Introducing Ghost Hounds: southern rock with a masterful swagger
Pittsburgh blues rockers Ghost Hounds specialise in sounds both timeless and priceless
Maybe it helps, but you don’t have to be a penniless sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta to play the blues. Living proof of that is Thomas Tull, songwriter and guitarist with blues-rock six-piece Ghost Hounds, who is as well-known in the band’s Pennsylvania home base as part-owner of NFL team the Pittsburgh Steelers – and his successful film production career – as he is for his music.
Yet his band’s new album, A Little Calamity , blends blues, soul, hard rock and country with the effortless swagger of southern rock masters. Full of nagging hooks, lithe riffs and pithy lyrics, it exudes the passion of road-toned outlaws injecting vintage rock fumes into their veins rather than a private equity billionaire.
Tull insists his first love was always music, and although he used his riches from successful businesses to invest in movies through his company Legendary Entertainment, producing titles such as Inception, Superman Returns and The Hangover , he has been playing guitar in bands since high school. And he initially scratched that itch with Ghost Hounds’ first incarnation.
“It was the genesis of an idea that was not fully expressed,” he says of Ghost Hounds Mk 1, which was put on ice after one album as Tull’s movie production business took off. But then in 2018 he met Brooklyn-based guitarist Johnny Baab: “We just instantly bonded.”
Baab suggested Bennett Miller (bass) and Blaise Lanzetta (drums) to reignite the band, but what really turned heads, apart from Tull’s songwriting (alongside writer/producer Kevin Bowe), was the voice they found to front them – the trilby-wearing, wise-cracking figure of Tré Nation.
Their first encounter, says Tull, was “like something out of a movie”. “John saw a clip on his buddy’s wedding video, just 18 seconds or so, and there was this guy singing. It blew us away. We’re like: we have got to find him.”
Duly found and hired, Nation’s gutsy, charismatic pipes lit up 2019’s debut Roses Are Black and adds a crackling emotional pull to new songs such as the beautiful blues lament Tears For Another and the boogie-fuelled anthem that is Half My Fault . Joe Munroe’s piano also adds Muscle Shoals-y vibes, alongside righteous stabs of gospel backing vocals.
The band’s profile has been boosted by endorsement by some of Tull’s long-time heroes – the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top both invited the band to tour with them in 2019. If that suggests some serious networking skills on Tull’s part, you don’t impress blues aficionados like that with your NASDAQ portfolio.
“I’m a believer in meritocracy,” he says. “I grew up dirt poor, and, sure, I have been very fortunate in my life. But when we tour, the crowd don’t care – they either like the music or they don’t. And the responses we’ve had have blown me away; it shows that when people hear good music, everything else is secondary.”
A Little Calamity is out now via Maple House Records
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Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock .
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A Pittsburgh-based throwback rock band led by Thomas Tull.
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An Interview with Johnny Baab, Guitarist for the Pittsburgh Rock Band, Ghost Hounds
By Anita Stewart, Managing Editor
August 23, 2021
Ghost Hounds was originally formed in Pittsburgh some years ago. Thomas Tull who had put the band together was also working in the film industry and the band became silent for a time. Thomas resurrected the band again in 2019 as a new project. To reform the band he assembled some of the best musicians he knew–then everything happened pretty quickly. 2019 proved to be a watershed year for the band as they dropped their first studio album, “ Roses are Black ” and went on tour with luminaries such as Bob Seger, ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones .
“ Ghost Hounds Live ,” was released in April of this year. And the next album, “ A Little Calamity ” from Maple House Records has a release date of September 3rd. We reviewed the album several weeks ago and we just love it! Rock at Night got to sit down and chat with Johnny Baab , one of the band’s guitarists about the band, the new album, much more music to come and rosy-looking future plans!
RAN : Well, welcome Johnny Baab to Rock at Night!
Johnny Baab : Thanks for having me!
RAN : I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how this all happened because a lot of people don’t know that you experienced something that was pretty life changing back in 2018. But yet it was a precursor for some really amazing things to come. So can you discuss a bit about that? There was probably a time when you were skeptical about ever being able to play guitar again.
