Allyson Baker doesn't scare easily. Back in the '90s, she was sneaking into Dwarves shows and frequenting mosh pits before she was barely out of junior high; by age of 17, she was playing guitar for some of Toronto's most notorious punk and hardcore bands (Teen Crud Combo R.I.P.), before leaving her friends and family behind in 2000 to shake some action in San Francisco. And yet, for all her apparent fearlessness, Allyson is very much haunted by forces beyond her control. Dirty Ghosts may be her new band, but it's the five-years-in-the-making product of a habit she just can't quit, a sound and vision that—despite numerous obstacles along the way—just had to be unleashed.
True to their name, Dirty Ghosts rose from the ashes of San Francisco sludge-blues combo Parchman Farm in 2006; as an antidote to that band’s wall of squall, Baker and fellow Parchman Farm exile Carson Binks (another Toronto expat) launched Dirty Ghosts as a stripped-down duo, writing rhythmically driven new songs built around intricate drum loops pieced together by Aesop Rock. And as if this relaxed, more experimental ethic wasn't a radical enough shift for these life-long punk-rockers, for the first time in her musical career, Allyson was forced to add “vocalist” to her résumé.
"Everything that happened with this band was totally out of necessity," she relates. "Post-Parchman Farm, Carson and I had spent about a year looking around for a singer. And then I felt like I was going to lose Carson and the whole thing if I didn't decide to just do it myself. I had all the songs and vocals in my head, I just didn't want to do it—the idea of being a singer just wasn’t appealing to me at all! But then I was just like, 'Fuck it.'"
Initially, the gambit paid off—Dirty Ghosts' earliest efforts fused Allyson and Carson's deep-seated love of '60s funk and bluesy, psychedelic rock with a more modernist, mechanized sheen, while Allyson’s newfound voice projected a striking balance of streetwise attitude and affecting vulnerability. Though Allyson says she was "completely out of touch with what was going on in music at the time," Dirty Ghosts' mix of grit and glitz aligned favorably with that of au courant buzz bands like The Kills and Sleigh Bells, while hearkening back to indie rock’s most dynamic duo, Royal Trux. In 2009, an early recording of the 21st-blaxploitation groover "Battle Slang" even got the band some notice on Pitchfork and other national music sites.
However, the sudden departure of Binks in 2011 (to join Oakland-based stoner-metal behemoths Saviours) inspired Allyson to rethink, rebuild and re-record the songs and, with the help of a drummer, transform Dirty Ghosts’ bedroom beat-box experiments into stage-ready rockers. But in sharp contrast to the skull-crushing assault of her previous groups, Dirty Ghosts are more about putting the disco into discord, using everything from dubby funk ("Shout It In") to minimalist electro ("Steamboat to Concord”) to vintage Van Halen-esque contorto-riffs (“19 in ‘71”) as means to showcase the emotional intensity of Allyson's voice.
Forgoing her usual diet of Black Flag and Blue Cheer, these days Allyson is more informed more by the likes of XTC, The Police and Chrome—bands that, she says, “had distinct sounds mixed with other different genres that were new at that time. I play so much less guitar now—to me, this is not guitar music. I'm thinking more about songs, and not volume and attack. That's part of being young, but then you get older and you're like, ‘I want to write a song that's catchy and that people will enjoy.’
So after 11 years in San Francisco—and five spent bringing Dirty Ghosts to life—Allyson now has everything she's always envisioned: a shit-hot record and a fully functioning band that's already got a west coast tour and South by Southwest appearances under its belt. But as much as Dirty Ghosts is a testament to Allyson's drive, more often than not, she feels like she’s the one being driven.
“Music takes complete control over me, and then just when I think the feeling’s gone, it comes back. It's a total love/hate thing: I love it because making music makes me feel so happy, but it kind of does the opposite, in that it takes over to the point where I can't make any rational decisions about anything else in my life. But I have this weird passion for music—there's nothing else I really want to do."
And, as this dead-cool debut ultimately proves, good things happen when you refuse to give up the ghost.