Interview with Handsome Ghost
“Everything, everything stops…” vocalist Tim Noyes insists amongst textured acoustic strums on “Funeral”. It’s the opening track of Handsome Ghost’s sophomore album, anchored in compelling harmonies yet drifting in contemplation. This time, they’ve approached everything with a certain stillness.
“We’ve moved past the themes [of our previous releases], and now we’re in a different place,” producer and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Byun says. “I think it was an intentional effort to not necessarily create a new sound, but not be beholden to that sound of the past. The hang-up that we had initially was that we kept trying to take that sound and push it to where we’re at personally with music now, as opposed to just shifting. It’s similar with anyone who loves music; the sounds that resonate with you change, and we were kind of in the midst of that while working on this record.” This second venture, out May 15, is as beautifully fragile as their 2018 debut album ‘Welcome Back’ was vibrant and driving.
Finding inspiration in the singer-songwriters that initially sparked his love for music, Tim realized that the band didn’t have to be boxed in. “We’ve always been in this weird middle ground,” he remarks. “It’s like, are we a pop band? Are we a rock band? We’ve always straddled this strange world of music. While [we’re proud of] everything we’ve released at this point, for this album it was like, this is what we want to do, this is the album that we want to make, and we’re not worried so much about where we live on the musical landscape.”
“We were trying to make this record into something that was very emotional for us, and that just felt really honest,” Eddie adds. “I feel like for the past few years since quitting my job and deciding to try to pursue this, music has kind of become an intellectual exercise in a sense where I stopped listening to feel stuff. It was more like, ‘Oh, that’s how they made me feel sad there; we could use that at some point’. So [we took a step] back to things that made me feel growing up, and made us feel when we were first starting to play music together, and even Tim’s old songs before I started playing with him.” The result is 11 tracks that have a more delicate, understated appeal. There’s still a longing for the past, but there’s also a new kind of optimism woven inside each one.
“The big takeaway is not being so hard on yourself,” Tim explains. “It’s easy to sit there and beat yourself up for mistakes. I think it comes at least for me with getting a little older, and just appreciating things more, and recognizing that regardless of how you get there, it’s nice that you’re there at all. There’s a little less negativity with this group of songs, and a little more appreciation for just how lucky we are to be where we are, even if it’s kind of a winding road.”
As the band followed that winding road over the past few years, they found themselves back in Massachusetts where they grew up – and consequently, their first single from the album is named after their home state. “The song is about coming home and viewing this relationship with a slightly different perspective,” Tim relates. “The first half of the song is set in New York where I lived for a while, and the lyrics were trying to tell that story with particular images and experiences that I remember from that time. It’s one of those things where distance and space give you a fresh take on everything, and you can appreciate the good stuff and even the bad stuff, [and] recognize that you’re kind of lucky that it happened.”
Those kinds of images that “Massachusetts” summons, drenched in nostalgia, are portrayed cinematically in a video by Tim’s brother, Nick Moyes. “He brought us a concept,” Tim says. “I think he did a nice job of capturing the feeling of the song with the two actors, who are both great, and also the tightness [of the shots] – we thought that that fit the song nicely because it’s really about capturing that moment in time. The video itself is less about a story, and more about this continuous few minutes.” With split-second snapshots of memories, and sequences of abstract movements between two people, the video creates an impression of spatial detachment while longing for closeness. Between both the visuals and the music, this is art that is easy to identify with.
This idea of relatability is significant to Handsome Ghost; something that they look for in other music as well as consider while crafting their own songs. “Those are the best songs,” Tim expresses. “The ones that you can connect to your own life and maybe hang onto a phrase or a lyric that doesn’t necessarily have to be completely spelled out to you. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to how you connect it to your own experience. For ‘Massachusetts’, there is a story, but it’s not necessarily completely linear, and if there’s a little moment in there that you connect with, like an image, or even just a line, hopefully it works like that.”
Even within the band, the two members might interpret the same song in individual ways. “Tim writes all of the lyrics, and we almost never talk about what they mean,” Eddie notes. “So a lot of times I’ll find out what the songs mean while we’re playing a show. I’ve always been a fan of Tim’s writing, and so I try to pull the songs into whatever it makes me feel. Sometimes we’re on the same page, and sometimes it pushes a song in different ways.”
The duo’s most recent single from the album, “Vampires”, is a shimmering take on youthful recklessness – with a video to follow that might touch on the supernatural, they reveal. “As you get older, you naturally take on more responsibilities, you change,” Tim muses. “Hopefully for the better, but at least for me I think I’ve let a little bit of the wild man part of me go. ‘Vampires’ is about trying to maintain a little bit of that spontaneous life and recognizing that just because you’re growing up doesn’t mean you have to be a total grumpy adult. It’s kind of like, let’s just do something crazy for the sake of it. Let’s go be a little irresponsible, even if it’s just temporary, and break the cycle of boredom.”
Although “Vampires” leans more towards nocturnal behavior, the band emphasizes that the album reflects the early hours of the day. “The idea of morning made sense to us because we were trying to capture that feeling when the daylight is first starting to creep in and it’s going from darkness to lightness,” Eddie describes. “You can think about things without the weight of how you were thinking about them the night before.”
The title track in particular embodies these qualities, floating through a mist with vocals calling out like faraway beams. Before the listener can grasp onto it, it passes like a gentle, fleeting moment. “We didn’t have a name for that for the longest time,” the producer continues. “The original version [of the track listing] had it as ‘transition’ or something like that. But we kind of [thought] that track [was ‘Some Still Morning’]…it lives in between ‘Vampires’ and ‘Nightmare’. It feels like that little dream moment.”
And the duo, in a way, allowed themselves to dream as the record was conceived. Instead of imposing limitations on themselves, they went with the flow, which led to some moments including ringing electric guitar melodies (something previously taboo for the project) and songs with more unconventional structures (such as closing track “Sunday Best”) that will allow you to “melt away”, as Tim describes.
At the end of it all, the album will uplift you as the morning daze begins to disappear. “There’s very little regret over the course of the record,” the singer tells us. “It’s more just having a sense of peace that all of these things happened and led us to this place.”
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