Monday, 8 October 2018

Ghost Of An American Airman: Four Go On Tour In A Winnebago

Ghost of an American Airman — promo photo
Originally published in American Music Press (1992)

By Devorah Ostrov

At the end of our conversation, Dodge McKay (on the phone from somewhere in Canada, because annoyingly we couldn't chat while he was in SF) tells me this is the best interview he's ever done. Well, thanks very much! Was it my witty repartee and intriguing insights? No.

"You didn't ask where we got the [group's] name," laughs the lead singer/guitarist for Ghosts of an American Airman.

Dammit, I knew I'd forgotten something! But I can tell you that the band formed in 1985, hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is currently touring America and environs in support of its Hollywood Records debut, Life Under Giants.

Also, this is not the band's first US tour. The foursome (which includes guitarist Ben Trowell, bassist Alan Galbraith, and drummer Matt Matthews) initially came over in October 1988 on a self-financed adventure to promote a single ("I Hear Voices") and LP (Someday) released on their own Plain Paper Records. "It was really no frills," recalls Dodge. "There were like eight of us travelling in a car from Chicago to New York!"

Life Under Giants (Hollywood Records, 1992)
But this time around, somewhat flush with nearly-major-label backing, the guys are living the high life and driving cross-country in a Winnebago. "We've actually seen loads of America," offers Dodge. "Probably more than most Americans. I think we've travelled something like 30,000 miles since we've been here."

That's a lot of mileage for something that gets maybe five miles to the gallon! So, what sights have they seen?

"I got to go to the town in Massachusetts where Jack Kerouac was born," says Dodge excitedly, "and because I've read so many of his books I knew the street names and stuff. I was like, WOW! And it's very touristy, but we saw Niagara Falls. We've been on a bit of Route 66 — that was a big thing for our guitarist.

Have they been to Graceland?

"Oh, yeah! Once again, our guitarist... It was a big thing for him. I did buy an Elvis/Graceland pen."

How about Dollywood?

"No... I've heard about it, but we didn't go."

Touring America in a Winnebago
Photo used courtesy of Ben Trowell
According to Dodge, the band is still awed by the sheer size of America: "The weirdest thing for us is the country is so big! At the start of the tour we drove from LA to Phoenix to do a radio interview. On the map it just looked like this little, insignificant line that we'd drawn. About thirty miles outside of Phoenix we said, 'If we did this in Ireland, we'd have fallen into the sea by now!'"

But mostly the band members are just enjoying themselves over here. "We're just getting a buzz off of meeting people," says Dodge. "Because it's on sort of a grass-roots level, after the gig people realize that we're living in the Winnebago. They knock on the door and we'll have them in for a beer, or something, and just talk. People have offered us meals. Some people have said, 'You can come back to our house and have a shower.'"

Dodge acknowledges that there is in fact a shower compartment in the Winnebago but points out: "That's where the bass drums lives!"

Visiting Graceland
Photo used courtesy of Ben Trowell
Like Dodge, the group's music is upbeat and sincere, with nary a trace of religious and/or political ranting. Which, given their close proximity to "The Troubles," is a little surprizing.

"There are some songs on the album about living in Northern Ireland," he notes, "but it's from a different angle. We didn't wanna preach to anybody, whereas 'Sunday  Bloody Sunday' [by U2, who aren't from Northern Ireland] is shoving it down your throat. I don't think it's really like that back home, anyway. I mean, there is trouble, but there's trouble in Los Angeles."

Referring to the recent LA riots, Dodge adds: "We never had anything like that — all the fires and stuff! It's never been that bad."

Just the occasional bomb exploding?

"I'm not saying nothing bad happens," he states, "but the thing is, people are trying to live there and work and provide for their families."

Ghost of an American Airman
Hollywood Records promo photo
Dodge explains that the emotional track "When the Whistle Blows" from the new LP addresses this sensitive topic: "My grandfather and my father both worked in the shipyard in Belfast, a big industry that is falling away now. My dad, just after Christmas, got made redundant and it's like, what happens then? People back home are actually more concerned with those things rather than if you're Protestant or Catholic."

The band members all grew up in the same Belfast neighborhood, and attended the same school as children. Not yet a teenager when the UK punk scene took off, Dodge admits he was "afraid of it," and instead preferred the hard rock sounds of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.

However, he also loved the passionate rock 'n' roll poetry of Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine —  and remains an unabashed fan. When I teasingly asked if Patti Smith caught his group's recent CBGB gig, he exclaimed: "No! I think I would have died!"

Pre-production for the band's next album should begin this fall, and Dodge hopes they'll return to the Bay Area to record, as they were only in San Francisco for a total of five hours during the tour.

"When we came in over the Bay Bridge it looked amazing," says Dodge. The Beat Generation enthusiast trails off dreamily. "North Beach... Columbus Avenue... The only consolation is that we're coming back!"

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