Getting Real and Going Digital With Nice Ghost
A heartfelt Q&A with Tyler James on his latest release and times past and present
Back in January when I wrote about Nice Ghost, the music project by Pennsylvania-to-Los Angeles transplant Tyler A. James, we were living in a much different world. He had just released his first single, "Digital," and was set to release a single a month until the full album dropped in August. He would then support the release with a tour.
Of course, the pandemic has changed everything for musicians who rely on performances and touring for both promotion and income.
"What were we all going to do? As performing artists, we are self-employed (to the extent that we are employed at all)," Torquil Campbell, lead singer for the indie rock band Stars, wrote in The Atlantic. "[T]he large majority of artists I know have little or no savings, relying as we do on 'the gig,' that magical event that comes into your life when someone pays you a meager fee to do what you've trained for, what you live for, what you love."
Despite the difficulty of present circumstances, Tyler stays outwardly optimistic. Music has been his life for the majority of it and, even during times of doubt, he continues to push forward, innovate, and do what he does best: make music.
I caught up with Tyler and we discussed how the pandemic has changed his plans surrounding the release of his album, the influences behind his music, his journey as a musician, and more.
Jonathan Burdick: Obviously, since we last talked about Nice Ghost for the Erie Reader in January, the entire world has been turned upside down. What has changed for you in terms of how you were planning to support the release of your album?
Tyler James: Originally, I expected to be hitting the road in August and September to do some solo touring, but clearly that's not in the cards right now or in the near future. I've had to totally reconsider how to release and promote the album. Now, it's all about meeting people where they're at online and trying to keep giving them something to engage with. I'm still planning on selling merch like CDs and t-shirts, but it's from a web store and not a merch table at a show. It's not ideal because I live for the road, but I'm hoping I can make it work. I've also pressed the gas pedal down and accelerated the timeline of future albums and songs. I expect to release another album much closer after Digital than originally planned, just to keep momentum going. With a tour, I'd have been able to fill some time promoting the album, but now I feel like the pressure is on to hurry up and release more new music, so expect that for sure.
JB: You did some really engaging work on the Nice Ghost Facebook page during early-quarantine: live-streamed performances, live loops, I think there were a couple of TikTok's and other creative ventures online too. What, if anything, have you learned about yourself as an artist, a performer, and a marketer during these past five months?
TJ: Thanks! Well, to be honest, I've learned that no matter what I do, I'm just not a tech guy. I've been learning all this stuff about video editing, how to use a camera, lighting, and I've started doing a fair amount of my own graphic design and stuff like that, too. It turns out, being a musician right now means also being an internet personality, a video editor, a content creator, a photographer, you-name-it. It's a lot for one person to handle, but I feel it's my only rational course of action if I intend to build Nice Ghost into something bigger. Someday, I want to hire my multi-talented friends to share the load, so right now I'm trying to do everything I can to grow it to the level where I can think about doing that. For now, I'm just trying to keep myself busy and use the time available to learn some new skills and create some new music.
JB: My favorite song from the album might be a bit surprising, but I couldn't stop listening to "Stranger" this summer. It's such a perfect drive-with-your-windows down summer jam. Can you tell me a bit about its creation and influences?
TJ: I'm glad you feel that way about "Stranger." To me, when the guitars kick in and it rocks out, it just feels right to turn it up with the windows down. The song started with a bass line. I had just bought a new bass in Nashville and was excited to jam on it, so I plugged it in and played what would become the bass line for Stranger. I loved it, so I looped it and just started singing nonsense over it until the words made sense and there it was. Originally, it was a lot mellower, with acoustic guitar, dobro, drum machine. I was really into Beck's album "Odelay" at the time, so that was a big influence on it. I sat on it for a couple months and it just didn't seem "done," but I couldn't put my finger on why. Then I realized one day what it was missing: a wall of electric guitars. I took the 90s Weezer approach, added a drum kit, and threw some screaming guitars onto it and suddenly, it just opened up and sounded "right." After that, I sat on it for a few more months before deciding to just extend the ending, add some wacky noises, and jam on a middle eastern scale — and that became the extended version which is on the album. It's close to twice as long as the single. It all started with just a bass line, and over the course of a few months, evolved into this long jam, and I love it. I'm glad you dig it, too!
JB: I think it's safe to say there are some serious 90s and early-2000s vibes on the album, which is the era of music when you and I were both coming of age. It was strange to listen to new music that made me feel nostalgic. Did nostalgia play any role in its creation?
