A Chat with Happy Ghosts (28.06.2020)

Andrew Muecke is the multi-instrumentalist behind Happy Ghosts. Since its inception in 2004, Happy Ghosts has traversed a wide musical ground with their releases Divergent Theories and Something Beautiful. Their latest album Voices From The Net is a unique piece of work with a distinct flavour. We sat down with Andrew Muecke (AM) to talk about the album, his music and much more!

OSR: You have come up with an interesting concept to marry music to vocals already available, how did the idea come about?

AM: Since the beginning of the Happy Ghosts, I have written and recorded the music. Early on, the vocals were a blend of voice-overs from old television shows combined with spoken word from my Happy Ghosts co-founder, graphic artist Ashley Starkey. Later, gifted Opera singer Carrie Barr lent her considerable vocal talents to the tracks.

With this new album, I had written seven new songs which I would like to have given to Carrie but she was unavailable. It made me wonder about whether I might be able to find some vocals on the internet that could work with those songs. I went to the site where we accessed the old television shows and I was able to find a very small selection of female acapella vocals with the right “creative commons” licensing i.e. I could use it without getting into trouble!

I was able to find a way to get the vocals which had been recorded for other means to actually blend in with the music that I had already recorded. I thought that it might turn out to be a nightmare but in fact, somehow it worked so effortlessly that it just felt like it was meant to be.

OSR: The idea is already unique, but what else is unique about your music?

AM: As a youngster, I was always taken by music that could be described as outside of the square. That didn’t mean that it had to be arty or avant-garde, it just had to be something original that I had not heard before. One of the things I find unfortunate is that the music that gets the most airtime is a little like homogenised milk, essentially it all tastes the same.

Having said that, you can either grumble or just get on with it! As soon as I took up music, I knew that I had to honour my beliefs and strive to be as original as I could be. I absolutely appreciate that we are an amalgam of our influences but I have done the very best I can to let the music itself guide me rather than to try and emulate someone else.

When you do that, you learn pretty quickly that there are going to be plenty of people who are not going to be interested in your work. You have to learn that it is ok.

OSR: Is there a theme to Voices from the Net or is it all random?

AM: I really like the idea of a theme to an album. The Happy Ghosts album Reverence for Life from 2012 was completely based around the philosophy of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. The 2018 album Divergent Theories was based around theology versus science.

With this album, it is both random and themed. In my internet travels, I only found 11 individual vocals pieces that I could use. This meant that I was limited in terms of trying to steer it towards any particular theme as I was going to be bound by the words and intent that these vocalists had written and recorded.

I soon realised that didn’t actually matter as this album had already created its own theme. That being, “here are songs created using voices found across the far recesses of the internet”, or in other words “Voices from the Net”.

OSR: Which instruments do you play and which is your favourite?

AM: I have always been a bass guitarist so without question that is my favourite instrument. When I first picked up the bass guitar it just felt right and I was happy to move on from my very fledgeling career as a guitarist.

An important aspect of my music came at that very same time. I realised that my singing voice was very poor and unworthy of investing time in. Now, the bass guitar can become a relatively benign instrument if you let it. You can take the choice of simply laying down the root notes for the song at hand and effectively that is your job done. I realised that I was going to have to do a lot more than that to keep me happy and I have taken the approach of making the bass provide the melody to the songs that I write. I wanted to be the very best bass player I could be and not be stuck in the background.

There is also a lot of guitar and keyboards that I use on Happy Ghosts recordings. I feel adequate enough on those instruments to the point whereby I can actually compose songs on them. The really great thing about that is that being able to write using the bass guitar, the electric guitar and keyboards/synthesisers means that you can generate a whole lot of diversity in the songs that you create.

One of the points of difference for Happy Ghosts compared to similar acts in the indie-electronic-alternative-pop genre, I believe, is that the music is actually played. What I mean is that the songs are not constructed using a programmable synthesiser; the bass, guitar and keyboards are actually played when they are recorded. I think that this lends a certain “human warmth” to the overall sound.

OSR: What is your biggest musical challenge?

AM: I have tried to stay true to my vision of being as original as I can be. They are easy words to say but not necessarily an easy thing to achieve. With the Happy Ghosts, there are now over 120 songs in the repertoire so trying to maintain originality is certainly a challenge. A review of the 2018 album Divergent Theories stated that the band had ‘….one of the most original back catalogues in Aussie music’. I can’t tell you how proud that made me. It captured everything I wanted to be in a few short words. The concept of fame and money and the like is all good, but when someone you have never met publishes words like that about something you have done, I am not sure if it gets any better than that.

