If you were paying attention last week, you know that we had a special guest comment on an article I put up about the band The Hysterics. The guest was Oliver Ignatius, former lead singer/songwriter for that particular band. In his comment, he mentioned that the demise of the band was basically that they were too young to handle everything that was going on around them. He also said that if I had any questions, I should feel free to ask.
Well, a few emails back and forth later, and here we are. There’s no shying away from the harsh realities these guys faced at a very young age. If you’re thinking about starting a band and hoping for great success, be sure to take note of how things went down for The Hysterics.
1. The basic story of how The Hysterics got their big debut is fairly well known. You recorded some demos and gave them to someone at your school who then put them on the music blog Music For Robots. Within a day your stuff had been downloaded over a thousand times. How quickly did things change for you after that?
At first I was unprepared for the response to the Music for Robots post, I was 15 years old and a total stoner and I guess I just aloofly hoped for the best. When the response was sort of unprecedentedly huge for what we expected, I definitely felt vindicated because I’d been announcing or almost demanding my intention to succeed in music since I was a toddler. I grew up moving around overseas, living in Hong Kong, Russia, Belgium and Beijing and all of those places were fairly cut off from the kind of music culture I was interested in, so writing and recording and performing music was always the sort of dream on the other side of all that alienation and transition. We moved to NYC when I was 13, so I was pretty taken aback that it had only taken two years to get so much attention. I would say the moment things really seemed to change for us though was the night of the MTV featurette, which coincided with a reposting on the blog that attracted thousands of listeners. Although I definitely had my determined integrity about MTV generally not being the coolest source of music information, it was hard not to get carried away on the hormonal endorphin rush of all that attention. Most vindicating of all was the fact that we’d gotten this attention without resorting to any publicity stunts or image manipulation, indeed we had literally no public image at the time, we hadn’t even gigged yet. As I got a bit older it became more clear that actually we had been selected for our age and precocity, and were sort of being judged on an uneven plane from all the artists I was listening to and was influenced by, and that was a bit disappointing but the whole thing was still very much to appreciate. Things changed pretty quickly then, the band became my main focus for the rest of high school (with justification to actually focus 100% on it) and our first gig was attended by something like 500 people, which was utterly dizzying and to be honest I remember us being pretty atrocious musically because half of our membership had been kicked out of school and sent around the country so rehearsal wasn’t something we got to do often enough. We weren’t quite ready for all that attention. As far as things changing for me socially, that was a sort of long and rather melancholy affair; I tried really hard to include all my friends, who were all talented artists and creators in all fields in what we were doing, tried to make Hysterics shows into sort of bizarre free-flowing pan-cultural affairs with all kinds of stuff showcased and everybody highlighted. But we are all competitive teenagers living in NYC, surely the most competitive city in the world, and I don’t blame them for eventually feeling we’d gotten enough attention and support, and their sort of deciding to withdraw it. I don’t fault them but the chill that was felt when our friends sort of pulled their support was profound and insidious, and I do feel like that was one of the nails in the coffin of Hysterics as being a vibrant, going pursuit.
2. Once your name was out there on a huge platform like MTV you were probably getting tons of calls from agents and record labels. Who were you relying on for advice and guidance during this time?
The hilarious thing is that I was too much of a stoned idiot to capitalize at all on the initial wave, which was the strongest and heaviest. I mean we got a shitload of emails, that I would mostly read and never respond to because I was so unprepared to be at the center of this wave. At that time we had no management, and my dad had sped-read a few books on the music industry to be the closest thing to an advisor we had. I thought it was all very amusing, but didn’t really know what anything should entail, and above all I always wanted things to grow naturally and organically so they would retain their magic, so I was always skeptical of any business opportunities that had even the slightest whiff of a ‘fly by night’ or some kind of artistic compromise. At this time in my life I’m a bit more realistic about the rarity of opportunity, and the importance of appreciating and taking what you can get. I guess at that time in my life I was kind of a brat.
3. At 15, was it possible for you and the other guys in the band to fully comprehend what was going on? Were there ever meetings between just the four of you to discuss things like business, or was that left to others?
We’d discuss things between us, but business is actually the first plane on which we came to learn we didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on all matters. We were always pulling in different directions, I wanted to do things that were sort of mystically bent and entirely holistic and focused on the healing power of music, and I had very little patience for going through the motions of anything that I felt would make us feel or look stupid. In retrospect I don’t know that I was always right, but I listened to my gut because it’s all I had guiding me. After a while, we started to have people working for us; Jeff Peretz, who was the lead guitarist Charlie’s guitar teacher and all around father figure (and ended up co-producing the Hysterics album with me) was our first manager, and after a while he shared duties with Ron Shapiro, who had been the head of Atlantic records for a while and then managed Regina Spektor and some other people. We had Rosemary Carroll working as our lawyer, she was an amazing lady who gave us a lot of grounding advice, and Burt Goldstein as our business manager who we only met probably 3 times since we never ended up pulling in all that much money…They were great and were always very helpful but at the same time it was easy to feel sort of strong-armed as kids working with adults who of course always felt they’d know best what course we should take. Everything was very all over the place, organization was never our strong suit.
