Whether you’ve heard of them before or not, odds are good it’ll surprise you to learn that Roses are Black is the first album by the new lineup of the Pittsburgh band Ghost Hounds. But when you add all the pieces together, the clean, sharp sound makes sense. Each band member involved has been making music for years, and they were able to pull in a few expert songwriters (Kevin Bowe, who’s written for Jonny Lang, and David Grissom, who’s worked with John Mellencamp), as well as engineer Vance Powell (who’s worked with artists like The White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys) and producer Eddie Kramer (who was Jimi Hendrix’s engineer). The band also managed to nail down cameos from Slash, Reese Wynans (formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble) and Kenny Aronoff.
Roses are Black had a lot of expertise going in, and the resulting 12 tracks don’t disappoint. Released November 5, the album is a declarative statement for the band, planting them firmly in rock ‘n’ roll with respectful nods to the rock titans who came before—especially the Rolling Stones, with whom Ghost Hounds toured this summer. Blues Rock Review checked in with lead singer Tre’ Nation to learn what the recording process was like and how a fateful shared clip on Instagram led to his joining the band.
Ghost Hounds has an unconventional story: The band started unofficially nearly 15 years ago but was put on the backburner, and the group recently came back with an entirely new lineup. How did everyone come together?
Ty Taylor [of Vintage Trouble] and Thomas [Tull] have been friends since before the last band started, and he’s also friends with Johnny [Baab], who’s now the other guitarist in the band. [Taylor] introduced [Baab] to Thomas, and they started jamming out; Thomas was picking up the guitar again after a while. They were just jamming out for a while, and I think that’s what gave Thomas the inspiration to want to start the band again. Johnny reached out to Blaise [Lanzetta], who’s our drummer—they’ve been friends for a while—and Bennet [Miller], the bass player, who he met doing music in New York. Then I came onto the scene. I was found via an Instagram clip of a friend of a friend. And then we got Joe Munroe, he plays the keys. We didn’t realize at the time, but Joe’s a local legend in his own right here in Pittsburgh.
What were you looking for in music at the time you were called in to join Ghost Hounds?
I’ve been doing music for a long time. The thing that’s proven to be true is that, no matter what else you try to do in life, if music calls you, you have to answer. I’d moved to New York a year prior; I was working in a wedding band, I was writing for some independent artists in London and just enjoying music that way. When this opportunity came along, I went up and met the guys and we seemed to click right away. It was like a puzzle piece: a perfect fit.
Did you imagine that just one year later you’d be opening for the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top?
Here’s the thing I realized about Thomas: Whenever someone tells him he can’t do anything, he proves them wrong. That’s been the way he’s run his entire life. The first day we met, he told me, “I want to try to open up for the Stones; it’s been one of my biggest dreams since I was a kid.” In my mind I was like, “Okay, yeah—sure.” But when he told us we got the slot, there was a moment of silence. Everyone was waiting for the “just kidding.” And it never came. It’s been unreal. It’s amazing.
What has it been like to open for these rock legends who had such significant influences on the band?
I try not to think about it too much because it’s quite overwhelming. There was a moment after we did the Stones show where we were standing in the back; they have a protocol they go through with their openers where they’ll take a picture. We were waiting for them to come take the picture so they could go out and do their set, and it was just surreal watching Mick Jagger come down the hallway and point at me and say, “Hey, you!” It’s something that will never leave my brain. It’s unreal. So I try not to make a big deal out of it, because it’s anxiety-producing to think ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger in such a short amount of time—it’s unreal.
Ghost Hounds are gaining a reputation for delivering high-energy live performances. Do you practice any pre-show rituals to get yourselves amped up to go onstage?
I guess it’s kind of ironic, because it’s very calm before we go onstage. Everyone just kind of hangs out. I get pretty quiet in general; I’m a little introverted, so I guess I save all that for the stage. Sometimes we’ll just have a drink or hang out and just chill and talk. When that first downbeat hits, it’s like we all transform into our own little music monsters.
Do you feel like you’re transitioning into a different person onstage?
