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Five People on a Level Playing Field: Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling on the Origins of Ghost Light

Since hitting the road for their inaugural tour in late March, the buzz around Ghost Light (Tom Hamilton, Holly Bowling, Steve Lyons, Raina Mullen and Scotty Zwang) has only grown.

“I couldn’t tell you how excited I am, I haven’t been this stoked in a long time. It’s a nice feeling to have a group of people all focused on one goal,” Hamilton gushes.

With a slew of unheard new originals and an album on the way, music fans have only begun to scratch the surface of Ghost Light’s musical output. Slowly the band is showing their hand, debuting new songs regularly and trying on covers by unexpected artists like Tears for Fears. Ghost Light will continue touring through the summer, with high profile billings at festivals like Peach and Lockn’, and as Hamilton and Bowling both attest, it’s just the beginning for this five-piece jam collective.

Below the two musicians recount how the band formed, and reflect on their marathon recording sessions in Philadelphia.

How did you guys meet?

Tom Hamilton: When we first met, I didn’t know anything really about Holly other than that she was a good player. Man, I can’t remember for the life of me where it was. I feel like it was some festival and it was kinda just like, “Hey, do you wanna sit in?” And I think I asked because I heard that she played with Marco [Benevento] and you know, Marco’s not gonna have somebody sit in that’s not good.

Holly Bowling: I think the first time we met, actually, was at a JRAD show at the Fox in Oakland. But that was just a brief hang. We connected more seriously at Luna Light Festival, which is probably what Tom is thinking of. We played at that festival during the Electron set and I think that was the first time we actually played together. But then over the course of the next year, we did a handful of gigs together. I would sit in with the American Babies, his old band, whenever we were on the same bill or in the same city on the same night. Every time we played together we just really had a blast. The thing I was most struck by, honestly, is that it’s hard to find people who, as improvisers, you can throw out one note or one hint of a left-turn that the thing could take and have them pick up on it instantly. Tom was one of those people that can throw out one little hint and his ears perk up and he’ll say something back, musically, in response. It was really cool for me to have a musical connection and dialogue with someone, pretty much instantly. That made me think, “Well if we get to spend a bunch of hours playing together and actually develop that shared musical language and start to read each other even more, that could turn into something pretty powerful.”

Tell me about the songwriting process and working in the studio?

TH: Leading up to the sessions, Raina [Mullen] and I have a small studio in our house. So the two of us basically locked ourselves in there and just worked. For about three months, all we would do, any time that we weren’t on the road, we would be in this room and we would just play. We would play in varying phases of like, “Hey, let’s get really stoned and play and see what happens,” or, we would drink a pot of coffee and just kinda play. Or, you know, we would eat a bunch of LSD and just kinda go. For me I’ve been doing this for longer than I’d like to admit, so my whole thing has always been, with anybody that I’m working with, whatever band I’m in, my thing’s always been about trying to do new things, and not to repeat myself. You know, my first band, Brothers Past, I don’t think anybody would ever say sounded like my next band American Babies. It was two very different things and to do that is really hard, to have two bands that don’t sound alike. And then now I’m working on my third, and it’s like, “Oh shit, I have to make sure that this also doesn’t sound like either of those two things, it needs to be a new direction for myself.”

HB: We’ve been spending a bunch of time in the studio in Philadelphia simultaneously working on an album and writing songs together and learning each other’s material and getting ready for tour, all kind of mashed up together. The first time that we played together as a band in the studio and really let things go out into uncharted territory it was awesome to feel like there was no — I don’t want to say there was no leader because everyone kind of takes turns on that, but the fact that anyone could at any moment take the thing in a different direction and everyone in the room was like listening for it. Everybody is equally present in the moment and really listening to each other and willing to go out on a limb with wherever someone else takes it. I’ve been really excited about the dynamic there.

TH: We would take time to just play, to just jam and maybe work on some covers, or you know, play some of the tunes from my back catalog or whatever just to get to know each other more in that fashion. And the other half of the time has been spent on fleshing out the songs. I came in with a handful of tunes, and Holly came in with a handful of tunes and Raina came in with a handful of tunes so we all had plenty of things to bring to the table…It’s been a great process and everybody has been involved. Regardless of who the songwriter is, everybody in the band has put their stamp on things.

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