Will Phalen, ghost in the machine
1.0 – Your solo release, HolyGhost/GoldCoast feels incredibly organic, did making it without other’s input per se help accentuate the flow?
There’s something about working alone, late at night, when the rest of the world is quiet that really works for me. When I can get into a zone working on a track and just take it from start to finish over the course of several hours and really develop an idea and experiment with any sound or color I want — I love that. When you work with others, there’s a process you have to go through. Often, it’s very healthy and productive. But sometimes it feels like you’re auditioning your ideas for other people. “What if we did this?” And then you have to sell your partners on the idea, or maybe it gets rejected outright. Again, these are not necessarily bad things. Lots of good work comes from collaboration. But it’s also very freeing to not have to audition. You just do whatever is on your mind and you are the only one you’re working for. I like that. In the end, you’re the only one responsible for what you’ve done, so there’s that risk involved, but I’m okay with that. If other people like what I’ve created and can relate to it, that’s the best thing ever. But at least I know, before anyone else gets to hear it, that I have created something that I can live with.
2.0 – Is this something you had wanted to do for some time?
It really wasn’t something that was premeditated. I write a lot of songs. Sometimes more than I know what to do with. The solo album idea really came up as a way to collect some new and different material that I wanted to share. The Stereo Addicts were busy working on a separate bunch of new songs, and I had these other songs that I knew wouldn’t fit in to the bigger rock sound that we were working on at the time. So I just held on to them till I felt the timing was right.
3.0 – How did you record it?
Each song on the album was written, recorded and mixed in one day. Meaning: one day, one song. Actually, there may have been one or two exceptions to that, but, by and large, that’s how it came together. And they were all pretty much made in the same place. I was staying in this tiny one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. Late at night, I’d stay up writing and recording songs while the neighbors were sleeping next door. I think that’s probably the reason the album has such a quite, mellow feel to it. I couldn’t make too much noise, and that lead to some interesting experiments. Instead of using real shakers for a percussion track, I’d rub together two pieces of paper and use the magic wand of studio wizardry to make them sound like they were shakers. Or I’d record the sound of my sandal lightly tapping on the floor and use it to create a kick drum effect. And obviously I couldn’t be blasting my amp, so I’d either play really quiet electric guitars or else just stick to acoustic. That’s why I love recording at home: the limitations of your space define what you’re able to create. I think those kinds of limits are absolutely essential to making any good or interesting piece of art.
4.0 – Did you have a sound in mind or did it evolve as it came together?
I didn’t. Like I said, I think the environment was fairly key to developing the sound of these songs and recordings. But I never had any specific idea about what kind of sound I was going for. All of these songs were composed as part of a project I’ve been involved with called the Song League. It’s like a virtual song circle that I started a couple years ago with a handful of songwriter friends. Each week everyone in the League has to write a song, record it and share it online before Monday morning of the following week. Basically, it’s a deadline: produce something now or else appear impotent before all of your friends and respected peers. And when you’re faced with a deadline like that, and you don’t exactly have something ready to go, it sometimes forces you to create things that you might not normally create, or more importantly, things that you might not normally share with others. At least that has been my experience, and it’s been the most healthy thing that’s happened for me creatively in years. So when I have to write a song for the Song League, I just let it come and whatever it is that takes shape, that’s what it is. I worry about where it fits in later. So for this record, I had produced a bunch of songs that I liked, I picked the ones that fit together best and that was the record.
5.0 – Are all the songs new or were there some left overs from The Stereo Addicts that just fit this project better?
All the songs were new. I was going through this very productive phase in which I was writing songs all the time (mostly because I had to for the Song League). And it was always fairly obvious to me which ones were right for the Stereo Addicts and which weren’t. So those other songs, the ones that weren’t exactly Stereo Addicts material, were kind of floating around in some sort of limbo. I had them recorded and I wanted to share them with people, but wasn’t sure how to best do that. Ultimately, I just decided to pick the ten songs that fit best together as one album and put it out as a solo release. There’s still a bunch of songs from that period (and the time since) that haven’t seen the light of day. But maybe someday soon…
6.0 – Are you going to perform the songs alone on tour or do you plan to have accompaniment?
