Interview w/ Holy Ghost Tent Revival

Holy Ghost Tent Revival brought their brand of energetic, heartfelt, quirky Americana to Erie last week for an amazing show. Two of the fellas, Patrick “PJ” Leslie (bass) and Hank Widmer (trombone and euphonium) were nice enough to pile into their tour van with us afterwards and have a little chat.

If I had to sum up the boys of HGTR in one word, it would be pretty easy: genuine. They are everything you want from a indie band. These guys are hard-working, energetic, optimistic, outgoing, and completely in love with music. It’s refreshing to meet artists who truly create art that’s not self-involved or pretentious. From talking to PJ and Hank it’s pretty clear that HGTR are out to fill you with love and hope…oh, and to get your asses dancing.
Those Who Dig – Kyle: What’s the road been like?
Holy Ghost Tent Revival – Patrick: The road…it’s generally made of blacktop and sometimes gravel, and oh, that actually is kind of how it is, isn’t it? Smooth and then kind of rough like gravel.
Holy Ghost Tent Revival – Hank: Yea, that’s a nice little metaphor.
Patrick: I’m used to it now; this is life for me. How do you feel?
Hank: We were on the road for the summer. I think over the span of two and a half months we were home for four days, and then we got to the end of that and the last two months we’ve been mostly at home – gigging, but mostly home.
Patrick: If we get three days a week at home, that’s “mostly at home”.
Hank: It was really disappointing when the summer ended. It was kind of like “Oh man, I want to stay on the road. This is awesome.” Then I got used to being at home and we left for this three week trip and it was back to “I gotta go on the road again, what’s it going to be like?”
Patrick: It’s like anything else, it’s like “Why are you doing it? What’s your intent, what’s your purpose?” We’d love to make it as a band, but also, as individuals we’re learning so much from different people, learning about the world and how to live through other people’s experiences. And being able to connect the dots between people who feel hopeless because they’re the only ones in the world that feel a certain way depending on the social context they’re surrounded by and we get to be like, “Hey, nuh-uh!”. Every town, every night you’ve got the bubble. It’s good to feel that giant paradox of total hopelessness and total hopefulness at the same time. We get to experience that at a pretty exaggerated level.
Kyle: That’s a lot of emotion in one night.
Patrick: Yea, every night!
Kyle: You guys have any crazy stuff happen to you on the road yet?
Patrick: Oh man, what hasn’t happened? What are we allowed to talk about here?
Hank: You get used to and start to crave how different things are day to day. You get into experiences and then realize tomorrow you’re going to be in a completely different place surrounded by completely different people and new situations, whether it’s shady or exciting or both. There’s been some crazy stuff, but I guess it all just seems normal now. We kind of realize when we get around people how ridiculous we act. We say something and then it’s like “we’re mostly just around ourselves, so this is normal”.
Patrick: There’s a generally active humor that keeps us from having to debate too much. We really don’t get on each other’s nerves as much as you’d expect for six or seven guys who are around each other as much as we are.
Hank: It reminds you to keep laughing and smiling and keep lovin’.
Those Who Dig – Steve: Do you guys have, besides the instruments, specific roles that you adopt off the stage?
Hank: Communicator!
Patrick: Kind of. We all got “official” roles the other day.
Hank: I’m the Communicator, and as the Communicator I will communicate to you guys everybody’s role.
Patrick: Will you tell these fine gentlemen what I do?
Hank: Well, PJ is “Man of Sound” and logistics concerning sound. He’s done things like set up the entire sound system for a show we’re playing help other bands set up their system. Steve’s the Business Man, Matt’s the E-mail List Man, Ross is everything technological. And then there’s Kevin. Kevin had to be put in a made up role.
Steve: Is he the glue guy?
Hank: Yea, he’s the glue guy! Well Charlie’s the glue guy too. He doesn’t always tour with us though.
Kyle: Have you recorded new stuff? Anything coming out soon?
