AUSTIN SOUND 11-8-06
True Business: The Blue-Collar Blues-Punk of Ghostwriter
by Zoe Nicol
Local musician Steve Schecter, stage name Ghostwriter, is the best blue-collar blues-punk performer who hasn’t been snagged by a mid-sized label. If you haven’t seen him yet, you should. His newest album, Darkest Hour, and recent tour with the Legendary Shack Shakers are bold testaments to his authenticity and craftsmanship amid the explosion of blue-collar genre musicians. By combining the instruments of blues and the unrelenting observations that characterize punk, his work bends and blends the two genres into an uncompromising and sometimes unsettling reflection of inner turmoil and cultural expectations. Performances are raw with passion, focused on discontent with work, relationship anxiety, personal flaws and failings, and yes, even a song or two about drugs. Although sometimes described as a man who’s music lends justification for heavy drinking and personal annihilation, Steve’s actually an incredibly easygoing guy who was perfectly happy to sit down with me over a cup of coffee and share a few stories about his journey to Austin, touring, and his recent albums.
Steve freely admits that in his early teens all he did was listen to music, canvassing hometown Portland music stores for everything from rock to jazz to blues. Like a fair number of people, his early explorations were of record shop used bins, picking albums based on what instruments were involved, and seeking genre-specific indie labels that had a knack for recording good musicians. Eventually his behavior prompted his father to suggest Steve learn how to play. Little did his father anticipate that the purchase of a ‘little crappy electric guitar’ would result in several albums, an independent label, and 15 years of touring throughout the United States and Europe.
At age 16, after playing primarily house parties, he and two friends walked into their “local dive bar, punk club,” Satyricon, (operating since 2006 as Loveland) to perform during New Band Night. The young band, Darwin’s Grab Bag, composed of Jeremy Terry, Dana Shepard, and Steve, “failed absolutely live; the crowd sometimes heckled; and the best shows were mediocre.” Out of the whopping three venues that allowed Portland locals to play, X-Ray Café was second on their list of stops. There the band improved…as did the audience reactions. From 1996-2002, Steve regrouped with Jeremy in End of The West and Dana in The Standards. But those were yet to come and just shy of three years from the start of his first performance, Steve packed his bags and headed to Austin.
Believe it or not, the draw to the Texas capitol was not our temperate summers. Austin musicians like the Bad Livers, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers, and Joe Ely inspired 19-year-old Steve to hop a train to check out the city. Suffice to say, immediately thereafter he returned to Oregon long enough to pick up his vehicle and pack his bags, officially relocating to the land of live music.
As a guy who loves to travel, it’s natural that most of his songs are written while riding the blacktop. “Most songs are created while on tour; I’ve always liked to travel…it happens a lot to guys who do a lot of traveling…being on the road eight or nine hours a day.” Just a glance at his tour list on his website, www.endofthewest.com reveals an obvious love affair with touring. A 2005 month-long scamper in England and Germany yielded a new and enthuastic fanbase -one reporter quoting being “awestruck” by his performances. Although the Midwest has been a staple of his tour schedule, a recent tour of the more picturesque West makes return tours highly likely. Developed through long hours on the road, his intimacy reveals itself not just on stage, but transfers to his albums as well.
Without a doubt, Ghostwriter’s albums have benefited from the lack of over-production that assails so many of today’s releases. The simplicity and “droning,” as Steve refers to it, gives each song ample room for anarcho-cowpunk and blues ballads to get into bed together. Both of his last two albums were recorded using only six microphones and a ½” four track tape machine. Do the math and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that Steve’s instruments: banjo, harmonica, electric guitar, kick-drum (with attached tamborine, two mics, and a pedal or two), outnumber the recording devices.
His first official Ghostwriter production was in 2003 titled As I Go Alone, and you’ll be lucky if you can find one of the 500 copies in print. His second work, Road Angels and Torrential Rains, was printed in 2004 and is summed up in the liner notes in Steve’s typical bare-bones style:
Tracks: The Story.
1-3: It’s about a guy who likes to drive. He’s mildly separated or discontent with varying levels of anxiety.
4-6: His imagination kicks in. Loose plans of leaving bring hope, but fear and uncertainty remain present.
7-8: After much contemplation he goes through with the unthinkable. Hope is replaced with a new sense of empowerment. Realities are blended.
9-10: old folk songs bring new meaning. He continues driving.
The latest album, a 2006 release, Darkest Hour, is the most polished and autobiographical, offering gems like “Cooked,” “Clocked,” “Sailing,” “S.O.B.,” and “Kinship to Truckers” without losing his signature style. “Clocked,” an articulate and grinding song (“I work for the clock; I thought of a way we can hit this better, but I ain’t paid for my thoughts / I specialize in remedial bullshit / a penny for my thoughts, ten-bucks if I don’t repeat em”) is just one example of the blue-collar discontent that marks his music.
Other tracks like “Human Life” (“I want to destroy human life / I’m surprised how quick I got this old, and there’s no going back I’m told”) give tentative credibility to those who consider Ghostwriter inflammatory. But Steve contends that his fiction “documents a particular moment in time, not necessarily a philosophy.” “Cooked,” a song with such great lines as, “I’m getting piped like a plumber; I’m just gettin’ dumber,” reflects “more of an ‘I-don’t-know’ and dark amusement than anything else.” “Circus,” the biggest variation on the LP, showcases simple banjo and a more quietly profound side of Ghostwriter. A small circus at an old airport several months ago with a sum total of 30 people in the audience served as the inspiration. Reflecting on performance art, Steve said his last track, “Circus” was a “commentary on the times and that form of art live entertainment… and people aren’t really paying attention.” Amid all the discussion is a natural frustration in finding the right audience. “You’re trying to relate to the right people; [the danger in changing your art to conform] is the potential to become totally mediocre,” says Schecter. “I don’t know why music with a darker quality is something that can’t be enjoyed.”
Ghostwriter’s forthcoming album (yet to be titled but set to be recorded this winter) will add some interesting new elements to his work. At least one of the party favors will be the recording of his recent sets with Ralph White, fiddle player from the Bad Livers. Also, he’s moving over to a 16-track recording. Combine that with a recent distribution deal with Get Hip, self-described as “the finest distributor of independent garage/punk/rock n’ roll, blues, country recordings,” and perhaps Ghostwriter will start getting the attention that he deserves.
Your next chance to see for yourself will be this Thursday, November 9 at Beerland (711 Red River).
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