TIN MAN is the sixth full album from the band Ghost of the Robot. Released on June 28, TIN MAN is currently available on BandCamp.com – the individual songs can be played three times each for free before the paywall kicks in – and will later come out on Spotify and iTunes.
Ghost of the Robot in its current configuration is vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Marsters and bassist Kevin McPherson, two of the band’s founders from 2002 onward, and lead guitarist/singer Sullivan Marsters, James’s now twenty-six-year-old son who joined Ghost in 2011 at age fourteen.
In celebration of TIN MAN’s release, Ghost of the Robot is playing a gig at The Mint in Los Angeles on Monday, July 24.
Besides being Ghost of the Robot’s frontman, James Marsters is an actor, known for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. His recent projects include the new series CASA GRANDE, available on Amazon Freevee, and the upcoming animated feature ABRUPTIO.
Prior to both TIN MAN’s completion and the SAG-AFTRA strike, Marsters gets on the phone to discuss the new album.
ASSIGNMENT X: Why a new Ghost of the Robot album now, and not before or later?
JAMES MARSTERS: Scheduling, more than anything else. Kevin has now got two kids, and they’re very, very young. And Sullivan is kicking butt in law school in Texas, and that of course has a profound effect on what kind of time we have.
And as an actor, I never know what my schedule is going to be, because one audition can just throw everything up in the air. There would be many times when we would decide on a date, and one of the three of us would have to call it off.
AX: So, it wasn’t lack of new material?
MARSTERS: Oh, God, no [laughs]. We have lots of material. In fact, we probably have two more albums’ [worth].
AX: How would you describe the evolution of Ghost of the Robot’s sound?
MARSTERS: We started as a respectable pop-rock band, in that we were really being inspired by Ben Folds Five, Weezer, so that, back when we started, back in the Aughties, it would have been radio-friendly, but when a musician listened to it, they would always go, “Wow, your chords are kind of complicated. The structure is actually pretty cool.”
We’re still kind of in that vein, but I’ve been writing more blues-driven rock recently. So, I would say pop-blues as well. Kevin is starting to write songs. He wrote the music for “Is Shoes,” [on the Ghost album MURPHY’S LAW, 2011]. It’s a really well-constructed popular song, almost – it’s not Burt Bacharach, but it’s just very sophisticated, good, popular music. He’s got “San Francisco” on this album.
Sullivan tends toward more complex chords. He studied jazz. I don’t know that he would want his stuff to be called jazz-pop, but I hear an influence of jazz in his chord progressions. And so, all three of us wrote songs on this new album.
As far as production, we had a really raw debut album. MAD BRILLIANT  was just a couple of days in the studio. We loaded up fast, and we got a good, energetic, cohesive dirty rock album. I think that rock can use a little dirt. My favorite Rolling Stones album is THE BASEMENT TAPES, where they decided to just go into a basement and play, and what happens, happens. You just get an immediacy and an honesty when you do that, and that was our first album, which I love. And then, that album did well and got some money in the bank.
Two or three albums after that, we were spending a lot of money, and got some good, glossy pop-rock albums. We just decided with this album to go back and try to get dirtier. Not like dirty lyrics, or inappropriate stuff, I’m just talking about not being too precious about the music, to rehearse really well, and just do a couple takes, and then leave it. That’s where I think you find the dirt.
So, we rehearsed it, and we went into the studio, and did two or three takes on each song. We all played together, and we got drums, rhythm guitar, lead vocals, and bass, all in the same take. And so, we got about eighty to eighty-five percent of the album, which was done in the studio over the course of two days. We had to lay in background vocals, we had to lay in lead guitar. So, we have done tracking after that initial push. But [most of] that was down and dirty.
AX: For a while, Ghost of the Robot did not have a drummer, but you had one when you played live at The Mint in Los Angeles back in March, and you have a drummer on TIN MAN. So, was there something about the sound of the new songs that made you go, “Okay, we really do need a drummer?”
MARSTERS: When bands see the movie THIS IS SPINAL TAP, it’s so close to the bone, sometimes we can’t even laugh. In SPINAL TAP, they go through drummers like water. And this is true with a lot of bands. I don’t know why that instrument cycles like it does.
So, once we found a period of time when we were all going to be in Los Angeles to record, the question became, do we need a drummer? The difference between folk and blues and rock is, more than anything else, drums. You speed up folk and blues, and you add drums, and you get rock. So, you can’t do a rock album without drums. There are digital drum kits, programs that you can use, but we didn’t really want to go that way. But we had cycled out of our drummer. And then it came time to do an album, Kevin just thought, “I do know someone in Los Angeles, and he’s really good.”
