Childhood friends Max Davis, Sean McCarthy, and Griffin Sherry played their first show as Ghost of Paul Revere at a small bar in Portland, Maine in 2011. Since then, the “holler-folk” trio with a talent for lovely three-part harmonies and rowdy, foot-stomping shows has become a regional favorite, selling out Northeastern venues, winning “Best In Maine” at the 2014 New England Music Awards and earning high-praise comparisons to Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
GoPR’s debut full-length album, 2014’s Believe, and two EPs have been top-sellers in Maine and New Hampshire in recent years, but the group has made inroads on the national scene too, playing across the country in bars, music halls and at festivals. 2017 saw the release of the band’s second full-length Monarch, in which they traded a live-in-the-studio approach for new sounds, like adding strings, electric guitar and a little R&B to their old-school folk instrumentation.
Bassist/singer Max Davis answered some questions about the year past from his West End of Portland apartment, after "just coming back in from shoveling!"
AXS: Your website says the band grew up on Radiohead, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, and quotes Griffin: ”Everyone assumed we were a bluegrass band because we were playing these traditional instruments, but we weren’t writing traditional music. We were just writing songs with the instruments we had.” So, if the band suddenly had electronic gear, would you become The Ghost of Nikola Tesla?
Max Davis: If that’s not already a band, I think we may have to take the name for our electro house music side project. In all seriousness, we did somewhat fall into our instrumentation. It was guided by our attraction to acoustic sound and that came, in part, from how our three voices worked in harmony with one another. You could say the combined vocals were the first instrument that really clicked for us. We made it a cornerstone of our sound and built up from there. The harmonies didn’t initially need to be amplified; they were more dynamic as one blended, unfiltered sound, so we sought out instruments that would lend to, but not distract from, that...
Ultimately, the sound is facilitated by what the story or emotion needs, and as we’ve developed, we’ve started testing the sonic waters. It was definitely the case in making Monarch, some things worked and others didn’t...There’s some electric slide banjo and mellotron on the album, so who knows, maybe one day we’ll be three guys in silver suits behind laptops and stairways of synthesizers!
AXS: You've been compared to OCMS, the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Band. Are any of them influences?
MD: Absolutely, some more so than others, but we are honored that our sound connects us to these bands. We’ve done covers songs from all four. I’d say The Band is the biggest influence of the lot. They proved you could have multiple songwriters and perspectives align under one sound and constantly pushed the boundaries of what that could accomplish. We started as a bar band with limited original material and these bands connected what we were trying to do, with what people were listening to at the time.
AXS: What was it like playing with the Avetts?
MD: Before we actually played at Thompson Point with them here in Portland, we got a “gig” busking in the lobby area of Civic Center before their co-bill with OCMS. That was the tops at the time, so you can only imagine what actually opening and sharing the stage meant to us. We got to do a family style lobster dinner with them, and the best take away was that they are the honest, kind people their music suggests.
AXS: You didn’t have a drummer at the show I saw; instead, there was a harmonica player. How often do you change the band’s live configuration?
MD: Within the last year, we’ve gone from a nine-piece to a three-piece and all the stops between. We know the core lies in the three of us, but we love playing with other musicians and seeing what that can bring to our sound. A majority of the shows we played this year with Jackson Kincheloe, from Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, on harmonica and lap steel; and Tony McNaboe on drums. We wanted to do the new album justice for most of the extensive touring we did, but the flexibility and freedom to test all types of configurations has been exciting.
AXS: In Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, he wrote that the E Street Band could have made a nice living playing for dedicated regional fans, but felt they had to play out, even if it meant small audiences. Given your strong Northeastern fanbase, did you make a similar decision?
MD: We can absolutely relate to the Boss on this one. Portland has a phenomenal music scene, which seemed especially dynamic when we were just starting to play out...The friends and family that started supporting us grew into new fans that grew into friends and family, but we realized early on that if we wanted to communicate with a bigger audience we would have to make the effort. We saw amazing local bands fizzle by not opening that communication, so we started making moves.
It was possible to tour in Maine alone because we could travel the same distance it would take to get to NYC but stay in our state! Community is big for us; we understand growing up in a rural setting and having limited access to entertainment, so we headed North first. I think it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made; we developed deep connections with people that have been and will always be an incredible support system...That support was double-edged – it gave us confidence to keep pushing out, but took us out of their lives in the same breath. It made the next big steps harder, but the trust was and still is there, and now the support is stronger than ever.
AXS: Sean said, while signing vinyl after the show, that buying Sharpies was one way to measure how well the tour was going. How is that?
MD: We love meeting or reconnecting with the people that come out to our shows, and that frequently takes place post-show around the merch table. It’s still crazy for us to be asked to sign things, but I think it makes a CD or vinyl way more personal, so we’re always into it. We found out early that black sharpies don’t work on our album covers, so we started buying silver and gold markers. We lose a lot of them, but we definitely need them more and more these days. It’s hopefully a sign that it was a memorable night and a great show, so much so that people want something to remember it with.
AXS: With 2017 over, are you happy with how things have progressed? What lies ahead in 2018?
MD: It was a big year for us. We had some incredible shows, played some amazing festivals with amazing musicians, and really feel that the music is taking hold with people in ways we couldn’t imagine. It's beyond humbling to meet people around the country that have found and connected with our music and it seems like it grows every time we head out on the road. We have a little down time currently so we’ve been catching up with family and friends and preparing for 2018, which is already looking like it's going to be a great year. We have some big holiday shows in New England, including a couple sold-out hometown shows, then we head out for a big national tour come February.