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Interview: Joseph Lekkas (Palm Ghosts)

Palm Ghosts
23 November 2021

Photo by Sam Wiseman

When Palm GhostsJoseph Lekkas discusses what albums make up his vinyl collection, it’s not a surprise considering his band’s penchant for writing’80s-style new wave/post-punk songs. But, a deeper dive into the Palm Ghosts catalog reveals an indie-folk sound in Lekkas’s early days of releasing music. The Nashville-by-way-of-Philadelphia jack-of-all-trades explains that Palm Ghosts started as a solo project before becoming a full-fledged band where each member brings in their own influences to create the band’s nostalgic sound.

In March, Palm Ghosts released Lifeboat Candidate, an album that came together as a reaction to the pandemic and the political landscape of the last administration. Lekkas tells me over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour conversation that each member of the band recorded their own parts at home during the Covid lockdown and then he put the pieces of the puzzle together. Then, in early November, Palm Ghosts released it’s second album of 2021, The Lost Frequency , which had actually been completed prior to the pandemic but shelved until the band could properly promote it.

On the eve of The Lost Frequency’s release, Lekkas and I chatted about his move from Philly to Nashville, ’80s influences, why Bandcamp is a valuable distribution vehicle for bands and what it will take for Lekkas to feel like he’s made it.

Is there a band that, if Palm Ghosts had a chance to open for, you’d say, “That’s it. It’ll never get better than this. We can just end the band now.”?

JOSEPH: The Cure. I love The Cure. That’s a simple answer. Japan is a band that I really love. Mick Karn is dead so that will never happen but David Sylvian is still alive. I think playing with them would be amazing. XTC. There’s so many. I guess The Cure, that’s the easy answer.

I was familiar with the band name Japan but until streaming services came around, I had never listened to them.

JOSEPH: They’re British. A lot of that stuff never made it here. David Sylvian has lived in the United States for years but Japan, bands like The Associates, all these kind of obscurish bands, they were bigger in England and kind of influenced the bands that became big here, like Duran Duran and bands like that. I mean, Bowie is enormous for me. But, he’s dead, so he wouldn’t be one I could open for. That’s a really tough question. If you’re asking somebody who plays music that question, there’s just too much. I also love Tears for Fears. That would be a good one.

There seems to be at least two different types of artists in Nashville. There are the artists who have consistent gigs at the country bars on Broadway and never hop in a van to tour and then there are bands who call Nashville home but spend their time on the road. In my local scene, it feels like many bands’ biggest aspiration is to play the biggest club in town. If they do that, they’ve “made it.” They don’t try to book shows out of town.

JOSEPH: That’s an interesting observation. In Philadelphia, where I’m originally from, I feel like everybody wanted to play the biggest club in Philly on a Saturday night and, in that way, they felt like they had made it. There wasn’t a lot of touring going on for bands that were kind of big in Philly and there were so many great bands there. But, Nashville kind of opened my eyes, everybody tours. Everybody seems to eek out some sort of living touring so when bands are here, the reason they’re here, I believe, is because “Oh, I can be in Indianapolis in 4 hours and I can be in Louisville. And, 13 hours is Texas. I can go to Texas and play 5 shows in Texas. Chicago is only 6 hours. New Orleans is 8.” It made me go, “Oh, okay, you can do this.” Even if you’re a weekend warrior, you can do this. Whereas in Philly, it was more like, “Let’s get the biggest club. Let’s pack them in on a Saturday night and we’ve made it.” That might have even been how the War on Drugs wanted to operate at some point. Then, all of a sudden, they became 6-time Grammy award winners.

Did you move to Nashville to pursue the dream?

JOSEPH: I moved to Nashville to live a more musical life. In Philly, I played in different bands. You do your whole thing for a while but it became stale. I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Philly for a while. Nothing was really happening and I just wanted to come here and do something a little bit different. You’ve got to be insane to live in New York and you’ve got to be insane to live in Los Angeles these days. Me and my wife were headed to Austin. We thought that might be the spot. I book bands and I would also go to SXSW. I love that town but it was really expensive and it was becoming more a tech hub than a music thing. We picked Nashville and, luckily we did, because it was right before Nashville boomed. My wife works in science so she works in a lab. It was the perfect location for her, all the medical stuff was going on here and I could just be the music guy.

