National Examiner- March 21st - 2011 One-Man Band Series #16: Ghostwriter
by James Carlson.
Oregon-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Schecter, whose one-man band handle for the past nine years or so has been Ghostwriter, isn't just a notable presence in today's growing one-man band movement but also in much of the obscure and independent music world. When one sees the name Ghostwriter in pieces of press or on show flyers or what have you, it is almost invariably accompanied by a line or caption referring to him as, The original punk-folk troubadour. And considering both his sound and his grueling tour schedules over the years, as well as his well-known punk ethics and DIY approach to music, the title is certainly a well-earned one.
Like a few other artists involved in the one-man band scene, Schecter doesn't necessarily define himself musically as a one-man band but as a singer/songwriter, a solo artist. Of course the fact that he is a one-man band is indisputable, since he writes and plays his songs by himself using a homemade foot-percussion device, an electric hollow-body guitar, harmonica, banjo, and a somewhat raspy, gravel-throated vocal delivery with occasional snarls and half-growls. Part traditional and part contemporary, Ghostwriter's sound is made from the same stuff that has made old-time roots and modern rock'n'roll great. On top of that, listeners can also detect hints of banjo-pickin' Americana and dirty blues trash in the Ghostwriter sound. In the simplest description, I would have to say it's a raw, gritty, organic sound, full of heart and guts, and sweat and spit and backbone. In fact, it is because of his sound that Ghostwriter has been referred to as "anarcho cowpunk," "blue-collar blues-punk," and a "one-man existential blues machine." Not the most fitting descriptive terms, to be sure, save perhaps for "blue-collar blues-punk," which at once sums up the man and the artist pretty accurately.
As a working class proletariat, Schecter doesn't believe in idle hands and earns his bread laboring by the sweat of his brow and the strength of his back, which is what his life consists of when he's not touring. His music as Ghostwriter reflects that, too. His songs are honest, both despairing and hopeful in turns, occasionally self-deprecating, and true to real life. Even more than that, his songs are built from a sound as sharp as a boxcutter, as fiery as a gulp of backwoods moonshine, and as fervent as a revival tent preacher. It's neither sophisticated nor elegant, and it's not meant to be. Instead, it's more like the black dirt that builds up under the fingernails, that warm and slightly bitter last sip from the bottom of the beer bottle which one inexplicably savors nevertheless, a beat-up and rusted-out Chevy which rumbles and rattles and smokes all across the country but still won't quit.
Ghostwriter's latest ten-song album, 2008's Wreck the City/Simplify Your Life, released on Schecter's own End Of The West label, shows him at his best, with solid and original compositions, intelligent lyrics, driving foot-percussion, and his deep, raspy and ferocious trademark vocals. There is no question, he is the captain of this ship, and he will undoubtedly navigate it according to his own inner compass and handwritten charts. And I am quite sure I'm not alone when I say I can't wait to see where his mad voyage takes him next.
Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Steve Schecter (Ghostwriter). What follows is the material from that interview in its entirety.
For quite some time now I've been in the habit of beginning these interviews in an introductory fashion. Having conveyed that I should now ask you: Who is Ghostwriter, not just as a singer/songwriter but also an individual, a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?
Iím afraid Iím a walking clichť: lifelong DIY musician/blue-collar punk. Iím a native of Friend, Oregon, in historic Wasco County. I now live in The Dalles, about thirty miles from there. My first job was for the family business Ė a specialty hardwoods sawmill, which was also my second to most recent job. I went to high school briefly in the Portland suburbs and ended up with a GED. It was then that I played guitar in my first band. When I was nineteen, I went to Austin with a guitar and killed eleven years down there. After meeting my wife and getting married a few years ago, we decided to move back up here (back for me, as sheís a Texan). My day jobs have ranged from being a clerk at a toy store to running helical-anchors into the river bottom at the Waco Dam...a little bit of music production work, a lot of landscape, construction and warehouses (like now). At this point, Iíve left a few professions in lieu of touring. So the clichť is that now, due to my own choices, I can either work in a warehouse or a truck for low pay or I can put out a record and hit the road. Itís arguably more work for lower pay, but itís still a simple choice.
How about a little history of your Ghostwriter project?
