Ghost Light: A Ghost is Born
photo by Jeffery Bowling
From onstage “musical trust falls” to psychedelics and Soundgarden-inspired mixes in the studio, Ghost Light has emerged as the jam scene’s underdog supergroup.
In late 2017, the members of Ghost Light assembled for the first time at Rittenhouse Soundworks, a 4,000-sq.-ft. former Chrysler factory in the Germantown district of Philadelphia. Stationed in a circle, with exposed wooden beams looming overhead, the newly acquainted bandmates—guitarists/ singers Tom Hamilton and Raina Mullen, keyboardist Holly Bowling, drummer Scotty Zwang and bassist Steve Lyons—plugged in their instruments and held their breath. The only task on the agenda was to nurture a collaborative, creative spirit, but it was anyone’s guess what kind of music they would actually produce.
“We started rolling tape and trying out songs—just playing and seeing what happens,” Bowling recalls. “We were very much meeting each other musically as a group for the first time. So there was a lot of, ‘OK, what do you do? What do you have to say? If I do this, how do you respond? How are these things going to lock up and meld with each other?’”
“Every time we would write something new, we’d figure out what everybody’s strengths were,” Mullen says of those initial rehearsals. “I just remember being so excited, like I was doing stuff that I had never done before.”
A few months prior, when Ghost Light was still a sketch of an idea, Hamilton and Mullen scheduled marathon writing sessions, ingesting coffee and LSD, and listening to acts like Sufjan Stevens, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. They were open to anything that would spark something new in their creative receptors.
“We were eating a ton of acid and really trying to expand our minds,” Mullen remembers. “Like, ‘What can we do that’s pretty different but incorporates all the stuff that we love?’ But we didn’t want to do it in a super derivative way.”
Looking at their résumés, the members of Ghost Light all hail from disparate, distinct corners of the live-music scene. Bowling, for one, made a name for herself as a solo artist, creating highly intricate piano renditions of Grateful Dead and Phish compositions. Mullen logged time in Hamilton’s American Babies band, pairing dexterous vocals with thoughtful rhythm-guitar lines. Zwang was the former drummer for proggy jam act Dopapod, and Lyons spent a few years laying down bass for Philadelphia alternative outlet Nicos Gun.
At the helm of Ghost Light’s master plan was Hamilton, who has dipped his toe in a variety of soundscapes over his 20-plus-year career, from the jamtronica of Brothers Past to the more straightforward roots-rock of American Babies to the avant-weirdness of Shpongle’s live band to his most recent, and perhaps most notable, post as one of the guitarists and singers in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
“I like building something. I like being in a band,” Hamilton says, retracing the Ghost Light origin story. “There’s an underdog feeling. We’re Ghost Light. We’re a new band. We’re an up-and-coming band. There’s an interesting thing there. We’re earning fans one at a time, and that shit is fun, man. That’s the good stuff!”
And with that leap of faith came Best Kept Secrets, Ghost Light’s far-reaching debut. Listen to any track and you’ll find a taste of the band’s vast sonic palette, from the Pink Floydian explorations on the instrumental “Beyond/Before” to rhythmic rock numbers such as “Don’t Come Apart Just Yet, My Dear” and “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”
In an album full of unexpected shifts, the delicate-yet-powerful opener, “Elegy,” is perhaps its most surprising moment. The nuanced composition finds Bowling’s pseudo-classical piano arrangements dancing through Mullen’s soprano hymnals, a trick she learned from a college professor who was once an opera singer.
“The album itself is sort of like a film,” Mullen says. “We wanted ‘Elegy’ to be like the opening credits to the record. And when you turn the track on, you’re like, ‘What is this supposed to be?’ and then it absorbs you.”
“That was the first thing that I brought in that we worked on together,” Bowling adds. “It was like, ‘Here’s this idea and I’m going to bring it to four other musical minds and see what direction this is going to expand into.’ And as far as Raina’s vocals, it’s really amazing having someone in the band who is able to sing stuff like that. It lets us dip into a realm that I don’t think a lot of bands in our scene are able to.”
Another experimental standout is the mid-album “If Only, for Now,” which features DIY samples like the clank of a marble dropping into a shower and the raw street sounds of Philadelphia, which were captured by sticking a microphone out of the studio window.
Hamilton, who produced the record, echoes Mullen’s idea that Best Kept Secrets is more akin to a cinematic experience than a mish-mash of original music.
“I approach albums a lot like filmmaking, taking the tracks and using the themes and the larger story to create an arc,” he says. “The album starts delicate and ends brutal. It all makes sense and all tells the story. The instrumental tracks are these long landscape shots that help give the movie context and show where you are. And then the songs that have lyrics are the scenes that have the dialogue and explain the plot.”
It’s been a whirlwind run for Ghost Light since their formation in late-2017/early-2018. In less than two years, they’ve logged over 100 shows, played some of the biggest festival stages around, sold out rooms all over the United States and produced their debut studio LP.