I ended up setting up a studio in my house and producing and recording a lot of bands. I never did that in Philly. I started recording records for folks, for people I’d meet and it was different music. It was a lot more Americana based. I recorded about 10 or 11 records for people and always recording my own stuff. Our first two records, especially the first one, is indie-folk/Americana. It’s much more roots based.

I was like, “Why don’t I do stuff that is more influenced by the stuff that I’ve always loved, which is post-punk and alternative?” That’s when I started switching gears. It seems to be the most successful thing for us so far. I formed a band to tour with it and it became a band that contributes. At first, it was just me doing everything.

I was going to take some of that early stuff down but, you know what, process. Sometimes people are interested in process. It might be not good for us for the kids that are into goth music. They’re like, “What the heck are they doing? They’re not real.” I’m not trying to impress anybody. We just do all different stuff anyways. I don’t think we fit snuggly into any genre.

Listening to your earlier material, I was curious why you kept the Palm Ghosts name. But, it makes sense, because while the new stuff doesn’t sound like the early stuff, it’s all your stuff, music you created. Why shouldn’t an artist be allowed to change, to try a new sound?

JOSEPH: I thought of all those things. I really thought, “Oh, I should change the name.” The second record, Greenland, that was a dump of a bunch of things I was working on and I had put it out as a record. It was like, “Here’s a little Americana vibe from the first record. This is getting a little bit more electronica or like trip-hoppy.” It was a mix of different stuff on that record. Some of it was straight up power-pop, almost like Badfinger. Then I was like, “Should I change the name? Should I pull this crap from streaming services?” But I was like, “Am I a marketing guy? I’m just a guy who writes and releases music.” Then it became a band. Palm Ghost now is a very different thing. It’s a band. That’s why everything sounds way different. It you put Lifeboat Candidate up against Greenland, you’d be like “What is this guy smoking?” It’s definitely an interjection of the other members. People don’t like to put on display warts of creativity where you’re like “I’m working on this but maybe I haven’t found the sound yet.” There’s classic stories of bands fighting to have stuff not be released because they hadn’t quite come up with their sound yet or something is embarrassing for them. I thought about this. It’s all in my hands. It’s not like some label owns that stuff. I was like, “I’m just putting it all out there.” Bowie changed so dramatically, his early stuff was about dwarves in trees and stuff. Then he does stuff with Trent Reznor. Even his last record was jazzy. Just throw it out there.

The Palm Ghosts band now, what I think of as Palm Ghosts Mach II or 2.0, that started with Architecture. There was a female singer with me on that entire record. It was like, “Here’s these songs. There was a girl named Erica Whitney that was in the band for a while. That was the whole band we have now and then Erica was like, “I’m going to go do my own stuff.” And I was like, “Cool.” We’re still friends. And then it was an EP that is almost proggy, Loop Arcade, and then Wide Awake and Waiting which is like New Order meets The Cure. Then we put out Lifeboat Candidate which is like Gang of Four, it’s really angular and jagged and angry. Even Mach II Palm Ghosts is very different with each record. People either go along for the ride and like that or they don’t.

You’ve released full lengths and EPs and singles on places like Bandcamp. Now, you’ve got two albums coming out in one year. With technology being the way it is, you can record quickly and get music out quickly, literally throwing up a song online within minutes of finishing it. Why did you decide to release two albums in a year?

JOSEPH: I didn’t leave the house for a year. My wife worked in a lab so she had to be there, which was sketchy and scary for a long time. I was locked in the house, didn’t do much. I would just walk every day. I have a studio in my house. I didn’t see the band for a year. I didn’t physically see any member of the band for a year. What we did for our last record is we just sent files back and forth and I put them together. Weirdly enough, for the last record, the drummer, who I used to play in bands with, he sent me a bunch of loops, drums he recorded on an iPhone in New Jersey. I formulated those on the songs. I took the loops as A, B, C, D parts of songs and played bass over them. Then I emailed those to the guitar player and he had a little garage band set up and he recorded guitars over it and then I sent it to Ben [Douglas] and Ben wrote lyrics over the stuff and then sent it back to me and I put it all together and that was our last record, Lifeboat Candidate. It was completely formulated that way.

