Sometimes the best things in life seem to come at random. Take Chicago art-punks Touched by Ghoul, whose origins are tied to a chance conversation between vocalist/guitarist (and former Sybris frontwoman) Angela Mullenhour and guitarist Andrea Bauer, then-acquaintances attending the same wedding.
Soon after, a band was born, with bassist Alex Shumard and drummer Paige Sandlin rounding out the lineup, and since then, the four-piece has stayed busy crafting an explosive brand of hard-stomping, guitar-driven blues rock, dischordent punk, and pop sensibilities.
Today Touched by Ghoul releases its debut album, Murder Circus on Under Road Records. Recorded with Bill Skibbe at the famed Key Club Recording Company (The Kills, Blonde Redhead, Electrelane) in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the record takes aim at the conventions of the horror genre, and turns it on its head with upbeat, often tongue-in-cheek twists on super creepy stories.
Stream Murder Circus in full below, and read our interview with Mullenhour about the album, fusing pop with depravity, and using the horror motif to explore how people can take control and be the protagonist (or villain!) in their own lives.
She Shreds: Touched by Ghoul has been playing around Chicago for a couple of years now. How did the four of you come together and begin to explore the dark side?
Angela Mullenhour: I don’t think it was necessarily our intention to approach playing music from a dark place. But I feel like we were kind of drawn together at a crucial time where we were all simultaneously and separately going through some weird shit. We allowed the band to be our outlet. Andrea and I didn’t really know one another, but we spoke once on a school bus at a mutual friend’s wedding and set an alarm on our phones for a month later to remind ourselves of the band we were supposed to start called “Touched by Ghoul,” and we did it. We got together at my house and wrote “Whores,” and then the following week I asked my friend Paige, who was not a drummer, if he wanted to play drums. He brought this guy Alex he had just met randomly at a bar and he turned out to be this insanely talented weirdo who lived in an office of a dog kennel. The first time we met was our first band practice. And we just kept at it. I feel like it was all serendipitous as fuck.
The horror genre and slasher flicks often portray violence towards women as entertainment, and with songs like “Whores” and “Rapevan” I get the feeling that Touched by Ghoul is toying with that a bit. Can you tell me a little about that element of your music?
Women screaming is for sure one of the cornerstones of the horror genre. But I think the indiscriminate violence towards all humanity is what appeals to people and what we sickly relate to. The protagonist is totally out of control of the situation. No matter how fast they run, no matter how pure or nasty their intentions, they are gonna get sliced up! I guess that’s kind of the narrative I was playing with, especially with “Rapevan.” It’s about all these outside elements eating away at you, wearing you down, making you question your sanity and safety, but then instead of calling the doctor, your mother, praying to Jesus, etc., you take control for yourself. You’re the protagonist and the psycho all in one; whichever you choose.
Despite the grisly nature of your lyrics, there’s definitely a fun factor to it all (hence the title “Murder Circus?”) Listening feels more like campfire ghost stories than a “True Crime” TV series. How do you find that balance in your songwriting?
Yeah! We’re cracking ourselves up most of the time. And I think that’s how we find the balance. A lot of the time we’ll start out trying to make a really straightforward pop song and then it’ll end up like a couple practices later with all these super twisty, dissonant parts and two bridges with lyrics about god being a ghost. But I think the pop shines through.
Murder Circus was recorded at Key Club Recording Company. Had you recorded there before with any of your other bands? What was the recording process like and what do you think that particular atmosphere lent to the end result?
Key Club is beautiful! It’s a really inspiring place with all tons of fun gear and cool old amps. Bill and Jessica [Ruffins] are ultimate curators of coolness so it was just great be able to work out of there. It’s a nurturing environment where we got a lot done in a short amount of time but it didn’t seem rushed. None of us had been there before and it was great. I think it lead to us feeling relaxed and confident to play tight and just have fun. Plus, Bill’s sweet movie ideas, conspiracy theories, restaurant concepts, jokes, and all around constant creative brain bouncing ideas off you and spewing information is really entertaining/educational. Love it!
As someone who has been playing music in Chicago for many years, what are some of the biggest pros and cons to being in a band that are unique to the city?
I really can’t speak from a place of comparison at all. I moved here when I was 18 and a few months later I was in my first band, Sybris. That was in 2002 and I’ve been playing in Chicago bands ever since. I feel lucky being able to create here. You’ve got pretty cheap rent, you’ve got the street festivals in the summertime, basement and house shows, loading gear in an April ice storm (that happened to me the other night), and a lot of super supportive and different venues like Empty Bottle, Hideout, Metro, Schubas. I feel like I’m always meeting someone new, but then it turns out we know all the same people and have actually played shows together before. It’s small and big. Small world, big city.
Also, can we ask for the makes and models of your guitars?
I play a Scale Model custom Firebird with a Bare Knuckle P90 through a Fender Reverb Super Six. Andrea plays a Univox Hi-Flyer through a Hiwatt.