Ghost-Note, the brainchild of master drummers Nate Werth and Robert Sput Searight, has been a force of nature since its inception. Of late, the funk fusion collective has been tearing up nightclubs and festivals around the world on their aptly-named Smack ‘Em Tour. The former members of Snarky Puppy have lept into this phenomenal new endeavor at full speed, releasing the critically-acclaimed double LP Swagism in 2018. Ever since, the duo has been collecting band members and hitting the road, refining and fine-tuning the ever-evolving live show while tweaking the band lineup for maximum impact. Part of that process was the addition of virtuoso bassist MonoNeon, whose sound, style and persona have revolutionized this band.
With the low-end duties in such brilliant hands, the sky is the limit for Nate, Sput, and the rest of the Ghost-Note squadron. Such was the case at the inaugural Suwannee Rising Music Festival in early April, where the fully-formed Ghost-Note delivered a pair of powerful, extremely well-received performances. The members of the band were also recruited for a variety of exciting sit-ins, as Nate, Sput, and MonoNeon got nice with the likes of Lettuce, Dumpstaphunk, and more. The collaborative magic culminated in a secret 4 a.m. jam session deep in the woods as the festival wound down.
Live For Live Music‘s B.Getz was lucky to track down Werth and Searight for a quick interview as the longtime friends and bandmates bounced around the hallowed Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park grounds between their myriad white-hot performances. Over the course of the conversation Sput and Nate retraced their path from being a percussion duo to a full-blown funk band, their attachment to the city of New Orleans, and how their upcoming Ghost-Note Plays Swagism (Live) show at One Eyed Jacks during Jazz Fest will document the creation of Swagism in the very city in which it was conceived and recorded (tickets available here).
B.Getz: Let’s begin with introducing the Ghost-Note project. Tell us a little about the vision of this band. How did you conceptualize it and put it together?
Nate Werth: It all started for us meeting in this other band called Snarky Puppy. You may have heard of us, we played here at Suwannee several times [laughs]. We [Sput and I] played in that band together year-round for almost ten years, Sput? Twelve? Our relationship as a rhythm section, as a drummer and percussionist, kept on evolving and growing and that was kind of addictive for us, and we enjoyed doing that, so we had this concept to maybe just do a drum record [2015’s Fortified]. Then that blossomed into today.
I mean, it’s a long story, but I think that it’s just [that] music evolves, and for us, we went into the studio and wanted to make a record that was groove-based and not about solos but still a drum record. We couldn’t really think of a record that did that. Then, when we were making it, we realized ‘it would be nice if there were a melody over this or something,’ because we are musicians—we love music. We love a good melody. We love a good composition. Sput is such an accomplished writer as well, so the record just started evolving, evolving, evolving. Then, once we released it, our agent pushed us to take it on the road. There was an opportunity to go on the road with [fellow Snarky Puppy alum] Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles, and it was their first tour as well, so we went out together…
Robert Sput Searight: …along with [Snarky Puppy guitarist] Mark Lettieri’s trio… it was all of our bands’…
Nate: It really was the first tour…
B.Getz: This tour was basically the Snarky family tree?
Sput: We called it the Detour [both laugh]
Nate: …‘Cause all of us were trying to do some new stuff and do our own projects.
Sput: All of us…we were trying out new things, it was a new beginning for each of us…
Nate: I think, inevitably, when you play in a band, there’s a creative process that you want control of at some point and there’s nothing wrong with it. We love SP and I still play in the group here and there and Sput is still involved as well. Once you are in that band, you know, you are family for life. There’s so many members that are busy doing other stuff right now, and that’s beautiful. I think that’s what Mike League has always encouraged. He loves seeing people blossom into new things and to follow that honest path of yourself and your creative journey, because that is what music is.