In the meantime, every day I was downstairs. I had nothing else to do. No one was touring so I was basically working on music the entire year. From that year, and previous, we have 55 songs that are unreleased right now. That’s not even including the two records we put out this year. We have 55 songs fully recorded and done on my hard drive, which is insanity. Those songs, we pick and choose from them to see what works on records. Some of them are more gothy, some are more poppy. They all sound like what we do so we can pick them all and make them into EPs and records.

What had happened with The Lost Frequency is the year before the pandemic, we had finished that record, which we just released. We were getting vinyl fabricated, and it took 18 months. So, we’re like, “Let’s wait on that record because we can’t really tour on it and we can’t really sell vinyl. Let’s do Lifeboat Candidate now because it’s basically recorded during the pandemic.” All of the stuff that’s going on with the pandemic is what that record is all about. We were like, “Let’s record that now. It’s very now. It’s very dark and about politics and about all this crap that’s happening.” We recorded and released that. But this record, The Lost Frequency, is more about the global warming and everything else that’s been happening the last 20 years but it’s not specifically about the pandemic or about the last administration or whatever, the political stuff. It’s different, so that’s why we decided to release this one now.

We like to record EPs because it seems people’s attention spans aren’t really formed for records and full length LPs. Albums mean something to me and I think they mean something to really young kids too. It’s an expression. It’s really hard to just put out singles. If I’m on Spotify and a band just puts out singles, I just want to put them all into a playlist and listen to them together anyway. I don’t want to hear one song. We released a lot of singles over time too but that’s why I put together that singles and B-Sides CD/playlist on Spotify. People want to listen to this stuff all together. We ended up selling a bunch of CDs, people wanted to hear them all together. I didn’t even love singles when I was a kid, that was for DJs.

Do you get excited when you release a new album? Does release day mean something important to you?

JOSEPH: I’m always excited when we release stuff. We have so many songs and we’re always working on new stuff and on new ideas. When a batch of songs go out as a record or an EP, it’s like a load off our shoulders. It’s like, “Now this belongs to everybody else.” I don’t have to think about “is this going to work with this song?” You just go onto the next thing. I like that a lot. I like the idea of no more tweaks, no more anything. It’s out. People are going to like it or they’re not going to like it and you can think of the next concept. To me, that’s exciting. I probably won’t listen to it much after it’s out. You put it out, you learn the songs to play live and then they become different than the record. I haven’t listened to stuff from Lifeboat Candidate for a long time. We’ll play live, and I’m used to how a certain song is, then I’ll listen back to Lifeboat and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s a different phrasing than I do now” or “We sound completely different on that song.” It becomes a different thing altogether. I’m always excited to release stuff but there’s so much stuff that goes out these days, it’s really hard to get it out, unless you’re Adele, to people. This is what we do, this is what we love, so I release music. I get excited about it because it’s getting it out of our brains and out into the world.

Bandcamp seems to be a good platform for Palm Ghosts.

JOSEPH: Bandcamp is so wonderful. You know you’re buying stuff from the band directly. There’s something more handmade about that. There’s something I like a lot about that. That’s a band that’s not being marketed to me by anybody. It’s a band that I found on my own by searching on genres that I like. There’s no marketing, in a sense, like there used to be unless you’re Justin Bieber, but even the indie labels spend a lot of money on their bands, some of them do, and really get them out there. If you’re a band without a label or a very small label, the chance of connecting with the listener is very hard. That’s why I think Bandcamp is a wonderful tool.

Bandcamp had put our last record on there as a “critic’s pick” for a week. That opened the world up for us. We had a record label that almost signed us from that. A whole bunch of stuff happened. That was kind of nice, it’s kind of cool.

The last few Palm Ghosts albums have an ’80s sound to them. Are you into ’80s pop culture and was that a driving force behind the music?

