You can tell a lot about a band by the company they keep and the stages they’ve shared. Take Ghost Hounds, a rock ’n’ roll blues band out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They have put miles on the clock with the likes of ZZ Top and Bob Seger – and perhaps most significantly, the Rolling Stones.
As guitarist and co-founder Thomas Tull tells it, they were his big musical epiphany growing up. To a 12-year-old kid growing up in the ‘80s, an “old soul” who had just picked up the electric guitar and was weaning himself on the blues, Jagger and Richards’ combustible social commentary and the irresistible grooves of Gimme Shelter cracked the whole world open.
“I thought the lyrics were so sophisticated and interesting,” says Tull. “Gimme Shelter, I would listen to it again and again. My 12-year-old brain was like, ‘What are they saying here!?’”
If what the Rolling Stones were saying blew Tull’s 12-year-old mind, what would the knowledge that his band would go on to support the Stones do? Even in the present moment, that sort of thing is hard enough to compute, and Ghost Hounds will be doing it all over again, having announced another string of shows opening for the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.
“Well, if you had told me when I was younger that I would have the opportunity to share the same stage and open for the Rolling Stones? That sentence wouldn’t even make sense,” he says. “It’s a privilege. It really is a privilege.”
Musically, it makes sense. Ghost Hounds play a sound that harks back to the fundamentals of rock ’n’ roll, and blues as a storytelling medium. Tull cites electric blues pioneers alongside the Stones as primary influences, but there’s also a Stax-vibe, and a blue-collar Springsteen quality to them that’s apparent long before you get to track seven on their newly released sophomore album, A Little Calamity, where they cover of Thunder Road with Stones’ backing vocalist Sasha Allen.
Tull’s right; it is a privilege, a big break getting to support the Stones. But sometimes the biggest luck is having a band in the first place. No matter what stage of your life you’re at, whether you’re in high school, at college, or if you’ve got two kids and a mortgage, getting a band together is never easy.
There’s always an element of cosmic chance. And so it was with Ghost Hounds. Just how did Tull, whose name you might recognize as the man behind box-office powerhouse Legendary Entertainment [The Dark Knight Trilogy, etc.], find the space in the calendar to do this sort of thing?
Well, the Ghost Hounds origin story involves a broken bone and a wedding video. Then the pieces just fell into place. Tull was joined by Johnny Baab on guitar, Bennett Miller on bass, Blaise Lanzetta on drums, Joe Munroe on keys, and by the good grace of Providence, Ghost Hounds found a singer in Tre’ Nation who could make anything possible.
“He’s the talent!” says Tull, who unpacks the story for Guitar World how a poor kid turned entrepreneur and movie producer ended up making rock ’n’ roll records.
Maybe with his long association with the films of Christopher Nolan, it’s only appropriate we start at the ending; at the prospect of supporting the Stones again (see bottom for full dates and venues), then cycling back through the gear and the songwriting behind A Little Calamity, an album that takes them go deeper into a sound they established with 2018 debut Roses Are Black.
Funny you mention the Stones, because you are going on tour with them again and discovering them was an inciting incident in your musical journey. What is it like supporting the Stones? There’s only one job harder in music: going on after them and no-one does that.
“You have to [think], ‘We have a job to do and we have to go out there.’ There are 60,000 people in the stadium, and I know, you go to a show and you’re here to see the Stones, and there’s going to be someone onstage before them, and it’s like, ‘Hurry up, let’s get to the Stones!’
“You know that, as you hit the stage, you’ve got to leave everything out there, and hopefully engage with that audience. Thankfully, I think that’s what we did on that last tour. You can’t let it intimidate you, or think about it too much, but at the same time, you certainly understand the gravity of it.”
For sure. The world just lost Charlie Watts. What are your memories of him?
“Well, to me, he is one of the all-time greats, not just great drummers but musicians, and he formed the backbone of that band for 50, 60 years. I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, but the time I did, he was so polite, and he just came across as a gentleman.
“I think that when you grow up loving the Stones the way I do, there’s sort of a permanence to it; they’re all going to be here forever! And it’s very jarring when you lose somebody like Charlie Watts. I think he is one of the greatest ever.”