Johnny Baab : Yeah, definitely. So just to fill in for those who don’t know–in 2018 I was in a pretty gnarly car accident. I wasn’t in the car, but I got hit by a car and run over. And it was essentially my future as a guitar player that was definitely in question for some months as I was recovering. I just tried to keep a positive mindset throughout it all. Coming out the other end, I got to meet Thomas Tull and then it went from not being able to play guitar to playing guitar on the biggest stages with my heroes. It was definitely a roller coaster ride there for a while.
RAN : Yeah, so physical therapy and all of that brought you back to where you’re at now and I am sure that with touring and staying active, those injuries are minor at this point, am I right?
Johnny Baab : I mean I had some pretty extensive injuries. The one that probably put me in jeopardy the most was my left arm actually got run over by the vehicle. I don’t know if I would say a minor injury now. I was very lucky, I had great physical therapists and I worked really hard. So for the most part in terms of playing guitar and with day to day stuff, it took me a long time to do a push up, for example. In terms of music, I had to re-learn how to play with a metal plate in my arm, there was the process of relearning and retraining my muscle memory.
RAN : I am sure an interesting and enlightening party of your journey. You had been playing a lot in the New York music scene and I tend to look at New York City as more avant-garde. Whereas the further west you go, it’s more like classic rock and roll. Can you describe the music scene in New York City and in Pittsburgh? How they might be similar and what makes them different?
Johnny Baab : Yeah, definitely. I think New York City has a very deep jazz background and Pittsburgh as well, but what happened in New York City is more like a blend of what turned into “neo-soul.” Like D’Angelo, Questlove and Erykah Badu . Many of the artists were recording at Electric Ladyland Studios in the city at the same time and that sound came out of those recording sessions. I think New York City’s music scene is completely different than Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, I haven’t got much of a chance to see it because of Covid shutdowns. I was only here for maybe about a year and it was an extremely busy year for me. I spent most of my time working with the band and being on tour.
RAN : How did you meet Thomas Tull and how did the band members get pulled together?
Johnny Baab : Through a good friend of mine. I know I got shown a lot of love by my really good friends and they would occasionally call and check up on me to see how I was doing…there’s like a huge mental component. When I was recovering from my accident, I was in a state of isolation and, you know, a good friend of mine called me to see how I was doing and he asked how my guitar playing was coming back and that he used to be in a band with someone who was relocated to the east coast. So musically it’s always good to have guitar player friends because you just get to nerd out together. There’s like a different language that you speak and start talking about the pickups that were used in the 70s! So he introduced us and Thomas was in New York where I was living at the time. We just met up and kind of hit it off and when we did a little jamming, we discovered that we had a lot of similar parallels and musical tastes. You know, like Jimi Hendrix , Stevie Ray Vaughan . So we just had a great time sharing that interest and I think it got to a point where we had been jamming for a couple weeks and we were kind of like, man, should we put together a project? And that turned into the rebirth of Ghost Hounds . And then all we had to do was find the rest of the guys for the band. And we just hit the ground running.
RAN : The band is you of course and Thomas Tull on guitars, who put all this together. Bennett Miller plays bass, Blaise Lanzetta who plays the drums and Joe Monroe on the keys. Now there’s a rumor floating around about how you found Tre Nation , the band’s front man and lead singer on an Instagram post. Tell us about that.
Johnny Baab : So I just happened to be like, scrolling through my Instagram stories and a friend of mine was getting married. And I saw this video from another musician friend of mine at the wedding and Tre was singing and I was just like, I gotta find out who this dude is. You know, I think it was only a 13 second video. But within that time it was just like–that dude’s got it! So I reached out to my friend and he ultimately put me in touch with the leader of the band who then gave me Tre’s email and it turned out he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn. So we met up and it was just really serendipitous.
RAN : So 2019 was just like this huge year for you guys! You cut your first album together, “ Roses are Black .” You were opening for Bob Seger which were some of his last shows from what I understand. I got to see you and the band open for him at Pittsburgh Paints . Then you went on to support ZZ Top for some dates in the south and even opened for the Rolling Stones !