Hank: Yea we have a project that we’re going to re-record in our own studio that we’re presently building and P.J. has a very large part of that.
Patrick: …as the Man of Sound.
Hank: This will be our fourth attempt at our second full-length album. First time we did it in the spot we did our EP, but we felt like it had further to go. Second time was in a nice studio in NC, but the engineer just had a different direction than the six of us did, so we took from that what we needed to. We recorded for two months in a house at the beginning of the year and that was probably the best articulation of those groups of songs that we’ve been able to achieve. Then we got a couple weeks where we were actually able to practice for weeks at a time. Those songs that we had been recording for two months just completely changed, and we realized we weren’t sure about the recording.
Patrick: We’re all at different levels as far as our “understanding”, or our acceptance and perception of metaphysics. Intent and energy is incredibly important to us in our recording. That’s something we’re trying to capture more than just the song. Because the song’s always there and it’s always going to change. It’s nice to take it back to the idea of a record as a record of an event.
Kyle: That’s a big part of our blog: the album as the album and not just iTunes songs.
Patrick: Exactly. Each time the song is created that’s a new creation. This is a record of a certain creation, and I’d like that creation to embody something that’s really positive. There has to be certain amounts of tension, but nothing’s perfect, but I really want to listen to it and feel the intent as opposed to just hearing the songs that we wrote. So that’s what we’re going to try to do in our own space now.
Kyle: So on that note, how does songwriting work with all six of you? Do you all contribute to each song?
Hank: It’s one of the most fun parts, if not the most fun part. Well, playing music’s the most fun part.
Hank: Usually someone will come up with an idea whether it’s a quarter of a song or a complete song and from there ideas are thrown into the pot. It goes through this series of filters where it’s “Let’s try it this way, let’s try it that way. This is what I think about it, this is what I think about it”. And then we start to play it live, and that’s just the beginning.
Kyle: That’s where it really develops?
Patrick: Yea, especially because we’ve only been playing in this group for three years. We’re all 25 we haven’t even been musicians all that long.
Kyle: You say three years like it’s not a long amount of time.
Patrick: Well if you look at anyone else that’s successful it’s not. Plus, everyone says “Oh, I’ve only been in this band for two years!”, but you’ve been playing in other bands for 20. This is my first band and your first band. It’s pretty much all of our actual, first band. It’s our very first experience and we want to do this for a living knowing full well that doing this as a living means giving it all you have. We’ve got to find different ways to give people things that they need, whether it’s company, conversations, work around the house, whatever. It doesn’t suffer our intelligence at all to break down and do work with our hands.
Kyle: So you guys all met in college?
Hank: Yea, Ross and I were music majors together. Matt and Steve were theatre majors together and those two departments shared the same building so we had known each other and hung out through mutual friends. Our original trumpet player was probably the catalyst for that because he was a music major that did a lot of theater stuff. So they asked us to play on this thing with them that was banjo and guitar and they were like “We want some horns”, and we said “It sounds interesting”.
Kyle: So how did the name happen?
Hank: It was for a parent’s weekend talent showcase for the fine arts department. We had decided on the name Holy Ghost Tent Revival because we needed one kind of quick.
Kyle: That’s what you come up with kind of quick?
Hank: [Laughs] Yea, yea I guess.
Steve: That theater heritage seemed to come through in the video for “Needing You”. I was getting a lot of Back to the Future vibes.
Patrick: Aw, man I love that. It was our friend Gene who was a video major. He and Matt got drunk one night and Matt’s like [weird voice] “I’ve got this idea, what if we does this video someday…” and Gene said “What if ‘someday’ was a month from now?” So it was a great drunk idea and then Gene called us up like “Yea…everybody’s on a schedule and blah blah blah”. It was ridiculous and fun, and now everybody looks at it on the internet.
Patrick: Speaking of nights of drunkenness, we’ve got a side project metal band. Matt came up with the name. It’s Cyst and Deceased.
Kyle: I see what you did there.