TJ: Weezer, Beck, and Radiohead are absolutely the biggest influences on this album. I tried to combine aspects that I loved about their productions with my own writing style. One time when I was showing an old friend some of my songs for my old band, he said, "Man, you're stuck in the 90s and you need to get out." I didn't listen to him. I'm still stuck in the 90s. It's not even nostalgia for me, it's just me doing what I like and sounding the way I like to sound. There was some absolutely fantastic music that came out in the 90s, in all genres, and to this day much of that material is what I still listen to the most, so it's only natural for my productions to follow suit. There's been a lot of talk about how they're expecting there to be a rock comeback in the near future. I want to be there first, so I'm not watering down my music with trendy gimmicks. I'm doing it the way I know how to do it best and sticking to my guns. I think there's going to be a surge of fantastic new rock-influenced acts coming up.
JB: For sure. I agree. It's not that rock isn't being made, but I definitely feel like I have to actively seek it out more nowadays if I want to find new bands. Nice Ghost does a really nice job of blending rock with a distinct sound that is definitely your own. What might surprise some people is that after years of playing punk rock in high school, you actually went on to study music theory and learned the standard classical repertoire at Edinboro University. What do you think that unique background brings to your music?
TJ: I loved my classical training in undergrad. I had the best professors in the world and I learned so much. I think that my voice wouldn't be anything like what it is now if I didn't get that classical training. I learned to sing as efficiently as possible and once that became like muscle memory, all these options opened up. Like, if I want to sound intense, dark, and menacing? I know how. If I want to sound light, airy, pretty? I know how to do that, too. This has made it so I can sing out what I'm really feeling in a way that sounds congruent with what I'm trying to say. That was huge. Beside that, all the music theory stuff helped me get better at picking the right chords to get the point across. Sometimes music doesn't need words to set the mood — and a lot of that is done through knowing enough theory to pick the right notes in the right order. Lastly, immersing myself with a bunch of other music nerds like myself was great. I was surrounded by people who were equally as excited as I was about it and that was very encouraging.
JB: I know you love a good horror movie. "The Green Man (Axes)" has to be the catchiest song about something creepy that I've heard. Is this your love letter to 1980s slasher movies?
TJ: It started out because I heard something about this old legend, some sort of tree creature called the green man, and my imagination went wild. That's how it turned into a slasher story. You're right on the money about that. I'm obsessed with the old slasher films. I can't even tell you how many times I've seen the entire Friday the 13th series. One of my favorite things to do is watch horror movies alone in the dark. Might as well go all-out, right?
JB: You then follow it up with "Disoriented (Digital Pt. II)," which is a mesmerizing and haunting but difficult to describe interlude. Did you have a hard time deciding where you were going to place that song on the album?
TJ: I must have changed my mind one-hundred times about where to put the song [or] whether to include it. At the last minute I decided to include it because it's literally the sequel to "Digital." If "Digital" is acknowledging that social media has us obsessed, "Digital Pt. II" is the sound of being obsessed, being trapped inside of social media. I had some concern that it might throw off the pace, but I think I ended up putting it into a place where it feels like a transition from one zone to another. In the track order, it takes us on a bit of a wild ride and then drops us off back at the ground, and then "Goodbye" kicks in and we're down to earth again. To me, it makes sense. I hope someone else thinks so too.
JB: For those who aren't aware, you and I went to the same school growing up. I won't go into detail about the time in fourth grade that you and I played together as a rock duo in the school talent show and I forgot on stage everything that I was supposed to play on the keyboard while you carried us with your electric guitar. I do though have a distinct memory of what I think was your first high school talent show where you played drums and you went absolutely wild on stage. I had never seen drumsticks move so fast. I think for many in the audience, it was probably the first time they had seen you play, so I think you blew a lot of people away that had never seen you on the drums. What do you remember most about those early years of learning to play music?
TJ: Honestly, the duo with you was probably my first "band" ever.
JB: It was my last.
TJ: Did we have a name? I don't remember, but I do remember we wore black and red — a color scheme I still heavily wear.
JB: We had black dress pants and those red button-ups were definitely made of silk.
TJ: When I really started learning music it was all because my sister pointed out that I had probably listened to a live Elvis cassette tape enough times to know every hit of the drums. That got my wheels turning, and before you know it, I was getting drum lessons. I took to it really fast and loved every second of it. I knew I had found my "thing" and it just went from there. I remember I couldn't believe it when I won the talent show. I just thought I was up there making noise, but turns out I was on to something. I've been addicted to the stage ever since.
JB: Your family has always been extremely supportive of your pursuits and your dad is an artist himself. What role did they play in your development as a musician?