Johnny Baab : I was always blown away at the capacity to treat an opening band like very well. Like those guys were incredible! ZZ Top and the Seger camp and the Stones . They were just first class in the way they treated us and it was such an experience because obviously those guys are legends, but then they were also so cool. They were so accommodating and that really made the experience. That took it from surreal to just like, I literally can’t believe this is happening right now! The shows down in Florida were great! I mean, we had a nice little run with them and then Billy (Gibbons) was just incredible with us and the rest of the guys. We were very saddened to hear about Dusty Hill’s passing recently. Looking back on those tours again, it’s like things that you dream about as a kid and then all of a sudden these people are there in real life and they’re awesome and they’re so cool; so it just makes it much more of a great experience.
RAN : Now this next album is coming out on September 3rd, “ A little Calamity ” and we reviewed that the first week of August. So this album is a little bit longer than the last one–13 tracks. There is a little bit of rock, country, country rock, blues, Roots. You guys did a really incredible cover of Bruce Springsteen ‘s “ Thunder Road” from the “ Born to Run” album. So, tell me a little bit about the recording of the album, who wrote the songs and maybe some information that the listeners/readers might not know.
Johnny Baab : Thomas writes the songs along with Kevin Bowe. What was really unique and fun about recording “A Little Calamity” was when we recorded “Roses are Black,” we were still pretty fresh as a group, we had spent another year of playing and working as a band with each other and hitting the road. So there’s a natural evolution of the sound and or just like the chemistry of playing with each other where you can have that musical conversation. I want to say organically, but it feels a lot more natural. So, when we recorded this album, we cut the instruments live; we were all in the same room and we would just play the song. Wow, pretty much what we did for “Roses are Black.” The synergy between us while playing was just very strong and it made recording the album really fun, because everyone in the band is such a great musician.
RAN : I had a really hard time picking favorites on this one, and I really, really liked “ Firefly ” and “ Mountain Rain” and then you guys did “ End of the Line ,” which used the backup singers and Tre didn’t sing lead on that. So, how did that happen? Also, speak a little on your favorite music cities…or what town you think is becoming Music City.
Johnny Baab : So that was actually the person is an artist from Nashville named Jessie Key and she had been doing some, some songwriting with both Kevin and Thomas. And if I recall correctly, I think she was in Pittsburgh. I don’t think the full band was in town. I think it was me Thomas, Blaise, Kevin and Jessie and maybe Joe Monroe. And we were just jamming. And that is kind of how the song came together. It was really fun working with her. She’s super talented. And you know, I think that’s sometimes the coolest way a song can come together–when you just put people in a room and see what happens. Yeah, Nashville is Music City for sure. It’s obviously a great hub for musicians and go to hear good music and, obviously, I’m biased with New York City. I think there’s a couple markets that are like pretty major, like Nashville and New York, but there’s also other places that I’ve been that have like budding music scenes like I think Greenville, South Carolina has a fantastic scene, Asheville, North Carolina, it’s really great. Atlanta has a stronger music base as well. Seeing the kind of smaller cities come up as a really strong places for music like like Greenville, South Carolina, for example, but yeah, I definitely think Nashville is is one of the hot spots for sure.
RAN : Are you guys going to be touring in support of this album? And is that getting put together now?
Johnny Baab : Yeah, we’re definitely going to be doing some shows. Obviously with everything going on, it’s confirming. Everything has been a more laborious process, but we’re working on it and hopefully we can make some announcements soon and get things rolling.
NOTE : This interview was abridged from a much longer conversation Johnny had with us on August 23rd, 2021. Be sure to pre-order the upcoming album, “ A Little Calamity ” right HERE . And connect with the band on their socials linked below.
UPDATE: (September 2, 2021) The band has just announced that they will be opening some shows for the Rolling Stones this Fall. Keep watching Rock at Night for the latest information and tour dates.