Drew Steen is the man who’s played with us live. He is an extremely successful drummer, one of the better ones in the world – when I say “one of the better ones,” there are probably fifty in his class in the world. And his brother, Ryland, is the man who played on the album. He is also a world-class drummer. They both are. And Ryland is now, I believe, playing with Metallica.
Kevin has traveled in circles in music that I have not, because he played with Demi Lovato, and also other people, for years. Kevin just knows all sorts of people, drummers, guitarists, horn players. He’s up on a level where these people know each other, and Kevin is one of the better bassists around. So, when we needed a drummer for the album, he called Ryland.
AX: What’s the collaboration like between you and Sullivan and Kevin McPherson?
MARSTERS: Just writing a song can be like chasing a ghost through fog [laughs]. Even if you’re looking for it, you never really know if you find it, you grab it and get a piece of it, but it’s really an exploration, to try to get to this dream that you have. But Ghost instinctually helps me make that dream real in this world, make it concrete.
I’m so lucky to be in the band. We don’t argue much about how a song should sound, it just seems to kind of happen. We don’t even talk about it. I just say, “Here’s a song, here are the chords,” and then we just start playing it. People start to find themselves as we play it a few times, and after some period of time of playing together, we might say, “What are you doing there? I want to keep that, that’s a good idea.” But most of it is just playing together, and letting people explore – try something, throw it out, try something, throw it out, until it feels like we’re making decisions, and we start talking about it.
AX: You had said onstage during a concert that you talk about things in your songwriting that you would never confide one-to-one to a friend. Is this because it’s like a musical, where the emotions are so big, you have to sing about them instead of talking about them?
MARSTERS: There’s definitely that, the big [emotions], especially when I want to speak and the only way to do it is in a song. But also, I get away with it [laughs]. I’ve found a way to express my life that I cannot find the ability to do anywhere else. It is about some of the most private places in my life, and for some reason, we just find it acceptable to write songs and to listen to songs that are very vulnerable and expressive and reveal a lot about someone’s private life.
I guess the only other place I’ve found that it’s okay to express myself is in therapy. A therapist is getting paid. So, they’re going to sit there and let you get it out. It’s healthy. But even a friend will be like, “Oh, God, I don’t want to hear all this stuff about your old girlfriend.” A friend might want to steer it in a direction, or have some advice, but maybe I don’t want advice, maybe I just want to say something and have someone to say it to. When I sing a song like that, I’m not really wanting the audience to tell me what I should do about it [laughs].
I think art, across the board, whether it’s painting or sculpture or a play or a movie, they take their viewpoint and they take their experience, they take their emotion, and they put it into an artifact of some kind. It’s usually pretty personal, and they put that out into the world to see if anyone else has gone through that, or if it resonates with anyone else, and in that way, I think all of us artists are kind of checking to see if we’re alone in our experience, or if other people are similar. And that’s what I think is so, so good, when you make one of these artifacts of song, and you play it, and the audience responds. And it’s why it’s so painful when no one does. You just feel alone.
AX: Well, when you’re acting in a play or a movie, a whole bunch of people have opinions on what everybody is doing …
MARSTERS: A lot of art forms are very collaborative, so you have a lot of people in your ear as you’re trying to find the piece. But songwriting for me is not that. Songwriting, I try to carefully express what I wanted to express, and put it in a way that people will listen to.
What I’m learning in life is to try to say things in conversations, especially difficult things, and try to say them in a way that the other person can actually take it in. And that takes some thought [laughs]. And writing a song is taking even more care that what I want to express will actually be able to be received.
I think that it’s good to try to not be too intellectual about the creative process. I think that my intellect comes from my frontal lobe, which is the latest addition to the human brain, it’s the thing that evolved the last for us as a species. It doesn’t really take up much space in the skull, it’s a thin path on the front of the brain in this edition. And it does a lot of good stuff.
But there’s a lot of complicated stuff going on behind that, that you can’t really steer. We make the mistake of thinking that we are our intellect, because that’s the part that we steer, the part that we have control over. And we tend to think of the rest of it as this dark stuff that we don’t really understand, and it’s kind of scary. That’s what I call the deeper voice.
I say all this because I’m a big proponent of, if you don’t have to talk about something, don’t talk about it, do it. Just find it as you’re creating, and let that speak for you. That’s what I love about Ghost of the Robot. We’re not talking about it that much, we just rehearse and we’re playing it and having fun and keeping what we like the best.
