I’m talking to a group of boys, and their lives all seem so uncomplicated: Steven García works in an advertising agency he started with two friends; Jesse Pantoja spends his day at an office products company; Adrian Carrillo works at Home Slice Pizza; and Andrew Romero is finishing his MBA at the University of Texas at Austin.
They communicate like true friends: They talk over each other, interrupt each other; they make fun of one another and sometimes they agree with each other. They all live in Austin and they make music.
Today, Western Ghost House—whose sound combines indie rock and baroque pop—is pushing its first full-length album, Kaleidoscope Tower.
When they talk about the album, they tend to agree on its strengths: Through hard work came a meticulously constructed, carefully produced collection of songs they’ve written together and now love playing together. “Festival” seems to be the band favorite, which Romero says is “the foundation” of who they are as a band.
But before they established their foundation, Western Ghost House came together thanks to Jesse’s Bed and Breakfast. The B&B was named after the band’s vocalist and guitarist, Jesse Pantoja. Bass player Steven García met him through the B&B in 2008 and they started meeting every Sunday for football and music. Eventually they got a drummer, who they claim is the best one around—and he agrees. When asked who the best drummer in town is, Adrian Carrillo simply and without slight hesitation responds, “Me.” Because they needed another guitarist, Carrillo suggested Andrew Romero, who had just moved from San Francisco. Even though Pantoja was initially turned off (he teases) by Romero’s “fitted rainbow-colored tank top” and thought he was “gonna be a dick,” personalities synced and Western Ghost House began.
We’re sitting at Spider House with a pitcher of beer discussing stereotypes. Other than the fact these boys are all Chicanos—which could trigger an endless debate of who they should be and what they should sound like—we focus on the simple fact that they’re all musicians, something with a bundle of stereotypes attached to the name, and so we begin with a classic: musicians are cool.
Picture Keith Richards, the quintessential rock star. His nonchalant essence of cool, effortless style, even his playboy charades are reported by the media to this day. Now think of the modern-day musician. Case in point: the members of Western Ghost House. There’s an argument taking place at the table, which is the order of geekiness in the band. García and Pantoja both come to agree it is this, from geekiest to most “normal”: García, Pantoja, Romero, and the very last, not even really belonging on the list, Carrillo. They all have their geeky quirks, which they discuss freely amidst laughter. García, for example, loves Dungeons and Dragons. “That’s the peak of my nerdiness,” he says, then points to Pantoja and outs his love for Skyrim, the fantasy-based video game he once played 12 hours straight. But Pantoja’s nerdiest quality might be his love for pens. He has a favorite, a zebra-print one he loves because it’s “easy to carry, ‘cause you just slide it and easily put it in your pocket and it never breaks.” He smiles and shrugs in his mustard yellow hoodie.
Romero’s set apart in the band for his love of fashion, or so the others say. He can’t count how many pairs of shoes he owns on the spot, but throws a guess at 18. “He’s just behind this wall of fashion, just this image. He talks about The Sartorialist a lot,” says García. “I’m actually surprised at how geeky he is.” Of Carrillo they can’t really say anything, except that he’s the most normal, not geeky or awkward at all, although he’s unfortunately freakishly quiet during interviews. “He’s a really gregarious guy,” says García. “The life of the party. He’s just one of those dudes that I don’t see ever changing; he’s just kind of the way he is. So much fucking fun.”
Even thinking back to high school, the members of Western Ghost House (Carrillo not included) were geeks. “We’d go to shows and we’d be like, ‘Mom, don’t drop us off at the front of the club, you gotta go around the corner’ and then we’d walk down the street like we came from downtown,” Pantoja recalls. When discussing this shift where musicians changed from Keith Richards to them, García puts it best: “Society turned us into geeks and then forced us into music. So it’s not our fault that we’re socially awkward, we just had a lot of time on our hands.”
Stereotype number two: musicians get laid. A lot. García points to Pantoja, laughs and says, “It’s failure after failure. He doesn’t think he’s trying but he does, and he puts it on strong sometimes. Adrian I don’t really see doing it, but he’s such a cool dude it doesn’t matter. But Andrew and Jesse’s dynamic is really funny. Jesse will try talking them up and Andrew will just go up and cock-block.”
Romero has a unique view on getting girls. “Perfect ratio,” he says matter-of-factly. “Women are attracted to men 1.1 times their height. I read it on Wikipedia; that’s where I get all my knowledge,” he finishes with a smile and a drag of his cigarette.
Stereotype three: musicians got each other’s back. Particularly in Austin, known as the Live Music Capital of the World, there’s an assumed way of life, supposedly that musicians support each other. “There’s a really weird thing happening in the scene I’ve noticed, where musicians aren’t really as supportive of each other as most people believe the Austin scene is,” says García. “You go to shows, but you don’t really listen to the bands. You go because your friends are there, just to drink or because it’s an excuse to get out of the house. And we’re prime examples of it.” They try, they plan to go, but nine times out of 10 they don’t because they stay home writing songs or playing D&D.
Western Ghost House is playing a show at Frank, a small, dark club on 4th Street. It’s Romero’s birthday, and through a gentle buzz they still play a good show. Pantajo’s voice is extremely different— a moody, ghostly tone mixed with piercing screams that seems to contradict the musician himself. They play songs from Kaleidoscope Tower, including some of my personal favorites, “You Don’t Scare Me” and “Branded.” They finish their set and assemble outside to talk and smoke. Because Austin is a mad sea of musicians, the scene is tough. Success is never guaranteed, especially with so much competition. “Are people gonna be there?” questions García. “How do we get the people that are important enough to go to the show to get their friends to go to the show? Because we really wanna pack the room. And we might get one or two people to really listen.”
The boys of Western Ghost House want to move further, they want to get bigger. They want to play with the likes of Cartright and The Eastern Sea. If they could choose anyone dead or alive to play with, Romero dreams of Lennon while Carrillo chooses The Flower Travellin’ Band. They mix their different tastes and talents to achieve something they’re all happy with, to embellish each song with a personal touch. “We’re very open to change, it’s all about equal sharing,” says Romero. “We’ve all learned to never get attached, and we constantly rewrite things that complement the song.”
Although Western Ghost House rejects the previously mentioned stereotypes, they do support each other. “I think band dynamics go beyond friendship,” says García, before swiftly mentioning Pantoja once tried to push him off a balcony. But that’s another story.
This feature story originally appeared on our sister site, Austin Vida.