Them Ol’ Ghosts are a four-piece rock band with roots buried deep in Southern soul. Their 2017 debut, Renegade, was recorded off the grid in a makeshift studio in the backwoods of Mississippi. The extemporaneous recording process was worth it; Renegade is a magical piece of work, luscious beyond belief and groovy.
Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Theophile Bourgeois (best name ever?), who is also the proprietor and master artist at Oak Street Tattoo, Them Ol’ Ghosts will put on the biggest performance of their career at Gretna Fest on September 29. There, he’ll be joined by guitarist Justin Johnson, drummer Blair Champagne (best name ever?) and bassist Aaron Younce. Ahead of their performance, Bourgeois got insightful about their genesis, sound and plans for what promises to be an auspicious future.
How did the band come together?
I had been in different bands all through my teenage years (mostly metal bands actually, which is so crazy considering the current style we write). I remember my cousin’s boyfriend telling me, “One day you’re gonna grow out of this cookie monster shit.” To which I responded with a swift “No way, man!” Little did I know I would one day be in my 30s with a wife and kids, way less angst and testosterone, a considerable amount of happiness, and zero desire to make a crowd of people “wreck the pit.”
I decided I wanted to make a change and write music people actually want to see live as opposed to merely being subjected to, just to support a friend. I met Justin and after a couple times jamming together, we knew that there was a special symbiotic nature to our playing. I’m not a very technical player. I’ve studied music theory in college, and have applied it to piano and guitar but ask me what scale I’m playing and I’m pretty much out. Justin, on the other hand, is very technical, always studying, knows his shit, and knows all the names for whatever we’re doing! Together we make one full guitar player I believe.
We played in a band called Sievers Drive for a few years before our drummer left and then spent the next year trying people out and just never found the right fit. Around that time, I was simultaneously starting a family and building my tattoo career, so music was put on the back burner as far as any professional capacity goes.
But I never stopped writing. Justin and I would get together periodically to jam and write, and we would play with drummers here and there but it just never clicked…
Fast forward about five years.
I had been tattooing this group of friends for a few months and this kid Blair would always come tag along. He wasn’t even old enough to be in the shop. He was this clean cut kid with a tight ass fade and diamond studs in his ears. By all metrics we should NOT have hit it off. But he was funny and respectful, you know, the type of person you want around?
So over the course of him hanging around, he would mention that he was a drummer and he’d tell me “We should Jam one day, man!” Now, I’ve had this type of situation unfold poorly enough times in the past to be less than cautiously optimistic about blind jamming with people. At the time I really didn’t have any free time between tattooing and family so I would politely say “Yea bud, one day!” with absolutely no real intention of ever taking him up on it. God that feels terrible to say out loud!
Around this time, I had started doing solo acoustic sets. I set up this Christmas Toy Drive and invited some other acoustic acts along to play and one of the acts asked if it was cool if he brought his drummer along. Turns out, that drummer was Blair! As soon as he got behind that kit, a feeling of regret washed over me. “How could I be so stupid? I missed the chance to have this guy in the band! Son of a bitch!”
He was a natural. His beats were visceral, his fills were spot on, so technical, but not flashy in a masturbatory way. As soon as they finished their set, I ran up and asked him to leave his kit on stage, because I had a plan…I was gonna throw a song at him that I knew he could nail and he would have no choice but to want to be in a band with me. I started “Mr. Officer,” and he played it perfectly as I always heard it in my head! It was like we shared a brain. I knew that night that regardless of what he had to say, I was never going to stop playing music with this dude.
After jamming with Blair for a few weeks, it was time for him to meet Justin. We set up and started playing “Losing My Cool.” Blair didn’t know that Justin was already very familiar with the song, so as soon as Justin came in with his licks, Blair’s eyes got as wide as they could and we shared that look, like “This is the band.”
Thus began the search for a bass player. We had tried a few dudes here and there but never had quite the right fit. Then one day Justin came into practice raving about these guys at Strange Guitar works who had just done some work on his guitar. I went in a and asked if I could put up an ad for a bass player and, without missing a beat, Aaron (who worked there) said,”I play bass!” I didn’t At the time, he was dying to play with a band. I sent him a link to some solo recordings and invited him to come jam. Now the fact that Aaron is just a stone-cold sweet heart was already enough to land him a spot in the band. I wasn’t too worried about his abilities, because, I mean, if your whole life is building and repairing guitars I’d say it’s safe to assume you can play. When we all got together for the first time, there was no question, we were whole! This dude could play, he was another responsible guy who like Justin, contributed so much of the technical aspect of music to the band.
I really feel the universe brought us together for something bigger than ourselves. Like we’re Voltron or something.
From where do you source your inspiration?
