The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger on going electric and the timeless combination of marijuana and Pink Floyd
By Rebecca Huval
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is out to topple everyone’s expectations. The two-piece band has rather public identities to overcome: Sean Lennon is the only child of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl is a world-class model who was the youngest covergirl on Britain’s Harper’s Bazaar.
With their latest release, Midnight Sun, Kemp Muhl has shown she has the pipes and songwriting chops to be taken seriously as a musician, and Lennon has proved he’s more than just his father’s ghost — rather, he’s the inimitable frontman of The GOASTT.
In the trajectory of Sean Lennon’s solo career and The GOASTT’s six-year history, Midnight Sun is their going-electric moment. Sean Lennon’s subdued and minimalist solo music paved the way for The GOASTT’s initial albums to be acoustic and saccharine in what Kemp Muhl now describes as "nerdy folk music." This April's album is oh-so-different. Inherited Beatlesque psychedelica meshes with modern-day indie à la Tame Impala and Deerhunter. Midnight Sun rocks in full-fledged electric, with synthy splashes and warped vocal reverb. The album ranges from trippy tracks such as “Devil You Know,” with prismatic texture and thick percussion, to thoughtfully orchestrated ballads such as “Don’t Look Back Orpheus” and Kemp Muhl’s graceful solo, “Johannesburg.”
Ahead of The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s show at Great American Music Hall on Tue/20, I spoke with Charlotte Kemp Muhl about meeting Lennon at Coachella, the aha moment listening to Pink Floyd that triggered the band’s psychedelic shift, and how she balances jet-setting modeling and music careers.
San Francisco Bay Guardian You met Sean at Coachella in 2006. How did you strike up a conversation?
Charlotte Kemp Muhl I don’t remember which one of us struck up the conversation, but we were magnetized to each other. We were talking about things like Stephen Hawking, whatever random thing we’d read that week, and claymation. I just thought he was so eccentric and wearing this suit in the middle of the desert. He was with his friend Vincent Gallo, who told him, “Don’t go for that girl, she’s crazy.” I just remember he was really enthusiastic about things and unusual and childlike, even though he was much older than me [30 years old]. I was 17 at the time. We connected immediately.
SFBG Have you put a pause on your modeling career to concentrate on music?
CKM Kind of, it tag-teams. I have to do modeling to support doing music. I would never be able to afford collecting instruments, and unfortunately, it’s really hard to make money as a musician. You don’t! I have to do modeling to do music, but I can’t wait until I can retire and just concentrate on music. In a way the two careers are complementary. Fashion and music are connected like Siamese twins. In the sense that rock n’ roll has been influencing fashion and fashion, rock n’ roll for a long time. They’re incestuous industries.
SFBG Who are some of your musical role models?
CKM Hendrix, Syd Barret, and Bach.
SFBG What have you learned about music from working with Sean?
CKM The area in which I’ve most grown is rhythmically. He’s taught me a lot about being funky and syncopation. He’s an amazing drummer, and I’ve been teaching myself how to play drums by watching him. I learned a lot about arranging. We’ve both influenced each other a lot. It’s been fun.
SFBG Why did you wait until a year after you were dating to share your musical talents with Sean?
CKM I was shy. Everyday someone comes up to him with a demo CD. I didn’t want to be like that. I never thought we’d work together. I thought he’d do his solo career. I showed him one of the childhood songs I wrote, and he loved the melody and insisted that we work together. He quit his solo career to work with his mom and work with me. I hope he goes back to his solo career, fingers crossed for that, but he’s very shy. It’s been fun doing heavier rock music because it’s forcing him to be more of a frontman. We’re not just doing Sonny & Cher melodies. I really want him to be a frontman. He spent so much of his life being a sideman.
SFBG As a solo artist, Sean seemed very minimal and moody. Then, it seemed like The GOASTT started out very sweetly and softly with your acoustic album. Now, The GOASTT is more edgy, percussive, and textured. What do you contribute to his sound?
CKM I pushed us even further into a Pink Floyd, psychedelic direction. When we were doing a tour in France, I discovered the pairing of marijuana and [Pink Floyd’s] Live at Pompeii. We were at some cheap hotel in France, and it was freezing cold. Something just clicked in my mind, and I wanted to be doing psychedelic music and not nerdy folk music. Sean had always been into that shit so he was into that direction. That’s the ultimate cliche, marijuana and Pink Floyd, but it worked! We were opening up for Johnny Hallyday and Matthieu Chedid. He’s huge in France, like the Michael Jackson.
SFBG What was at like playing at Occupy Wall Street?
CKM It was fun. A lot of our friends were doing that at the time, and we were excited that people were getting together to protest because people are placated by their gadgets and they rarely show interest and support. We just came to support anti-fracking and we didn’t even think Sean would get flack for supporting OWS. People online were saying he’s the one percent, which is ridiculous, he’s not in the one percent. I mean technically, anyone with a color TV is in the one percent of the world. We performed a bluegrass version of “Material Girl,” by Madonna. It was supposed to be ironic.
SFBG Have you collaborated with Yoko Ono? What is like working with her?
CKM I played bass for her for a while for her festivals and her shows. We’re around a lot. She doesn’t really collaborate with people, she’s like a singular, visionary person. Sean is much more into collaborating and working with people. She’s more of a leader of an army. She’s like a visionary. You just do what she says kind of a thing.
SFBG What has been your favorite part of working with Sean?
CKM I’ve been working with other musicians without him around. Sean plays every instrument like a virtuoso. In the studio, it’s like a super weapon. I send him in to overdub instrument ideas, and then I’ll edit them all together. We can cover a lot of ground that way. I’ve noticed with other musicians, they’re very limited. They only play one of two instruments, and don’t have a bird’s eye view of songwriting. Sean always have great ideas about rhythm and harmony. We both have a million ideas, and it’s frustrating when you work with someone who’s not that inspired.
SFBG I know you’re a multi-instrumentalist: What instruments do you play on Midnight Sun?
CKM On the record, I play bass, keyboard parts, guitar, percussion, and arranged harmonies. The main instrument I play is Pro Tools. I do all the editing and all that stuff.
SFBG It seems like the album switches between different settings: Xanadu, a missed flight to Johannesburg, traveling to the underworld with Orpheus. Where were you when you wrote these songs? What was your process for collaborating?
CKM I wrote the words for Johannesburg when I was in Johannesburg with a Pirelli shoot for Peter Beard. “Xanadu” and “[Don’t Look Back] Orpheus” we wrote upstate on his farm. We would stay up all night writing acoustic songs in his bed. We would walk down to his studio, which is by a lake, and jam it. Other than “Johannesburg,” I write a part and then he writes a part. It’s like one of those drawings when you fold up a napkin and each of you draw part of a monster.
With Syd Arthur
Tue/20, 8pm, $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF