In Conversation: Ghost Town Remedy Talks Southern Roots and the Humor and Heart of Their Excellent New Album Dry Spell

As long as humans have had the mental capacity to articulate their emotions they have used humor to mask and ultimately get over their sadness. Good humor can help you overcome grief in any capacity, its often hard to come to terms with the emotional pain you’re dealing with without something to break the tension, and nothing does that job quite like pointing out the absurdity of your situation with a joke. Listening to Ghost Town Remedy’s excellent new album Dry Spell is about as much fun as you can have while taking in a piece of art that deals with failed relationships, substance abuse, miscommunication, coming to terms with needing help with your mental health, and even the death of loved ones. It certainly helps that the band is at times laugh out loud funny and that all eleven songs on the record fucking rip. Ghost Town Remedy put together a collection of pop punk tracks that are as gnarly as their hilarious album promo advertised, but with a good deal more heart than the infomercial led on. Album closer “360 No Scope” is the most touching song I could imagine being written that uses getting headshotted in Halo as an extended metaphor for the gut punch of an unexpected break up. Similarly, the self-depreciating bars on “Therapy” are as much fun as a band can have while coming to terms with the fact that they need help with their mental health but can’t properly afford it. Several members of the band were going through life struggles, and in particular tough break ups, in the midst of the creation of this album and it’s clear that two things helped them power through, humor and community. The fact that the members of the band had one another to commiserate and crack jokes is not just the bedrock of what makes Dry Spell such a fun and heartfelt album but is also what seems to have carried this group of fellas through the rough patches they describe. Maybe the most touching song on the album was one that was nearly left off, “A Lesson in Shapeshifting”. The track is lead singer TJ Mahler’s meditation on losing his younger brother to suicide and the massive hole it left in his heart as a result. It’s a difficult and yet beautiful song about wishing he’d been able to be there for his brother and the deep fear of mortality his passing instilled in him, leaving him feeling completely alone. Luckily for TJ he had his bandmates there to console him, help him process his grief, and channel it into an absolutely touching tribute.

All that being said you could listen to this album a hundred times and not realize the emotion behind the lyrics just by getting caught up in its catchy as hell hooks and massive riffs. The band took inspiration from scene leaders PUP and Rozwell Kid, whose lead singer Jordan Hudkins has even done some art and merch for the band, and this album stands toe to toe with both those bands early work. Dry Spell is an album that’ll have you coming back and back, first for the riffs and then because you realized just how relatable the lyrics under those riffs were. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask lead singer TJ Mahler and drummer Steve Lane some questions about their southern upbringing, balancing their humor and heart, and the process of putting this fantastic record together.

You guys grew up in Warrenton, VA which TJ you mentioned has more cows than people. How did your upbringing influence who you are as people and musicians?

TJ: I definitely came from a background of Classic Rock and Southern Rock. My Dad was always playing bands like Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet around me when I was growing up and that music subconsciously rubbed off on me. The idea of  harmonized guitar melodies from those 3 bands definitely snuck its way into our music. As far as Warrenton goes, there was actually a really good music scene even though we lived in the middle of nowhere. There was a lot of competition between different bands in our high schools and that gave us our first taste of what it was like to really work hard at promoting and creating as a band. 

Were you involved in the local Virginia scene at all? Any favorite venues or bands you want to shout out?

TJ: Yeah both Steve and I played in a variety of bands while growing up in that area before forming GTR. Steve played in Mercury Switch and I was in and out of metal bands throughout High School. We eventually formed our first band together in 2011 along with our two friends (both named Kyle) called The Junglebots, and we were terrible. My favorite bands from the Northern VA area that are still around would have to be The Alex Jonestown Massacre, The Duskwhales, Destructo Disk, The 5:55, Flowerbomb, and Nosferatuman (feat. Chris Fenton who actually used to play bass in GTR). And my favorite venue in the NOVA area is Jammin Java. 

