Papa Ghostface was a two-headed monster that just wanted to knit you a sweater — something odd-looking but surprisingly comfortable.
There were two distinct arcs to the life of this strange little duo. The first phase stretched from about 1998 to 2002, though we morphed into a larger, different band around the halfway mark. Following more than a decade of cryogenic stasis, during which Gord (the other half of PG) formed the long-running and always-evolving band Surdaster and I had a slew of solo adventures, an unexpected reunion produced some of our best music. It wasn’t fated to last, but at least we got a strong ending to the Papa Ghostface story with STEW and WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD.
If you’re interested in more backstory than what’s offered by the brief descriptions that follow for each album, clicking on any given image will take you to a dedicated album page with some more in-depth discussion, along with song samples, period-correct handwritten lyrics, and videos (where applicable).
SCREAMING NIPPLES (1999)
This is really the second Papa Ghostface album (preceded by the Suck on My Arse cassette tape). We were still in the process of figuring out what our musical identity was supposed to be, but this sets out a pretty good template for the anything-goes nature of our early work, peaking with the lunacy of “True Love in the Springtime” and the supremely demented title track.
HORSEMOUTH AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES (1999)
An “everything plus the kitchen sink and maybe throw in the neighbour’s dog” double CD. The second disc flounders quite a bit and disappears up its own ass for a while, but the first disc is pretty consistent. Highlights include the never-ending Neil Young-inspired “Horsemouth” (appearing in two very long parts), the ominous Tom Waits-inspired “Edge of the Green Sea”, and the heartwarming Backstreet Boys-inspired “I Couldn’t Write a Song If It Crawled up My Ass”. Notable guest star: a rented acoustic bass I wish I kept around so I had it when I really started to figure out what I was doing on the recording side of things a little later on. Alas, hindsight has no hind legs.
SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN (1999)
I thought if I wrote the lyrics for all our songs beforehand instead of improvising the words while recording and then married those mapped-out words to improvised music we’d have a masterpiece on our hands. I was wrong. This is a pretty mixed bag, with most of the songs not given enough time or space to find their own feet. “Compassion to Deceive” is the odd one out — the first true Papa Ghostface ballad, and the best track on the whole album by some distance, though a few others manage some interesting moments. Not a total write-off, but not an example of us operating at the height of our powers either.
YOU’RE A NATION (1999)
I took the lessons I learned from the SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN experiment and applied them to this batch of madness, writing some of the lyrics but allowing any given song to be completely derailed by improvisation whenever it felt appropriate. For years the sound quality left a lot to be desired. Now, thanks to a stellar 2018 remastering job by Scott Craggs, this album sounds better than I ever thought it could. It’ll always be one of the essential Papa Ghostface moments in my estimation. The whole thing is balanced on the edge of total chaos, and even when it falls into the abyss somehow it still works.
SHOEBOX PARADISE (2000)
The sound quality takes a huge leap forward on this two-disc set. Again some songs on the second disc are a little superfluous, but this eats HORSEMOUTH for breakfast and craps it out later in the day. We were reaching a whole new level of confidence here, improvising songs out of thin air that had a startling sense of purpose to them. From reggae-tinged psychosis, to off-kilter ballads, to filthy semi-hip-hop, to one of our best spoken word tracks (“The Old House”) and one of our most bizarre (“Mr. Clean Is Dead”), it’s all here, and if it isn’t, well…you can probably find it on a different Papa Ghostface album. This has always been a real favourite of mine in our body of work, unwieldy as it is, and “Be Sorry” marks the moment we realized we could produce more accessible material if we really wanted to.
PAPER CHEST HAIR (2000)
Another one of the best albums from the early PG days. Some of our catchiest songs sit right next to some of our most demented creations. We don’t sound like the same sixteen-year-old guys responsible for SCREAMING NIPPLES. Some of Gord’s guitar-playing on this album still melts my brain.
LIVE AT SILVERS (2000)
SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN really is a masterpiece next to this tossed-off thing, which consists of a single half-assed continuous performance broken up into individual “songs” after the fact. There are a few amusing Lou Reed piss-takes, and “Ode to the Queen of STDs” and “Grandpa Pickle’s Bedtime Story” manage to whip up some amusing insanity. Aside from that, this is a pretty forgettable affair. Easily the worst PG album of all time. I’m not sure what possessed me to mix it and put it on a CD, to be honest.
KISSING THE BALD SPOT (2002)
How did a collection of outtakes and one-offs turn into a pretty strong album in its own right? Beats me. This serves as a pretty good overview of the first phase of Papa Ghostface’s existence. There are moody instrumentals, there are abstract long-form experiments, there are a few songs that marry catchy music to some pretty out-there lyrics, and then there’s “C’mon”, which stands as one of our all-time best and most sinister moments with nothing but Gord’s acoustic twelve-string guitar and both of our voices to carry it. Not a bad way to bow out before taking a very long sabbatical.
PAPA GHOSTBOX (1999 – 2002)
A homemade box set I put together for Gord in 2002 collecting everything we’d done up to that point. Does the box still exist somewhere deep in the heart of his basement? Your guess is as good as mine.
The triumphant return no one was expecting, least of all me. This is “grown up” Papa Ghostface music, with nary a swear word or sexual reference in sight. In one song, Satan is thoughtful enough to lend you his car but not diligent enough to keep it in good working order. In another, love literally has its brains blown out. There’s industrial sludge and slow-motion borderline bluegrass. Things get jazzy. Things get folky. Things get dreamy. The weirdness of old is still alive and well, and there’s the obligatory spoken word piece (a mainstay since the very first PG album), but there’s also a focus and a depth of sound that didn’t exist back when we were crazy teenagers. This is the first album of ours most people ever heard, and I can’t think of a much better introduction. It has to be some of our finest work.
WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD (2018)
The Papa Ghostface story ends here. My relationship with Gord broke down halfway through the recording of this album, and the only way it was ever going to get finished was if I did all the remaining work on my own. The end result is the least collaborative PG album there ever was. It’s almost a glorified solo album. Somehow, against all the odds, it feels like the best ending there could have been. It’s a longer, stranger trip than STEW, and maybe the single best distillation of what Papa Ghostface was all about.
Here are some videos: