Postcards: Perpetual Groove/Ghost Owl – It Starts Where It Ends

The world “Perpetual” is defined as “never ending or changing” or “everlasting.” For Perpetual Groove and their catalog of music over the past decade plus, this is exactly the mantra that always prevailed in light of the challenge at hand…until now. They’ve experienced the highest of the proverbial highs, and in more cases than they probably care to admit, the grueling lows of lows. Even their favorite venue, The Georgia Theatre, where the band has played so many of their shows over the years represents the band and its lineup shift and other problems, having burned to the ground and eventually having been rebuilt bigger and better than ever. So, it is fitting that they will properly say goodbye on that very stage this Friday at their home base in Athens, Georgia.

[Photo by kfishphotography]

After original member Matt McDonald left the band and was replaced in mid-2008 by John Hruby, PGroove changed and continued to duke it out on the road, before McDonald eventually reclaimed his seat at the end of 2011. McDonald chatted with me then, and did so again this past week, about life, the end of PGroove and what is next for him and some of his current and future band mates. So, in typical bittersweet fashion, while one chapter ends, another begins with the trio of McDonald, Adam Perry and Albert Suttle in their new venture, Ghost Owl – who will in a way be ”opening” the show for themselves this Friday before PGroove bids a proper farewell. “I know some people who have been surprised by it. I guess that’s funny from my perspective because I couldn’t think of a better way to introduce what’s new than saying: ‘Hey, before we wrap this up proper, we hope to see a lot of you, and we hope you dig this too and give this a shot,’” exclaimed McDonald.

McDonald, to me, always represented the X factor in PGroove. He is a master of sorcery on the keys, making the notes and knobs bend like a cosmic swirling of sound, with sonic titty-twisters, arcs and crescendos that always complimented front man Brock Butler’s emotional vocals and guitar playing, while the backbone of the band laid squarely on the shoulders of cool-cat bassist Perry and the driving force of rock-solid Suttle on the drums. It’s sad to see them go, as I’ve been lucky enough to call the band friends, but is also something I can genuinely feel in McDonald’s voice as he talks about the next steps for him and his mates, including Ghost Owl. “I feel like we made what our intentions were very clear to each other, the four of us, that this was for the fans and we wanted to go out on a high note. And I feel like musically we’ve done that and feel like we are going to do that,” McDonald excitedly conveys. “But, every day, Ghost Owl has been something that takes up my time, and my mind, and my family’s mind, and everyone around the three of us and it’s been nothing short of amazing.”

But, don’t get me wrong, while PGroove is entering the unknown, the future for the band members has never been clearer. Butler will continue his mesmerizing solo shows, while focusing on getting healthy, as the remaining three are beyond excited to debut Ghost Owl. “A couple months ago, the best way I can describe it is like I was at the end of a book, where now I’m finishing the Two Towers and now Return of the King is next, or any trilogy of books, where I’ve been on the last page of the second book and I can see where the third book is going to kick off with complete change and everything like that,” said McDonald. “And I feel like I haven’t been able to get off the last page for a minute! I feel like I’ve been: C’mon, C’mon! Let’s go and let’s go…in two weeks this transition will be complete and I’ll be onto the new book.”

McDonald explained how he never thought about Ghost Owl or its existence until early 2013. “Adam took me in the studio and played me seven songs that he had written in about five days. And it was seven of the best songs that I had ever heard him write. It was something that was completely different, and not Perpetual Groove-y at all and something that he had a very clear plan of execution for and then we started talking more about that, and what it could be, and working with other artists and using new tools, and playing new instruments and just something completely different and fresh. That’s been where our frustration and every emotion we’ve had over the past few months have gone into these songs.”  Again, the energy and enthusiasm in McDonald’s voice isn’t too far off from those of his toddler son’s: “If we are not doing PGroove, we are rehearsing and writing for Ghost Owl.”

However, McDonald explains that he truly started to believe in Ghost Owl only a few days after his meeting with Perry when they and Suttle launched a Kickstarter page, asking for fans support. “That was the first eye-opening experience where it was like, ‘Whoa!’” (The band raised over $6,000 just days after the launch, easily clearing their goal of 5k). ”People reaching into their pockets in a whole different kind of way was instrumental in us being able to pull this off [laughs]. And people are going to see that pretty quickly. Adam is surrounded by keyboards that he’s playing every, single one of them, I’m down to just two, tiny, little keyboards and a guitar rig, so it’s different. But that was humbling for sure.”

[Ghost Owl]

But McDonald reigns in his enthusiasm to get back to humble roots, realizing that he will forever be linked, in some form to a member of Perpetual Groove. “It carries with it this keen sense of recognition that we wouldn’t have without Brock or without PGroove having the past decade that we had, and especially without the fans. And that’s the only reason that we can feel like we can do this and that they’ll let us do it, and we know that not everyone is gonna like it. But, we feel really good about it and we feel really confident about it.”

When I ask him how things changed so quickly from when we last spoke and he decided to rejoin PGroove, he bluntly states that this was the only way that everyone could continue on being healthy, as life on the road was taking its toll, especially for Butler. “I would say that it’s a mix of emotions. We gave it all that we had and not one of us can say that we didn’t try. And we’ve all been very much at peace with that and we are thankful that we have the opportunity to go on even though it’s not Perpetual Groove. Not only with music, but with our relationships and our friendships. I don’t have any regrets at all about the past 10 years,” McDonald explained.

He simply adds another comment after a slight, reflective pause, “Yeah, I’m really proud of what we’ve done and stand by our body of work…Everybody wants everyone to be happy, healthy and successful – regardless of what the future holds, whether it’s together or not and to have success outside of the Perpetual Groove thing.”

He also make sit very clear that Ghost Owl will not be PGroove – in any sense. GO will not be playing PG tunes, nor debut any covers at the present time, although he texts me again a few days after the interview, “GO will probably pick a cover when we are ready.” When I reply that I figured, he says clearly that “we are trying to distance ourselves from PG as much as possible.”

Ghost Owl will still take a few cues from the world of PGroove, whether McDonald realizes it or not though. They will be going out on the road with a unique light rig,  projection mapping and many new tools. While some things may want to remain the same as taking the innovative lightning and visual approach, he stresses that things will be different moving forward. “The songs themselves, the way they are executed and the way they are written, it’s not really jamband-y or open for exploration, if that makes sense. And then there are other parts that I’m sure will grow their own legs as we take it out on the road. But I don’t think it will ever be anything where there’s a 15-minute guitar solo or anything like that,” McDonald revealed. He’s also conscious that while this is an educated risk, he is hoping the fanbase he has helped accumulate over the years with PGroove will continue to follow his lead, and music, as he praises their music IQ: ”It’s not of that same school where a lot of people would know Perpetual Groove at all…Music is a lot more than the jamband scene and I think people that are the true fans of music recognize it pretty quickly – especially in this scene.”

And so PGroove bows out this Thursday with an intimate acoustic performance, before celebrating their legacy Friday at the Georgia Theatre for a show that will be webcast.  When I ask the question that certainly has a personal selfish tinge to it, at least for me having loved and grown with this band since ’03, McDonald answered honestly and wisely, which is something that holds hope for the future. ”I think that for everyone to move forward in our personal lives right now, there’s not a whole lot of thought about getting back together. That would be a mountain range that we couldn’t see right now because we haven’t finished climbing these ones.” But, he again pauses and realizes that as he’s learned again over his time with PG, you never know what the future may hold. “As much of a cliché as it is, is that you never say never. In this case it’s really true because there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 14 months, much less the past 10 years, is that you can never know what the future holds…but, I would say it would be an awful shame if the four of us didn’t play together again [versus full-blown touring]. Just because I think there’s something incredible beautiful and unique that happens when the four of us are on stage together.”

For all fans of PGroove and now Ghost Owl, we can only hope that the future is in some way “everlasting.”

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