In Short: Ypsilanti's Head Full of Ghosts Packs Powerful Sound Into Concise "654 Seconds" EP
Head Full of Ghosts packs a magnitude of sound into a short amount of time.
The Ypsilanti quartet of James Henes (vocals, rhythm guitar), Geoff Loebe (bass), Ken Ball (lead guitar), and Bryan King (drums), shares hard-hitting, alt-rock instrumentation across a concise EP aptly titled 654 Seconds.
“When we initially got the EP finalized, it came out to 654 seconds [or about 10 minutes in length],” said Henes, whose band also released its debut EP, 321 Miles, in 2021.
“Once again, it's another testament to time-stamping [in terms of] where we are as a band at this moment. We have always enjoyed when things have a reoccurrence, so the number thing will most likely be a part of us as we move forward.”
Head Full of Ghosts also incorporates prog-rock sensibilities throughout 654 Seconds, which features three contemplative tracks about authenticity, inner struggles, and change.
To learn more, I talked with Henes about the EP’s tracks, the creative process for the EP, the band’s new lineup and electric sound, the band’s musical influences, and upcoming plans.
Q: How does it feel to have this EP out?
A: We love putting new music out, it is always kind of scary to put something out and kind of say here it is, it’s done; But, we hope people enjoy it. However, we truly have to love it first and it needs to convey the sentiment we intended. We don’t really play anything we would call filler as it has to move us, then we capture it sonically and share it with everyone.
Q: What’s your favorite track off the EP and what do you hope people take away from it?
A: I love all three of the songs for different reasons but “Ally” spoke to all of us as something special. It was written during the tragedy of George Floyd and the Space X rocket launch and both events informed the lyrics. My daughters wanted to protest in our front yard; the audio from that makes its way into the bridge of the song. Our hope is that people realize that being an ally doesn’t mean you have to have a huge platform to promote the advancement of inclusion and that more often it is what we can do to effect change locally and in our communities every day in the name of equality that has the biggest impact.
Q: The track “Lyrical Me” originally appeared on your debut EP 321 Miles. Why did you decide to revisit, re-record, and include it on 654 Seconds? How did that track evolve sonically from its original version?
A: We fully intend to revisit almost everything from the 321 Miles with the full-band lineup at some point. “Lyrical Me” was the first song we worked on when Geoff first joined and then later when Ken joined, so there was an attachment with it being the first thing we had all done together. When we discussed songs for 654 Seconds, it felt like the obvious place to start.
Q: That’s beautiful. Listening further, there seems to be a lot of '90s rock influence in your songwriting, arrangements, and melodies. Would you say that's accurate?
A: Very much so. The '90s was the greatest time in all of music and I stand on that. From country to rock to ska to punk to hip-hop to pop to folk and the huge soundtracks, everything was on 10 in the '90s. The '90s were also when I was aged 8-18, which are some pretty formative years for one’s ears and I was always listening to something.
Q: Seeing you released this EP this year, did you write most of these songs through the pandemic? If so, how did the pandemic affect your songwriting?
A: Our song “Ally" was written during the pandemic; the other two pre-date that, but we have a few other songs that Head Full of Ghosts wrote during the pandemic. I think everyone felt a huge disconnection at that time and there was plenty of divisiveness going around. People were definitely emboldened in what they thought and made sure they share it with anyone and everyone. I always feel a bit guilty because I know many really struggled but, in my house, we bonded closer and spent much-needed time just existing. We made food, had Star Wars binge sessions, and my kids would even "glitch" for each other—making it look like their computers froze during virtual class. All that will make it into a song one day, I am sure.
Q: You recorded 654 Seconds with Dave Roof at Rooftop Recording. How did Dave help you take the EP's sound to the next level?
A: Dave has such a gracious ear, and he works at the speed of light. The studio also has such a great character that it makes inspiration come easy. One of my great musical mentors, Mike Gentry, told me that when I'm ready Rooftop is where I should cut some songs. It was always in the back of my head, and I’ve been listening to records made by Dave for the last few years: The Whiskey Charmers, Mike Gentry, Judy Banker, and Rod Johnson. We really focused on the pre-work, rehearsed, and then got in the studio. Dave put us at ease and explained everything he was doing in real time. We found tones, laughed, and played our asses off. Then, condensed it down into 654 Seconds.
Q: Head Full of Ghosts is now a quartet instead of a trio. How did you bring bassist Geoff Loebe and guitarist Ken Ball into the band? How do they each help shape the band’s overall sound?
A: Geoff Loebe reached out to me and asked if I was interested in helping him and few friends write some songs. Admittedly, I was flattered by the offer, but I explained with life and everything, that I only have time to devote to one project. I asked him if he knew of any bass players since we were looking for one … and he said, “Well, I’ll do,” and that was that. Geoff has an uncanny knack for having that perfect idea when everyone else may be floundering on what direction to take the song or part next. It’s our first time being in a band together, even though we went to high school together. Geoff has a great ear for melody and patterns in music that comes from his very varied musical taste. He has mostly played in punk bands and has the best T-shirt collection in the band.