One of the themes you write about on this album is nostalgia, which is an interesting thing to think about when we talk about the Stones’ legacy. How do you look upon nostalgia, because, in a sense, you play a primal musical style that goes all the way back to the blues, but on another, you are a futurist – in your other life, so to speak, you back AI technologies. What were you thinking when you wrote Good Old Days?
“Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that I think you have to honor the past but you also have to blaze your own trail and leave your mark as well. I think you want to honor and have roots in, be fluent in blues and rock ’n’ roll – and even country, and all the things that inspire you – and then I think, even those great musicians would tell you, you also need to get off your ass and do something original and try to have your own voice.
“You mention Good Old Days – when I wrote that, what kind of hit me, especially during Covid, where everybody feels a sense of isolation and you didn’t have that togetherness, in-person, and that part of what it is to be human, and to have that connection.
“What struck me when speaking with friends, and talking about growing up, it wasn’t even so much that one giant big thing happened. Like, ‘Oh, remember the time that this amazing thing happened?’
“It was more reminiscing about the feeling of that time, that summer, that whole group of friends. I started thinking about it; when I was in that moment, it didn’t seem extraordinary or special, it just kind of seemed like that’s just what we did that day.
“I started thinking about the concept of these are the good old days. What you are doing right now, you are going to potentially reminisce about this someday, even during this whole Covid thing, so make sure that you tell the people you care about that you care about them, make sure that you are present and all that stuff that is so hard to do in a distracted world.
“We have all kinds of things now, instant gratification. You can look up anything on the internet. You can spend all your time on social media. You can spend all your time plugged in, so to speak, and it was just really a reflection on taking a step back from that and recognizing the things that are important to you, and being in that moment everyday.”
Absolutely. It’s too easy to lose perspective. It is incumbent on the artists to almost press pause on the world and look at it as it is, and describe that. Because memories, as you say, are a feeling, they can be the taste of the madeleine or whatever…
“That’s exactly right. You are not a hard drive. Our memories are not hard drives that just store things; when you think about things, they evoke emotion, and that’s a pretty special part of being alive, of your consciousness…”
And that, in a way, informs the stories we tell. Which leads us back to the blues. It’s very much storytelling. It’s quite possibly the most foundational American art form there is.
“I would completely agree with that. I think the blues is uniquely American, and I think across blues-rock, and certainly country, being a troubadour, being a storyteller is a big part of what pulls us in. Because, certainly, there’s the infectious riff, or beat in a song, but also lean forward and really pay attention to the lyrics.
“For me, personally, how I write – and I have no idea if this is unique or not – I have to sit down and write out the back story of whoever the character is in the song, or what is this person’s worldview, what is this their mood, what are they hoping to achieve? I have to do that. I can’t just write rhymes out; I have to have a grounded story and a point of view.”
Looking at the credits, you work closely with Kevin Bowe, who produced the album, too – what is that relationship like? How does it work in practice?
“He’s really great, and one of the things that I was just trying to be clear and forthright about when we were writing was, ‘Look, you are a fantastic professional writer with a ton of credits, and I have a vision, and I want to fulfil that vision with a producer and a writer.’ And Kevin, we just have great chemistry in terms of the connective tissue of what that song is.
“He is also very respectful. He will always say, ‘Well, it’s your band, it’s your vision.’ We have a really cohesive relationship in that way. But it’s also the kind of thing where, we’re going through the lyrics, and you just can’t get that line, and then all of a sudden, one of us will say, ‘Hey, what about if we change this?’ And it is fun to write with him. That’s why I write with him a lot. Nobody cares about whose idea it is. He is really supportive.”
Yes, writing is like that. It’s more sculpting than poetry. It’s chiseling and rearranging and kind of ugly.
“[Laughs] Yes, and you have to – at least for me – think, ‘Good enough isn’t good enough’, right? There are times, and I know I bug the hell out of him, but we’ll put a song to bed, okay, that one’s done, and two days later I’ll come back and say, ‘That line needs to be better. That’s not good enough. We’ve got to go back in.’