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Ghost Hounds singer, guitarist talk album, tour & pride in repping Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH — Ghost Hounds keep barking up the right tree.
On Sept. 3, the Pittsburgh band released a strong new studio album, "A Little Calamity," which finds the sextet branching out from its bluesy-rock roots.
The Rolling Stones think enough of Ghost Hounds to hire the band as openers for several still-unspecified stadium concerts this autumn. The Stones' 2019 FedEx Stadium show in Washington, D.C., featured Ghost Hounds as support, a career highlight for keyboardist and Beaver High graduate/Beaver County Musicians' Hall of Famer Joe Munroe.
Thomas Tull, lyricist, rhythm guitarist and part-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, assembled the Ghost Hounds, bringing in ace lead guitarist Johnny Baab and dynamic singer Tré Nation, both from Brooklyn.
Baab and Nation talked about relocating to and repping Pittsburgh in a Zoom interview last Wednesday. Give extra credit to Nation (oh, let's call him Tré), who jogged the final mile in the rain to reach the studio interview site after his Uber driver encountered a road closure.
"Hey, this is important," Tré said with a smile.
Q: The sophomore album is out. How did you approach making it? Was there more freedom because your band is established, or were there expectations that come with it?
Tré: I think inherently there's expectations for a sophomore album, but I think we did the exact opposite and did what we wanted to do. And we're happy with the results.
Q: I love how the album starts with it's "Half My Fault." That's a song point of view you never hear. In so many blues songs it's all her fault, or all my fault. Where did you come up with that?
Tré : It's all Thomas (Tull).
Baab: Yes, Thomas had this chord progression in open tuning and he would bust it out before we started working on the new record. I remember we were doing a show at Jergel's and our backup singers got caught in traffic on the way to soundcheck. They were only 5 minutes behind, but Thomas started playing the riff again and the band just fell in behind him and it came to life right there and he added the words. To your question, in a relationship both parties contribute, whether it's to the downfall or to prosper. That's the premise behind this song, the character is taking responsibility for his half of the contributions. Definitely, like you said, it's usually all that person's fault, or it's all my fault.
Tré: It's funny because especially as musicians we have a lack of self-awareness at times, which makes for great art, but this is like the journey toward self-awareness, where I can say 'Well, I did this," but it's not all my fault.
Q: "Good Old Days" sounds almost John Mellencamp-ish. It's got a heartland rock kind of thing. Is that something that's coming into your sound?
Tré: Well thank you, that's a compliment.
Baab: I don't think it was deliberate in terms of trying to go for a sound. The sentiment was kind of forced on everybody with COVID. There's oftentimes you look back and think 'Wow, those were really the good old days, what a great time.' And a lot of times I think it's hard for us to realize it in the present while it's happening. We had a collective conversation as a band, and Thomas had that conversation with some of his friends, in that what's happening right now is what you're going to look back to. Especially with the run we had in 2019 before the shutdown. It was so dreamlike. And we made a pact and commitment to each other that we were going to stay present and really appreciate it for what it was, and not have to look back at it and realize what it was.
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Q: "Between Me & The Devil" is about the record industry. Did you ever have someone from the music business like that, trying to get you to sell your soul ?
Tré: I've never had that. The entertainment industry in itself, you kind of have to sell your time. It's what you do. It's commerce.
Baab: I think there's something really interesting that happens to musicians where obviously we all get into it for the passion for it and love for it, and then at a certain point if this is what you decide to do for a living there's a huge business element that comes into play. So yes, there's some of that. But also our band name is heavily influenced by Robert Johnson and obviously, he has that famous story of going down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil, and he always sang about having hell hounds on his trail, and that's where the name Ghost Hounds originated. So definitely tapping back into that story and paying homage to the legend it is, as opposed to making it about a personal experience.
Q: "Sleight of Hand" has great barrelhouse piano from Joe Munroe. What does he bring to the band?
Baab: Beaver County music hall-of-famer! Just incredible, top-notch musician and when you have that kind of player around, why would you not lean on the guy? He brings such a unique sound and flavor and we love Joe. He's such a salt-of-the-earth, great guy. He just lays it down, and we're very lucky to have met him.
