Allyson Baker first stumbled out onto music street as a teen Dwarves fanatic in Toronto who soon wailed guitar in one of the most underappreciated speed-punk goon squads of the early 2000s, Teen Crud Combo. Somewhere at decade’s end she met up with Ian Bavitz (aka Aesop Rock), were wed, ended up in the Bay Area, all of which led to Dirty Ghosts, wherein Mz. Baker took her gutter riff inclinations on a clanky synth ride. Eventually for live shows, Baker added the ace guitarist Erin McDermott (AC/DShe, Deadly Weapons, Top Ten) to play bass, when she’s not running her record label and guitar shop.
Dirty Ghosts cobbled a couple albums of fine electro-frizz pop and toured a bunch, while Baker also worked with !!! and Kelley Stoltz. But the Dirty Ghosts have recently settled on a solid drummer, Tony Sevener, and with a new EP, Cataract (Burger), out today and an LP, Let It Pretend (Last Gang), out this fall, the focus of all involved seems squarely on Dirty Ghosts.
Allyson, you say in the press release, “Any time a punk band starts experimenting, that’s the era of the band that I love.” So, which one of the early Dwarves records is when they started to experiment?
Allyson Baker: Toolin’ For A Warm Teabag for sure! You know I’ve always wondered what caused the shift in the Dwarves from the paisley era to the aggressive punk stuff, ’cause it was so drastic. I’ve known Blag (Jesus, Dwarves leader) a long time and have always wanted to know but never asked, so I finally did about a month ago. He told me when the band moved from Illinois to San Francisco in the mid-80’s they would play their 60’s Nuggets set, Farfisa and all, and people would just stand there which frustrated the band and made Blag re-evaluate. So he said the real turning point was around then, he discovered the Misfits Evilive and had what Oprah would call a serious “a-ha moment!” So he merged that later Misfits sound, where everything was double-time, with the 60’s stuff and that birthed that in-between sound before they were in full punk Blood, Guts & Pussy mode. I find that era of the band to be incredibly satisfying. Don’t get me started on the Dwarves though, I could go on and on.
Ditto! So when did the more angular, choppy, dark kind of sounds start to interest you?
AB: It kind of crept in. I’ve always been a guitar player who’s relied on riffs and chords and filling up all the space. So somewhere along the way I wound up getting really into James Brown and I started dissecting what I was hearing. The idea of music based on the beat, with the guitar and bass working around each other yet together in a really minimal and non-linear way. The first album had more of that type of influence, and definitely my surroundings played a role in that—living with a rapper who was producing his own music in the next room. And once that changed, and Dirty Ghosts became more of a live band and less of a weird insular studio project, the presence of the guitar felt more necessary again. So it was just the natural progression, which just got darker as time went on.
How did Erin start to play with you in Dirty Ghosts?
AB: Right before the first album was about to come out, Carson Binks, who was the bass player and large part of the first album, got an offer to join the Saviours that he couldn’t turn down. I had just booked our first shows, which were at SXSW, when Carson told me he was out. Erin was in the next room when he called to tell me, and I remember I walked into the room after that long phone call and said, “Carson just quit.” Erin immediately went into full BFF mode, looked at me with a jumbo smile on her face and said “Dude, I’ll just play the bass.” And that was that.
Being a nice Canadian, are Americans just too much of a pain in the ass to deal with in bands?
AB: I’m sure there’s some Americans that would probably say I’m a pain to deal with. But hey, I’m the first one to say sorry when someone accidentally bumps into me or spills a drink on my leg. I do think it was more the circumstances. Since the live band came together after the first album was made, Erin and I scrambled to get a touring band together asap, but none of the drummers that we found were able to tour. And since we needed someone to play all this material that was already written—mostly on drum machines by a guitar player—it probably wasn’t the most attractive offer.
Erin, is there a guitar or pedal you hadn’t used before working in Dirty Ghosts? And are you still running the guitar shop?
Erin McDermott: No, I had used every guitar and pedal in the business before I joined the band. Joking! I’ve been a guitar player most of my life, so I had only had limited experience with playing different basses previous to joining Dirty Ghosts. Way back in the day I played a Rickenbacker 4001 in Deadly Weapons; and I never thought I would end up playing a classic P Bass as I thought that would be BORING. But for the last year or two I’ve been playing a solid early ’80s Fender Precision, and I love it! Coincidentally I bought it from our booking agent’s father as inventory for my guitar shop, but I loved it and just kept it to play in the band…. I’ve been going strong with my guitar shop which has been fun, challenging, educational and a great experience as I run the business with my Dad. Sell me your guitars and gear please!
What else have you been working on of late? Still have Classic Bar Music going? And whatever happened to Top Ten?
