Detroit's Pretty Ghouls are the wildest things

Every day is like Halloween

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The Pretty Ghouls are a stripped-down, sexy, and downright awesome rock 'n' roll trio. They're easily one of the best and most brutal acts in a town dominated for decades by the garage sound. They're so good, in fact, that they sometimes seem to be forgotten about, or taken for granted, anyway. There's a singer (Asia Mock of Ferndale), a guitarist (Sarah Stawski of Woodbridge), and a drummer (T.J. Ghoul of Oak Park). You owe it to yourself to see them if you never have — you'll feel super alive and you'll want to plaster your bedroom wall with pictures of Mock. She might be the most visceral, powerful lead singer in the region.

Metro Times: It's been a few years since we've done a feature on you guys, so please remind us how long you have been together, and how did you meet, and stuff?

Asia Mock: Our first few practices were extremely bare bones. In all honesty, I'd say we were trying to get a feel for each other. For me, it was all about trying to get a feel for myself. All vocal work I'd experienced in the past was directly tied into choir performances. Our band was my first time actually working on my roar. 

T.J. Ghoul: We've been doing shows for about three years now. We met a year before that. I had found out that Son House (Eddie James) was buried in Detroit, which gave me the brilliant idea to go find his grave in the middle of the night. I was stumbling around in the dark at Mount Hazel Cemetery, when suddenly I'm accosted by two banshee babes attacking me to the ground. I'm genuinely fearing for my life, and they're just laughing their asses off. 

Against my better judgment, we ended up hanging out for the night. Sarah and I spent the summer listening to lots of music and watching Star Trek. I was feeding her everything I loved: the Cramps, the Mummies, the Gories, the Shangri-Las, Link Wray, Bo Diddley, all the Back From the Grave and Nuggets stuff. She dug it. I found out she played a bit of guitar; she used to play out of her mom's old folk guitar book. I told her if she went electric we could start a band. One day she shows up with a black electric guitar and a big smile on her face.

We plugged her into this shitty little Squier practice amp that she lifted from an ex. I acquired some mics, which we hung from the rafters of my basement and ran them into a borrowed bass amp. She looked at me from across the basement asking, "What do we do now?" and I was like, "I dunno? Play 'Wild Thing'?" Because, you know, when in doubt, just play "Wild Thing." It was wonderfully atrocious. I tried to teach her how to howl. Eventually, we felt we needed more, so we dragged Asia down with us.

MT: What is your songwriting process like?

Ghoul: In the past year, our songwriting has progressed notably; the songs are getting so much better. They've become far more clever and diverse and getting closer to where I've always imagined we could be. We just found out how to solo in the proper key. So, that's exciting!

I tend to approach writing songs as love letters to my heroes, who there are so many of, and my brain wants to write them all at once! Sometimes I can distill that inspiration down to the necessities. Sometimes my brain is enamored with wonderfully elaborate ideas that keep me awake at night, but my hands aren't talented enough to produce in reality. My unhealthy obsession with the Beatles compounds my goals in songwriting by inspiring me to strive for impossible standards.

I love '50s and '60s rock, pop, and punk. Guitar and vocal hooks are everything. Everyone has forgotten about vocal hooks! They're even forgetting about guitar hooks. I listen to the Beach Boys and it just blows my mind what they did, the structure and harmonies — it's unreal. I dunno why people do drugs when they can just lay in bed and freak out trying to comprehend Pet Sounds. I wanna figure out how that works in punk music! What would the Crystals or Shirelles sound like if they were a trashy punk band? That's where I wanna go. And I wanna fill it with innocent babes harboring a budding dark side who have swooning heart eyes for rebellious leather-clad monster dudes lurking in the shadows, misunderstood and outcast by society. 

Mock: T.J. writes most of the stuff that we sing. Most of the time I'd say the process really involves evolving the songs as we play them. Again, everything is about feeling it all out. Every new song that comes out sounds completely different from the first time we play it versus when we play it out live.

Ghoul: I usually come to the girls with the songs already fleshed out with descriptors along the lines of "Imagine The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but produced by Roger Corman, with a Phil Spector soundtrack featuring Screaming Lord Sutch, and then a Shangri-Las style breakdown, but it should climax like a David Cronenberg movie, you know?" And while that makes sense to my brain, they'll roll their eyes and look at me like I'm stupid and we usually just end up in fights about it. In the end, the girls are very good at editing my ideas appropriately and bringing me down to reality since the cacophony orchestra I hear in my head probably isn't possible. And their presentation of the ideas on stage is every bit as integral as the songwriting itself. 