Tré: He's special. And you know all those years of experience and influence on the music, it shows in his playing. Joe's a very specifically important ingredient to this recipe.
Q: "Mountain Rain" has a country feel. Is that by design?
Tré: It just happened naturally that way. It illustrates a bit of a spiritual experience. We just feel the gravity of how big the world is and you just realize how small your part is in it. It's really beautiful. Thomas wrote that song in Canada, and I don't know if you've been in northern Canada, but the scenery is divine. I feel that's why it comes across that way. There's a little bit of a Christian tint to it because of that divine element.
Baab: A lot of the sound on this record is very organic in terms of we spent a lot of hours together playing in 2019, between shows, recording and rehearsals, and I think the musical conversation develops in a way you can't manipulate it. And in a lot of ways we see that on "A Little Calamity"; rock and roll, blues, a little bit of country. 'Mountain Rain," to me has a bit of folky vibe with the acoustic guitar. All that's a product of the band's natural evolution seeping out. I don't think we discussed it much like, 'Let's make this one sound country.' It's just what everyone's instinct was to play. Thomas is such a visionary with his songwriting that he'll be able to explain to us the whole sentiment of the song and that translates what we do musically, what guitar I'll pick up...
Tré: ... what kind of vocal choices I'll make. It's all a very beautiful, organic situation.
Q: We're allowed to say you're opening some shows for The Rolling Stones, which you also did in 2019 in D.C. Is that a pinch-me kind of thing? How does that feel performing for thousands of people in a stadium?
Tré: It doesn't seem real just quite yet. I think it'll seem real once we get out there and see the tour buses and the setting up and everything. But right now it's just a little surreal as it was the first time.
Baab: Definitely a pinch-me thing. I grew up listening to those guys, and all of a sudden they're there in real life. And what always blows my mind is how amazing they were to us. They were very accommodating to us the first time around, and you would think after all this time — the level of superstardom they have, one of the best rock 'n' roll bands in history for the past six decades — that there might be a disconnect. But I can say they were just so cool and great to us. And obviously, with the recent loss of Charlie Watts, he was so wonderful to us when we got to meet him. Our hearts go out to the whole Stones' family and all their fans, too, because I know a lot of people, myself included, were really sad about that. We lost a legend and one of the most important and influential drummers in rock history.
Q: You're tackling another legend with your cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." How did you approach that? Lot of pressure there, but you put your own wrinkle on it.
Baab: Covering "The Boss" is almost sacrilege, you know? (Laughs). Thomas was reading his autobiography and listening to him and heard an acoustic cover (by Melissa Etheridge) and said 'We've got to do this.' That song was fun to record. It's always intimidating to take on a song that's treasured by so many people and Bruce fans are some of the wildest, most loyal in the world. I loved hearing Tré sing on it.
Tré: It was definitely a trip the way it all came together. It was intimidating like John said. But we had a catalyst with (backing vocalist) Sasha Allen being a part of it. Are you not mesmerized by that woman's voice?
Q: Yes, I am. And Tré I want to ask about your performance style because it's very animated. You're all over the stage. What's going through your mind at those moments and why is it important for you to work the whole crowd like that?
Tré: I grew up singing gospel music, which is mostly about emoting and connecting and the range of emotions, from intimacy to excitement and exclamation. And so I try to make sure that whatever the song is calling for in the moment that I'm showing up to meet it and express it. It's like the song wants to show itself and I'm just a conduit. So I kind of allow myself the freedom to do that and be silly and open and excited and allow the music to take over my body.
Q: One other thing to talk about is the Pittsburgh angle. What does it mean to you to get ingrained in Pittsburgh and what has that done for your music? Are Ghost Hounds a 'Burgh band? Do you feel that now?
Baab: Yes, we feel tremendously honored to represent Pittsburgh wherever we go. I'm from New York City originally, and a pretty recent transplant down here in the last few years but everyone here has been so nice and made us feel so welcome. And Pittsburgh has such a rich music history and a great music scene. It's been great getting to learn that and learn more about the history of the city. And also getting to kind of carry on the torch. Pittsburgh is a great city, and we're very honored and excited to represent it.
