When the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger released their 2010 debut album, Acoustic Sessions, many listeners were captivated by the quiet charm of the folk-pop tunes written and performed by Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl. As was an enthusiastic audience in early 2011 at Club Congress, where the duo performed live. But one couldn't help wondering if the GOASTT had some more rockin' material in the works.
As a matter of fact, they did, as is proved by the recent release of Midnight Sun, an explosive psychedelic-rock album that doesn't eschew melody even while building delightfully trippy baroque arrangements for a full band.
"I don't know if that's a conscious thing, but, yeah, I think melody is always the protagonist in the theater of music," Lennon said in a recent telephone interview.
Now a five-piece fronted by Lennon and Muhl, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger returns to Club Congress on Wednesday, May 14. The Los Angeles band Fever the Ghost opens the show.
Midnight Sun features Lennon's distinctive vocals—his voice sounds like a less-reedy version of his famous father's—often in the lead position, with haunting and sexy harmonies by Muhl. Compared at times to the music of Deep Purple, the Flaming Lips and Pink Floyd, the album also features nods to Tin Pan Alley and Burt Bacharach as well as an unsettling cover of the Peggy Lee hit "Golden Earrings."
Much of the album feels timeless, as if it could have been made during any musical era.
"That's interesting that you would say that, because although I do feel like we have a nostalgia for '60s and '70s music, we try to think progressively," Lennon said. "And the kind of lyrical content that we have and the melodies make it modern-sounding and definitely not something that is a strictly retro sound."
Although Acoustic Sessions was the duo's first album, it was really a collection of demos, and Lennon and Muhl were still unsure of their direction.
"When we put it out, we didn't really know where we were going yet, and we were already planning to follow it up right away with something bigger and more involved," Lennon said. But we went on tour with it, and circumstances intervened and we didn't get to make this one as soon as we would've liked."
Soon after the release of Acoustic Sessions, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger scored an opening slot on a European tour headlined by French pop superstar Matthieu Chedid, which resulted in the release of their EP La Carotte Bleue.
"We were playing in front of, like, 15,000 to 30,000 people a night, and we felt like we needed a tour EP, so we recorded it quickly and printed up a bunch of copies to sell on tour," Lennon said. "It wasn't even supposed to be released in America. But then people started taking it seriously, and it took on a life of its own."
When it came time to record the fully fleshed-out Midnight Sun, Lennon and Muhl, who write all the songs together, were eager to make their definitive statement. Lennon has called the style—punctuated by everything from calliope and bells to backwards guitar and funky organ—"post-modern psychedelia."
As with Acoustic Sessions, they recorded the new album in their home studio in New York City, dubbed the Library, but they also traveled to the studio in their country home in upstate New York, which Lennon says is called the Farm. He and Muhl played almost all the instruments and produced most of the tracks, although hot-producer-of-the-moment Mark Ronson helmed one cut.
Some of the album's keyboard parts were recorded by Jared Samuel, who is also a member of the touring version of the GOASTT. When the band plays Tucson, Lennon, Muhl and Samuel will be joined by drummer Tim Kuhl and guitarist Robbie Mangano, who play with Samuel in the band Invisible Familiars.
Three years after the GOASTT's first appearance at Club Congress, fans will be fortunate to see this band, which by all rights ought to be massively popular, in an intimate setting again.
"Honestly, we would be playing bigger venues if we were more popular," Lennon says. "But, ultimately, I think shows are better when they're in a small place, and we like to be able to hear and connect with the audience."
Speaking of which, at that last Congress gig Lennon politely declined a shouted request from an audience member for a Beatles cover. Such rude interruptions might be a drag, considering the 38-year-old Lennon is building his own storied career and has amassed a back catalog that includes folk, rock, electronic and avant-garde music.
But he's not bothered. "People are really hung up on that. I love the Beatles, too, and I've never lived in a world in which the Beatles weren't popular, so it doesn't surprise me."