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"What's the name of your spook?" I asked, hoping to have guessed correctly. Karen stopped smiling. "Who told you about that?"

The ghost and Squirrel Nut Zippers 

Remembering a haunted recording session in New Orleans

click to enlarge Katharine Whalen (wearing one of Germaine's dresses) and Jimbo Mathus (wearing mask) check for spirits in Kingsway Studio in 1995. - PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY
  • Photo by Roger Manley
  • Katharine Whalen (wearing one of Germaine's dresses) and Jimbo Mathus (wearing mask) check for spirits in Kingsway Studio in 1995.

It was dark when our van pulled up in front of the enormous French Quarter mansion on Esplanade Avenue. Karen Brady, Kingsway Studios' house manager, came out to help us load in. I looked up at the verandah's iron railing.

"What's the name of your spook?" I asked, hoping to have guessed correctly.

Karen stopped smiling. "Who told you about that?" She looked as if ghosts were bad for business.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers couldn't really afford Kingsway for our second record, Hot, but convinced the label that we had to record there anyway. The vibe was perfect: a gargantuan New Orleans house, gilded, tiled and filled with vintage recording gear. The price was a little steep for our budget, but we could stay upstairs. The label consented to let us book a week. It was late October 1995.

The house had been built by the Arnaud family, who started the famous French Quarter restaurant of the same name in the 1850s. Now it was owned by Daniel Lanois, whose reputation had been made producing U2 in the '80s. Kingsway was everything most studios were not. Expansive, opulent and comfortable, there was none of the second-hand sofas, plastic ashtrays and windowless rooms that typified a normal recording environment. Today it is a privately owned residence (and like much of the Quarter, came through Katrina relatively unscathed).

Karen said Kingsway had an active spirit, believed to be Germaine Cazenave Wells, former owner of the house and daughter of "Count" Arnaud, the restaurant's founder. A confirmed alcoholic, Germaine died after falling and hitting her head. By all accounts, she continued partying anyway.

After I assured Karen that I didn't mind the place being haunted, she eased up. But I would learn why she'd been concerned: Not all of the musicians' experiences in the studio had been positive. A bass player (who was also an EMT) was woken up one night by a severely burned girl sitting on his bed, begging him for help. He asked the next morning who she was and why she wasn't in the hospital. When told that she was an apparition of Germaine's daughter, who had been injured in a house fire some decades ago, he packed up, said "I can't hang with that shit," and left.

click to enlarge Harmonious days, haunted nights at Kingsway Studio; from left: Jimbo Mathus, Ken Mosher and the author - PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY
  • Photo by Roger Manley
  • Harmonious days, haunted nights at Kingsway Studio; from left: Jimbo Mathus, Ken Mosher and the author

We tracked furiously the next day. Around 2 a.m., a few of us settled in the upstairs lounge (where Germaine reportedly died) to have a drink before bed. As we decompressed, saxophonist/ guitarist Ken Mosher went into the adjoining bathroom to relieve himself. The bathroom was cramped and tiled floor to ceiling in unpleasant, early-'60s pink. It had a bad vibe. Over the toilet was a window that had originally looked out on an alley that Kingsway had expanded to incorporate long ago. That alley was now the laundry room, some 20 feet below the pink bathroom's window.

From the bathroom, we heard Ken call, "Are you guys out there?" He sounded weird.

"Um, yeah. We're still out here."

"Wha—what the fuck?" Concern became alarm when Ken emerged, porcelain-white.

"I think I've just seen a ghost."

He told us that as he'd stood at the toilet, looking up absently, a face had appeared in the window. He said it was like somebody had turned a red light on. A thin, asexual head with a slit mouth glared down at him. Thinking it was a trick of the light or a practical joke, Ken looked around at the mirror behind him. He looked back at the face, which faded away.

After some excited conversation and several assurances that we weren't pulling a prank, everybody went to bed. Ken and I sat in his room and talked about the experience. He said the face looked like the one in the original Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver": elongated, pale and scowling.

We soon realized that our discussion had a soundtrack. A quiet, continuous sound filled the room. It's hard to describe; imagine wind chimes feeding back. When we stuck our heads out the window or took one step through the French doors into my adjoining bedroom, the sound stopped. Thoroughly rattled, I went down to get the producer. He walked upstairs, looking at me askance as I babbled about Ken's experience. After getting to the room and listening for a minute, he said, "You're right. It's weird. I'm going to bed."