Tré: Definitely. 100 percent.
Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. He's easy to reach at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @scotttady
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Ghost Hounds Interview
Whether you’ve heard of them before or not, odds are good it’ll surprise you to learn that Roses are Black is the first album by the new lineup of the Pittsburgh band Ghost Hounds. But when you add all the pieces together, the clean, sharp sound makes sense. Each band member involved has been making music for years, and they were able to pull in a few expert songwriters (Kevin Bowe, who’s written for Jonny Lang, and David Grissom, who’s worked with John Mellencamp), as well as engineer Vance Powell (who’s worked with artists like The White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys) and producer Eddie Kramer (who was Jimi Hendrix’s engineer). The band also managed to nail down cameos from Slash, Reese Wynans (formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble) and Kenny Aronoff.
Roses are Black had a lot of expertise going in, and the resulting 12 tracks don’t disappoint. Released November 5, the album is a declarative statement for the band, planting them firmly in rock ‘n’ roll with respectful nods to the rock titans who came before—especially the Rolling Stones, with whom Ghost Hounds toured this summer. Blues Rock Review checked in with lead singer Tre’ Nation to learn what the recording process was like and how a fateful shared clip on Instagram led to his joining the band.
Ghost Hounds has an unconventional story: The band started unofficially nearly 15 years ago but was put on the backburner, and the group recently came back with an entirely new lineup. How did everyone come together?
Ty Taylor [of Vintage Trouble ] and Thomas [Tull] have been friends since before the last band started, and he’s also friends with Johnny [Baab], who’s now the other guitarist in the band. [Taylor] introduced [Baab] to Thomas, and they started jamming out; Thomas was picking up the guitar again after a while. They were just jamming out for a while, and I think that’s what gave Thomas the inspiration to want to start the band again. Johnny reached out to Blaise [Lanzetta], who’s our drummer—they’ve been friends for a while—and Bennet [Miller], the bass player, who he met doing music in New York. Then I came onto the scene. I was found via an Instagram clip of a friend of a friend. And then we got Joe Munroe, he plays the keys. We didn’t realize at the time, but Joe’s a local legend in his own right here in Pittsburgh.
What were you looking for in music at the time you were called in to join Ghost Hounds?
I’ve been doing music for a long time. The thing that’s proven to be true is that, no matter what else you try to do in life, if music calls you, you have to answer. I’d moved to New York a year prior; I was working in a wedding band, I was writing for some independent artists in London and just enjoying music that way. When this opportunity came along, I went up and met the guys and we seemed to click right away. It was like a puzzle piece: a perfect fit.
Did you imagine that just one year later you’d be opening for the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top?
Here’s the thing I realized about Thomas: Whenever someone tells him he can’t do anything, he proves them wrong. That’s been the way he’s run his entire life. The first day we met, he told me, “I want to try to open up for the Stones; it’s been one of my biggest dreams since I was a kid.” In my mind I was like, “Okay, yeah—sure.” But when he told us we got the slot, there was a moment of silence. Everyone was waiting for the “just kidding.” And it never came. It’s been unreal. It’s amazing.
What has it been like to open for these rock legends who had such significant influences on the band?
I try not to think about it too much because it’s quite overwhelming. There was a moment after we did the Stones show where we were standing in the back; they have a protocol they go through with their openers where they’ll take a picture. We were waiting for them to come take the picture so they could go out and do their set, and it was just surreal watching Mick Jagger come down the hallway and point at me and say, “Hey, you!” It’s something that will never leave my brain. It’s unreal. So I try not to make a big deal out of it, because it’s anxiety-producing to think ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger in such a short amount of time—it’s unreal.
Ghost Hounds are gaining a reputation for delivering high-energy live performances. Do you practice any pre-show rituals to get yourselves amped up to go onstage?