Steve: Shout out to the bands that inspired me to play: King Radon and the Noble Gasses (they’re still making music), The Sugar Plum Fairies, Sleep Vivid, Even the Odds, Centuries, The Number Red, and The Cardboard Cutouts. RIP to all of these bands minus King Radon. My favorite venue was Smokey Joe’s, now Sibby’s BBQ. It was always hilarious to set up shows there and deal with their crazy owner who definitely hated us. They had the best stage/room in town though.

You guys were in a band you just mentioned called Mercury Switch who went Myspace viral back in the day. What sets Ghost Town Remedy apart from your work as Mercury Switch? Also how’d you come up with each of the band names?

Steve: So Mercury Switch was just me and some highschool friends of mine, TJ was off playing in local metal bands at the time. GTR is definitely more “serious” than Mercury Switch ever was. We were more or less just a bunch of goofy teenagers that wanted to be a part of the local scene and never committed to a specific genre of music. We came up with that name by opening a dictionary to a random page and blindly dropping a pen onto the page. GTR was a more delicate process. We made a seemingly never ending list of band names and it was one we liked that didn’t already have a presence on the internet. 

What prompted your move to Nashville specifically? How do you think this new location has impacted y’all as musicians and as people?

TJ: I moved to Nashville after graduating from Shenandoah University with a degree in Music Production and Recording Technology. I mainly moved here to work in several studios for my internship and I fully intended on being a “Studio” guy but I ended up finding much more work in the Live Sound/Events industry. As far as the band goes, Nashville has been kind of a blessing and a curse. Being a little fish in the big sea really forces you to work your ass off. It’s insanely oversaturated here so you really need to hustle and promote to get people out to your shows because there’s 20-30 other shows happening every single night (pre-covid). They say it’s a 5 year town and I’m almost at 5 years so I think we’re just now starting to see a lot of our work pay off in the local scene around here. 

Who are some of your favorite local Tennessee bands that you’ve connected with since moving? Before the pandemic hit where were your favorite local places to play?

Steve: I really like H.A.R.D., Desk Job, Dad Hats, Relatable Action Star, Say Kids, Sycamore, Through the Motions, and No, This is Patrick!. They’re all worth checking out! As far as venues go, we love The East Room, The High Watt, The End, Cobra, and any house show that will have us.

Do you think there is anything distinctly southern about your sound? What about being from and in the American South influenced or inspired this record?

TJ: There are little spurts of southern influence that sneak into our songs. For instance, “Learning Curve” features a dual guitar solo that has a little sprinkle of that “Nashville” twang to it. As far as lyrics go, I never knew what a Meat and Three (Usually your main protein like BBQ or Hot Chicken and 3 sides) was until I moved to Nashville and that ended up becoming a line in our song “Meat Sweatz”. “I just want you here with me, a meat and three and some sweet sweet tea.” 

Who are your sonic influences on this album? To me it sounds like PUP meets Bowling for Soup which I mean as a genuine compliment.

TJ: Hell yeah, we LOVE PUP! We always think the comparisons are hilarious because no one really knows how to define us. We played a show once where someone described us as Weezer meets Van Halen (RIP Eddie) and that actually turned out to be pretty accurate. Some of our main influences would definitely be PUP, Jeff Rosenstock, Early Weezer, Rozwell Kid, Prince Daddy and The Hyena, Death by Unga Bunga, and The Beths.

You talk openly about what’s going on in your lives giving consideration to your feelings and well being but without taking yourselves too seriously. How do you maintain that balance? Why do you think bands are afraid to show their goofier side? Were there any bands that inspired you that you think toe this line well?

Steve: I think the trick to this is hiding our somewhat serious lyrics behind upbeat music. We all use songwriting as an outlet for our inner turmoils, but we also like to have fun on stage and put on a show. I think some bands think that you have to be serious/vulnerable in order to get the idea of their songs across. No one likes going to a show to watch a sad man play his sad songs sadly. There’s an energy you have to provide the crowd to get a good response and I think that comes from our goofiness. I tend to think of bands like Reel Big Fish, NOFX, Rozwell Kid, and even PUP (although they are more self-deprecating than goofy).