“There was a lot of trust involved,” Hamilton explains. “It was just like, ‘Listen, man, Raina and I think we should start a new band; we think that you should be a part of it. This is the plan as far as when we can get in and start working on tunes, this is the plan for when we’d start touring, this is the plan for when our record would come out—and I think it’s going to work. Are you in?’”
Bowling argues that the band’s sonic connectivity onstage has grown exponentially, thanks to the “musical trust falls” they take part in. Their improvisations are high risk and high reward, giving them the opportunity to foster the type of musical telepathy most bands would envy.
“We’re all pretty comfortable with each other at this point,” she explains. “Now it’s about finding ways to dig deeper and discover little musical corners of each other’s minds—to find new places to go and make sure that we’re not having the same conversation night to night. We don’t get to rehearse much since we don’t all live in the same place and everyone has a lot going on, so it’s definitely a cool feeling when we haven’t played for a little bit and we get onstage together. It already feels like slipping back into a really awesome, familiar, comfortable pair of shoes, where you’re like, ‘Ahh, yeah, I missed this.’”
“Onstage is where the ownership comes into everything,” Hamilton concludes. “That’s where everybody gets to grab their piece of the pie. They can grab it by the short and curlies and be like, ‘This is it, man. This is what I’m saying in this song and this is what my truth is on this day.’ And I think there’s this incredible sense of democracy there.”
And while each performance has certainly aided in the growth of the band, several members point to LOCKN’ 2018 as a landmark gig for Ghost Light. With Best Kept Secrets waiting in the wings, the band had been touring around the country for months without any studio music available and they hoped that their individual accomplishments, and the intrigue of this new project, would be enough to draw a crowd. By the time they reached the rotating stage at the Virginia jam festival, it seemed like their strategy had taken them to a whole new level.
“That stage turned around and there weren’t a lot of people there,” Hamilton recalls. “And then, within 10 minutes, it was packed. I remember it was during ‘Diamond Eyes’ that it really hit me because I looked out and there’s just a shitload of people all singing the chorus. It was definitely one of those moments.”
“It was like, ‘Holy Christ, is this really happening!’” Mullen laughs. “I’d never played on a stage that big and we were trying to play for all these new people. They were all so into it and we were on fire. We were just so excited because of the energy from playing in a place that big and putting ourselves out there for people who had never even heard of us before.”
“We were playing on one of the biggest festival stages, with one of the biggest productions for any festival, and we had only been a band for eight months,” Zwang affirms.
But that’s not to say that Ghost Light hasn’t been without its growing pains. As with most bands, lineup shifts are bound to happen, and with the grueling demands of touring taking its toll, original bassist Steve Lyons stepped down from his role in Ghost Light in March 2019, just a few days before the release of Best Kept Secrets.
“We regret to share that our friend and bassist Steve Lyons will be moving on to new endeavors and will no longer be touring with Ghost Light. We wish Steve nothing but the best and look forward to watching his career continue to grow,” the band wrote in an official statement.
In Lyons’ stead, Ghost Light brought in Elephant Wrecking Ball co-founder and former John Brown’s Body member Dan Africano, who now serves as a touring bassist.
“We don’t want anyone to ever feel like they are trapped in this thing and, therefore, not able to put their all in this thing,” Zwang said of Lyons’ departure. “Being in a band is tough. Being on the road is a whole other level.”
Hamilton stresses that Africano’s arrival brings “a whole new set of possibilities” to Ghost Light, giving everyone—including Lyons—the chance to pursue what makes them happiest. “I think Holly and Raina and Scott, and now Dan, are all incredible people and incredible musicians,” the guitarist explains. “I take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re all together creating success, and everybody’s getting their names out there.”
Despite having just released an LP, Ghost Light are already looking toward their next studio project. Mullen and Hamilton plan to start up their marathon writing sessions once again this fall, and Bowling continues to write her sweeping instrumentals between solo tour dates. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved, and it seems that each member of Ghost Light is in it for the long haul.
Specifically, Hamilton and Mullen are giddy with the prospect of what lies ahead. As the two band members who saw this project grow from its earliest stages, they relish in how far Ghost Light has come in such a brief amount of time.
“With JRAD, we don’t sound like the Grateful Dead because that’s not doing anybody any fucking service,” Hamilton explains. “It’s not about sounding like anybody else. That’s not the goal. The goal is to sound like yourself, and I couldn’t begin to fucking quantify how lucky of a human being I am. I get to be in two bands that, as far as how we improvise and how we interact with each other, are not only unique unto themselves but also in our scene. Both bands have their own identity, and I feel very grateful for that.”
“I’m just super happy and excited to be in this band,” Mullen says. “I’ll play some songs for my friends and I say, ‘I love my band!’ And it’s funny because people are like, ‘Should you be this hyped on your own stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘Abso-fucking-lutely!’”
This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.