Ken and I tried to make a Ouija board from paper and a shot glass. Thank god it didn't work.

News of the event spread. Our drummer, Chris "Chris P" Phillips, lost no opportunity to make fun of us. He taped a gorilla's face, cut out from a magazine, on the pink bathroom's window.

A night or two later, I poured myself into bed, the worse for drink. I was almost asleep when the bed jumped off the floor. I shot upright. Maybe it was a dream. The bed lifted up again. I cried out in terror. This brought pealing laughter from under the bed, and Chris P appeared, reeking. "I was just having a little fun," he slurred. I gave him some version of "Go to bed, asshole" and finally fell asleep. But I was spooked.

I didn't mind the ghost but didn't want any bullshit. There were no showers, except in the pink bathroom. I would take quick baths in the old claw-foot tub, making deals with Germaine: "I'm cool with you. Please don't come in here when I'm naked."

She didn't, but Germaine wasn't finished with us. On the last day of the session, we listened to the record, top to bottom. We had recorded on 2-inch tape. The old Studer tape machine was as big as a refrigerator, and controlled by a remote. The remote was about 2 1/2 feet high, on wheels. From there you could put any track into record by flipping a toggle switch two clicks over from "play" (green light) through "safety" (amber light) into "record" (red light). The last song on the reel was "The Interlocutor." Before it was finished it stopped playing. I looked up from the couch and all 24 tracks on the remote were lit up red. Our song was being erased! The engineer finally got the tape stopped, but the song had a three second gap. We re-recorded it at Mitch Easter's studio near Winston-Salem, never listening to the Kingsway version again. Somewhere, in the Disney vaults, is a reel-to-reel tape with "The Interlocutor" on it, partially erased and never mixed. I've always wanted to put those reels up and listen. Maybe Germaine left some kind of commentary.

click to enlarge Jimbo Mathus at Kingsway Studio in 1995, with a marionette that he made - PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY

We fell in love with Kingsway, recording there often. I was back in early 1999 to make my solo record Samsara. We were taking a break from cutting a horn part upstairs when the trombone player came in from the verandah, shaking his head. "I don't like this place," he said. When pressed, he said there was a woman out there sitting in a chair. I went out, not wanting some visitor to ruin the take, but saw no one.

I came back in. "It's only Germaine," I said. "She must like it." The piano player said that he, too, had seen her out there, transparent and hanging with some friends. From then on the sousaphone player wouldn't go upstairs alone. Good thing he lived in New Orleans and didn't have to stay the night.

Toward the end of the Samsara sessions, around 5 in the morning, we sat in the main room, talking quietly. We had mixed all night. Suddenly, an awful racket commenced in the kitchen. It sounded like the place was being demolished. We thought one of our own had just come back from a night on the town. When the crashing started again, we rushed into the kitchen. The sound ceased when we broke through the doorway. Nothing was out of place. I'll never forget the producer looking inside the dishwasher, as if that could have been the cause. "Gentlemen," said Chris P, "this is truly mysterious. I think we need to immediately go to Checkpoint Charlie's and investigate." So, as the sun rose over Esplanade Avenue, we stepped over the dog shit in the wide median, strolled past the dude on his knees getting busted by the cops, entered an empty bar and drank Bloody Marys. It seemed the only rational response.

Several nights earlier, in the R Bar on Royal, Chris P had pulled me aside. "I'm not going to make fun of your belief in ghosts anymore," he said, uncharacteristically serious. "I had an experience the other night." He went on to describe a day's recording he had missed, sick in bed. As he lay there, feeling terrible, an invisible female entity got into bed and "comforted" him. Astonished, I demanded details. "Let's just say it was ... pleasurable," he said, and clammed up.

I believe in ghosts. As a young man, I parked along Wiseman's View near Linville Gorge and saw the Brown Mountain Lights wiggle and arc like bottle rockets. I've seen apparitions and darting human shadows. I've felt a friendly but invisible hand on my shoulder and heard phantom, tuneless whistling from down the hall. None of it bothers me; indeed, in a strange way I'm comforted by these anomalies. But, after hearing Chris P's story in the R Bar, there are some things I just don't want to know, let alone experience.

The author, a Pittsboro resident, was a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers from 1994-1999 and wrote their hit "Hell."

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