Definitely. There are a lot of musicians that I admire who have said something similar to the effect that, once you get onstage, there’s a different version of you that needs to be there to handle everything that’s going on at once and for you to be able to take a back seat and enjoy it. I feel like every musician—especially frontmen for bands and singers in general—you transform into this role, and it makes it so much more fun, so much more enjoyable. In a weird way, it kind of takes the pressure off the normal, everyday you to be something extraordinary. You just allow yourself to be immersed in the experience. It’s really beautiful.
Your band bio starts off with, “Ghost Hounds is a rock ‘n’ roll band at a time when the world needs more of them.” What do you think rock as a genre has to offer that other genres don’t?
I think for one, there’s a combination of a hint of nostalgia and a little bit of soul. And also, in my personal opinion, it’s human nature to recycle, so everything always makes its way back around. Everything that someone once believes is dead or over seems to make its way back around. I feel like rock is doing that.
There was some way where Shawn Mendes ended up hearing some of our songs, and his reaction to them, according to his manager, was that he was floored. He was like, “This is it; this is rock ‘n’ roll. This is what I want to do.” And of course the genre is a bit confining, but I feel like the energy and the intensity that you’re able to exert doing rock music is something that every musician has innately in them, ready to unleash. Rock just gives you what you need to do it, as opposed to pop or more urban songs that have a different personality to display. It’s not necessarily as raw. That’s what I appreciate the most about it: That I can go up there and I can jump around. I don’t need choreography, I can just let my body move how it feels, and it comes across that way.
The sound of the album is very polished; it sounds like it was made by musicians who knew exactly what they were doing and where they wanted to go. Did the chemistry that produced that sound happen naturally, or was it something the group had to work on?
I think it was a little bit of both. Everyone in the band has been a musician for over a decade and a half, so there’s this familiarity with music that comes when you get musicians in a room. But we’re also very fortunate because we have a lot of extraordinary help. Thomas writes all the songs, and on the first album he brought in Kevin Bowe, who’s written for Etta James and Jonny Lang, and also David Grissom, a songwriting and producing legend in his own right. So they came in and helped Thomas flush out the songs and give them a bit of personality, and you can actually hear that on the record, because David is from Austin, and some of the songs definitely have an Austin footprint.
Then we also were fortunate enough to get Eddie Kramer in the studio with us; he’s produced and engineered for Jimi Hendrix. So he brought his sensibilities and his style into the mix. I think all of that together just created what we have. It was a lot of expertise, but we were very careful not to have too many cooks in the kitchen at once. It was a unique collaboration, and I guess it worked.
When you first came to these songs, did you know exactly how you wanted to approach them? Were there any that stood out?
Right away, yes. There was one, “Fire Under Water,” that the first time I heard the demo, I was like, “What is this song!” When I heard the demo, it was acoustic and reminded me of The Civil Wars, one of my favorite bands before they broke up. Once the music came onto it, it transformed into something even better. It’s smoky and it’s dark, and that’s right up my alley.
There’s a cover of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” on this album. Why did the band pick that particular song to cover?
It was Thomas’ idea. The Ghost Hounds seem to have a theme of singing about these mysterious women. There’s a mystery that seems to be part of our trademark. I’d heard of the song before, but I hadn’t heard the song itself. The first time I heard it, I fell in love with it; I was like, “Yeah, we’ve got to do this—this is amazing.” It just happened organically. It fit the narrative that we lean toward lyrically.
Did you feel that pull between those themes of light and dark as you were recording?
It may be over-poeticizing it, but I think those themes give birth to each other perpetually. When you have that dark mystique, it kind of leads to the beauty of sentiment and peeling back layers to find what’s underneath it. But once you jump into the throes of familiarity, you peel back more layers and you see more darkness. It’s this ongoing cycle and evolution.
Where do you see Ghost Hounds a year from now?
We’ve already begun working on a second record, so that’s going to be an adventure in itself. But honestly, who knows? In such a short time we’ve already done so much; we’ve kind of placed the bar pretty high for ourselves. We’ll see what happens.
Interview by Meghan Roos