“You’re exactly right. At least for me, it definitely resembles more of a chaotic mess and you kind of fly through the clouds and there it is, versus this clean version that just kinda came out. One thing I would say about Calamity, what is extraordinarily gratifying for me is that this record is exactly what was in my head.
“To be able to translate something from what I mean to say and this is exactly how I want to say it? It is hard to pull that off, to get that to happen. More than anything, that’s what I am proud of with this record.”
How does a band like this come together? There’s got to be some kismet. You’ve got Johnny with a broken arm. You’re doing Legendary Pictures or whatever. My inbox is like the third act of The Omen and yours must be worse. How did you find the time?
“[Laughs] Well, music and sports really informed my whole childhood. I grew up very poor with a single mom and sports and music – and then movies – were the escapism. And so I started playing when I was probably around 11, never took formal lessons.
“There was always somebody in your town or whatever, one of these prodigies who could just pick up the guitar or whatever instrument and has perfect ear and could just play. That was not me.
“I had to really work at it. I think my band played the eighth grade dance or something, and the idea of playing music and having that reciprocal loop with the audience, where you play a song and they react to it – I just enjoyed it. This is the thing that makes me happy.
“But also, the band is incredibly accommodating, and very precise about rehearsals and how we approach things. When we get in the studio, we’ve got a plan. It’s also so much fun because usually, when you are in a group, whether it’s a music group or a sports team, there’s always some friction, there’s always human stuff that happens, and in this band, that just isn’t the case. Everybody truly enjoys each other’s company.
“As to things coming together, it is remarkable from Johnny having that very serious accident, and coming off of that, I was introduced to him and [we] hit it off right away.
“We found Tre’ because he stood up and sang at a wedding and somebody sent Johnny a 12-second clip of him singing, and we were both like, ‘What!? Why is this guy not famous?’ The way the whole thing came together is definitely not textbook! [Laughs]
“But the band loves playing live and I think audiences respond to the fact that we are up there having a great time, and that’s something we talk about when we play live. We need to mean every note. When you are up there, it goes fast, and, you know, just mean it! That’s how we approach it.”
We talked about telling a story through the lyrics but some of the tones on this album paint a picture, too. Tears For Another has got this tone that calls to mind SRV/Patrick Swayze/Roadhouse or something. Did you find one thing that worked for the record and tweaked where necessary or get all of the toys out?
“[Laughs] Yeah, I think most of the record I used a ’65 Marshall JTM with a Klon, and the vintage sound is something that I wasn’t always [convinced by at first] – you know, I thought they make pretty good amps and guitars today, and they certainly do. And then I’ve got a Fender ’59 Twin that just has this magic sound to it.
“I don’t collect guitars. I am very lucky that I have some great guitars, but I don’t collect them. If I can’t play them, and I am not willing to play them, then I don’t have them. My main guitar is a ’59 Les Paul, and there’s just something magical about this guitar, Hazel… I guess everybody has to name their guitar.”
That was my follow-up question…
“When we were on the road with ZZ Top, and had the absolute honor of hanging out with Billy Gibbons all the time, getting to jam with him in the dressing room, and playing some things in soundcheck.
“I would geek out all the time with him on guitars, and obviously Pearly Gates is one of the all-time most-famous ‘59s, and he played Hazel, and he looked at me and said, ‘Okay!’ So I thought if the Reverend Billy Gibbons is going to blast off on my guitar, that’s pretty good.
“I used that guitar through most of the album. Half My Fault, which is probably my favorite song on the record, and my favorite song that I have written, is a ’51 Telecaster in open G that, through the Marshall, just had this sound. I couldn’t stop playing it.
“My main instrument is the Les Paul. I have a number of Blackguard Teles that I use, and then usually the Marshall with the Klon. It’s not complicated and pretty straightforward, but it’s hard to beat that classic sound.”
And there are so many sounds within that. It sounds like a minimalist setup on paper, but there are so many textures and tones you can get out of all that.
“Yeah! You mentioned Tears For Another, Jonny plays most of our solos. I probably play a third of them. But I played the solo on Tears For Another and played around – just a little bit – within those boundaries and got a pretty searing, cut-through sound of out it that I was really happy with.