I started doing this in 2002. I had been living in Austin a few years and playing in bands with a lot of lineup changes. It was an attempt to do something not reliant on other individuals. I put out the first three albums while living in Austin, pretty much in succession, all quick and dirty, all self-released on End Of The West. After moving up here I put out Hobo Nouveau, a collaboration with my friends Boxcar Satan, and then Wreck the City / simplify your life. I hit the road a lot the first few years -- gas was cheap and I felt liberated to be traveling alone. Overall, itís been a pretty good ride. Iíve played on bills with some of my heroes, and just due to timing, ended up on some festivals and comps that I think were really relevant at that moment.
Unlike many other one-man bands you play standing up, conjuring original note patterns and chord progressions from your guitar, while working the kick drum setup with your foot. It certainly makes for a better live performance, but are there any other reasons why you have adopted the methods you currently use as a one-man band?
Iíve never been able to sing sitting down, so I never really thought about it. Itís true that Ghostwriter falls under "one-man band," but my idea was more like a modern take on Harry Smith era stuff/early country blues Ė thatís why I push the troubadour thing. I liked one-man bands like Hasil Adkins and Bob Log, and I knew I couldnít play a drum set with my feet and do any justice to the song. My foot-stomp device is just an effort to drive the rhythm or find a "maximum accompaniment" for the lyrics. The guitar is a mix of things: I get some percussive picking styles from the early country blues guys, nothing technical, just beating the strings for texture. I like fingerpicking and using a "drone" note that sounds like blues, and then throwing in some off-kilter melodies reminiscent of noise-punk or rockabilly. I get a lot from classic country players, too, but I can only butcher that style.
When I come across praise for your Ghostwriter endeavor, that praise almost invariably mentions your talent as a lyricist. Truth be told, I couldn't agree more. And your songs, in my experience, deal with a lot of real life and very human subject matter, much of it personalized to you in specific. What do you use most as points of reference for your lyrical content?
Well, I appreciate that. Iím definitely a lyrics first guy. I tend to write about the darker side of life, but it really isnít an act. Most of the lyrics are straight from life experiences -- only the couple murder songs are fictional. Itís true that I get down in the dumps and over-dramatize things, so itís easy for me to write from a broad "everything sucks" perspective. I think delivery is really important too. Not just what youíre saying, but how you say it. This is my one chance to express myself and my M.O. is to do it with absolute urgency. You know, Ďcause thereís a lot of stuff out there and people have things to do.
Why the moniker Ghostwriter?
I should tell you itís because I like to write and Iím already dead. The truth is, I like the feeling of anonymity. It gives me a level of detachment that is freeing, as if Iím writing from someone elseís perspective.
What other musical projects have you been involved in other than Ghostwriter, if any?
That first band in Portland was a three-piece called Darwinís Grab Bag. I know, funny name, but it was back in 1992. After moving to Austin my first project was a drums and guitar duo called Billy Swamp. My next endeavor was a four-piece band that ended being called The Standards. After a few years and lineup changes, The Standards became a three-piece called End Of The West (Yes, I like that name and still use it for my record label!). These were projects in which I played guitar and was the primary songwriter, leading up to Ghostwriter. I also did some side things down in Austin, like playing guitar in a noise-punk band called I Admit Nothing, harmonica in a band The Heartthorns, and periodic acoustic songwriter nights under the name Cole Stephens (where I was usually too loud).
You have done rather well at making a name for yourself in the independent/underground music scene and staying off of the mainstream grid, which is definitely something to be respected and admired. What are your thoughts on being an artist -- a singer/songwriter in specific -- in today's rapidly moving climate of fly-by-night popularity, blink-of-an-eye trends, commercialized everything, and marketed movements?
The only formula I know: drive, play, sleep, repeat. Or, put out records and go on the road. I like being self-released at this point. The majority of my albums either sell off the stage or later due to the show. Even with the digital world, if someone downloads my record from iTunes or buys it physically off my website, itís usually because they saw me play or heard about it from someone who did. I used to self-release things by default. Now, five albums later, I really love every part of the recording/release process. It is crazy to see how much things have changed. We used to drop off tapes and call clubs on the phone. The first band I toured with sold t-shirts and cassettes, and it really wasnít that long ago! Sometimes I wish I knew a better way to spread the word, but playing shows still works, and itís immediate and fulfilling.
As a one-man band and singer/songwriter you have spend a lot of time on the road doing your thing. What have been some of your most memorable tour/gig moments to date?
