. Those are the kind of night fears that scare people, and I thought there was something about that in terms of a bigger picture as well.”