What is your songwriting process like? Is there a conscious effort to maintain the balance from the previous question?

TJ: Yeah as far balance goes, there was a point where I used to only write serious songs and Rozwell Kid was the first band that really opened my eyes and made me feel like it was ok to write goofy songs and not take ourselves too seriously. Shoutout to Jordan Hudkins from RK he’s a badass songwriter and graphic designer and he’s actually done a decent amount of Merch/Artwork designs for us. Steve mentioned this in the previous question, but we often like to pair up darker lyrics with major keys and more upbeat riffs. This is probably most evident in our songs “Therapy”, “A Lesson in Shapeshifting”, and “Super Glue”. 

You’ve hilariously described the album as “Virgin Core” “Doomsday Pop” “Crab Rangoon Core” and “Nintendo Rock”. Which of these do you think is the most accurate? How else would you describe this record?

Steve: I don’t really think we fit the “mold” of any specific genre so we had to come up with a list of our own haha. Out of those, I’d say we’re closest to Nintendo Rock. We are all huge game nerds so we pull references from our experiences in gaming i.e. “360 No Scope” and “LAN Party”. We also love video game music and some of our guitar melodies are inspired from older 8-bit music like Megaman, Zelda, and F-Zero. But ultimately Dry Spell falls somewhere between Power-Pop, Punk, and Emo with a focus on writing riffs/forms that are fun/interesting to listen to for both musicians and average listeners alike.

The DIY rock scene is particularly nostalgic for the early 2000s era of video games, from Origami Angel’s Pokemon themed Gen 3 EP, to Dogleg naming their album after Super Smash Bros Melee, to Guitar Fight for Fooly Cooly sampling Kingdom Hearts and Super Mario 64 on Soak. Why do you think that era of gaming is so popular right now?

Steve: That era of gaming is especially nostalgic for all of us Millennials, seeing that most of us were in grade school and had the time to sink our teeth into all those games. I know I personally spent a TON of hours playing Super Smash Bros and Pokemon during that time. I always have fond memories of those times and I imagine others have the same.

Any video games in particular that inspired your LAN Parties? What were your favorites growing up and what are y’all playing these days?

TJ: I think my first ever encounter with a LAN Party was playing Halo 2 over at my buddy Kyle’s house back in Middle/High School. We used to grab like 4 Xbox 360s and system link them all together and stay up all night eating junk food (mostly Doritos and Mt. Dew). That feeling of nostalgia and better times amidst the current state of the world really resonated with me during the writing of that song. Friends grew older and we grew apart and I just really missed those days when things were simpler. The games we’re playing currently vary between Steve and myself but I’ve recently gotten back into Fortnite, so I’ve been playing that a lot. I’m also working on beating Mario Odyssey, Mario 3D All-Stars, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe

Steve: I’m playing too many games at the moment: Doom:Eternal, Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2, Risk of Rain 2, Hades, and Apex: Legends. I just finished a game that’s a really awesome space adventure game called Outer Wilds. I highly suggest that one.

What are each of your favorite songs on the record? Any fond memories or funny stories from the recording process? I’ve had a hard time picking a favorite because they really are as gnarly as advertised.

Steve: Well, thank you!! I’m glad they are coming across as advertised haha. My favorites are “Holy Hangover”, “Empty”, and “360 No Scope”. Recording at Sony was a blast. I really enjoyed being there on the weekend when it was literally just us and our engineer, Justin Francis, figuring out the ultra-specifics and nuances to our songs. It was a great weekend. 