Well, even the worst of nights was probably better than what I could have been doing, but hereís a couple experiences that come to mind: I got to open for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a couple years back. It was a really memorable gig, and to this day it really doesnít fit with the rest of my career. I went into it overly-prepared and completely psyched-out, not thinking, "This is my big break" but more like, "This crowd paid $40 to see their hero and I may be wasting their time." So, I gave it everything and played song into song not giving Ďem an extra second, just waiting to get eaten alive. The crowd was pretty responsive and a few songs in of course I had sweated buckets and needed to re-tune my guitar! When I did so, after a sea of cheers and whoops tapered off, I heard the sound of 1,500 people just whispering or silent. It was a great moment and a huge contrast to numerous nights in noisy bars. I knew right then that things were on track and I had Ďem. I gave Ďem another five songs as hard as I could and walked on air for a few days afterward.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I got to do a couple tours with Dex Romweber back in í03 and í04, an experience I will never forget. On the tours we did together Dex was playing solo and we traveled together in my Nissan pick-up. I was a huge fan of the Flat Duo Jets as a teenager and heís one of the only guys I listened to then that I follow to this day. As a fan, of course. I assumed a lot of other people were fans too and the shows would be packed. Not so. We had some really desolate nights and it was an up-close look at what persevering as a rock and roll icon can get you. Nevertheless, we had a ball and I learned things from Dex that are irreplaceable. He has quite a rep, but at this point I donít think he gets enough credit for what a professional he is. Heís an absolute pro at playing music -- live, in studio, outside in the middle of the night, anywhere -- and he understands what music truly is as an intangible vehicle for emotion. He would do things on the road that blew my mind, like in State College, PA, where he did an impromptu a cappella version of 309 where he was pounding on tables for the rhythm and the crowd of ten peopleís jaws were on the ground. On the last gig of our first run together we played to no one in Philadelphia. Dex played a set entirely of songs he hadnít played throughout the whole tour! And they were beautiful! I could never do that! All these obscure ballads coming from the depths, ringing through this empty hall, and when it was over...one guy in the room standing right up front, who claps for a minute and says with complete sincerity, "Thanks Dex."
Word is you're planning on releasing a follow-up to your 2008 full-length "Wreck the City" in 2011. Any news on that endeavor?
Yeah James, really soon. Like Wreck the City itís going to be a vinyl/mp3 release Ė recorded here in the garage/attic. Itís going to have a little rawer stuff on it, maybe some throwback to Road Angels, plus some of the newer ballads. I wish I could be more specific about a release date. Iíve dragged my feet a little, knowing itís best for me to release something when I can hit the road a lot to support it, which should be later this year.
In recent years the one-man band movement has risen from the depths of the underground, at last, to be recognizable as an important, meaningful and worthwhile musical style? Since you are counted among them, what are your thoughts on current state of the movement?
Yeah, thereís a lot more one-man bands out there than before and it can be tough to get comparisons. I donít believe the number of musicians depicts a similarity, but I think two-pieces suffer from this as well. Itís true a lot of one-man bands hover around American roots music (myself included), so sometimes I fear itís going to get watered down or become a box. Then I think of someone like Mosquito Bandito and get filled with hope. For me, the inspirational part of the one-man band is how direct and uncompromised it is. A good one man band would be watered down by other musicians and Mosquito embodies this to me. His shows are an assault on your senses, which I love, and his act is completely his own. Thatís just how he sounds, giving you everything. No one else can sound like Mosquito Bandito, and hopefully no one can sound like Ghostwriter either.
Lastly, if there's anything I failed to cover, or if there's anything you'd like to express or discuss, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Steve.
Thanks a lot, James. I really appreciate you shedding some light on me. Weíre doing this thing called Schoolhouse Rock at the Friend Schoolhouse on Saturday, July 2nd in Friend, Oregon (the ghost town where Iím from). Itís like twelve Northwest bands, including Ghostwriter, playing at a hundred-year-old Schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere with cheap beer, food, and free camping and water! Some friends and I started it last year and it was a real blast. Most people think of Oregon as the Willamette Valley and the I-5 corridor. This is our effort to bring people east of the Cascades and show Ďem how we do it out here. If youíre in the Northwest, you should come to Friend on fourth of July weekend.
And speaking of Friend, if youíre killing time on the internet, check out the video for the song "Smoke and Diesel." Manny Marquez made it for me, a filmmaker from LA who recently moved up here to the Gorge. We shot it up in the woods out there, and the audio was recorded live on site. Manny has become a really good friend and this is the first of our projects together. In my opinion, he captured the perfect mix of rawness and beauty. I would love for the world to see it, itís the best visual Ghostwriter representation yet outside of a live show.
Back to press page