TJ: They were so supportive. Like I said in the last question, my sister was a catalyst in my decision to start playing drums. My parents were encouraging me to keep learning, keep practicing, to try new things. They'd always encourage me to try new instruments, to get in up front of people and play, stuff like that. They had a massive influence on my music tastes, too. My dad got me into Radiohead, Muse, Talking Heads, while my sister got me into The Beatles, Modest Mouse, Beck, and local emo bands like the Twirpentines — which got me started on going to local shows. And as a teenager my mom introduced me to The Ramones. I feel like I'm lucky to have such a hip family. They've supported me along the way in adulthood too. I can't tell you how many times I've called home when I was confused and sad in the city and they always tell me to stay in the game, to keep going, that I'm not done yet. Without that encouragement, I don't know if I'd still be doing this. If you're reading this, thank you so much for everything. You're the best.
JB: They are great people. I know when I would see your shows here back in the day, they were at many, if not most of them. I saw you play in a lot of bands here in the Erie area over the years: Messiah Treaty, Stillframe Sky (2006-2009), Radio Empire (2009-2011)... and I know I'm missing a few. What do you remember most about those days?
TJ: Ah, the good old days. It was like another lifetime. The Erie and Edinboro area had such a strong local scene back then, with my bands, my friends' bands, all the Erie Hardcore bands. It was pretty wild. I will never forget venues like Forward Hall and The Hangout. Both are gone now, but they were the best. The Hangout had one of the best stages that any touring band would be lucky enough to come across. I remember the crowds, the passion, the energy, the enthusiasm. What a time. I'm happy to hear that newer bands are keeping it alive, though. There is some real local talent in the Erie area.
JB: Obviously, you're out there doing your thing in Los Angeles now, but what do you miss most about the Erie area... you know, besides John's Wildwood Pizza?
TJ: I really miss the fall and winter quite a bit. Sure, Los Angeles is sunny and beautiful, but it's, like, only sunny and beautiful. I miss severe thunderstorms and blizzards and stuff. I know that might sound crazy but it's the truth. People in LA actually go on vacation up into the mountains to get into the snow, the opposite of what happens back home. It should also be noted that yes, I do miss John's Wildwood. It's important to mention that.
JB: I know you appreciate good food. What's your perfect meal out there in Los Angeles?
TJ: That's so hard to answer. There's so much cuisine here from everywhere in the world, that it would be impossible to pick and would just come down to my mood. There are some fantastic burger stands like George's in Boyle Heights, great wings at Ye Rustic Inn and Big Al's, and really excellent Banh Mi sandwiches at Banh Mi My Tho in Alhambra. One place I'm always sure to show people when they visit is Leo's Taco Truck. They've got the best tacos al pastor I've ever had. It's so good I actually have dreams about it. I'm literally salivating talking about this.
JB: I'm marking those down for whenever travel happens again. Anytime I have been to Los Angeles, I'm overwhelmed by the food options. Here's a debate I had recently. What's the best overall hot sauce?
TJ: If I can ever find it, I'll get Trappey's Red Devil. If not that, Frank's is fine. Best unique overall flavor award goes to Tabasco, though. There's nothing quite like it.
JB: There's room for them all, I agree. What do you wish you understood completely?
TJ: I wish I understood myself better, honestly. I confuse myself all the time. My brain is like a rubik's cube and I can't solve it. It's like some kind of OCD and there are pros and cons there. On one hand, I'm an obsessive perfectionist which means I do well in school and at work — but it causes me a lot of stress when it's like, "Hey, I want to sleep but my routine has been disrupted and I'm stressing about it." I want to figure that out so I can relax for a minute every once in a while.
JB: What do you wish people knew or understood about you?
TJ: I wish people understood that me being as introverted as I am isn't an indication that I don't like them or don't want to hang out. And sometimes when I communicate, I might come across as cold or uninterested but the reality is I'm probably just really nervous and I need someone to tell me it's a safe place to be every once in a while.
JB: If you could travel back in time and give 18-year-old Tyler one piece of advice, what would it be?
TJ: I would tell myself to exercise more, take sleep more seriously, and to not worry about what "they" say. And I'd say, "You know who they are." Oh, and I'd mention that I shouldn't grow too attached to my hairstyle, because it might just start to disappear in a couple years.
JB: Finally, for someone who wants to listen to your new album, what's the best way to seek it out?
TJ: The new album is called "Digital," it's by Nice Ghost, and it's on all the major platforms. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Google Play, Tidal, you-name-it, it's probably on there. You can head to my website www.niceghostmusic.com for more content, links to buy the album and [soon] some merchandise. To buy an actual physical copy, sometime in mid-September, that can be done from my website, too. Just a reminder that saving on streaming platforms, sharing, adding to playlists, all helps me out, so I encourage you to interact as much as possible and help spread the word.
Jonathan Burdick can be found online as Rust & Dirt. Follow them on Twitter @RustDirt, and on Instagram @Rustanddirt.
Tyler James/Nice Ghost can be found on facebook, on twitter at @niceghostmusic and at niceghostmusic.com