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Potato Moon tells the story of a "Ghost"

The Grand Rapids family band returns with timeless tales of love and apparitions.

/Courtesy of Potato Moon

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Potato Moon - The Ghost Sessions: June 2010 - March 2012 is available through iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon.

Phil Stancil, Sr. and Ben Stancil

Phil Stancil, Sr. and Ben Stancil /Jane Steele

[L to R] Fred Drachus, Ben Stancil, Matt Jarrells

[L to R] Fred Drachus, Ben Stancil, Matt Jarrells /Jane Steele

One of the most decorated bands in WYCE Jammie Awards history, Grand Rapids' Potato Moon went five years between releases, re-emerging in the summer of 2012 with The Ghost Sessions: June 2010 - March 2012. To discuss the new album, I met with Potato Moon songwriter Ben Stancil and engineer/producer Fred Drachus in a Walkerville barn, on location of recording for a forthcoming project.

[Click here for the soundtrack]

Matt Jarrells: In your words, can you tell me about the making of The Ghost Sessions?

Ben Stancil: My parents have a little place up north on the Au Sable River. We’ve been doing albums up there for about a decade – The Ghost Sessions is the fourth one we’ve done up there. We kind of hole up and try to create an atmosphere where you can try to create more of a vibe as you try to make music. There was a lot of creating on the spot – not improvising necessarily – but arranging on the fly and it makes for a spontaneous feeling – loose sessions where you don’t have to look at the clock at all. You’re mainly hanging out with people you want to make music with.

Jarrells: When you assembled the musicians to make the record in June of 2010, did you know you were making The Ghost Sessions or did a ghost just sort of creep on there?

Stancil: There’s a dual meaning in the name. I became fascinated with my great-grandfather, his name was Walter G. Stancil and he was this ramshackle type - a house painter, lived in the South – just a very colorful character. My dad [Potato Moon’s Phil Stancil, Sr.] has told me stories about him growing up - just very colorful, not a politically-correct kind of person and a talker, too. When he was just 16, my Dad had to pick Walter up at the bus station. First he had him stop at a barbershop, where he entertained a bunch of fellas with stories and jokes. The second stop was the local bar. “The Ghost of Walter G” is a kind of re-imagining of that kind of arrival. Wouldn't it be fun to have a beer and a conversation with your ancestors, long-gone? That’s what we were conjuring up when we started - that idea of family history, lineage, stories.

The other meaning for that title: we did a weekend in June of 2010 and then a weekend in March of 2012 and we pieced those together. Over that span of time there are these sessions that merged together and the material fit. We recorded half the songs in the first sessions and half in the second. The first song – “See It All” – was the first thing we did...

Fred Drachus: ...after a night of listening to Dr. John. We all got there and hung out, everybody had this relaxed swampy vibe and “See It All” was the first thing that came out. Set the tone.

Stancil: Yeah that song is particularly scary – it’s an eerie feeling right off the bat. I think the vibe of the record is definitely influenced by the songs from that first session. “Photograph”, “Desire”, and “I Loved You the Best” sit right in the middle but they were actually from the 2nd session.

Jarrells: It’s safe to say there’s a very different Potato Moon sound on this one. Is this a concept record or is this the new sound of Potato Moon?

Drachus:  I think it just happened that the vibe was right. It wasn’t like “Let’s create something with this certain sense of space.” That first song came out and it was like “No, more reverb!” and suddenly there was this big spacious sound.

Stancil: Also, we’ve been spending a lot more time in our sessions getting headphone mixes sonically right, really making it so when you sing and play it’s really enjoyable to do. Back in the day I was part of sessions where you record things and maybe it doesn’t sound right now but we’ll get it right in the mixing…and I never really bought into that. What you heard on this record is really close to where we were with our rough mixes.

Drachus: Ben told me when we went into this: We want to track this live; we don’t want to do a bunch of overdubs. And these guys can create on the fly. There are spontaneous moments interesting to see – Ben at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and half an hour later, take one or two and you guys have just learned something, it’s like fresh bread out of the oven. There’s not much that goes past take three or four and it’s all live. Maybe 10 overdubs on the whole album.

Jarrells: That’s hard to believe with the solos throughout the record.

Drachus: Michael Sullivan is the tastiest guitar player – on the spot, always creating - and The Girls [sisters Jane and Laura] singing these amazing harmonies. Mike’s solos were live. I can play you any song off those sessions and they’re all keepers.

Stancil: He’s a player.

Jarrells: Ben, you write all the lyrics but the story of Potato Moon has always been that it’s a family band. Are your family members musicians who fulfill your vision or are they indispensable collaborators?

Stancil: Definitely both. I think we’ve developed into - if we were a basketball team – we’re an older team now that’s been around the block a few times, we’ve had some good runs at different projects and everybody understands their spots. In arranging and what happens in the collaboration process, it’s all so free-wheeling that it becomes a collective process. I don’t look at any of this as “my own.”