AX: So, when the three of you are writing songs, does anybody ever say, “Not to contradict what you’re saying with the song, but can we come up with a with a two-syllable word instead of a three-syllable word, so it’ll fit the music better?”
MARSTERS: Very rarely. There are some times, just maybe a handful over the whole band’s history, when someone will say, “There are a lot of lyrics going on here. Is there a simpler way to say that?” But usually, the [songwriter says], “Nope, it’s the way I want it.” You’re like, “Okay” [laughs]. We have a rule in the band that whoever the songwriter is has the final say in the decision-making around that.
AX: What does it do for your family dynamic to work so closely and creatively with your son, Sullivan?
MARSTERS: I think what I was excited about, back when he was thirteen, was that performing with the band, doing something publicly that he was very good at, which is his guitar and singing, was going to give him some confidence. That period of life is one where, if you can find something that you’re good at, it can help build confidence. I was lucky to find that in acting, and he had it in music, so I decided to include him on stage with that.
But at this point, it’s really helped us update our relationship from parent/child to man to man. He doesn’t need my advice, he doesn’t need me to steer his life. He’s a twenty-six-year-old man. And so, I have tried to do what my dad did when I became an adult, which is just be my friend.
Working with someone creatively doesn’t work if one person is trying to dominate the other person. It really has to be equal, or it just doesn’t work at all. So, it’s helped us become friends. Because he doesn’t take my advice [laughs]. We were giving notes on the mixes, and I had a couple notes. And he’s like, “No, I’m not going to do that. I don’t think that’s the right way to go, Dad.” And the most frustrating thing is, he is right most of the time.
AX: How did you decide which songs were going on the TIN MAN album?
MARSTERS: We were talking about getting back to basics, and doing it dirty, doing it without so much technological help. So, I reached into my songs and just plucked out most of my blues-driven rock. And that’s a little more than half the songs.
Kevin gave the song that he was most excited about, and I think the same is true for Sullivan, who has three. They were his favorite songs [which are older], which is kind of weird, because i usually your favorite stuff is what you’ve written recently [laughs].
I think we’ve ended up with a mostly hard-driving blues/punk-infused
AX: Is that the song about the driver Ghost of the Robot had while you were touring England, who would drive over the speed limit and down alleys to get you where you were going on time?
MARSTERS: Yes. That’s kind of garage English, not really punk, but adjacent. I wanted to pick songs that were energetic and ferocious, I guess. But you don’t want to have an album that’s just that. I love Everclear as a band, but every song is ferocious, slapping you in the face. My favorite albums have a basic feel, but they switch it up and give you a little break from that.
AX: How did you arrive at the album title TIN MAN?
MARSTERS: Tin Man is the image that I had – when the band first was formed, I had just gotten famous on BUFFY, and I was aware that I was in danger of making a good amount of money, and getting a lot of success in my career, and becoming one of those people who have a lot of people around them who are telling them that they’re interesting and funny, and they’re not, They’re just normal. I was in danger of becoming a hollow person and losing my inner self, my spark.
And if that happened, none of the success would be worth that. If I allowed that to happen, this whole thing, this wonderful event where I got successful, would end up being a bad thing. So, I had the metaphor of the Tin Man who had lost his heart and was looking for it in THE WIZARD OF OZ. And I did not want to become a Tin Man.
And so, in talking with the other band members about things that they were interested in, and their experience, the Ghost in Ghost of the Robot is talking about that part, the inner self, the thing in the person that makes them [human], the part I don’t want to lose. And so, I just thought, “Hey, let’s call it TIN MAN.”
It’s central to the original idea of the band – what I still think about to this day, actually. But also, it has kind of a 1930s connotation, a dusty, Depression-era image that comes to mind when I hear the words “tin man,” seemed to fit with where we wanted to go with the album.
AX: Is there anything else we should discuss about TIN MAN?
MARSTERS: I think that the band is on fire. The show at the Mint [in March] is one of the better shows that we’ve given in years. I think vocally, it’s the strongest album ever. I think I’ve grown into being able to sing, and I think Sullivan’s work is the best he’s ever done. I think the musicianship is some of the strongest we’ve ever done. It all fell into place in a good and organic way. It’s going to be fun to listen to. I think people are going to be really energized. I think we really have something to give. I’m very proud of it. I know that I would probably have to say that to try to sell an album if it wasn’t true [laughs], but it actually is true. I’m more excited about this album than the first one.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with James Marsters on GHOSTS OF THE ROBOT’s sixth album