As for Ken Ball, I have been watching him since I played a solo show with Chirp a few years back. I could tell he was into some proggy music based on the parts and lines he would play. Bryan and I were at a crossroads on how to sonically up the ante—do we get a keyboard player, another guitarist, or a multi-instrumentalist? I was listening to Adam Labeaux’s new album Brave Face (which is fantastic by the way) and kept hearing all these cool things. I was like, “Who worked on this?” and I saw Ken’s name, and I reached out. Ken has been nothing short of exactly what we were looking for—from guitar synth to harmonies to guitar tech to backup vocals to ideas for new parts. We finally had the right guys to let the songs go where we wanted them to go.
Q: 321 Miles features Bryan King playing cajon while 654 Seconds spotlights him on a full drum kit. What brought about this shift in sound for you, Bryan, and the band? How did that shift help take your sound in a different direction?
A: The initial version of Head Full of Ghosts was supposed to be an acoustic-rock outfit. Bryan and I always joke that we have lived parallel lives in many ways, but that we're just separated by miles. We have seen many of the same tours spanning 25-plus years, but we were never at the same venue. He and I talked about what "plugging in" would sound like for the band, but we went back and forth on whether to keep the band's original vision. Bryan switched his sound when he sent me a copy of him playing along with the acoustic version of "Lyrical Me" on a full drum kit. It was one of those "once you hear it, that’s how it has to be moving forward" moments. The orchestral side of our brains wanted to hear more in terms of dynamics, and the “plugging in” has really allowed us to be more expressive with the music.
Q: So, how did you originally get into writing and performing music?
A: I started on guitar learning Metallica riffs. I would do talent shows in middle school, joined choir in high school, had a band, and played some graduation parties. My sophomore year in high school I started listening to singer-songwriters a lot, all coinciding with my grunge and metal roots. My father played guitar, but it was when I first heard Iron Maiden that truly made me want to play. Then I became like the biggest Dream Theater freak but wasn’t into a lot of other prog-metal. Just Dream Theater, obsessively. I was the kid always drawing album covers to records I was going to make before there ever was music. I was also always making liner notes of the guest musicians I was going to have on my records.
Q: Dream Theater was obviously a huge part of your musical upbringing then. With that said, who are some of your current influences and how do they inspire you?
A: I think anything that makes me come back and then back again is truly inspiring. Whether it be the production, music, or lyrics it truly can be any combination. The last few years it’s been Biffy Clyro, A Perfect Circle, Jason Isbell, Flogging Molly, and Gary Clark Jr. along with going back and exploring with a new lens bands from the heyday like Soundgarden, Mad Season, Foo Fighters, Queen, Tom Petty, Led Zepplin, The Zombies, and Alice in Chains.
Q: Is there a collection of albums from other artists that could help define your own style?
A: Days of the New, Alice in Chains, Our Lady Peace, Collective Soul, Jason Isbell, Pearl Jam, Sevendust—basically any artist that took a hard lean into the acoustic side of rock and metal. We are all also big fans of the MTV Unplugged era. The first time I truly knew I wanted to fuse the acoustic guitar into something truly rocking was Sevendust’s Southside Double-Wide: Acoustic Live. It was brutal and beautiful all at the same time. Head Full of Ghosts is truly that vehicle where we take everyone’s musical influences and smash them against each other where the acoustic guitar and vocal still resonate as if it is a singer-songwriter—but not with hired guns, but a real band.
Q: Do you remember the first show you saw? How did it influence your current style and writing?
A: Ozzy Osbourne at the Palace of Auburn Hills with Korn as the opener! It completely blew my mind. I think what I most took away from live music in general was that connection to the crowd with a song that is made possible when audience and artists share the same space. Head Full of Ghosts are always trying to get to a central message of what we are trying to share; it’s the Tom Petty “don’t bore us get to the chorus” approach, but then make the chorus big so they get stuck in your head. That’s the goal anyway. I loved how the crowd knew every Ozzy lyric and to hear that many people singing someone’s song was very, very cool.
Q: What have you been listening to lately?
A: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit along with Biffy Clyro are two acts that seem to live rent free in my ears these last few years as Spotify conveniently reminds me. I think both acts have a knack for scratching all the itches one may have sonically, lyrically, and worldly. We as a band love the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Days of the New, A Perfect Circle, Soundgarden, Faith No More, Green Day, Alice in Chains, Tool, Collective Soul … along with classic rock, prog, and world music.
Q: What’s coming up next for you and Head Full of Ghosts this year and next?
A: Head Full of Ghosts really hope to be featured at many of Michigan’s great music festivals next year. We will also be releasing two more digital EPs before combining them all into an album that we plan on physically releasing on vinyl and CDs. Do people still play those? I hope so; we do!
Sean Miller is a Michigan singer-songwriter and freelance arts and entertainment writer.