On their debut EP, Dead 27s brilliantly infused rock-and-roll and classic soul with both raw energy and refined musicality. Now with their first full-length effort Ghosts Are Calling Out, the Charleston-based band expands their sound by pursuing their passion for loose and joyful experimentation. Working with a treasure trove of obscure and vintage lo-fi gear, Dead 27s have widened their sonic repertoire to offer up an album that’s boldly inventive but rooted in pure emotion.
The follow-up to 2014’s Chase Your Devils Down—an EP praised by the likes of No Depression, who remarked that “you can feel their music in your bones”—Ghosts Are Calling Out builds off its predecessor’s earthy sensibility and gritty spirit. But while Dead 27s maintain their soulful melodicism and knack for heavy grooves, the new album finds the band crafting gorgeously warped textures that take their music in a thrilling new direction. “Making this album, we wanted to push ourselves and bring much more attention to detail to the production—and at the same time have some fun with all these weird, distorted sounds and tones that we were coming up with,” notes Mullinax.
That creative abandon is palpable throughout Ghosts Are Calling Out, which was produced by Ben Ellman (a member of the funk/rock act Galactic) and mixed by Mikael “Count” Eldridge (a producer/engineer whose past work includes releases by Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, and a Grammy Award-winning effort from Mavis Staples). To record the album, Dead 27s headed to New Orleans and set up shop in The Living Room (a studio housed in a 1930s church by the Mississippi River). While in New Orleans, Dead 27s took advantage of their surroundings by pairing up with local musicians like Pretty Lights touring keyboardist Brian Coogan (who performed on several tracks on Ghosts Are Calling Out). The band also had a major breakthrough when Ellman sent them to the home of Ani DiFranco and her producer/husband Mike Napolitano to borrow a stockpile of gear that would play a major role in shaping the album’s sound. “All of a sudden we had all these new toys and a way bigger palette to paint with,” recalls Francis. Among those toys: a pocket amp, a miniature synthesizer, and an Omnichord (an electric harp-like device that generates what Evans calls “these very ’80s-Nintendo-sounding chords”).
Despite the playfulness of its production, Ghosts Are Calling Out attains an emotional depth first glimpsed on Chase Your Devils Down. “The title for the new record comes from a line in ‘Only One’: ‘Down on Desperation Lane/Ghosts are calling out my name,’” explains Mullinax, referring to the album’s closing track. “It’s about the ghosts of your past experiences, the things that haunt you throughout your life—not necessarily in a bad way, but in the sense that certain experiences just stay a part of you forever.”
In capturing experiences both bad and good, painful and euphoric, Ghosts Are Calling Out endlessly shifts moods and embodies a broad spectrum of feeling—a feat achieved with great help from Francis’s stunning vocal command. Kicking off with the one-two punch of “What a Waste” (a harmony-laced number featuring some fantastically skewed guitar work) and “Queen” (a feel-good track shot through with hip-shaking rhythms), the album then drifts into melancholy on songs like the beautifully bittersweet “Already Dead” and the deceptively breezy “Grey Skies.” “That song’s about someone who’s brokenhearted after the girl he loves leaves him,” explains Francis of the latter. “It’s about feeling like you can’t enjoy yourself at all anymore, and it’s meant to give you the feeling that you’re almost getting past that and moving on to something better.”
Elsewhere on Ghosts Are Calling Out, Dead 27s explore darker territory with “Scarecrow,” a song that threads its sinister guitar riff through lyrics about “watching someone get caught up with a very powerful and negative person,” according to Mullinax. With its sleepy melody, spacey tones, and smoldering guitar work, “Fantastic” slips into dreamy psychedelia but delivers a message that Mullinax describes as “wanting change instead of just accepting things that aren’t exactly right.” On the hymnlike “Emanuel,” the band quietly reflects on the 2015 shooting at their hometown’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I was away when that happened, and when I got back I went straight to the church,” says Mullinax. “When I got home that night, the song came together so easily, although now it’s very difficult to play.” And on “Only One,” Dead 27s shake off everyday frustrations and lay down an all-out anthem whose groove gives a nod to the then-recently-departed New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint.
The intense vitality that powers each track on Ghosts Are Calling Out has much to do with Dead 27s’ undeniable chemistry, a force they discovered the very first time they played together. Initially teaming up for a one-time gig at a local festival in spring 2012, Francis, Mullinax, Evans, and Goldstein quickly decided to collaborate on a new project, and soon brought Crider into the fold. Seeking a name for the event, the band began to brainstorm ideas and decided to pay homage to 27s club, a group of musicians known for leaving an indelible mark on American music. The name stuck more for the appreciation of pushing musical boundaries and leaving nothing on the table at live shows, than a direct mirroring of any of the 27s club members sound. In that moment, Dead 27s was born.
After releasing Chase Your Devils Down in spring 2014, Dead 27s earned the Charleston City Paper Music Awards’ Song of the Year prize two years in a row, ranked in the top 24 of VH1’s “Make a Band Famous” competition, and opened for such artists as Earphunk, Galactic, The Revivalists, Marcus King Band, and Tab Benoit. Fast gaining a reputation as an incendiary live act, the band devoted much of 2015 to touring as well as writing and pre-producing material for Ghosts Are Calling Out.
With each show serving as a breeding ground for creativity, Dead 27s mine much inspiration from their time on the road. Along with setting up makeshift recording stations in their hotel rooms, the band continually sources song ideas on the fly: the new album’s “Rainbow,” for instance, was sparked by a strange piece of graffiti carved into the wall of a bar bathroom in Chattanooga. Through that near-constant writing and performing, Dead 27s have vastly strengthened their creative connection and pushed the boundaries of their musicianship. “We’ve always worked in a way where everyone adds their own flavors to the songs, but this album was much more of a collaborative effort,” says Evans. “Each one of us more was a lot more heavily engaged in the whole process, and we ended up trying new stuff that we’re all really excited about and that goes way beyond just having some good new songs to put out.”