I guess it’s kind of ironic, because it’s very calm before we go onstage. Everyone just kind of hangs out. I get pretty quiet in general; I’m a little introverted, so I guess I save all that for the stage. Sometimes we’ll just have a drink or hang out and just chill and talk. When that first downbeat hits, it’s like we all transform into our own little music monsters.
Do you feel like you’re transitioning into a different person onstage?
Definitely. There are a lot of musicians that I admire who have said something similar to the effect that, once you get onstage, there’s a different version of you that needs to be there to handle everything that’s going on at once and for you to be able to take a back seat and enjoy it. I feel like every musician—especially frontmen for bands and singers in general—you transform into this role, and it makes it so much more fun, so much more enjoyable. In a weird way, it kind of takes the pressure off the normal, everyday you to be something extraordinary. You just allow yourself to be immersed in the experience. It’s really beautiful.
Your band bio starts off with, “Ghost Hounds is a rock ‘n’ roll band at a time when the world needs more of them.” What do you think rock as a genre has to offer that other genres don’t?
I think for one, there’s a combination of a hint of nostalgia and a little bit of soul. And also, in my personal opinion, it’s human nature to recycle, so everything always makes its way back around. Everything that someone once believes is dead or over seems to make its way back around. I feel like rock is doing that.
There was some way where Shawn Mendes ended up hearing some of our songs, and his reaction to them, according to his manager, was that he was floored. He was like, “This is it; this is rock ‘n’ roll. This is what I want to do.” And of course the genre is a bit confining, but I feel like the energy and the intensity that you’re able to exert doing rock music is something that every musician has innately in them, ready to unleash. Rock just gives you what you need to do it, as opposed to pop or more urban songs that have a different personality to display. It’s not necessarily as raw. That’s what I appreciate the most about it: That I can go up there and I can jump around. I don’t need choreography, I can just let my body move how it feels, and it comes across that way.
The sound of the album is very polished; it sounds like it was made by musicians who knew exactly what they were doing and where they wanted to go. Did the chemistry that produced that sound happen naturally, or was it something the group had to work on?
I think it was a little bit of both. Everyone in the band has been a musician for over a decade and a half, so there’s this familiarity with music that comes when you get musicians in a room. But we’re also very fortunate because we have a lot of extraordinary help. Thomas writes all the songs, and on the first album he brought in Kevin Bowe, who’s written for Etta James and Jonny Lang, and also David Grissom, a songwriting and producing legend in his own right. So they came in and helped Thomas flush out the songs and give them a bit of personality, and you can actually hear that on the record, because David is from Austin, and some of the songs definitely have an Austin footprint.
Then we also were fortunate enough to get Eddie Kramer in the studio with us; he’s produced and engineered for Jimi Hendrix. So he brought his sensibilities and his style into the mix. I think all of that together just created what we have. It was a lot of expertise, but we were very careful not to have too many cooks in the kitchen at once. It was a unique collaboration, and I guess it worked.
When you first came to these songs, did you know exactly how you wanted to approach them? Were there any that stood out?
Right away, yes. There was one, “Fire Under Water,” that the first time I heard the demo, I was like, “What is this song!” When I heard the demo, it was acoustic and reminded me of The Civil Wars, one of my favorite bands before they broke up. Once the music came onto it, it transformed into something even better. It’s smoky and it’s dark, and that’s right up my alley.
There’s a cover of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” on this album. Why did the band pick that particular song to cover?
It was Thomas’ idea. The Ghost Hounds seem to have a theme of singing about these mysterious women. There’s a mystery that seems to be part of our trademark. I’d heard of the song before, but I hadn’t heard the song itself. The first time I heard it, I fell in love with it; I was like, “Yeah, we’ve got to do this—this is amazing.” It just happened organically. It fit the narrative that we lean toward lyrically.
Did you feel that pull between those themes of light and dark as you were recording?
It may be over-poeticizing it, but I think those themes give birth to each other perpetually. When you have that dark mystique, it kind of leads to the beauty of sentiment and peeling back layers to find what’s underneath it. But once you jump into the throes of familiarity, you peel back more layers and you see more darkness. It’s this ongoing cycle and evolution.