Patrick: See what we did with this one: The Stomb Tones.
Hank: That was just one hip hop project, and then we have the Footnotes – the other hip hop project.
Kyle: I can’t handle the talent level busting out of this van.
Patrick: Oh you have no idea. The world has no idea. World, you’re going to be covered in absurdity! It’s going to happen! We’ve got enough real shit to worry about as it is, let’s make some jokes.
Kyle: I expect some rhymes laid down soon
Patrick: I got more bread than Schwebel’s, I got my own label…that’s where I’m stopping.
Kyle: So I have to ask about the Daytrotter Session. How’d that go?
Patrick: Yea, we went upstairs to the second floor and were presented with ridiculous amounts of amazing equipment and good people. It’s a great, ambitious project. Thank god for them. He recorded three bands while we were there!
Hank: Yea, we went in full band. We brought drum sets, amps, pianos, Wurlitzer. It’s wonderful in there; they have an art space in the back. It’s very comfortable and welcoming.
Steve: If you could do a score…
Patrick: A bank definitely.
Steve: If you could do a film score with someone whose visual style or subject content seems to fit your sound, who would you choose? Any dream collaborations?
Patrick: Wes Anderson.
Hank: Definitely Wes Anderson. Maybe Michel Gondry.
Kyle: So if you weren’t playing music, what would you guys be doing?
Patrick: I went to school for industrial design and then fell in love with a girl and decided to be a painter to impress her. After I figured out that I didn’t want to sell artwork that wasn’t artwork to people by tricking them, I decided I wanted to be a psychologist because that’s pretty interesting mental work. I went down to Greensboro and spent a semester doing Psychology until I realized they wanted to turn people’s brains into a math equation and that’s something I don’t want to be involved in. If I wasn’t a musician right now I’d want to have a little sustainable landscape, a farm in some mountains and need as little money as possible. There are lots of occupations out there and I’m very happy just trying to make other people happy. It’s hard to live and not be happy so when you find something that makes you happy you might as well share it.  Personally, I’ll never not be a musician. Even if I’m on a farm, I’m going to be playing music. Everyone’s got a neighborhood right now, ours is the east coast and expanding. If it shrinks back down and we get to the point where we’re breaking our hips, my neighborhood will become small and I’ll take care of that.
Hank: I probably would have moved out to LA. I don’t know if I’d still be there though. I’d also like to live in the middle of nowhere sustaining myself and/or loved ones. I think it’s a beautiful thing to live off of the land. It’s part of a bigger movement for reasons that may or may not already by destined to happen, but there’s definitely a big movement of people our age towards that simple lifestyle. It’s a really neat thing to see and hopefully it will become a practical use one day.
It’s like the music industry (this is a huge tangent), but things aren’t like they used to be. The operations are getting smaller and people are realizing that when you have huge operations it’s not practical and it puts all the power and interest into the hands of a small group of people. People are realizing we’re all the same, and if we’re all the same why are we so separated and disconnected? Then people start to think about what is and isn’t important to them and often material things aren’t. I think that’s the process. Music festivals really help that. When people go out to music festivals they feel the energy of the land and the people around them and everybody’s happy to not be on a timeline. It’s community and family and a completely new definition for both those things. Once you realize family is everybody you’re entire world changes. That’s what being on the road has done for us. Anyone who’s willing to talk to us and say “hey” becomes family.
Patrick: You see a lot of cynicism in the generation before us. I’m hoping this is kind of the death of cynicism and generally an easy slide into conscious awakening of “Holy shit, brick and mortar is not the world”. We’re tiny little pieces on something much larger that we’re having a major effect on. We’re coming to an interesting conversation on how to have small, sustainable communities with as many people as there are. I just hope that we as a generation don’t become cynical before our time. There’s nothing but optimism to be had, especially since there’s so much hopelessness and you’ve got to balance it out.
Kyle: Well thanks for doing this with us.
Patrick: Thank you for taking interest, man. We’ve got a good group of people going on.