Ben Hanna has been summoning the knotty, deep-rooted spirits of American music as the guitarist, singer and songwriter of Grandpa's Ghost since 1994. From his home in Pocahontas, Illinois, he's released albums on small but respected labels and engaged in regular collaboration with experimental artists.
While Hanna has kept busy over the past decade, his band's output has been relatively scarce. That changed in May with the release of the double LP The Carnage Queen and an attendant EP, Country of Piss. All told, Grandpa's Ghost has delivered 22 new recordings — some from Hanna's vaults, some recently composed. They were captured in New York City with Hanna's long-time bandmates Jack Petracek and Bill Emerson, along with Tim Garrigan, a St. Louis native best known for You Fantastic! and Dazzling Killmen.
Despite Hanna's many collaborations, Grandpa's Ghost still holds a place of creative primacy for him.
"Grandpa's Ghost was kind of a prism through me that was still rooted in mine and Bill and Jack's lineup," says Hanna. "Bill and I started the group in 1994; we started working with Jack as an engineer in 1996."
The dichotomy of the band's output goes beyond the quiet/loud, acoustic/electric divide; the most charged moments for Grandpa's Ghost are fuzzy, gnarly divining rods, while the more spare tracks create their circular and oblong patterns as if dictated by some long-suspended pendulum. The title tracks give some hint to Grandpa's Ghost's dual engines: "Carnage Queen" is the band at its most succinct, a three-minute rock song bathed in twang and overdrive; "Country of Piss" rolls on gentle strums and banjo plucks for fourteen minutes, though Hanna's up-close delivery makes it feel somehow shorter and longer than its actual running time.
Hanna moved to New York in 2005 to pursue a degree; before moving back to the Midwest, he booked recording time in the city and summoned Emerson and Petracek and the New York-based Garrigan. "I wanted to record all of this stuff — there was part of me that was coming to an end in New York and I wanted to capture some of that feeling," he says. "I was very conscientious; I just turned 50 and thought this might be the last time." Working on the score for James Fotopoulos' adaptation of Alice in Wonderland helped him tap into his musical background, stretching back to his childhood in rural Illinois.
"I sang in the choirs, played cornet, sang in church. But Alice being a children's story at its core, it helped me get in touch with a core element of who I was," he says. "By the time I got these new records, I wanted to get to some of the songs I loved growing up. When we do a cover, you ask, 'How do you honor the song?' Sometimes honoring it means deconstructing it."
Some of the covers chosen for these paired releases speak to Grandpa's Ghost's more overt influences; the pass at Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "Lookin' for a Love" is fitting for a band that could seemingly turn any song into "Cortez the Killer." But the others — John Hiatt's "Learning How to Love You" and Judas Priest's "Electric Eye" — speak to the breadth of Hanna's listening interest. "There's a political statement in that song, 'Electric Eye,'" says Hanna.
Since moving back to the St. Louis area, Hanna spent some time readying the live incarnation for a slew of local gigs, including a show this weekend at the Tap Room and a set at next week's Riverfront Times-sponsored ShowcaseSTL. Poring through the band's recorded work kept him up past midnight, making notes and trying to discern how best to present the band's vast catalogue in a 45-minute set.
"You try to be honest to who you are and who the band is," Hanna says of prepping the live sets. "You try to say what feels right, what's our energy. It's challenging — some of [the songs] take on different meanings as you get older."
Now that he's been leading Grandpa's Ghost for more than twenty years, Hanna is reflective about his band's longevity and his dedication to this decades-long project.
"I think if you have an idea about what you want to do from a creative angle, you can see what the market will bear," Hanna says. "I didn't ever really think that we'd make money, so I made an early decision that we would pursue anything and everything that we felt was viable, in more of a longer-term shelf life.
"I don't know that there's still any money involved in it," he adds, "but the longer you stick around, the more you maintain a commitment to your aesthetic and your art."
9 p.m. Saturday, June 10. The Schlafly Tap Room, 2100 Locust Street. Free. 314-241-2337.