I got to talk to Shepard from his home in Florida where he and the rest of the band were doing a few gigs locally and gearing up for a busy fall. Roadkill Ghost Choir returns to St. Louis for a show at LouFest 2014 on Saturday, September 6.
Nick Cowan: I saw you at Lollapalooza this year, and you had the unenviable task of opening the first day of the festival. That would make me nervous.
Andrew Shepard: We didn't really know what to expect with that show. We've done that before at a festival and those can be disappointing because it was 12 o'clock. We're excited to be a part of it, but know we aren't going to play to a lot of people. We don't wake up that early usually.
Do you play differently or have different set lists for festivals like Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo -- and Loufest coming up, where the crowd is there to see everyone compared to a club when you have "your" audience?
We don't change too much; keep it pretty consistent for whoever we're playing for, don't mess with the set.
I noticed a pedal steel and trumpet in your live set. Your new record "In Tongues" came out a couple weeks ago and seems like those are new elements since the "Quiet Light" EP?
It was a natural progression. We've always had pedal steel in the band, but on this record it's not played in the traditional country twang sort of way. It's more atmospheric, ambient swells and such. I love that, the steel is one of the most beautiful instruments. The EP came out two years ago and we had plenty of time to figure out what we wanted to do as a band.
Compared to the EP which was, originally, I think we recorded 15 or so songs. We sat on those for a few months and realized that, man, most of those were terrible (laughs). We whittled it down into the six songs on the EP. It's not very cohesive in its sound, kind of all over the place. We knew a little bit better what we wanted.
What's your musical background? Most of my research mentioned you being from central Florida with some sort of importance.
I've always had a weird relationship with Florida. People there have a lot of good things going on, but to be honest I just don't like the hot weather. Music wasn't really a thing that was a big part of the town I grew up in [Deland, Florida] and not a lot to latch on to. They pushed arts and music aside. We did have a dog parade. That seemed important. I did my own thing in my room, started writing and recording on my own.
What kind of music were you listening too that made you want to do this? How serious were you at first?
The thing that got me into writing and picking up a guitar around 20 or 21 was listening to Willie Nelson a lot, and I got really inspired. It started just as a bedroom project. I would record songs and throw them on the Internet under some anonymous name. That somehow led to me playing a show that was supposed to be solo and formed a band because I didn't want to play by myself. That show became what Roadkill Ghost Choir is now.
How did you meet those guys so fast?
The drummer and bass player are my brothers.
Oh, right on. Genetic rhythm section!
Yeah. Our guitar player [Stephen Garza] was actually giving Zach guitar lessons and at that point in the band, really early on -- like the first couple of months, we were looking for a keyboard player. So Zach says, "This guy that's teaching guitar is really good on keyboards. He joins the band, is just a terrible keyboard player. Terrible. So we switched him to guitar because he tells us, "I went to college for guitar." (laughs)
Information you could have had before!
Right! And then Kiffy (Meyer) was interning at a studio in Florida. It was around the time that we were about to play that show, and he plays pedal steel and banjo which is exactly what I wanted for those early songs. It all worked out strangely perfect.
Your lyrics have a lot of the old-school folk and country storytelling. How much of that was already in your head before you started listening to Willie Nelson and such?
Probably the first couple of songs I ever wrote, they were, well, I'm not sure where I was coming from. I was probably heartbroken about some girl. I got into Willie around that time and then Bob Dylan and trying to learn their process, other songwriters like that.
That seems like a high bar to set right out of the gate.
Seemed like a good start-off point.
How did your brothers end up being a rhythm section?
Maxx has been playing drums for a really long time, since he was around 10 I guess. I don't really remember why Zach started playing bass. He picked it up later on I think, maybe to join the band.
They're pretty tight, and consistent with all the stuff you've put out.
They play really well together, makes it easier for everyone else.
Was there a lot of music in your house growing up? Or creative environment in general?
My parents were super great growing up. They encouraged us to follow pretty much anything we found interesting. I played a lot of sports back then. But there was always music around in my house. Mom played a lot of alternative radio, Pearl Jam and Nirvana at the time. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 13 or 14 but got kind of bored with it. Then, I got a lap top and a midi keyboard and making really, really bad electronic music. That was at 15. I learned so much about how to record and arrange from that. Turned out to be really formative for me. My parents always supported it.
The record has just come out. Are there any songs that you really enjoy playing live right now?
My favorite to play right now is "Lazarus, You've Been Dreaming." The feel of that song live is always a lot of fun, and I still connect with the subject matter in that one too. "Dead Friend" is like that too. I still really connect to it. Connecting to the song is really important. I love those moments where you're in a moment just playing music.
That song adds some shoegaze-feeling guitar to the arrangement too. The guitar in that song is rocking. You mentioned that these two songs are related?
Definitely similar. Both came from a time where I wasn't sure what I was doing or where I was going in my life. There was some heartbreak and a whole bunch of emotions I was trying to get through.
How much of your set draws from the EP and the new album?
Depends on length of our set but mostly new stuff.
You've got a good-sized tour coming up.
We've got a few coming up and then take off for a long stretch in September. We're really looking forward to it.
As am I for LouFest.
LouFest 2014 takes place in Forest Park in St. Louis September 6-7. KDHX is a media partner of LouFest.