[Cover photo credit to Estefania Krol/KRÖLHAUS]
Good Bison, an Indie Rock band fronted by LA-based Pablo Alvarez, will be delivering a new EP on February 23rd, 2023, along with a Goosebumps-inspired short story that forms part of the concept album. Ghost on Mulholland follows the 2021 EP Scattered Storms, and sees Alvarez teaming up with longtime friend Abraham Mendez (Abes) for writing, with George Spits handling additional Production, mixing and mastering. Agustin Mas also joins them on lead guitar.
Taking a new approach of songwriting by simply getting into a room together, with no preconceived notions, led to the EP’s first couple of tracks, but surprises began to emerge, maybe even a mystery to pursue. There was a ghostly sense pervading the story that was taking shape, the idea of evading something that continues to follow you home. Eventually the idea of Ghost on Mulholland became cohesive and pervasive and in terms of instrumentation and recording, Alvarez and Abes pursued a more layered approach than they ever had in the past, searching for just the right sounds to evoke the mood.
For Alvarez, the songs on the EP are both literal and metaphorical, based on a real-life sense of coming to terms with processing heavy experiences, but metaphorically, we all have our ghosts and this EP knows how to commune with them. I spoke with Pablo Alvarez about the journey the EP represents and how he and his collaborators captured the feeling of jamming with a polished collection of songs.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I noticed that live performance is important to you and I think you tried to capture that in your recording style for this EP, too, didn’t you?
Pablo Alvarez: Early on, since we were just playing the songs in a room with the two of us, we made a decision that we wanted to lean into that sound in recording and make sure that it maintained that organic feeling. Pretty much all of the instruments on the record involved a musician who we worked with. What was exciting about that is it involved so many people who I’ve worked with in the past and musicians who I grew up with. They are close to me personally, but I also admire them professionally. We were able to capture that feel of being in a room jamming with my friends.
HMS: This is a very layered EP, and each track seems like it received a lot of attention. This is not at all a pared-down effort.
PA: I’ve never gone through so many versions of songs when working on a project. That’s difficult for me, in a way, since I get really attached to how something sounds. Since it was originally written with me on the guitar and Abes maybe at the piano, I got attached to that initial idea. But we recorded different versions of these songs with different instrumentation, different vocals. I rewrote lyrics.
We workshopped these songs extensively, but they are still the same songs. I’m a firm believer that a good song can be played in any format and shouldn’t depend on Production. Building from that, we have a final product that comes from having unlocked everything that we were trying to communicate in that first version. I’ve just never gone that far before.
HMS: How did you choose between myriad versions for the final songs?
PA: It was like a continuous build, and it all felt like we were building on previous iterations. Even before I did, Abes had a really clear sonic vision for where we were going, and I trusted him fully. I let him drive the unfolding of Production. It wasn’t so much choosing between versions, because in the beginning me and Abes were playing all the instruments, but we’d like a part and then have someone else play it instead. The songs became much more rounded out with other musicians.
HMS: It sounds almost like when someone is editing a manuscript for a novel, where you keep moving it forward as you make changes until all the notes are done and everything matches.
PA: That’s interesting that you put it that way because we figured out what the arc of the project was and the narrative feel of it before we even had the songs fleshed out. It always felt like we were working in service of that journey. The songs themselves are very influenced by each other.
HMS: I was going to ask at what stage in all this you started to see the shape of this story. Mood and vibe are so important to this concept. Was it before you even went to stay with Abes?
PA: We actually had no intent going into it, which was the beauty of saying, “Let’s get in a room together and see what comes out.” There wasn’t thematic or sonic direction at the beginning and the initial sessions were kind of tough because it can be hard to force that spark. When you’re jamming for fun, it comes so naturally because there’s no pressure or agenda. But when it’s mixed with writing a song, you have to be comfortable with messing up and comfortable with each other. It’s funny because we actually wrote all the songs in the order that they are on the EP.
“10 Mins Away” was kind of challenging, but after that, we started working on “Better Lies” and right around then, the EP really started taking shape. From then onward, we realized that “Better Lies” was a continuation of “10 Mins Away” and was feeding off of it. At that point, we decided to make it a journey. We wanted each song to then feed into each other like Dark Side of the Moon. There are versions of the EP where we do that, though we abandoned that later. But the continuous feel of the project and the narrative remained.
HMS: I heard that you were writing bits of music that would link the songs at one point, because “Can’t Waste This High” started as an interlude piece, right?
PA: Yes. Originally all of the songs had bridges between them. “Can’t Waste This High” was a shorter interlude between two sections of the EP, but we ended up fleshing it out. In the narrative that corresponds with the songs, we realized that was a pretty significant moment in the story. We worked with George Spits, who I also worked with on the last record, and he was the one who really fleshed it out. We sent it to him as a one and a half minute interlude and he dismantled it and rebuilt it from the ground up into what it is now. It’s more of a roller-coaster and a journey in and of itself rather than a section of the journey.
HMS: Some of the ways of working that you’re describing are more typical of Electronic artists who I’ve spoken to, but the actual instrumentation and the songs are built in a more analog way. This is a kind of hybrid way of thinking about composition.
PA: I think part of that is definitely due to both of our musical trajectories. Abes actually Produces a lot of Electronic music. He’s an incredible Producer and a talented multi-instrumentalist whose background is in Jazz. He went to Berklee and through his time playing in bands and orchestras, he was also developing his own sound which was more Electronic.