EM: My main gig musically these days is bass playing and vocal backups in Dirty Ghosts, although I do really miss playing guitar in bands. I sat in on a song at a gig last night which really reminded me of that! I do love playing the bass lines in Dirty Ghosts though, as they are often more complicated than what I had previously been exposed to. The last record I put out on Classic Bar Music was the most recent Dirty Ghosts 7-inch. I’d like to be more active with the label, but have been pretty preoccupied with McDermott Guitars and the band to organize another release, although I hope to again sometime soon! I launched a new website with a blog feature which I plan on firing up one of these days. “Classic Bar Music” the DJ night still occurs on an irregular basis around San Francisco, sometimes in Palm Springs, sometimes Nashville! Top Ten has been in hibernation, but we all love playing in that band. So if the right gig pops up, and we can all do it, we’ll do it, because we are a party band! I miss playing on the regular with the legendary Tina Lucchesi, top band mate and friend.
How did Tony Sevener came into the band? Was there a moment when you knew he was the man for the job?
AB: We had come off a second tour and our third drummer had just peaced out due to touring against his strong gut instinct telling him otherwise. The next morning he called me and was like, “Sorry, I can’t do this.” At that point I should have just set up an answering service that had prompts: “Please press 1 if you’d like to remain in the band, press 2 to quit.” We had a Noise Pop show coming up, so Jason Carmer (co-producer of the first album) who I was in the studio with prematurely starting our second album (that was scrapped) suggested Tony. Tony popped by the studio the next day and we started gabbing about this and that, bands we like. So he said what are you going for on this next one? And I think I said something like, “I dunno, Devo meets early Duran Duran?” His face lit up. Tony joined the band on a very tentative basis, which over the course of that year snowballed into re-writing the second album together. I had no idea his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter when we met, which was far more advanced than anything I had ever been involved with. So Tony coming into the band really changed things in the best possible way.
Is it me guessing, or are lots of the lyrics on Let It Pretend about the breakup with Aesop? But you guys are still friends, right?
AB: We’re cool, it was a pretty amicable ending. But still, going through a dissolution of marriage even in the most cordial way still leaves you asking yourself a lot of questions. Wondering what went wrong, how did I get here, why did I do this, why did do I that? A lot of analyzing and trying to piece together what those six years of marriage were that started in one place and ended in another. The other half of it was this weird world I was thrown into where I was on my own for the first time in about eight years, and that was a trip. I was pretty reclusive and antisocial during my marriage, so when I was on my own I think I tried to make up for lost time. I decided to succumb to the fact that I had no control over the direction my life at that time, so I just threw myself into it, not caring about what was going to happen to me. It was a weird time. Feeling lost but not searching for any direction. All the lyrics were conceived during that three-year period.
You guys are based in SF, right? Who are some good regional bands you play with?
AB: We played with Flesh World a few weeks ago, they were so great. Swiftumz, Kelley Stoltz, who I’ve been playing guitar with on the side, Danny James, I really like Cold Beat, Useless Eaters are really awesome. I really like Bellavista who don’t play that often, so I haven’t seen them yet. I don’t know, there’re so many good bands here there’re almost too many to name. Once and Future Band though are probably the best band in town, in my opinion.
EM: I’d say Maniac, Mammatus, Lecherous Gaze, Slick, Life Coach, Andy Human and Sonny And The Sunsets.
We hear a lot about the whole Thee Oh Sees / Castle Face Records scene out there. Do you guys weave around that scene at all?
AB: Not really. They’re all pals and have been for a long time, but the band has always existed outside of that. This time around getting involved with Burger has pulled us more into something we’ve never been a part of, so that’s been a nice thing.
Allyson, do you ever think about moving back to the Great White North?
AB: I think about it, usually when I’m reclined in the sun on a beautiful day in California. “Ya know, I think I could see myself moving back to Toronto.” Then a month later I’m rolling my suitcase out of the YYZ baggage claim with an inappropriately lightweight jacket in the middle of February, greeted by massive gust of -40 windchill air, when my parents roll up in their oversized car caked in snow in their jumbo winter jackets with giant furry hoods, and roll down the window and go, “Hi Al!!” That’s the moment when I think there’s no way I could do it.
What are the immediate plans for the band?
AB: Playing on the west coast throughout the summer and a full U.S. tour, including CMJ, in October when the album comes out. In November, we’re going to go to Europe for the first time, opening for Kelley Stoltz, so that’ll be a big treat. It’s been a long road getting here, a lot of starts and stops, so we’re just excited to be back with new material and get out there and play.
EM: Snacking and gossiping hard, starting immediately after we finish this interview!
AB: That too.
Tour Dates for Dirty Ghosts:
07/26 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
08/27 – San Francisco, CA – Eagle Tavern w/ Lecherous Gaze