TJ: My current favorites to play live are probably “Nacho Business” and “Meat Sweatz” just because they’re super high energy, goofy, and really get people moving. My favorite song that I wrote on the record would probably have to be “A Lesson in Shapeshifting”. This is a really personal song to me that I wrote after losing my younger brother Daniel to suicide in 2014. To me, this song reflects that feeling of hopelessness after everyone hops off the initial bandwagon of a tragedy and you’re left to deal with the aftermath alone. This was an incredibly cathartic song for me to write and I never even really intended for it to be on the record. I was even scared to bring it to the rest of the band at first just because of how personal it was to me. 

As fun and lighthearted as it can be this is still definitely a break up record.  You discuss the depression that came with the break up and using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, making it all sound a whole lot more fun than I am sure it actually was. That break up had even caused some issues getting the creative juices flowing. What eventually got you out of the rut and able to create again? Was the process of making the record cathartic in that regard?

Steve: Yeah there’s been breakups/heartaches for all of us throughout the whole process of making this record. None of it was very fun, even with our coping mechanisms. I know that I tend to write from what I’m feeling at the current moment, so most of my creative juices were flowing more than usual. The block for me comes when I’m not feeling anything. But we have all contributed feelings of our own to this collective therapy session and really gotten into the nitty-gritty of what’s causing the issues. I think that process shows itself in the lyrical content of our songs.

You’ve been working on this album for a while now. What was the earliest song recorded and what is the most recent? Do you feel you changed or developed at all over the recording process?

TJ: The opening riff to “Nacho Business” was the very first idea I had going into this record and for the longest time it was just a riff and never turned into a song. I remember after we played our album release show for our last record Caffeine Dreams, both Steve and I got really trashed and ended up getting late night Taco Bell. The next morning we woke up hungover as fuck and Steve actually had a piece of a taco shell stuck to his face and that became the first line of the song. That riff was incredibly important to creating the sound of this record and it actually ended up influencing the overall sound of the band. I believe the last song that was written for the record was “Empty” and Steve ended up finishing that one about 2 weeks before we tracked everything. So that one was definitely cutting it close but thematically, it fit the record so well that we had to have it on there. And yeah we definitely developed over the process of recording this record. We used to be sort of a folk/rock/Mumford & Sons type of band but once Jordan and Rich joined the band in 2018, that all flew out the window and we really grew into who we are now. 

Lastly how have you guys been surviving the pandemic? Have you all been able to maintain good economic stability? And what movies/books/video games/albums/ect have helped you stay sane?

Steve: Ya know, I’ve actually enjoyed the distancing part. I’m a full blown introvert, so I’ve been right at home, literally. I was laid off from my serving job in March and was on the boosted unemployment through May. I was making more money than I would’ve normally so I’ve stayed pretty stable through it all. Being single with no kids has definitely helped on that front too hahaha. All the games I mentioned earlier have helped me recently, but at the beginning I played through Nier: Automata for the first time and that was pure magic. I started a book-club style gaming club with some friends of mine and we’ve played Pathologic 2, Undertale, Hypnospace Outlaw, Enter the Gungeon, Oxenfree, Outer Wilds, and are about to start Heaven’s Vault. I also started reading Dune, but I’m still quite a ways from finishing it. 

TJ: I work in the live sound industry so I’ve been pretty much royally fucked. I’m just now starting to get a few socially distanced gigs here and there to help me stay afloat. I’m really hoping there’s a second stimulus bill to not only save gig workers but also help save the small businesses and venues that are really struggling right now across the nation. To pass the time, I’ve definitely been playing a lot more video games than I used to but i’m really trying to force myself to put that energy more into reading and songwriting these days. I started off the quarantine earlier this year with a lot of Animal Crossing, Breath of the Wild, and Pokemon Shield and I’m now mainly playing Fortnite, Mario Odyssey, and Pikmin here and there.

Follow Ghost Town Remedy on Insta and listen to Dry Spell on Spotify and Apple Music! Thanks to Stephanie McKendrick for the picture at the top of the article.

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