It's Kansas City, and everybody plays in everybody else's bands, but even by those standards, the members of Ghosty are remarkably promiscuous collaborators. This point is driven home when I meet with the band at the Brick, a venue chosen because drummer Bill Belzer is playing a show there later in the night with his other band, Lazy. Ghosty frontman Andrew Connor — who is also a member of the ACBs, Mary Fortune, Power & Light, and a couple of other projects I probably don't even know about yet — gets a shout-out from the stage during Lazy's set. Bassist Mike Nolte, who used to run sound at the Brick, has recorded dozens of local bands at More Famouser, the studio he operates in Shawnee. Earlier in the day, he'd been going over some new Making Movies tracks, songs produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. "I'm pretty impressed with those guys," Nolte tells me. "Their stuff keeps getting better."
The same could be said for Ghosty, whose new self-titled full-length, out this week, is the finest rock record to come out of Kansas City, and maybe the entire Midwest, this year. Soulful, complex, dirty and drenched in melody, Ghosty is a triumph on every count: as a recording, as a songwriting résumé, even as a piece of art. (The vinyl design, conceived by Continents' Jim Button, is minimal and striking.)
Connor has led Ghosty in various iterations, with up to seven members at a time, for over a decade. For most of that time, the band has hewed closely to a lively, intricate pop sound that I've always condensed to "Pavement with a heart." But Ghosty is a different animal entirely. This may in part be credited to it being the work of a three-piece, a lineup that coalesced on Connor's 30th birthday.
"There was a whole year — most of 2010 — where there weren't any Ghosty shows," Connor says. "Then we got Bill in, and our first practice was January 7, 2011. I remember I wanted to schedule it specifically for that day."
"Really?" Belzer asks. "That's so sweet."
A drummer in Kansas City bands, on and off, for about 20 years, Belzer had long been enamored of Ghosty. "I think there's something about Andrew's songwriting that brings out new sides in the people he plays with," he says. "I weaseled my way in slowly. It reached a point where they would either have to let me play in the band or file a restraining order against me."
Connor, Belzer and Nolte (who has been a member of Ghosty since about 2003) like the challenge of performing as a trio. "Everybody really has to know their parts," Connor says. "You have to hold up your end. I think that's good for you, good for us, to have to fill in all that space with only three people."
You wouldn't necessarily guess that Ghosty is the work of a trio — it's rich and full and artfully arranged — but the instrumentation has a rawness suggesting that the primary instruments were maximally utilized. Belzer's percussion has a precise, closed-in quality — the sounds he gets from his kit on "You Saved Me" are like drum porn. Nolte's bass lines stab, thump and motor along like a wild power tool. Connor's vocals, usually elegant, even get a little unhinged. She had this rabbit's foot for sale/And I bought it/I always buy that shhhhhiitt, he snarls on "You Shut Me Out."
"I wanted us to sound less like a stiff, white indie-rock band and more in the groove on this one," Connor says. "Bill's a real groovy drummer, which was a part of it. And I think the fact that we recorded on analog makes it sound really fat and huge, like an old soul record or something. I recently became obsessed with the new Dr. John album, which was recorded by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who's a total analog purist. I just really respect the sensibility they've got going on, where it's all about musicianship and these huge sounds on the record. It takes my breath away, it's just such an amazing record."
Nine of the 13 songs on Ghosty are analog recordings, which altered the studio process. The band practiced and rehearsed the songs for months and then pounded them out at Westend Recording Studios in Kansas City, Kansas, over a weekend. "If the album has a consistent sound, it's because we recorded the drums, bass and guitar together in the studio on the same day," Nolte says.
"The last record I was involved with, there was too much Pro Tools editing involved, all this slicing and changing of arrangements," Belzer says. "It'd been probably 15 years since I'd done a record on tape. So going through the process of having to get the rhythm tracks done, and done right, on the day we're tracking rhythm, was tough. I was all winded and feeling like an old fat bastard. I was trying to cut deals with Andrew and Mike so they'd let me leave and come back the next day. But they wouldn't. They forced me to stay, and I just had to get through it. And I think this album ended up being the most rewarding thing I've ever worked on because of that — because I know how hard I worked to get those sounds that ended up on the record."
All three members have been playing in bands long enough to know that hard work and a killer record aren't typically indicators of fame and fortune, or even critical acclaim from national outlets. They're post-jaded, maybe even cautiously optimistic. You don't press 500 vinyl copies of your album unless you think some people want to buy it.
"It's true, Ghosty has yet to come up with a good publicity story," Connor says. "What can you really say about us? We're just three dudes. There's no hook. I'm just not good with that stuff. And I can't control that stuff. So I just try to keep it all about making the music. The joy is in the playing, you know?"