Ten years of pure pop
Cool Ghouls celebrated their 10th year as a band just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and sent the Bay Area’s music scene into a tailspin. The quartet—Ryan Wong, vocals and guitar; Pat McDonald, vocals and guitar; Pat Thomas, vocals, bass and guitar; and drummer Alex Fleshman—plays shimmering pop tunes with introspective lyrics that look honestly at the triumphs and heartaches of young love. They released their latest album, George’s Zoo, earlier this month. The supernatural element implied by the band’s name is absent in their expansive, psychedelic approach. The term “cool ghouls” was actually coined by George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic.
“Pat [Thomas] and Pat [McDonald] were watching a Funkadelic show on YouTube, just as we were putting the band together,” Ryan Wong said. “Clinton walked out of a spaceship and asked, ‘How are all you cool ghouls doing tonight?’ Pat Thomas said, ‘Oh my god, that’s our name.’”
The band quickly built a devoted audience. Their YouTube videos received thousands of hits, their shows drew overflow crowds and they toured nationally behind their first three albums, Cool Ghouls (2013), A Swirling Fire Burning Through the Rye (2014) and Animal Races (2016). With three strong vocalists and guitar players backed up by Fleshman’s dynamic drum rhythms, the band’s musical horizons are unlimited. There isn’t a weak track on George’s Zoo. The uplifting melodies, soaring vocal harmonies and luminous interplay of the guitars create a remarkable experience.
The set opens with “It’s Over,” a meditation on the end of a relationship, with a despondent lyric. The flawless vocal harmonies lift the tune out of the doldrums before slipping playfully into a chorus adapted from the Little Anthony and the Imperials hit “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop.” The tune also references the Doors and the Velvet Underground. “We all listen to a lot of different genres, with Motown, soul and R&B being big influences,” Wong said. “When Pat Thomas wrote the song, he used ‘Shimmy Shimmy’ as a placeholder, but finally decided to keep it.” A familiar British Invasion backbeat drives “In Michoacan,” a celebration of good times driven by a rolling bass line and exuberant harmonies that echo the best of the Beach Boys.
The band produced and recorded George’s Zoo with the help of their friend, and engineer, Robbie Joseph. “We decided to stop playing live for a while to concentrate on recording. We put aside all our expectations and went into Robbie’s garage studio every Sunday, for about four or five months,” Joseph said. “We started out with lunch—a barbeque or sandwiches—and a discussion of the songs and what we wanted to do on that day. There were no demos. Since we didn’t have any time restraints, the way you do in a recording studio you’re paying for, we didn’t have to nail things down before we recorded them. Songs, lyrics and arrangements had more time to gestate on their own.
“We played the songs live with guitars, bass and drums; then we’d overdub the vocals and harmonies. We took a lot of time with the harmonies. We’d listen to the main melody, then the two Pats and I would sit together and figure out the chords we’re singing. After that, we’d sing together and change what needed to be changed to make it flow and record our ideas. Then the three of us would gather around a guitar or piano and record, coming up with the final result together. We had some friends come in to play sax and trumpet, but the four of us did most of it alone. We cut maybe 28 songs. From there, we listened carefully to all of them and made the track list for the record.
“After we finished recording, we worked on the mixing, mastering and getting the CDs made and the LPs pressed. Then the shutdown happened. Everything stopped. Pat [Thomas] and Alex got laid off and I moved to Denver. I couldn’t afford to stay in the Bay Area any more, but I do fly back to rehearse. After we put out our other albums, we toured like crazy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping we can all get vaccinated and start playing shows in the fall.”