Nick Petersen knows how records get made. A local musician and recording engineer, he calculates he's worked on nearly 1,000 of them by now—EPs and LPs, singles and demos, for bands from Bon Iver and the Melvins to projects he's called his own, including Horseback and Airstrip.
He's also the only person ever to work with the Chapel Hill four-piece Gross Ghost. He's quick to mention, playfully, that they might be one of the most laborious bands he's ever helped. As he puts it: "Gross Ghost is a pain in the ass."
"I was there as a friend of the band to help them out," he explains of making their new second album, Public Housing. The duties sound as much like attempting to control chaos as setting up microphones. "They're all individually awesome people, but to get all those awesome people into the same place at the same time with instruments, it's a nightmare."
Gross Ghost released Public Housing late last month, and in spite of Petersen's observations, the sophomore effort seems to represent the band's quest to be taken seriously: It's their first for Odessa Records, the home to Spider Bags and The Kingsbury Manx, and their first for a truly solidified lineup, with fixtures and founders Mike Dillon and Tré Acklen adding longtime collaborators Christopher Hutcherson-Riddle and Rob Dipatri to the permanent mix. As with their debut, Brer Rabbit, this record harnesses lo-fi garage rock and '60s pop thrill. But Brer Rabbit featured three drummers; Public Housing has just one. Such lineup solidification has allowed for newfound complexity in Gross Ghost's arrangements.
"When I played on the first record, I had literally never heard the songs before," remembers Hutcherson-Riddle. "I went in and Mike sort of beat-boxed his general impression of what he wanted. [This time], we really fleshed the songs out as a band, which we had not done before."
That's not to say the sessions were without hiccups and hijinks. With a paltry recording budget and a pressing label deadline, the band worked out a deal with Kym Register at The Pinhook to record there during daytime hours in March. Takes were interrupted by panhandlers banging on the doors, beer vendors pushing in handcarts of cans, teenagers looking for somewhere to hang out, and poster distributors stopping in for their weekly deliveries. They also didn't know how to turn the lights on in the bathroom, which they'd converted into an ad hoc isolation booth. Recording guitars required wearing a headlamp. Things got erratic, Petersen admits, so he encouraged the band to decamp to a secluded studio in Pittsboro for a final push.
"When you're setting up a studio and tearing it down every single day, you don't get a chance to really sit there and enjoy and be critical about what you just captured," he says. "I thought if I can trap these guys out there for two days in the middle of the country, cell phones don't work. They can't wander off. No one can just pop by. We can get most of this record done."
So Gross Ghost and Petersen spent three days working uninterrupted, and the results expound on the successes of Brer Rabbit. Fuzzy pop and restless rock co-mingle, and Dillon, something of a trickster on tape in the past, delivers his most poignant and relatable songs to date. He jokes that the title Public Housing was a way to fess up to a couch-crashing stint of semi-homelessness following a breakup. But the name also illuminates Dillon's apparent entrance into adulthood. Hurt feelings meet big hooks, and fuzzy guitars tangle with thorny truths.
"There's some lyrics on the record about housing your feelings and keeping inside all these emotions," he admits. "One day it cracks, and then they're all over the place for everyone to see. It's all on display. My life was on display for a little while."
Dillon still laughs when Gross Ghost is referred to as any sort of established band: "Tré and I don't even own our own instruments," he admits. But he and the band have put a lot of sweat into taking this record to a new level.
Whatever jokes he may make at his own expense, Dillon is hopeful and, more important, resolute to use Public Housing to push these songs outside of the band's Triangle bubble.
"While it's inspiring and it helps keep us motivated, it's also easy to think of this as all you need to do to be in a band. For some people, it is all they need," he says of remaining a "local band" forever. "I like playing shows where I don't know anybody in the crowd. After the show if they choose to say something, it validates everything. It's why we do it."
Hutcherson-Riddle and Dillon have played together in bands for more than a decade, including the late dance-punk Spader and the throbbing electronic-rock group Motor Skills. Hutcherson-Riddle takes the potential charge of Gross Ghost seriously and personally.
"If we want to take it to the next level, then we really do have to tackle that stuff," Hutcherson-Riddle says. They've worked harder to build press and find a booking agent, to book tours and get in front of new fans.
"Recently for my birthday," he says, "my Dad asked me what I wanted, and I got a bass cab just because Gross Ghost needed it. It wasn't even for me. I really believe in this."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ghosts and cloaks: Two bands of area veterans find wonderful new directions."