Where do you see Ghost Hounds a year from now?
We’ve already begun working on a second record, so that’s going to be an adventure in itself. But honestly, who knows? In such a short time we’ve already done so much; we’ve kind of placed the bar pretty high for ourselves. We’ll see what happens.
Interview by Meghan Roos
Ghost Hounds' Thomas Tull: “There's always a prodigy in town who can pick up the guitar and just play. That was not me – I had to really work at it!”
The movie mogul talks touring with the Rolling Stones, why storytelling forms the basis of his songwriting and the unbeatable rig that fuels his guitar sound on the band's sophomore LP, A Little Calamity
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.
You have to honor the past but you also have to blaze your own trail and leave your mark as well
“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.
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
“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.’
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
“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.
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
“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.
My rig is not complicated and pretty straightforward, but it’s hard to beat that classic sound
“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.
I have to say, part of the charm and the chase is the alchemy of music, and how a group sounds together
“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.”
- Ghost Hounds' A Little Calamity is out now via Maple House Records.
- For a full list of Ghost Hounds' upcoming tour dates with the Rolling Stones, head to their official website .
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Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.
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Ghost Hounds Release New Video For “Between Me And The Devil”
Photo: Ghost Hounds by Jay Arcansalin
Today, Rock and Roll band, Ghost Hounds release the accompanying video for their newest single, “Between Me and the Devil,” via Maple House Records. Directed by Jay Arcansalin, the visual emulates the legend of Robert Johnson, in which Johnson makes a deal with the devil in trading his soul for mastery of the guitar. Similarly, we watch as lead singer, Tre’ Nation , makes a deal with a record label in trading his soul for a successful music career. As this plays out we hear Nation sing, “The only reason I’m keepin’ my soul is / I already gave you my heart,” insinuating that his love for music will help him to overcome any hardship he may face due to the deal he’s made.
Ghost Hounds take on the timeless Robert Johnson/Crossroads story with “Between Me and the Devil.” The band fuses its big, blues/rock sound with an outstanding performance by lead vocalist Tre’ Nation to tell the tale of someone selling their soul to make their dreams come true. The band hits hard and puts backbone behind this powerful track, demonstrating complete mastery of the blues/rock form. Top shelf all the way.
“Between Me and the Devil” was written and produced by guitarist Thomas Tull , and songwriter, producer Kevin Bowe (Etta James, Paul Westerberg and the Replacements). It is the first offering off of their upcoming sophomore album coming later this fall. The bluesy rock melody paired with Nation’s passionate vocal sends their message loud and clear to everyone who’s listening. Listen HERE .
Watch ‘Between Me and the Devil’
“I have always been fascinated with the story of blues legend Robert Johnson.” Tull said . “His deal at the crossroads and mythology in the blues inspired the idea of the song and video.”
Ghost Hounds, are a rock ‘n’ blues band hailing from Pittsburgh, PA. The band’s classic rock ‘n’ roll guitar tunes are the result of both Thomas Tull and Brooklyn native guitarist Johnny Baab , while the driving forces on bass and drums are Bennett Miller and Blaise Lanzetta respectively, with Joe Munroe on keys. Fronted by lead singer, Tré Nation , whose voice was simply made for rock, Ghost Hounds are a modern day rock band that plays blues inspired rock in such a way that proves that rock is not only alive, but thriving for the next generation of rock fans. Their latest album, Roses Are Black (2019) featured Slash, Kenny Aronoff, Reese Wynans, and Michael Rhodes.
The band has spent the last year gearing up for what is sure to be a summer to be remembered as far as rock goes. Following up their 2019 album, Roses are Black , is a new live album, Ghost Hounds Live , out now. Each track on the album was recorded during the summer of 2019 while on tour with The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top , and Bob Seger . The live album is just a teaser of what’s to come.
Pre-order/save link for Between Me and the Devil
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Sweet! Love this band from my hometown!! #HighlyRecommended
I’m watching them as I speak Great Rock and Roll band. Reminds me of Burton Cummins back in the 70
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