Feature: Wednesday, April 10, 2003
Free Time

The improv musicians behind Ghostcar are so damn good they’re bad for one another.


Juitarist Daniel Huffman of the improvisational band Ghostcar recently had a musician’s dream gig: touring with the Flaming Lips as a roadie and auxiliary musician. “I tried explaining to them what we do, and they couldn’t believe it. ‘You mean you go onstage without any songs worked out? No chord changes?’ I was surprised at how rigidly structured their music was — everything had to be just like the record. With all the pre-recorded tapes they use, it was almost like a karaoke show.”

The four sonic tightrope walkers that make up Ghostcar are nothing if not musically courageous. Their music starts with their knowledge of their instruments and of one another and develops spontaneously as they listen and respond to one another’s creations. The band just released a c.d. of the music they performed for James M. Johnston’s film Mere Acquaintance.

One Saturday in February at the Black Dog Tavern, they set up in a circle, facing one another. Bandleader Karl Poetschke ran his trumpet and flugelhorn through an Echoplex, darting in and out of the music with his dark, lyrical inventions. Huffman wore a cat mask and sat in front of a battery of stompboxes, creating ethereal, atmospheric washes of texture, triggering samples, and even playing a little Casio keyboard. Bassist Chris Perdue anchored the music with hypnotic repeating figures and the occasional solo, locking it in the pocket while drummer Clay Stinnette shifted from totally free time to slamming punk beats to pulsing polyrhythmic flights.

Stinnette’s a show in himself, attacking his traps with energy and abandon. He switches from sticks to brushes at will, beats on his hardware and other assorted oddities, including a hubcap, a trashcan, and a small cymbal that he inverts and places on top of his snare. He wets his fingers and rubs them on drum heads and hardware, and sometimes dons a Mexican wrestling mask. He occasionally drops a beat, but it works — he’s taking chances. Besides Ghostcar (which he considers “more an experiment than a band”), Stinnette divides his time among five other projects, including History At Our Disposal and The Def.

The proximate models for Ghostcar music are ’70s-era Miles Davis and some of the more ambient releases from that decade on the ECM label. But the band really sounds like nobody else. “Improvisational music is challenging, because you have to know your axe well enough to be able to participate in the conversation,” said Poetschke. “Listening is important. Silence and space are important, too — every player doesn’t need to participate in every conversation.”

Before Ghostcar, Poetschke, Perdue, and Huffman all played in Sivad, a band Poetschke formed with bassist (later guitarist) Tony Chapman and drummer Quincy Holloway in 1990. Sivad released a c.d., Solar Verbs, before folding in 1999. Ghostcar evolved out of a Huffman recording project. When the guitarist wanted to perform live, he recruited Poetschke, Chapman, Jason Reimer on piano, and Scott Fielle on drums to fill a slow Sunday night slot on the patio at Dallas’ X-po Lounge.

By the time Reimer and Fielle left to work on their own projects, Stinnette had already introduced himself to Chapman over lunch at Milano’s on West Seventh Street and expressed interest in the band. Perdue stepped in when Chapman moved to Italy to work on the European space program. As Poetschke explains it, “Now we’ve got Daniel, a space-rock guitarist that used to be in Comet; Chris, a beautiful soul-funk bass player; and Clay, a punk-rock drummer.”

Huffman and Stinnette are both UNT-trained visual artists who bring that sensibility to their playing. Their work decorates Ghostcar’s c.d.’s, the covers of which are handmade by bandmembers and feature a random selection of live material, so each disc provides an individualized experience. In fact, the name Ghostcar came from the title of a Huffman painting that appeared on Sivad’s c.d. cover. “Our music reflects our personalities, just like our painting,” said Huffman.

Poetschke is a thoughtful man filled with self-deprecating humor who’s worked on cruise ships, studied in a Buddhist ashram, and spent time in the desert with Native American shamans. While still in Sivad, he participated in Good/Bad Art Collective’s “rock lottery,” where musicians from Denton bands formed random groupings to play one-time gigs at the collective’s benefit shows. “I like to get lost, to put myself in situations where I’m not in control, and just deal with it — in music and in life. Improvising can make you a better musician, a better human being. You learn to work with people, cooperate, compromise.”

He’s grown disenchanted with the Dallas Creative Music Alliance, an organization he formed to promote the kind of adventurous music he’s been playing for 12 years. “Guys were just using it as a booking agency to get gigs,” he said. “But when it comes to coming out and supporting each other’s shows, they’re just not there.”

A few weeks after their most recent Black Dog stand, Ghostcar (minus Perdue) held forth at Dallas’ Red Blood Club before a small handful of people — a regular Wednesday night occurrence. Things were hit and miss, but when the elements were all working together, the music was like food for a hungry soul — haunting and lyrical. “When we play, I’ll try and project a certain intention — like healing people or keeping President Bush from invading Iraq,” said Poetschke. “The thing to avoid is trying too much to influence the direction of the music.” At the end of the night, the owner informed Poetschke that Ghostcar had lost the gig.

“I’m invested in this music, but I also have other things in my life that I’ve been neglecting,” said Poetschke. “It sounds egotistical, but I’m afraid that if I stop, then this [band] will stop.” A Black Dog show planned for this weekend was cancelled when the restless trumpeter took a two-month gig in Maui, but the band promises to resume activity when he returns in May, concentrating on recording and playing Fort Worth and Denton venues.

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