White Ghost Shivers finds its inspiration in Prohibition-era jazz
Several years ago, Westen Borghesi was walking down First Avenue in Seattle on his lunch break when he wandered into a music store specializing in exotic instruments. Borghesi, 30, the frontman and driving force of Austin’s speakeasy swing band White Ghost Shivers, made an inexpensive but crucial purchase that day. Spotting a wall full of novelty instruments, he picked out a $1 nose flute for himself. “I went home, got real stoned and played nose flute for a couple of hours and got it down,” Borghesi says. “I was able to get a noise out of it right away. But a lot of people can’t get a single noise out of the thing.”
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Borghesi’s knack for squeezing sounds out of idiosyncratic contraptions extends to the eight-piece band he’s put together in his own hulking, 7-foot image. But the glory of the band is that while it adheres to Borghesi’s dream of playing in a 1920s-style New Orleans jazz group, it also absorbs seemingly contradictory elements, from bluegrass to western swing to the European gypsy music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
“It’s real interesting once you start listening to all that old music, and all the different genres, how much they’re all so similar,” he says. “You listen to a lot of old string bands or western swing from the ’30s, even calypso or Hawaiian music from the ’20s, and they all had that element of American jazz.
“It seeped into all those different styles, because it was such a phenomenon. That’s what broadened our style and made it all mixed up, because we were finding all these other styles that were similar but different.”
Borghesi grew up in Denver and moved to Seattle when he was 15. Since early childhood, he towered over most of his classmates, which only became a problem when he hit junior high and was teased for his Space-Needle frame by “all the metal-head butt-rockers” in school. A basketball player from second grade until his senior year in high school, Borghesi says he received a half-dozen athletic-scholarship offers. “But I kept dislocating my knee,” he says. “I’d always been into music. My senior year I was getting tired of school, wanting to play drums, and getting less into playing basketball. I hurt my knee one last time and said ‘I’m never playing again.’”
After going through phases when he was engrossed with heavy metal, gangsta rap, and punk rock, he dropped all other preoccupations a decade ago, when he heard the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ first album in a Seattle coffee shop.
“I think that was the only album they had out. There wasn’t a big swing revival or anything yet,” he says. “I heard that and was blown away. It sounded familiar, but I hadn’t heard it before, really. I was hearing banjo and some other instruments. I just couldn’t find anything else like it. It took another year of looking and finding out that they were basically playing 1920s jazz.”
Finding players with both the proper musical finesse and the dedication to Borghesi’s vision proved difficult in Seattle, but he had better luck after moving to Austin seven years ago. “At first, we all sucked,” he says. “We were all at the same level and grew together over the course of seven years. I’m really glad it happened that way, instead of being good at what I was doing, finding other guys who were good and trying to start an all-star band.”
That lineup includes Curtains Thomas on violin, the exceptional Saturn on clarinet, Smokebreak Slemenda on lead guitar, and Cella Blue, offering a touch of flapper insouciance on lead vocals. On the band’s new album, Everyone’s Got ’Em, Blue pulls out all the stops on a reworking of the vintage track “Weed Smokers Dream,” and Borghesi showcases a demented Rudy Vallee vibrato for time-warp originals such as “Little Kisses” and the creepy classic “The Ghost Song.”
White Ghost Shivers
Fri, Jun 23
Ruta Maya Riverwalk Coffee House
107 E. Martin
Borghesi attributes his fondness for Prohibition-era textures to a childhood spent watching Looney Tunes and the Little Rascals every Saturday morning. He’s also a silent-film aficionado, and periodically presents classic silent films (such as Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.) at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, accompanied by a White Ghost Shivers score.
“It’s very challenging,” he says of the band’s film scores. “It’s a lot of work. Most of the bands I’ve seen do the silent-score stuff, they just take their already-written songs, take the words out, and just play them. To me, as much as I enjoy a band playing live to a silent movie, that just doesn’t cut it.
“I really wrote our stuff to the movie. We literally sat there and charted out timelines in the movie and figured out how to put all these parts together. It’s so much work, it’s almost a drag to think about ever even writing another one. But it’s really fulfilling when it’s done.”
One of the greatest examples of this band’s performance acumen came with a New Year’s Eve show in Austin with the Small Stars. While the two groups were serenading a crowd of 500 with “Auld Lang Syne,” the electricity went out. “Everyone was wondering what was going on,” Borghesi says. “Luckily, we’re acoustic, so we just got down in the middle of the floor. Everybody had their cell phones and lights and there was this one guy with blue light wrapped around his body, and he just sat right in front of us. We just played in the dark for an hour or so, and when the power came back we all played ‘Come on Eileen.’ Very drunkenly.”