Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Jason NeSmith, lead singer of Athens, Ga.-based pop rock band Casper and The Ghosts, about his desire to be constantly surprised and why the band can’t just be The Cookies.
CP: You founded Casper and The Cookies with Kay Stanton in, what? 2000?
JS: It was probably 1998, but it gets a fuzzy.
CP: What made you decide the time was ripe to graduate from bedroom recording project to a full-on group?
JS: I don't know. The thing was, I finally had enough friends that I thought would enjoy it, you know? I had bands here and there in high school and college, but those are the kinds of relationships that don't last because everyone is getting ready to pick up and move in two or three years. I was out of college in Atlanta and fell into this really great group of people. I was in all their bands, so they kind of had to be in my band when I asked. [Laughs.]
Then, Kay and I moved two or three years after. [Laughs.] That was when we had something that would work in a rock club. We got used to it. We had a lot of good musicians to get to the great musicians we have now.
CP: Who are some of the band's collective influences? I definitely hear some Crosby, Stills and Nash in your vocal harmonies and your multi-layered textures and tones seem pretty starkly British invasion.
JS: I haven't listened to Crosby, Stills and Nash since I was a kid, but they have fantastic harmonies. I probably listened to The Hollies and The Byrds and Neil Young solo more than them. The Beach Boys' “Smile Sessions” finally came out this year, and everyone in the band is a fan of that stuff. We've all been listening to bootlegs for years. They can harmonize like a mother. I'm not sure we're that caliber of vocalists, but I'd love to be. [Laughs.]
As a collective, it's hard because we're all over the place, but things that at least three of us can agree on are Michael Jackson and a kraut rock band called Faust that we like a lot. Also, that William Shatner record “Has Been” is a big favorite in the band.
We're all voracious listeners. With not trusting overexposure to one kind of sound, when we go on tour, we bring like 300 gigabytes of music just to make sure we don't have to hear the same record twice. [Laughs.] Gregory will bring this great combination of stripper music from the ’60s. I can't keep up with the guy; he's insane. Constant surprise. That's what I want.
CP: I know you're the Casper from which the group derives its name. Where did that nickname come from?
JS: For some reason, I'm one of those people who is like a magnet for nicknames. I've had so many of them, and that was the last one of the list. It finally stopped at Casper. It's one of those things that someone called me once, and I didn't mind it so much. I've tried making up stories for why I adopted that nickname, and I even tried not adopting that nickname, and there are lot of people who call me Casper, but there are even more people who just call me Jason.
We even tried to change the band name. That was something that happened last year. We wanted to just be The Cookies, but we found out that in 2011, there was a band that did indie pop called The Cookies. They put out a 10-inch and would be playing the same kind of places as us, so we couldn't have that. That name just chose me. It's who we are, for better or worse.
CP: And the Cookies bit? Why settle on that?
JS: Well, the record I was working on in my head was full of sweetly innocent tunes and lyrics that were supposed to have a sort of dark theme hiding within them. I liked the alliteration of Casper and the Cookies, and it was going to be painless since it was going to be around for the year. I didn't know that once we did that that people would really latch onto that Casper and the Cookies name. That was in 1998.
CP: Judging by how many of your albums have been re-released over there, it seems like you have quite a following in Japan. Is there a story behind that?
JS: I don't know if we have a following in Japan. I just think we have some really good friends. [Laughs.] I'm sure there are some people who like us over there; we've had some good reviews and everything, but people who like music in Japan, everything they like is their favorite thing. If I ask my friend Sakomoto, “Hey, do you like that band NRBQ?” and he'll say, “Yeah, they're my favorite!” Then, if I ask, “Hey do you like The Beatles?” he'll say, “Oh yeah, they're my favorite!” It's just a difference of culture. I'm not sure if it goes deeper than that. All that aside, we have some fantastic friends who put out some of our records, and we've been able to tour over there a couple of times. We'd do that again in a heartbeat, but with the economy and all …
CP: Was it last February that you got to open for the B-52s? What was that experience like?
JS: Yeah, that was last February. First off, it was an honor. They're one of the last bands I can think of from the timeline of rock'n'roll that was completely unprecedented, as far as style and sound. They started something Athens is still writing on. On top of that, it was their anniversary, and there was a huge party. They are some of the nicest people I've ever met. It's one of those nights I'll always think of — probably every day. It was amazing.
CP: What is your creative process? Who writes most of the band's songs or is it an entirely collaborative process?
JS: I write most of them, but what I like to do is … well, not any one particular thing. Sometimes, I'll bring fully fleshed-out demos with everyone's part of it. Sometimes, I'll leave out the bass part because I want Kay to write the part herself. Sometimes, I'll record us jamming in the practice room, and that sounds more like us just having fun. I don't write all of them. Kay writes lots of great songs, and Greg has several under his belt with more coming along. We won't put it out if it's not good to us.
CP: What do you want to convey through your music? What kind of effect are you looking for, in terms of how the audience receives it?
JS: That's a damn good question. I could say I want it to be fun, especially in a live situation. An LP is different because it's more of an intimate situation, but in a live situation, we'll be a fun rock band. We'll vary between more melodic and more noisy, but it's going to be something you can almost dance to; we'll still mess with you, though. We want you to try and dance to it anyway.
CP: A sense of fun seems pretty important to you, too, if the videos I've seen online are any indication. How much of that is chemistry between the band members and how much is from the songs themselves?
JS: That's all completely sincere. The songs are in there, too, but to be on stage in front of an audience, even if they're not paying attention, is more fun than almost anything you could alternatively be doing. We have a lot of fun. A long time ago, someone told me to remember the difference between being exciting and being excited. I think you can do both. The lesson was probably if you're excited, you’re coming off like a spaz or something. I thought I would grow out of that, but I'm still pretty spazzy. We all have fun.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...