4. As I remember it, that MTV piece ran sometime in 2005. But you guys didn’t put out your record until 2007. Normally if a record label thinks they have a hot commodity they want to get it out right away. Why was there such a delay in getting the material out?
Oh man, the answer to this question could fill an essay or a little novella or something. Essentially it was, again, an organizational thing. We didn’t capitalize enough on the first wave, and Charlie was always out of town at boarding school so we also never got the chance at that point to really rehearse and tighten our performance and harmonies and those things. So I think a number of the labels that were interested that would come to our show would leave feeling like they were still interested, but that we had some more development to do before anything could really be done with us. Enough rehearsal I think would have solved that problem, and eventually did when Charlie came back to the city in 2006, but by that time the wave had sort of crested. We spent most of 2006 incredibly excited about signing to V2, who gave us the money to finish our album and were going to release it, and then in a classically tragic twist V2 ended up delaying the final signing for months before we finally learned the whole business was shuttering and becoming a catalog label too. So although we ended up releasing the album ourselves, that was another disillusioning experience and of course by that time I was 18 and exhausted to the point of embarrassment with these songs I’d written when I was 15 at the oldest and we’d been sort of arbitrarily fiddling with for years and that still didn’t sound quite how I’d hoped they would. Ultimately I guess I’m glad that we were grounded in those ways, because it really made us have to consider who we were as people and what we really wanted from life and music, and who knows if we had been signed and sent on tour with the Click Five as teenagers, we would have probably had the worst time ever.
5. What were the conversations like between the band members as the decision became clear that the band needed to be dissolved?
Sadly one of the things that had happened by that time was that communication had really disintegrated between us, to the point where we weren’t discussing these things openly with each other very much. I love all three of those guys to the grave, they will always be some of my best friends but we went into something together that burned us and by the time we were ready to emerge into adulthood, Hysterics had been a very weighing thing around all of our necks. Of course because there was so much pressure on us, and such a constant expectation that at some near point in the future we would be breaking through to the next level, it compelled us to hold on to each other more tightly than ever for a while. Our whole identities as teenagers had been wrapped in this band, and I think we were all a bit terrified to be nakedly exposed without it. I know I was. I was becoming increasingly frustrated too with the resistance to experimentation I felt was coming from the adults who were working for us, although to be fair they were coming from the place of sort of assuming they had signed on to work with a band that was way ‘cuter’ and less psychotic/psychedelic than we all really were as people, so they were a bit jarred by some of the things we wanted to do. There was a glorious period in the summer of 2006 when Hysterics briefly became a 6 piece, adding Charlie’s friend Pak on extra harmonies and our old buddy Justin Coles on guitar (he’s now very much in the Ghost Pal fold), while I was heavily influenced by Sly and the Family Stone at the time and was transitioning to just playing organ and singing on stage and being a sort of instigator. We had a really good time doing that, we were also influenced by the Band at Big Pink mentality and we really felt like we were becoming a strong unit, almost like a little army. But our management essentially freaked, declaring it a logistical nightmare and we never got the chance to rehearse it quite enough (a common thread) so that whole thing was kibboshed and I know we felt really terrible toward our friends who we had included only to be forced to shun. Honestly that was when Hysterics soured for me, I was 17 and once that whole fiasco was done I essentially didn’t want to know anymore. Charlie and I, as the dual frontmen and songwriters of the band, had been pushed so far up against each other in a kind of unspoken competition that I think we couldn’t even look at each other anymore, which was sad because we really had been best friends. Things are cool between us now though, and he continues to also make great music. But at that point I was getting so disillusioned with the whole thing that I started getting willfully more obtuse in my art and presentation, to the point where I was doing a lot of acid and amphetamines and honestly sort of trying to push my brain fully into madness so i could get at some intangible place of totally free and spiritual music.so i was wildly into drones, and the songs i was writing at the time were heavily influenced by the work of Syd Barrett so those kinds of songs are always more of a chore and less fun for a band to learn, just cause they’re so angular and only conform to their own internal logic. Basically I had been getting really frustrated about the recording process, and the sound of our album (for one thing to this day I still feel its a travesty that Josh and Geoff, the greatest rhythm section i’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with, were so underrepresented in the final mix. it made the music sound weak and too tinnily 60s, where in reality it had that enormous muscular groove under everything too). So I was angrily reclaiming my music for myself in a fairly grouchy manner and I was not the most mentally or emotionally stable at that point either.
