Cool Ghouls, a band fledged in San Francisco on house shows, minimum wage jobs, BBQ’s in Golden Gate Park and the romance of a city’s psychedelic history turns 10 this year. What better a decennial celebration than the release of their fourth album, At George’s Zoo.
The journey so far: the teenage friendship of complimentary spirits Pat McDonald (Guitar/Vox) and Pat Thomas (Bass/Vox) serves as square one. The Patricks were munching on Eggo-waffle-sandwiches and downing warm Taaka in suburban Benicia years before McDonald would hear George Clinton address his fans as “Cool Ghouls”. The boys played their debut gig as Cool Ghouls at San Francisco’s legendary The Stud in 2011, but there’s no doubt the musical moment cementing the band’s trajectory was much earlier at the 18th birthday party for boy-wonder Ryan Wong (Guitar/Vox) – at the Wong household. In their earliest days you might remember McDonald’s hair hung luxuriously past his waist, Thomas dreamt of no longer having to crash on friends’ couches to call SF home and Wong looked forward to turning 21. Cool Ghouls’ Pete Best, Cody Voorhees, thrashed wildly – but briefly – on the drums and Alex Fleshman (Drums), who still claims he’s not really “a drummer”, turned out to be a really good drummer. Thomas would sleep pee on tour. Those were golden days! Flash forward to today and everything is up in flames. No shows, parties or bars. Cool people are streaming out of SF. It’s been two years since the last time Cool Ghouls have even played. The STUD is gone, The Eagle Tavern is for sale and The Hemlock has been demolished for condos. Your boss is an app. Fascism is no-knocking down the door. There’s a pandemic.
Fortunately, they got an album in before it all went to shit, and they made it count. At George’s Zoo includes 15 of the 27 tunes they managed to eke out while simultaneously working through major life moves. It was a five month, all out, final sprint down the homestretch (to Ryan’s moving day) with affable engineer Robby Joseph, at his makeshift garage studio in the Outer Sunset (pictured on the cover). Instead of recording the entire album over a few consecutive days – like they’d done with Tim Cohen, Sonny Smith and Kelley Stoltz for the first three LPs – the band took it slow by working through a few songs each weekend after rehearsing them the week before. Robby would cue up the tape, McDonald would throw some steaks on the grill and they’d get to work – much to the neighbour, George’s, chagrin. They have a real commitment to being songwriters, musicians and ensemble players.
Opening with ‘It’s Over’s Eastern bells fans will note an instantly different sound, dripped in 70s nostalgia and those halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury. ‘Bound’ continues in this way, channelling some Beach Boys esq. harmonies whilst maintaining a raw, garage rock edge with plenty of tambourine thrown in for good measure. ‘Smoke and Fire’ could be mistaken for a Jefferson Airplane track, such is the depth and quality of sound they have created. They have perfected the art of taking the traditional elements of psychedelia and garage rock and created something timeless. ‘Flying’ changes track somewhat with a hazy summer, beach surf sound that creates more than enough imagery to make you want to get your sunglasses out and ‘Land Song’ continues this laid-back approach by adding more than just a hint of ballad. ‘In Michoacan’ takes a pounding beat, a guitar hook and some sweet vocal harmonies to set feet moving and ‘How Free’ slows things once more; the rapidly changing tempo leaving you feeling like you are on a roller-coaster, not sure what will happen next.
‘Helpless Circumstance’ is poignantly named for the times we are experiencing and is another track which blends styles to create something mesmerising. It’s the type of track you would see in a film when they are driving across American in an open top, music blaring. ‘The Way I Made You Cry’ features added trumpet, and ‘26th St Blues’ takes influence from the great rhythm and blues artists which put the American scene on the global map, setting hips a shaking – this is no different. ‘Surfboard’ wears its influences on its sleeve, not that there is anything wrong with that of course. ‘I Was Wrong’ offers up a Carpenters esq interlude before ‘I Wanna Get High’ places them firmly in the California coast psych band arena. ‘In My Car’ and ‘Living Grateful’ draw things calmly to a close, with the latter hinting at country influences, just for good measure.
Some may not have heard of Cool Ghouls, but the tracks on At George’s Zoo have helped cement their place in psychedelia’s halls of fame, seamlessly blending old and new to create a timeless sound that lingers long after the record finishes.