Haunting Undertones of the Present with Reflective Overtones from the Past
The essence of old school sultry soul blended perfectly with a warm mix of edgy, definitive ‘90s hip-hop. Caught A Ghost has fashioned a distinctive musical genre with a performance presence that’s both haunting and charming.
By Bradley Weinholtz
Caught A Ghost reflects Jesse Nolan’s vision of creating a community of collective experiences. That spirit is reflected in the band’s lineup that includes Stephen Edelstein, Nolan’s schoolmate since kindergarten on drums, and acclaimed film and TV actress Tessa Thompson on vocals and percussion.
Jesse filled us in on the origins of the band’s name. “Caught A Ghost is a reference made by blues musicians to an outstanding performance. It’d be like ‘You Caught A Ghost; man it be like you’re possessed.’ " True to its name, the band, a true collective of souls is captivating audiences with their ethereal performances and evocative tunes.
As the songwriter, producer and lead singer, Jesse is informed by a deep affection for vintage soul, Delta blues, and ‘90s rap. His father, a musician obsessed by catching live performances and a Stax/Motown fanatic, exposed Jesse to a lot of great music at an early age. Jesse’s first live music experiences were seeing his dad’s band play, but he credits his musical awakening to a Hollywood Bowl show with Tom Petty. He was then further influenced ‘90s hip-hop.
Nolan has a lot of chops. On the Caught A Ghost debut album Human Nature due out April 1, Jesse plays all the instruments aside from the horn sections and some of the drums. The record evokes influences from the soul and rock n’ roll traditions (Stax, Motown, Sam Cooke, and the Rolling Stones) and yet still feels distinctly modern with references to hip-hop and electronica influences.
Jesse admits that he is an” imperfectionist,” crafting his work with a mad scientist approach to composition. Using an imprecise process akin to Jackson Pollock’s paintings he splashes sounds onto a symphonic canvas. His approach is to take something old and repurpose it, not by sampling, but by re-creating melodic phrases that arouse the musical muscle memory.
More than just music, Caught A Ghost engages its audience using a mix of media. Live shows aim for a communal spirit filled with high-energy movement and subtle repartee. The band regularly transforms from an intimate trio into a nine-piece super band replete with dancers, projected images, performance art, and audience participation. Videos have distinct storylines with expressive imagery and timing that leaves the viewer eagerly wanting more.
Caught A Ghost harnesses retro imagery with horns and modern beats on “Time Go.”
Caught A Ghost is on the launching pad for a spectacular 2014. Last year ended with a bang that included a national tour in November and December appearances in Chile with Rock the Vote. Capping this, Jesse and Tessa appeared on NBC’s late show Last Call with Carson Daly.
Jesse took a break from the busy band schedule to answer our questions.
The HUB: The name of band Caught A Ghost is a reference by blues musician’s for an outstanding unearthly possessed performance. Your music has some unique haunting melodic qualities. What came first, the band name or the style and direction of your sound?
Jesse Nolan: The music definitely came first. This first collection of Caught A Ghost songs began as sort of a complete musical self-reinvention. I was living in Danger Mouse's old house in Mt. Washington where he made the Grey Album and some of the Gnarls Barkley stuff before he was huge. The house is possessed with a pretty substantial mojo, where every musician who lived there has started to do really well. My friend Jordan is an amazing drummer—shortly after moving in he and his housemates were all hired by Ben Harper and became his new band. Maybe it was that house, or maybe just a need to explore something new, but when I started working there the music just started pouring out of me. That became Caught A Ghost.
The HUB: It is very apparent you are influenced by the Stax and Motown Records era. How do you incorporate that old school feel into and make them relevant for today’s audience?
Jesse Nolan: I am of course enamored, as are most people, of vintage soul music. Those singers grew up in a special time before American Idol and over-trained, overly flashy vocal stylings. A lot of singers grew up singing in church, and the passion is reflected in the music. I like to say that Caught A Ghost is secular gospel music, because that's the kind of joy I feel onstage. So I try to capture that spirit—the tapey drums, the warm organs, the emotional instead of virtuosic singing, but add a little more bass. I take a lot of cues from classic hip-hop. Tribe Called Quest, Notorious BIG, etc. I like my music to feel sampled. Also, I like it to reflect some of the contemporary production tricks people use. Side-chained pads, wonky percussion, grimy synths etc.
The HUB: Your songs all tell different compelling stories and have a variety of musical textures and rhythms. In regard to the songwriting process, do you start with the lyrics or the melody?
Jesse Nolan: I like both approaches. I've written a lot of lyrics in my life. It's easy to write lyrics when you don't have any instruments around. I was an English major at Berkeley so I was quite obsessed with William Blake, Vladimir Nabokov, Hemingway, etc. I became pretty obsessed with Dylan, The Beatles, the Stones, and Radiohead around that time as well. All of those writers have a deft touch and know how to make words count. I used to collect phrases and steal juicy bits of language wherever I could find them. I still do, I suppose, but less consciously, and with less urgency these days. I also like writing to track—so sometimes I will finish a track completely and then put the headphones on and just sing into the mic and see what happens.