Inspiration hits you from where you least expect it. It may be the way Otis Redding places his vocals right behind the beat, or the way Thin Lizzy’s guitarists master harmonic arrangements. But I feel to be a successful artist, in whatever your medium may be, you need to consume as much as you can and be open to things you may not have thought you would like. Listen to music from all over the world, seek inspiration like water. Fully immerse yourself in your craft and be open to inspiration wherever it may hit you.
Music to us is such an integral part of what it is to be human. I look at it as an auditory manifestation of human emotion and every song out there is an extremely acute experience of one person who was able to translate that message through arranging sounds and crafting language in such a way as to resonate that experience with an audience. It’s the most rewarding feeling to have strangers tell you how your lyrics have touched them. My songs are often very personal experiences and there’s therapeutic value in that process. I know I’ve saved countless dollars on therapy by just writing music.
There is also a certain regional aspect to our sound, which is why I add the “Southern” sub genre to our title. I don’t think of us as others might think of “Southern” music. We’re not out here singing about whiskey and motorcycles or trucks or anything. For me, a big source of inspiration is the romance of South Louisiana. I live in a small town outside of Lafitte, called Barataria. My backyard is the swamp, It’s home to me, there’s such rich cultural currency and unending inspiration here. The swamp is my muse and I could never escape her charm.
What was the recording process like for Renegade?
The recording for Renegade was one of the top 5 experiences of my life. I remember this documentary about The Band’s album “Songs from Big Pink” where they just turned this big house in the woods into a recording studio. It looked to me like the only way to cut a record. My dad has some hunting property in Monticello, Mississippi with this beautiful cabin overlooking a bluff on a river and it was a no-brainer: We had to make this the studio. So I convinced my good friend Ryan Tousel of Studio 13/ Shugali Productions to pack up his perfectly capable recording studio, leave his family for a weekend and move it all to the middle of nowhere to set up a make shift studio in the woods.
After pulling into the wrong house and encountering a neighbor with a loaded gun in his hand, Ryan made it to the cabin and the whole weekend was pure magic.
We got Blair’s drums down pretty quick and worked on honing in our tone and finalizing parts in the night hours between tracking. Aaron being the all-pro musician he is, knocked his parts out in no time and went all the way back home to tech for Leo Nocentelli at Jazz Fest that night and came back up the next day just to be there. His parts were done. He had every reason to stay home, but didn’t. That’s the type of thing that really makes you love someone.
Justin and I worked on guitar harmonies all through the night, and when we did sleep, we slept with shirts over our mouths because there were HUGE spiders all over the place.
When it came time to track vocals I had originally set up in a room by myself, which I loved because I was a little self conscious of singing a cappella in a room full of buddies. That ended quickly when Ryan didn’t like the sound at all. So he threw me right in the middle of the cabin with everyone. At first I was dreading the thought of them sitting there listening to me sing but there was this moment where this orange hunting vest caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed before. It had this really cool Native American Chief airbrushed on it and it was framed in fancy cursive letters that read “Chief Running Black Toe.” This was my late Paw Paw Theophile’s hunting vest. Everybody called him Black, and it was like a sign that hit me. I knew I had to throw that vest on and record these vocals with the help of Ol’ Black Toe. The band being the group of angels that they are were super supportive and made me feel really OK with the fact that, while I could hear everything in my headphones, all they could hear was me singing my heart out in nothing but some gym shorts and an epic hunting vest from my Paw Paw.
What plans do you have for future recordings?
We actually just went up to Bogalusa to cut two new tracks for a vinyl release. These songs explore more of our rock n roll/ progressive side. We managed to track some piano with the same piano that Kansas played on “Carry On Wayward Son” and ash in the same ash tray that Willie Nelson once used. So…that was pretty magical. We plan to release that soon as a limited edition 7” collector’s vinyl. I’ll be doing all of the album artwork myself and including a limited-edition art print inside of some of them. I enjoy joining my musical and visual arts careers where I can. I feel it’s an added level to this project. From shirt designs, to album art. Maybe I’m a control freak or maybe i’m trying to save the band money. I’m not sure, but until the guys ask me to stop doing band doodles I’m going to keep them coming!
What do you look forward to showcasing at Gretna Fest? What do you feel your live performance brings to the table as opposed to other bands?
Gretna Fest will be our biggest show to date! We’re all really excited for this one! 3/4 of the band are from the West Bank so we’re fixing to show out for the home crowd, you know? We have a lot of new songs that we haven’t performed yet that really go into new territory for us, but still fits well within the Them Ol’ Ghosts realm. We’re going to go out there and put it all out. When I sing those lyrics, I’m living those moments again. Whatever they are, good or bad, it’s raw sincerity and it’s about as genuine as it gets. You’re going to see four guys who love each other, the music that they are able to make together, and the fans who support it, living the God damn dream!