When we were first playing together, it might have been my vision – I wrote the song, here’s what I hear in the arrangement. Now, I trust - I don’t even pay attention - my sisters have developed the same kind of ear and know what they’re looking for. I’m lucky in that there aren’t contrasting visions and not even discussion about what we want to come out of it.

Jarrells: Do they still manage to surprise you?

Stancil: My sisters really started blowing my hair back five years ago. I don’t think I knew what I had in my group 10 years ago. It was like, “Oh, these are my younger sisters and we’re the band, so they’re gonna do these parts.” But they’ve really developed these soaring harmony parts and - like Fred was saying – one or two takes. I really feel like if they headed out to Nashville, they could be session singers.

The new surprise for me is my youngest brother [Phil, Jr.]; he’s 12 years younger than me. So Phil did some drum work and some guitar work and he plays piano on some stuff. He’s now the hidden surprise. So now I’m looking at him, like, ‘Whoa….OK.’ He brings a whole different skill set. In the basketball reference, we’re the older team and he’s like the young point guard.

Jarrells: Fred wasn’t part of your last record, After the Harvest. What did having him back bring to The Ghost Sessions?

Stancil: I think he plays as much of role in it as I would. There are times when there’s friction between us because as the songwriter you can run the board on every single person in room, including the engineer. But Fred is anchored in it and he’s not going to let go of what he sees. There’s a give-and-take – and I like that. He’s kind of my governor. You take the governor off there, a golf cart will go 50 and just speed off. You leave that governor there, you know, because you still just want to play golf…..[to Fred] I’m gonna call you ‘Governor’ from now on.

Jarrells: Potato Moon’s songs have always had this timeless Americana feel. Do you ever edit yourself from sounding too contemporary? Do you have a bunch of songs about the internet hidden away in a bin somewhere?

Stancil: I think in the songbook at home where I take down ideas, there are occasionally ideas that are stylistically really different. The editor on that is: everybody’s busy. It’s a nice thing that I don’t have unlimited time because I think you’d see me fishing through musical styles that I’m probably not suited for. It’s limited when I can gather everybody together – you know what it’s like to try to mash together seven calendars - so I’m likely to bring the best stuff that I’ve got.

You take the song “Photograph” – lyrically, that song is a family song. We always take family pictures, any family does. You pose and you smile - but photographs, for me, they’re sad. You look at them because they make you remember good times but the passing of time is so evident in a photograph. Those lyrics are all about how weird it is to capture time, and pictures are little time pieces. Especially when you make music as a family and you have these experiences together – it’s all very fleeting. We’ve come to not take it for granted anymore. We’ve all found out that things can change just like that and nothing lasts forever.

Jarrells: You’ve been at this a while – more than a decade, six full volumes and another one in development here this weekend. Is there anything you’d want to tell a young Ben Stancil making his first record - or maybe even Phil, Jr. as a young musician?

Stancil: What I’ve started to embrace is a less-is-more approach where I really take ideas and I try to refine them. This last song that we recorded this weekend, I’ve never put as much time into a lyric. That’s the idea now: making something that I think cuts amongst all this other really good stuff. As an artist, you want to be thought of in the light where people think of Grand Rapids, they think, “Yeah, I like Ben Stancil’s music. I like what Potato Moon does.” Sticking to our trademark: what is our stamp on this music scene? What do we do? What’s our brand?

Jarrells: Which is?

Stancil: I think it’s music that, listening to it, you don’t feel cheated. Sometimes you hear songs and it’s so crazy you wonder how they could do that live. There’s the idea that what we’re doing live should link to what we’re doing in studio. Our harmony vocals are our anchor, too. We have a sibling three-part harmony that we make our trademark, I would say.

Drachus: I’m thinking back to when I first met you. I first saw these guys 10 years ago at a sound gig, so I mix the show and they just blew me away. I still remember - the vocals in this group are so insanely good. That’s the money trademark. There’s a good energy, easy to listen to, and you’re writing these killer lyrics. And the ensemble playing, too - not a lot of bands do live music great.

Jarrells: Is the story of the Ghost written? Any more plans with this album or is it time to pick up and work on the next thing?

Stancil: We’ve already begun work on more music. We’re playing these songs from The Ghost Sessions live and it’s out there and you just hope it gets a little pop. I’m hoping people who have followed us for a little bit can see a progression - you listened to this bluegrass group ten years ago and there’s still something of that there. But if this was the first thing you heard, you maybe wouldn’t expect to go back five albums and find a band that played with an upright bass, a banjo, an acoustic guitar, and a mandolin....and not very well, either.

Potato Moon - The Ghost Sessions: June 2010 - March 2012 is available through iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon

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"The Story of the Ghost."


Nice interview, Matt. Thanks to The Rapidian for this feature on one of GR's best bands.