I came into music primarily as a lyricist and a writer, and developed my vocals in that way, but it also got to a point where it felt like I was struggling to say anything interesting with my words, so I started gravitating more towards finding ways to communicate with music. “Can’t Waste This High” is one of the best examples of that because it has some of the least amount of lyrics of any songs I have ever put out. In the past, I would have felt self-conscious about it or felt like it was not something I even could do because I’m a lyricist.
If I’m not saying things in a song, what am I even contributing? The shift in my perspective, musically, started happening a few projects ago, but especially with this one, I felt like we were saying more with the music than with the words. The words are complementing what is already being communicated more with the music. I do think it’s almost Electronic or Hip-Hop with Production in the way that we’ve approached it, but it’s also about wanting to have a band sound and capture that feeling of jamming in a room.
HMS: It really says a lot about the perspective character and their situation to start off the story with “10 Mins Away.” It works really well.
PA: It’s very literal. When I was writing it, I was inspired by something that actually happened to me. I was driving to a party that was a couple of hours away only to be there for 30 minutes to an hour. I was speeding on the highway, and I got pulled over on the way there. So it was very literal that I was running late and I’m always running late.
Then, as the rest of the EP took shape, that feeling became less literal and more symbolic of feeling like you are not where you need to be. Being still seven exits away actually comes back in the last song, and it feels like such a cathartic moment. It’s funny for me to think about since I didn’t write it as a metaphor in the first song, but by the time I brought it back in “Come On Home” I was aware of it, and it felt real to me.
HMS: It’s almost like that feeling gets even stronger by the end through becoming a metaphor.
PA: “10 Mins Away” is about forcing yourself to go out and the reason that you don’t want to is just a fear of putting yourself out there, so that “stay home” section of the song flips the lyrics. Personally, I have very conflicting feelings about going out, because I feel like I just want to stay home, but once I’m home, I’m wondering, “Why isn’t anyone calling me? Why is no one coming over?” [Laughs]
HMS: That line “At least I can say that I came” is great. A lot of people can relate to that, especially right now. After the pandemic, there are lots of articles online about how people are having a hard time becoming more sociable again.
PA: It was unintentional, but subconsciously, it was a big thing for me to process not only the pandemic, but a difficult time in my life. I was lucky that my day-to-day didn’t change much during the pandemic, but over the course of two years, I didn’t realize that I was regressing to a place I had been in years ago and had worked really hard to get out of. I was unaware during the pandemic that I was regressing in that way, feeling unmotivated and not very inspired creatively. I’m always very hard on myself and it took me a long time to say, “Even though I didn’t lose my job or family members, I think everyone has been heavily affected by what happened.” We’re all still just coming out of it.
I forced myself to do a bunch of things this year that I didn’t want to do, and in doing them, I realized, “I like these things. They are important to me.” Live music is something that is literally medicine and therapeutic for me. I not only organize my own shows, but I go to live shows, so not doing any of that for over two years was something I had to come out of. This record is not about that time period on a global scale, but coincidentally I went through a dark place at a time when probably a lot of people were.
HMS: How does the song “Haunting” and the idea of a ghost relate to all of this?
PA: We’ve been talking about the idea of processing things and that can be a kind of haunting, and I think that’s part of this whole record. But I tend to be very literal when I write, and I don’t necessarily think in terms of symbols. So this is about a very literal ghost. It wasn’t until the EP was finished and I fleshed out the narrative that I thought of the ghost as more of a metaphor.
The idea of it was a life-long haunting, and a ghost that has followed you around your entire life because you’ve given them so much weight in your life. It now has the ability to set you back. It’s about learning how to deal with that ghost. It’s not about exorcising the ghost and getting rid of it, it’s about welcoming the ghost into your home and your life.
HMS: That’s spooky because it brings new meaning to the idea “Come On Home” at the end of the album. I hadn’t really thought about who’s coming home in that song, since it could be the person, but also everything they’ve been dealing with, too.
PA: It ends with an invitation to the ghost to stick around. I think the idea there is that welcoming the ghost instead of pushing it away is going to lead to a more harmonious life.
HMS: That song is the most upbeat sounding on the album, musically. A lot of the album is pretty energetic even when dealing with ambiguous themes, but that song is the most. It almost sounds like choirs of angels chiming in and it’s very soulful. There’s hopefulness there. Does that go in with accepting the ghost?
PS: Definitely. All the other songs are either trying to run away from the ghost, or avoiding the ghost, or questioning the ghost. “I’m Tired of Waiting, Come on Home” is just about exhaustion. There’s nowhere else to run. You just have to sit with your shit and deal with it, but that’s not a bad thing.
HMS: Again, that’s very relatable to the time. A lot of people found there was no way to distract themselves from themselves in recent years. It led to more introspection and questioning one’s choices. In the modern world, that’s kind of unheard of. We all go so fast all the time.
PS: We don’t take that moment to stop and to process. I think the second half of “Come On Home” is like that. When the song starts, it’s very up and the harmonies are like a wall of sound hitting you in the face. It’s this very cathartic moment of realization and release of energy, but it ends up exhausted, which is the second half of that song. It comes down so much to that part “I can’t catch my breath.” At that point, the person is saying, “I’ll tell you what is actually going on with me. I’ll be super-real. I’m not okay.”
HMS: Sometimes that is what it takes to get to the point of admitting things to yourself or speaking openly about it.
PA: That’s the journey, right? You have to go through “10 Mins Away”, “Better Lies”, “Can’t Waste This High”, and “Haunting”, in order to just be okay with talking about these things.