6. How do you think the experience helped you as a musician and a person?
The experience irrevocably changed me for sure. This answer’s going to be short because I’m not really sure how to quantify that. I do know that as a musician, it molded me so much because I got to learn what I did want to do and what I didn’t. I mean all artists are always constantly in flux and it’s pretty arbitrary what you feel like making that day, so we have to view how our experiences shape us in very subtle ways and lead us to the next fork where we’ll be making an artistic decision. I definitely learned it was enormously important to have my own studio set up and be able to be in control of the sound, because that’s always been my thing, the kind of arcane magical subtleties of sound and vibrational impact and the feeling of just swimming or drowning in vast, beautiful music, depending on how it makes you feel. So that’s a place I still haven’t gotten to, and will probably spend my whole life trying in vain to attain, but it’s good to have something to keep working toward like that. That’s what I’m trying to do with Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, which is the recording studio I’ve opened for business in my basement and is, alongside Ghost Pal, what I’m doing right now. I’ve been producing and engineering for other artists all year, and that’s been immensely pleasurable and educational for me as well. As a person, the experience and the social backlash we experienced taught me a lot about ego, and about how easy it is to just kind of lose the plot. I never wanted to be the kind of dick who would just stab people in the back to further their career, and it hurts that when you get attention a lot of the time you’re just sort of automatically viewed that way by people. It definitely made me more conscious of my impact on the world and people around me. Also in the deep depression that followed the disbanding of Hysterics, Henry Kandel (our old math and science teacher at St Ann’s and the saxophonist in Ghost Pal) pointed me in the direction of meditation and non-dualistic religious philosophy, which is where my head had always naturally been at but that i had been struggling to reach with clouding drugs and all kinds of vague, buzzing paranoias, fascinations with the arcane and the mystical that were never grounded in anything safe and were therefore dangerous. So that definitely changed my life forever too.
7. You said very early on that you aren’t interested in working as a solo act. You’ve kind of developed a set up like Bright Eyes where you are the one continuous member of Ghost Pal, and other people play when they can or as they’re needed. Is this a set up you think you could do forever, or would you like to get back to having a full-time band eventually?
I couldn’t say I have a particularly concrete stance on this, because the whims are always changing. I wasn’t interested in being a solo artist at the time that MTV came calling because Hysterics were my 3 best friends in the world and i loved them as musicians too and wanted to do something great with them. There’s a variety of reasons for the fluctuating line-up of Ghost Pal, one of them is the simple fact that everyone involved has their own rich life (Henry Kandel is a high school teacher and a family man, Josh Barocas is a devoted student of neuro-science, Justin Coles plays in some other bands including Computer Magic who have been getting some buzz, Dominic Coles is his younger brother and a busy SAT taking high school student, Ezra Miller who was drumming with us for a while and is absolutely incredible spends most of his time as an actor and his career actually blew up in the last couple months at the Cannes festival so we actually have no idea where he is right now..haha). Anyway the point is that they’re all brilliant people and brilliant musicians and I would never feel comfortable assuming the role where I say “this is my band, these are my songs and i need you guys to get in line with me.” the point is when they can make it they do, and when they can’t there are no hard feelings and we learn to be adaptable to any format. Our last show actually everyone was out of town and Henry and I ended up just giving a loose recital of just guitar/vox and baritone saxophone. It actually sounded pretty lovely. Other reasons for the situation is that the Hysterics experience necessarily made me intensely protective over my music. When members of the Ghost Pal collective play on the recordings ,they absolutely play lines they devise themselves; i have absolute trust in them and their responses to any musical situations. but sometimes I’m going to want things to be as I heard them in my head, so I’ll just end up knocking out the track in a one man band format. I need that to be possible and acceptable without any attendant hard feelings. I mean everyone in Ghost Pal are some of my favorite people in the world, so if things pick up for us and there’s incentive to really buckle down with some consistency, i could definitely see the line-up becoming more solid and constant. but for now, i honestly enjoy all these different combinations of creative minds, because you end up with different feelings and sounds from each situation.
And that’s it. So now we all know the story. Oliver told me that he has never really talked about what happened in a public forum before, so I’m glad he decided to answer my questions. I certainly found it interesting. If you’d like to hear the music The Hysterics put out, head over to the MySpace page that still has all the songs up for you to stream. Or, if you’d like to hear Ghost Pal, Oliver’s current project, check out their Bandcamp page.