“I really like that song because I wanted to write a, quote/unquote ‘classic blues song’ and in that one, the character is wrestling with the fact that he is with a woman, and it’s not that she did anything, or that something happened, but he just realizes that she is still in love with her old flame, and can he live with that? She didn’t do anything, but can he live with that knowledge?
“I know this sounds lame, but before I played that solo I just tried to get that in my head, the pain that that guy was going through, trying to make that decision.”
These are universal themes. Nobody gets out alive when it comes to matters of the heart.
“Yeah. [Laughs] That’s exactly right. That’s scar tissue.”
Talking about gear, do you think we have had an iPhone/iPod moment when it comes to guitar culture? Where amp modelers and digital tech is putting great tones in more hands. What’s your take on that? Because you are a fan of vintage gear but also seem open-minded about new tech, too.
“Look, to me, it’s that balance between not relying so much digitally that I am enhancing my sound, my playing, whatever to the point where as an artist you no longer feel that you are [in control] – it’s more the machine than you. But, at the same time, and for me personally, I enjoy chasing that tone, and trying to dial it in to sound just like you want it to sound.
“I think that’s cool and fun, but on the other hand, I certainly am never going to be put off by somebody who understands how to use modern technology to get the exact sound that they are going for. And that’s the great thing about art; we can all enjoy it how it hits us, and we can all make it how we choose to make it.
“A number of years ago, I made a documentary with Davis Guggenheim called It Might Get Loud. It was my love letter to the guitar. To spend that much time with Jimmy Page, Jack White and then the Edge – the Edge is such an incredible human being. He is one of my favorite people that I have ever come across. He is so kindhearted and genuine.
“In the movie, he really kind of reveals [everything]. ‘This is the box. This is what I am going through here. This is what I am using.’ I think he took us through Elevation, and said, ‘I can’t walk into band practice and just play these two notes and say this is my new riff.’ But it sounds incredible when he puts it through his rig.
“Do I think the Edge is an incredible guitar player? I do. I think he is phenomenal. And he has his own sound; you know exactly what it sounds like. Is it enhanced with technology? Sure. Do I think he’s incredible? Yes. Things are going to continue to progress and who knows, 10 years from now, what gadgetry will be available to the musician, but as long as people are creating, I think it’s great.”
It’s all about shortening the distance between the idea that’s in your head and the sound that comes out the speaker. Some other people’s rigs look great but then feel horrible when you play through them. Not all guitar amps are for all guitarists.
“I have to say, part of the charm and the chase is the alchemy of music, and whether that’s how a group sounds together – maybe individually, you know, you’re fine – but together something amazing happens.
“Or to your point, that you jump on someone’s rig, and it’s the latest, greatest, the new advanced circuitry amp, and it’s amazing, and you’re just kinda like, ‘Hmm, that’s not for me. This is not sounding the way I want it to sound.’
“Then there are other times, you’ll use a little amp, just tweaked some way, and maybe you’re in a certain room in your house or something, and you're playing and thinking, ‘Oh my God! If I could bottle this. This, right here, what’s going on today!?’ And there are times you will walk into the studio, and even from one session to the next, I’ll walk in and say, ‘Did anyone touch my amp?’ Like, ‘What’s going on today?’ Part of that alchemy is what I love about this whole thing.”
But then the smart guitarist’s insurance policy is always to find a great singer because then not too many people are paying too much attention. For a guitar player, the best effect in the chain is to have a great singer.
“[Laughs] That’s funny. You’re unveiling the magic trick. Look, our lead singer, Tre’ Nation, is… He’s the talent! He is just amazing. And you’re exactly right. If you have a great singer, that’ll cover an awful lot of stuff. They command your attention is what they do. That is exactly right. [Laughs] Don’t pay attention to the note I just missed, ‘cos he is singing his ass off!”
That’s the thing, though. This is Guitar World, so of course we look at things from a certain point of view, but we need to recognize that singers forge this intimacy with the audience that we guitar players have to try so hard to replicate in our playing.
“Yeah, and how do you weave the two together? Right? How do you, in a blues song, with mournful singing, intertwine that with guitar playing that makes you feel the same thing? That’s what we are trying to chase.”