MT: How has this year been for you — you got a record out, right? How did that come about, and are you happy with it?

Sarah Stawski: This year for me, personally, has been highs and lows. The lows make you realize what's really important, so I have put a lot more of my focus on the band and improving my guitar. Sorry to everyone who has told me to "never get any better at guitar." (laughs) 

Mock: This year has been one of the biggest for us. I really think this year we've harnessed our groove and it's becoming easier to put things together. Our record is a testament of our growth, and I'm really quite proud of it.

Ghoul: Yeah, we have two records out, a single and an EP. Those recordings came about when Jim Diamond messaged me saying he saw us on YouTube and offered us to come into his studio. I mostly blew him off for whatever reason. Then he came out to one of our shows at which point he was rather adamant about bringing us into Ghetto Recorders, and we obliged. It turned out great; I think the recordings are perfectly flawed. We set up in the studio and recorded it all live straight to tape, playing just like we would on stage. Which was important to me, to be able to capture that live energy in the studio. 

The only directives I gave Jim was to make it sound super loud and trashy. I was worried he was gonna act like a real producer and make it all clean and neutered. He sent us back the mixes and I just fell over laughing. It was like a blitzkrieg assault storming out from my speakers. So loud and so trashy. It was the first time we got to hear ourselves as other people do, and it was hilarious, like, "Shit! We actually kinda sound cool!" I love that we didn't play perfect; there're mistakes in there, and that's great! It's honest to who we are and how I feel rock 'n' roll should be.

MT: What's next for the band?

Mock: Next is a bit of hibernation for the winter.

Ghoul: We just dropped off a new single at the pressing plant — more recordings from those Jim Diamond sessions. I'm particularly excited for this one. I feel it's two of our best songs. I've been eager to get them out.

MT: What do you think about this time right now for Detroit area bands?

Mock: Currently, I think bands in the metro area are living in a great time. Like, the spirit and energy of the city is showcased throughout the bands playing within it. Detroit is one of the best cities in the world for music and I couldn't be more jazzed to be a part of it.

Stawski: Any effort into creating and playing music is a positive thing. We can all relate. Why do we do what we do? It doesn't need to be a complicated answer — we all love music.

Ghoul:  As a whole, I feel we've lost sight of rock 'n' roll music. The history of music and Detroit's place within it is very important to me and it's a bummer when our reputation isn't being maintained. There's no reason Detroit bands shouldn't be at the center of whatever national conversation is happening about music. Except in the past years we haven't produced much music exciting enough to be part of that conversation. I love this city and I love music and I have the highest of standards for both.

When some national band comes into the UFO Factory, I want their egos to be threatened by the local opener. When all the suburban kids come into the city to check out whatever Burger Records band they read about on Pitchfork, I want them to leave the show blown away and talking about the Detroit band that played. I believe we can do better.

That said, there are things happening which keep me inspired. I think Prude Boys are one of the best bands in town. I'm ecstatic there's been an explosion of female musicians in the city. The Seraphine Collective has been an awesome presence. Oscillating Fan Club has been hitting a rather exciting stride in the studio. Pink Lightning puts on an amazing show. I'm transfixed by Tunde Olaniran. Outrageous Cherry, Hentchmen, Timmy's Organism/Human Eye are still the best bands from anywhere. No one can touch those dudes.

MT: Is it safe to say that you all are particularly enamored of Halloween?

Monk: Halloween is like Christmas to me. It's always been my favorite time of year and I'm lucky to have a band that reflects that.

Stawski:  I work with some lovely Bengali women who recently asked me what Halloween was. Man, it is hard to explain, and that is what makes it great. Halloween is my all-time favorite holiday. I start celebrating on the first of the month. It may have made sense a long time ago, but now it's just fun and strange for the sake of it. We have an excuse to dress up and howl at the moon, to do things that scare or excite us, just for the hell of it. I mean, we do that all year-round, but it is nice to have some company.

Ghoul: Halloween is the only time of year worth living for. It's like I finally get to feel somewhat normal and accepted. In October, the world gets a tweak of the macabre and it's just... heartwarming. 

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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