The HUB: You describe yourself as an "imperfectionist." Do you have a strategy for resisting the temptation to over-think or over-polish your recordings?
Jesse Nolan: I guess what I mean is that I think things sound better slightly imperfect. I don't really like the way a lot of pop records sound these days. I appreciate when things are punchy and properly EQ'd, but I prefer warm, squishy, tapey drums and vocals instead of close-miked ringy drums and vocals right in your face. I do actually spend quite a lot of time in the mixing process to make sure things are right, but I do try to resist over-working. I think the old expression is true: records are never finished, they are abandoned. Or set free on the world at least…
The HUB: Since you play most of the instruments on your songs, do you follow a particular process such as laying down drum tracks first? Or does it vary from song to song?
Jesse Nolan: It varies from song to song. It's a bit like how you make a statue of an elephant: carve away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. There is no formula.
The HUB: You have some very inspiring tones in your music. What are your go-to instruments when you are producing your songs?
Jesse Nolan: Trade secrets. Ha. I mean, there are lots of organs, sharp guitars, drums, and horns on everything. Truly though, I think crafting a personality with your music has a lot to do with feel and how you play the instruments. I always end up trimming a lot, because I want each part to have its own voice, like they are having a conversation. And you can't hear if everyone is talking at the same time...
The HUB: Your song "Sleeping at Night" has a pretty complex arrangement with horns and what sounds like multiple keyboards. How do you handle the tune in live performances?
Jesse Nolan: Our keyboard player Brandon Smith is a wizard. He can play the bass and treble parts at the same time. Then sometimes we fill in the holes with samples or tracks, or loopers and harmony processors. Depends on the gig and the lineup.
“Sleeping at Night” was featured in the Season 3 premiere of TV’s Suits.
The HUB: How do you prepare for a tour and what is the process for finding musicians? Do you use to same members for every performance? Who are the core members?
Jesse Nolan: The main group consists of Stephen Edelstein on drums, Tessa Thompson on vocals and percussion, Brandon Smith on keys, Justin Bocchieri on bass, Tim McKay on baritone sax, Michael Czaja on tenor sax, and Erik Hughes on trombone. We just take whoever is available when we play. Sometimes it's all eight, sometimes as few as four or five. The whole idea from the get-go was that the group could be sized up and down. There are advantages to large and small groups. With a large band, the sound is very full. With a small band, everyone's energy counts more, so sometimes it feels tighter and leaner.
The HUB: We gather you create most your own videos. How do you gauge your performance when you're in front of instead of behind the camera?
Jesse Nolan: I try to just perform honestly when I'm in front of a camera. If I'm editing afterwards, I just try to choose the best takes. I collaborate with Tessa a lot on the videos. Either she is shooting or helping in the edit, so I trust her instincts. Sometimes my manager Daniel will edit a video here and there too, and that helps. I'm all about working with talented people and letting them do their job.
The HUB: Your Band is headquartered in the Los Angeles area which is a mecca for music and performance art. Do you feel that living here has been a major influence in your music and videos? Would you encourage artists from other parts of the country to live in Los Angeles?
Jesse Nolan: I love Los Angeles. I grew up here, so I know how unique and beautiful each neighborhood can be. It's certainly inspiring to be around so many talented artists all the time. LA gets a bad rap because the BS is really loud here. It's the city of broken dreams. A lot of people move here to pursue their career and end up getting swept up by the materialism and emptiness, without doing anything worthwhile. It can be a tricky place to move to without a support system. But if you can make LA work for you, it's amazing.
The HUB: Wearing a suit seems to be a key element of your stage presence. Do you think that helped land "Sleeping at Night" on the soundtrack for TV's Suits?
Jesse Nolan: I'm not exactly sure why that happened. Ha. There are a few music supervisors who have been very cool to us. We are thankful for the exposure, certainly.
The HUB: You have had some significant exposure as a band and a recent appearance on the Last Call with Carson Daly show. What are the plans for 2014?
Jesse Nolan: We are still a pretty new band so Carson was our first TV appearance. Our first album drops April 1, (no fooling). So things will be busy in the months leading up to that. I'm excited to do some more traveling. We just did our first national tour in November and went to Chile in December with Rock the Vote, which was an amazing experience. I want to take this music all over the world.
Scaled down to a trio, the band performs “No Sugar in My Coffee” live.
The Gear List
A design preamps
Blue Bird mic
Earthworks drum mic kit
D12 kick mic
sm 57s and 58s
Epiphone Sheraton with Fralin pickups
Dean 6 String Banjo
Aircraft custom amplifier
Zvex Box of Rock distortion pedal
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