Although local Americana-rock band Van Ghost isn't officially releasing their debut record until their July 26 performance at Wicker Park Fest, there’s a good chance you’ve seen their name before. Coming together in late 2007 - when then concert promoter and band manager Michael Berg got the itch to revisit his musical past after a friend asked him to play a song at her wedding - the band have already played high profile gigs at the likes of Metro, SXSW and Rothbury Festival, and have scored favorable press in and out of the city.
Over a year in the making, the debut LP, Melodies for Lovers, is bound to propel the band even further into the spotlight. In anticipation of the release and Wicker Park Fest performance, Berg took some time out to talk about the record, Van Ghost’s experiences so far and what’s in store for the future.
Van Ghost has a pretty non-traditional background as far as bands go, with you coming from the business side of music where you worked as a manager and promoter. How do you think this has impacted the band so far? Do you feel that it’s given you a unique experience?
Well, non-traditional is a good way to say it, but there are ways in which it has both helped and hindered the project. One of the ways it has helped is by offering a greater understanding of the intricacies of the business, which has assisted us in not getting ripped off by promoters or clubs at our live shows. It also led to a very artist-friendly and fair record deal with our label, Split Red Records. The relationships that I have been building and nurturing over the past decade have led to people more warmly embracing what I am doing, which has helped to get a foot in the door in certain places. Amongst our peer bands in the city and the industry at large, some might not think that it's fair that we have been presented some of the opportunities we've had to support more established bands live and perform at some regional festivals as such an upstart band, which is what leads to how it has hindered us. It has been harder to prove our credibility in some cases because of my background. The thing is, this is really what I should have been doing the whole time. It is my passion and the most fulfilling thing I've ever done with my life.
Tell us about the process of creating Melodies for Lovers. Did you have a clear vision going into the studio or did most of the ideas come together along the way?
The process of creating Melodies for Lovers was an amazing experience. We had several of the ideas going into it and executed most of them in line with the vision. Dan Wean, an original member of the band, engineered and co-produced the record with me. He was an integral part to the creation of it. Without him there would have been no record, literally. Of course, there were some ideas that came to be along the way, like the addition of Allie Kral of Cornmeal on violin, Ari Levi on cello and Chicago jazzer Frank Catalano on saxophone for a few tracks. The end of the track “Wednesday” came together on the fly with special guest Billy O'Neill of Oh My God. The instrumental intro track “It All Leads Here” also came together on the fly in the studio, but most of the tracks were ready to go by the time we started tracking them. We also wanted to have Sean O'Keefe mix the record, and he ended up doing it for us. Sean is one of the best engineers, mixers and producers from Chicago, and a great friend of ours.
If you had to pick a few songs off the record you’d most want people to hear, which ones would they be and why?
“Summer Promise” is the single. It is just the most meaningful track pertaining to the craziest time in my life when the shit hit the fan and you find out who really has your back, what you're made of and how to overcome adversity. Other notable tracks are “Do It for You,” “Wednesday,” “Everyday Music,” and “Coliseum.” A classic combo of songs for us has always been the tandem of “Hurry Up” and “On the Way Home” in the alt-country, Southern rock vein.
You’ve cited bands such as Wilco and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals as major influences – and those definitely come through in the music – but who or what would people be most surprised to learn inspires the band?
Classic rock is definitely a major influence. Bands like Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones and The Grateful Dead. Plus, many of the people that have played with us have a jazz background. Bands who have recently inspired me, but certainly do not come through in the music, are Fleet Foxes, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Blitzen Trapper, and MGMT. Haters need not apply, but I am a big Phish fan as well as a fan of electronic music. Music and other random things that inspire an artist on a daily basis can come in all different shapes, forms and sizes, and I am the most open-minded I've ever been in my life to all different styles of music. I'll take inspiration from anything I can, as anyone really should. It doesn't have to just be musically.
What do you think Van Ghost brings to the Chicago music scene that sets you apart from others bands?
I think Chicago has a great scene, especially for live music. We want to be a band that puts on good live shows, but also makes great records. The art of recording is our greatest goal. What we are trying to do is create songs that are poppy but not cheesy, that have good energy and come from a real place lyrically. We want to make solid Americana-rock. The city doesn't have very many Americana rock bands. We have acts that specialize in alt-country, jam bands, indie rock, electronica, blues, funk, jazz, singer-songwriters, and hip-hop. We are trying to stand out as an Americana-rock band. Not to say that there aren't any already, but that is just where we want to fit into the puzzle of Chicago bands and where we think we can add something special.
The band has already played some pretty high profile gigs, including sets at Metro, Double Door and Rothbury Festival. Is there a show that stands out as best or most memorable so far, and why?
The best sets we have ever played were at SXSW in Austin – because it was the tightest - our debut show at Metro - because it had that magical first show vibe - and the solo acoustic performance at Rothbury a few weeks ago. It was the greatest setting any artist could ever want to perform in. Surrounded by an ocean of trees in the most beautiful forest you have ever seen by day, that turned into a psychedelic wonderland by night. The crowd was responsive and really open-minded to my material. It was definitely an honor to perform at an event with the likes of The Dead, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Black Crowes, and Damien Marley, among several other notable living legends.
What can people expect from a Van Ghost show?
People can expect a singer-songwriter set of material rocked out by talented musicians that can solo and play like a tight unit. I am the least accredited musician in the band so I rely on them to help me execute the vision of my material and make the songs sound the best that they can. The band does that well and I love them for it. We have fun playing together and we hope that transcends into the crowd’s experience while watching us. I am excited to get back to some full band shows after a few months of doing acoustic solo and duo gigs. I think there is going to be a rebirth of synergy from taking a few months off to prepare for this next chapter of Van Ghost.
After the official release of Melodies for Lovers at Wicker Park Fest, what’s next for the band?
We are going on an East Coast tour and then coming back to the Midwest to play a few more regional festivals and gear up to continue our touring efforts in support of the record into the fall. We are going to start an AAA and college radio campaign and are putting the finishing touches on the new material to start to prepare for recording the follow-up record with Justin Eibanks in Nashville this fall. This is an exciting time for myself and the band, and we are eager to see what life throws our way next.
Van Ghost will play Wicker Park Fest's South Stage on Sunday, July 26 at 5:15 p.m. Click here for more information.