JOSEPH: It’s funny because the collection of records I have is mostly post-punk and new wave. My favorite band is the Velvet Underground, which is not the ’80s. Number 2 is probably The Beatles, which is not the ’80s. I don’t know that the culture of the ’80s is huge although I do like John Hughes movies. That’s hard for me. I record everything for the band and mixed and everything. I don’t think it sounds like the ’80s at all anymore. Some friends tell me that’s bad. I’ve obviously found a language to use to release and mix and all that stuff and apparently the sounds that I use sounds like the ’80s to people, even if it doesn’t sound like the ’80s to me. Lifeboat doesn’t sound like the ’80s to me. I thought that was a lot more jagged and beefier and people said it sounded like the Psychedelic Furs. I love all those bands. I love The Chameleons, I love The Cure, I love the Psychedelic Furs. Echo and the Bunnymen, I adore. I listen to it a lot. Maybe it’s become part of me. Because of what I like and what I listen to, it comes out that way, but it’s not intentional. I’m not sitting there going, “I’m going to make this sound more ’80s. This doesn’t sound ’80s enough.” I just record the stuff and it ends up sounding that way. It’s not like I’m really going for it.

In my mind, I see you sitting down and watching Stranger Things and then saying to yourself, “If I could write the soundtrack for the next season, here’s what I would make it sound like.”

JOSEPH: I do like Stranger Things and I do love the feeling that it gives me watching it. I do love Juno 60 and Jupiter 8 synths that they use for the soundtracks. The other members of the band, Jason [Springman], the guitar player, he is a big fan of Wolf Parade and Frog Eyes and all these ’90s jagged, mathy rock bands. And he loves doomy stuff too, like Liturgy and The Body, these heavy metal bands. Ben, who plays keyboards, guitars and writes the lyrics, the biggest bands for him are Elvis Costello and The Lemonheads. He loves Shudder to Think and all those bands. The drummer, Walt [Epting], his favorite bands are Bowie and Radiohead and jazz music. Me, I’m definitely the one in the band that is most likely to be sitting around listening to Echo and the Bunnymen. I’ll be like, “This is a new song, what does it sound like?” and my wife will say, “Early U2” and I’ll be like, “Really? I don’t hear that.” I guess it just happens. Maybe in the beginning I was going for that sound but then maybe that sound has enveloped me in a way where that’s just what I do now.

If I’m being honest, I would have hated Palm Ghosts in the ’80s. I was into hair metal and arena rock. But, as an adult, I can look back at those days nostalgically and your music reminds me of weekend afternoons hanging out in the arcade at the mall and playing Defender and there is something very comforting about that.

JOSEPH: It’s so funny, we just played a show in Jacksonville a couple of weeks ago and the guy that was the bartender, he might have been in his 50s, I’m not sure, he was like “It was 1980 something and I was driving my t-top Trans Am down to the beach and I just got this feeling when you were playing, it was like here I was at 17 driving, ready to party, thinking about all the possibilities that lay ahead of me. Thank you for that.” That’s amazing to me that people can hear that in what we do. Even live, I think we’re a bit more rock than we are recorded. A lot of the bands that sound kind of ’80s right now, this is no harm, no foul to any of them, but a lot of them just have it all pre-programmed into a laptop and it’s usually just one guy hitting a button and another guy singing or playing guitar. It’s these duos that travel around. We’re a four-piece band and everything is played live. We have intros programmed on some stuff but we rarely use any additional tracks. We just play like a band would. It means sacrificing some of the layers that we do on the record to do a more live version of that. It’s much more intense sounding. That the bartender got that from this, it’s like, “Oh, that’s cool. He’s actually hearing that from not even hearing a recording of ours, just hearing us perform live” which made me really happy. We made him feel good.

Do you feel like where Palm Ghosts is right now – releasing music, playing shows – is “good enough” or do you aspire to take it to the next level, whatever that may be?

JOSEPH: What I would like is it to be sustaining enough that nobody has to work jobs in addition to playing music. That would be enough. If we were able to tour and make enough money to pay our mortgages or rent, and live a middle-class existence playing music and recording records, that would be enough. I’m never going stop. I’ll always record and release music, that’s just what’s in my blood. But, it’s not sustaining, that makes it difficult. My aspiration is to make a decent living and see more of the world. I’d love to tour Europe. We have a lot of listeners in Mexico City and, it’s quite interesting, in Colombia and Peru. I would love to go down there and play show. Prior to the pandemic, I was talking to a promoter in Mexico City about doing that and then, of course, the pandemic hit and derailed everything. Who knows how long it’ll take before that comes back. We’re trying to do some Canadian thing in the spring, which would be fun, because we’ve never toured outside the United States. There’s a lot of great music in Canada and a lot of great bands we don’t even hear about down here. I think any musician would like to be able to make it more self-sustaining. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, does it? [laughs]