After first catching everyone’s eye with 2014’s full-length album Human Nature, Caught A Ghost has delivered once again with “If You Only Knew,” a new single that experiments with sampled vocals and gives fans a preview of the group’s forthcoming sophomore LP.
What is the story behind “If You Only Knew”?
It’s a song about trying to communicate with somebody, having a frustrating interaction with somebody that you’re in a relationship with. It’s like trying to get a feeling across to somebody and just having it not land.
I think often times in relationships people just talk past each other because we’re all fragile human beings with individual sets of wants and desires. You think you know somebody, but ultimately there’s a huge chasm between you and another human being that is difficult to navigate sometimes, and when you’re trying to communicate with somebody, sometimes it just falls short.
I wanted to see if I could capture that in the lyrics, and then I feel like the drop in the song captures that emotion while still being kind of groovy as well.
What does the new album sound like in comparison to your previous record?
I’ve always had a diversity of influences; that’s just something that is a Caught A Ghost thing because I don’t really think in terms of genres except to try to play with them. I’m always trying to offset the idea of genre whenever I can.
I was very inspired by Beck growing up in that respect. I always really liked that a Beck record would have so many different influences on it…so that’s always been an interest of mine and a project of mine. Sometimes it throws people for a loop, and they’re like, “What is this?!”
So I would say that there are a variety of influences. It tends to be a little bit more modern, less throwback than the first record. There’s not as much of the horns and the Motown vibe, but it still falls within the rubric of soul music — alt-indie-soul, however people want to brand it.
When I’m composing, I just follow whatever sounds are attractive to me at that point. I like pulling from other genres a lot. In the context of “If You Only Knew,” I’ve always been a fan of 808s, and I wanted to do something that was my take on it because I knew my voice would sound different over that kind of track bed than most people using them.
What kind of experience can fans expect from your upcoming show at The Echo with Smoke Season?
It’s been really energetic and fun. They’re really an interesting band, and I think our bands pair really nicely together.
They’re very much more downtempo and more expansive in their composition approach. All their songs have more rises and falls and builds, you know? They remind me of Portishead a lot because that’s my childhood reference of what that music derives from. [Smoke Season frontwoman Gabrielle Wortman’s] voice reminds me a lot of the Portishead singer, Beth Gibbons.
It’s also kind of cool because the one funny thing about touring these clubs with Smoke Season is that we both have our own light show, which isn’t a coincidence actually. Gabi is a total tech nerd and a badass, and she taught me how to program our lights with Ableton.
I’ve heard you describe your style as “secular gospel.” Did you grow up listening to that kind of music?
The secular gospel idea is really more just about the energy in the music, although clearly songs like “No Sugar In My Coffee” have some gospel influences. It’s not really sonically reflected anywhere else necessarily, although there is a new song on the new record that is very much gospel influenced. For me, it’s more of an energy that I really love — the passion behind gospel music.
I didn’t grow up in the church, but I started singing gospel music in college. Being the only atheist, white boy in the choir, I found that I connected very deeply to that music. I think there’s something really beautiful about people singing about something they believe in very deeply, and that’s why American gospel music resonates with people. Whatever the song is that I’m singing live, I’m trying to recreate that experience on stage.
Since you were an English major at Berkeley, was there a particular author or piece you studied that has influenced your lyrics now?
I’m sure the work that I studied all the time leaks into my writing unconsciously. Vladimir Nabokov was my favorite author. I took a whole course just dedicated to him, so I read most of his novels. Beyond that, I love Paradise Lost.
I think maybe the piece of work that most accurately reflects [in my music] for whatever reason…T.S. Eliot popped into my head. There’s a line in “The Wasteland” that talks about a heap of broken images, and I remember reading that poem and feeling like that line was an indicator to the reader of how to read the poem, that basically the whole poem was a heap of broken images.
That’s something that really connects with me for songwriting because, while you’re pushing a linear narrative forward a lot of the time, sometimes you’re just trying to be evocative for the sake of being evocative. So you drop a line in that just gives somebody a momentary experience, and it’s abstract enough for them to put their own interpretation on it so then they can create their own narrative.
I’m always interested to hear people’s interpretations of a song because while I definitely try to put my own internal logic into my writing, I also relish ambiguity and always like when people put their own spin on it. I never want to give people an interpretation of how they should experience the song because I think the best thing about songwriting is how we can all be listening to the same lyric and having our own unique experience with it.
When you’re writing a song, do you think about the avenue of placement for TV/film?
I don’t, but for whatever reason, our music seems to sync well to picture, and I’m very thankful for that because it’s been the primary avenue through which our music has found an audience. It’s great to have people, you know, Shazaming your music and then looking you up on the internet and having their own experience with the song separate from the thing that they watched.
I get really nice letters from people who are cancer survivors or were going through depression or something, and a song helped them get through that process. In a music business that is sometimes frustrating, that kind of thing really gets you through it, you know? It can really keep you motivated and remind you why you do what you do.
I do love film and television, and I have pretty diverse tastes in that respect as well. At some point I would really love to delve into composing to picture. I’ve only done very little of that so far. I think that maybe something about the diversity of sounds in our music is why that phenomenon exists, why people like to sync our music because there’s a broad emotional palette for them to choose from.
I know you were commissioned to do a song for Grey’s Anatomy. How do you go about creating music when you have a specific goal that someone’s presented to you?
For the “Like A Virgin” cover, I just got the email and they said, “Do you want to do a soulful version of ‘Like A Virgin’?” and I just somehow knew what to do.
I think what I was struck by when I read the lyric, because I was trying to put my own spin on it, was that it’s actually a really beautiful lyric. I wanted to see if I could capture that in a different way.
I just picked up my guitar and started playing it, and it just connected. It wasn’t very calculated. I didn’t know if they were going to like it. I just did my own thing, sent it over, and people seemed to think it was cool.
What’s it been like working as a producer or songwriter on projects that haven’t been your own music?
When I’m collaborating with or working with any artist, I think it’s so much more important to listen. That’s the part that I really like about collaboration — you can allow an idea to generate outside of yourself and let it wash over you, and you’re really much more like the conduit of energy.
A lot of times when I’m collaborating, I’m really adding much less. I’m more just focusing energy in the correct direction. You vibe with somebody and you throw ideas back and forth, and it’s really more about helping to sharpen something and focus something rather than having to do all that yourself.
When you make a track from the ground up, the way I often do by myself, two different processes are taking place. There is the kind of Jackson Pollock paint splatter process where you’re just pouring out ideas, and then there’s the more refining and focusing process. It’s really two parts of your brain that you have to alternate back and forth between.
Often times, it’s best to do it not in the same session because they’re two different emotional states, but when you’re collaborating, it’s a little bit more fluid, and I can just stay a little bit more in that logical editing space.
What are you most excited for fans to hear in this next chapter with the new album coming out?
I think it’s really important to me for people not to perceive us as a kind of novelty, throwback project, so I’m excited to branch out in a lot of different directions. I think we established that with last summer’s “Groundhog Day,” which was the, like, ‘90s rap, cool party jam, not just a Motown kind of thing.
There are a lot of really great tracks on this new record, and we’re still writing. I’m just excited to be able to have a free dialogue with the audience where I can keep dropping new music and keep performing live.
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