OSR: Where was Voices from the Net recorded and produced?

AM: The whole album was completed in my home environment. In essence, this one is just me. I have a computer-based (Pro-Tools) recording setup with a whole range of instruments at my disposal. I have never been shy on using a recording studio but these days, I tend to use it as the final piece of the puzzle, finessing the final sound and ensuring a synergy of volume and consistency through the tracks.

However, because I was using vocals that had already been recorded for this album and because I was ‘constructing’ the vocal and musical jigsaw as I progressed, I felt like it got to the place it needed to be without having to enter the recording studio.

Andrew Muecke

OSR: Where have you performed and what is your favourite venue?

AM: Happy Ghosts began as a ‘happy’ accident. I had written the soundtrack to a documentary that Ashley was completing. He was using some old archive footage that he inadvertently left the audio on, it was when we heard this soundtrack/voice-over dynamic, that we knew that the Happy Ghosts had begun!

It was this early work with Ashley where the focus was on blending music with the visual graphics for not just video clips to songs but also to create ‘art’ films. The reason I say this is because we got so focussed that we forgot to look at playing live and the Happy Ghosts are still yet to play live all these years later. There is a little bit more to it than that but I can say that 2020 is the year that live performance is to begin. In fact, that was to be July, but with what has been going on in the world, it will hopefully be a little bit later in the year.

I am involved in a few musical projects so I have been able to get my live fix through those outlets. I have played many gigs and if I can get a good sound on stage, I am very happy no matter how big or small the venue. If pushed to nominate the best, I have been lucky enough to play a few open-air gigs on the beach at twilight on a balmy summer night, pure joy!

OSR: Have you ever had to deal with performance anxiety? If so, how do you handle it?

AM: I think that I get the standard butterflies that most people can relate to when they are needing to perform, whether that be sport, work or music. One of the things that has been important to me is that as a bass player, it is your job to lock in with the drummer to establish that rock-solid foundation. If you can do that, you are more than halfway there to delivering a really good live experience for the audience but also to the other players in the band that add the musical colours like guitars, keyboard and vocals. Once the performance starts and I start trying to lock the groove in with the drummer, I am all good!

OSR: On a scale of 4 to 2358, how much fun did you have recording this album?

AM: Easily 2357! Once I realised that this was going to work I got very excited. This came when I began working on the first track, which is called ‘You Hang On’. I grabbed the vocal and placed it within the track which was a hefty 6:10 duration. When I started to cut and splice the vocals to fit in within the song, the syncopation between voice and music seemed perfect. By doing the cutting and splicing I was effectively making redundant the need to have both music and vocals operating at the same beats-per-minute. When I started on the track ‘Your Love’ which has the most traditional arrangement on the album and I was able to make an effective chorus using the vocals sung by Desiree Midkiff, I knew that the musical gods were looking after me. Amazingly, that continued through the other songs too.

To complete the album that I wanted, I needed to compose three new musical tracks to accompany the three vocal takes that I had. That was sort of the opposite approach but equally enjoyable. The vocal performance had already been delivered as such, so I then had to construct a song to meet that performance.

There is a fair degree of fine-tuning but I can guarantee that there is no auto-tune or anything of that nature on the vocals. On one of the tracks, I used massive reverb on the vocals but other than that, they are pure. On my website, I do link to the various spots that I found the vocal performances, so those that are interested can actually hear the original vocal recordings.

I have never before recorded an album which there is a different vocalist on each track. I am very proud of this album.

OSR: What is the one thing you would like people to take from your music?

AM: I would like to answer this question by borrowing a statement that a friend of mine shared with me when we were having a talk about music many years ago. When I said that there are very few albums where I love every song, they said that they believed that it was because those are the artists that explore and push boundaries and that is why we love them. They provide us with music of all different sorts and sizes, some which we may not necessarily like, blended with tracks that blow our hearts wide open and help shape our lives.

I don’t pretend to suggest that I have achieved that myself but that is what I have aspired to. I try and write the most original music that I can. Always.

Thanks to Andrew Muecke for chatting with us! You can find more about Happy Ghosts on his website, Facebook and Spotify.

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