I’ve been performing the songs with a trio and hope to continue doing it that way. I think there will probably be some solo shows here and there, but that’s not exactly my favorite way to play these songs. It’s a “solo record”, but many of the tunes are fairly layered with various instruments and sounds. For me, those extra colors and textures are as important to the song as the lyrics or guitar part. So playing them by myself doesn’t really convey the full picture I’d like to paint for the listener. I really enjoy having the ability to create a similar, or at least equally interesting, sound on stage as was created in the studio. It’s a very different challenge, but it’s a fun one. And as we’ve tried to play these songs live we’ve found some really cool new ways to approach the arrangements. In a lot of cases, I like now like the live versions even better than the recordings!
7.0 – What led you to pick up the guitar originally?
I grew up surrounded by music. My father is a musician, and he had (and still has) a huge collection of LPs, cassettes, and CDs. And he also had a nice collection of instruments too — mostly guitars — many of which I’m fortunate enough to use when I perform these days. So it was basically inevitable that I’d pick one up someday.Oddly enough though, I first gravitated towards drums and started learning how to play the kit when I was around the age of 12. A year later I started learning guitar at music class in school. We had a really incredible music teacher named Larry Theiss. He’s still around teaching and composing and recording. Just an incredible guy. He taught us how to play drums and guitar and bass and everything. My entire seventh grade class — almost every one of us learned how to play drums! It was amazing. So that’s where it started, and then my father helped me a lot along the way. There were guitars at home, so I was playing all the time. I fell in love as soon as I learned my first song: the bass line to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Kurt Cobain was still alive and everybody wanted to learn how to play those songs. Just learning that bass line was the coolest thing ever. The day I learned it, I came home from school and played it for hours until my parents asked me to stop. They’ve been extremely supportive and tolerant of my music and all the noise that accompanies it over the years, and I don’t blame them for needing a break from it every now and then!
8.0 – Who or what did you want be when you were a kid?
I distinctly remember being asked that question when I was in second grade. It was for some kind of presentation I was supposed to give about myself. I had no idea what to say. I said, “A fireman.” I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t true. I just said it because I had no other answer. And when I went to college I still didn’t know. Even by the time I graduated I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was going to do. But I do remember the first time I really saw a rock concert video when I was about 10 years old. It was called “Eric Clapton and Friends.” It was the Eighties. Phil Collins was the drummer. I thought he was amazing. They all were. From that point on, I always wanted to play music, but I never really believed it would be my job. Now that it is, it’s pretty surreal. But I’m very, very grateful to be able to play and write and produce and just share music with other people. I can’t think of anything nicer to be able to with my life.The funny thing is I’m about to turn thirty and I still ask myself that question: “What am I going to do when I grow up?” And I think I finally know the answer. I really want to grow as a producer and keep making records with other people. This past year, I’ve been very fortunate to work in that role with a handful of really fantastic artists. Musikanto, who I think you interviewed here a few months back; Julie Meckler, a rising star in the Chicago music scene; my friend Chris Anderson on his project, Old Fashioned War – which is basically a who’s who of Chicago’s best musicians — and the songs are beautiful. It’s been a dream come true to have these opportunities, and that’s what I’d really like to keep doing.
9.0 – Why did you leave Milwaukee for Chicago and how are you enjoying the windy city?
The Milwaukee area will always be my home, but I came down to Chicago to be with my girlfriend at the time. Now she’s my wife, so I think it was a good move! Anyways, I gradually started spending more and more time in Chicago (which coincided with the making of this album) and eventually I was just down here more than I was in Milwaukee. But I still make it up to Wisconsin all the time, so it kind of feels like a dual-citizenship, if you will. I like it that way. I’d miss my family and friends in Milwaukee too much if I wasn’t making the trips back and forth.And you asked if I’m enjoying it here. Yes, definitely. It’s a great city, and the people I’ve met down here, both in the music community and otherwise, have been extremely welcoming and kind and generous. I’ve made some really strong friendships and found a very solid group of musicians to work with and hang out with. It’s a very supportive and loving scene. People are playing together in a variety of different projects and sharing their talents. That’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.
10.0 – When did you become a ‘Stereo Addict’ and what would rehab be like?
Ha! Good question. That’s one I have not been asked before! I just like the ambiguity of that name. If you’re a Stereo Addict, you could be really into audiophile stereo gear, like speakers, receivers, equalizers and all that. Or maybe you just really love the aural illusion created by two channels of audio: as in stereo recordings versus mono. You know, the way sounds move from one ear to another when you’ve got headphones on, and it’s two in the morning and you’re listening to a Jimi Hendrix record. It’s magical. To me, it’s just all about the love of sound and what it does to you. We’ve got two ears, so we live in a stereo world, and I’m so glad the gods saw fit to give us the gift of music. If I couldn’t have it, I wouldn’t want to live.