We are on this wild ride too… I can’t predict what type of record I am going to write or be involved with in the next five years, you know, it’s a journey. [Ghost-Note], right now, is on that journey. I feel like we have evolved from this drum group to this funk band, and that started with the addition of [saxophonist] Sylvester Onyejiaka] and [bassist] MonoNeon. When those guys were added to Ghost-Note, we had this lead sound and incredible funky soloist sound from the sax and then that bottom end! I mean, MonoNeon is one of the funkiest humans on the planet, and he just changed Sput and my overall direction of this project—or, if not changed, he definitely solidified a direction we were wanting to go in…
Sput: He just made everything sound funky-er…We were kind of in the same vein. We were still influenced by James Brown … He just made everything we play… I mean, there were certain songs we would play that are funky, but he would just….when Mono came, everything got funky, it was just funkier. We just embraced it. It wasn’t totally different from what we were already doing, but it was a different sound and it was morphing into something new. From there, then we added the other guys too…Jonathan Monez and Xavier [Taplin]…the keyboard element, it was [*CLAPS*] entering another portal…
B.Getz: T-minus Ghost-Note blast-off!
Nate: My brother, [melodic percussionist] Nick Werth, he goes by Galaxe as well, he was involved in the OG Ghost-Note project, and sort of phase one of the touring band.
Sput: Nick was a part from the beginning, and he is why Swagism became what it became. Nick was phasing out (he had started his own band) and he was de-touring, wanting to do his own shit and with Yak Attack and his solo project, Galaxe.
Nate: Yeah, he was just being honest, a good brother and band member. He said “you know what, I am going to need to dedicate the majority of my time next year to my stuff” and Sput and I were like “well, no one can replace Nick Werth.” He’s the most original cat, and like all of our compositions were based around his instrument.
Sput: You would expect a bad mofo like that to eventually blow up with his own shit. That was gonna happen.
B.Getz: By that point, Ghost-Note was too far underway to turn back though, right? What was the next move?
Nate: We had to come up with a way to go forward. We were saying to each other, “We need to find a keyboard player.”
Sput: We gotta tell them about the [making of] our record! See, we had prepared a record with Nick and so…
Nate: Our album, Swagism, we recorded in 2017, December I think. We were at Parlor Studios in New Orleans. Maybe six weeks out, Nick was like “Maybe I’m gonna have to…” so we’re scrambling…
Sput: Yeah, the thing is, Nick was still doing the gigs, and he was still going to do them, but we had to make a decision about how we were going to do the record, because if we wrote this record for him and he wasn’t going to travel and tour the record, we were like “this is going to be difficult, there’s no one to replace him. EVER.” So, we got into the studio and we had this time booked. But actually, we had like NO [finished] music…
Nate: Yeah, we had like only two or three weeks to write music for the album. Sput and I were just laughing about it at first, and he dug deep for that stuff that he had written over the last few years, and our sax player Sylvester did the same thing, and I had fragments of a couple of songs and ideas. We got in there to the studio, and we literally had a dry-erase board out. We were like “Okay guys, what do we got? Let’s make a priority list…how many songs do we have now?” We had 13… 14 ideas, fourteen pieces of ideas. Then we—as a band—made this album.
Sput: I’m tellin’ ya, we just had ideas on the wall. We had no finished music, really. Just ideas and a vision.
Nate: I mean, I’ve been a part of a lot of great sessions, you know, especially with Snarky Puppy, and some of those sessions you would leave after a song, ‘cause you were doing live takes and you would just feel that ‘WOW! That was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been a part of.” And I had that feeling many times at the Parlor Studio making Swagism.
Sput: Lemme tell you, making this record… It was an epic time. We had some local guys come in to record with us, some of them from right there in New Orleans. I’m talkin’ about Weedie Braimah, Nigel Hall [Lettuce]. We had some great people help us out to make this record.
Nate: It was just a beautiful, natural session. Just about everything went well, and we got about 80% of the work done that we set out to do. To be honest, that alone was a serious accomplishment.
Sput: Yeah, then we went out to Los Angeles and we got inspired again. Out there, we recorded some stuff at 206 Studios, my friend Ben Burget’s home studio spot.
Nate: Ben is extended Ghost-Note/Snarky fam, a real friend of the band. He specializes in studio stuff like recording and engineering, and he’s also an incredible sax and trumpet player, so he will also step in if some of our guys have their other gigs.
B.Getz: Is that the type of thing that will happen often with Ghost-Note? Do you have a sort of revolving door? You have people just ready to step in?
Nate: Today, in the music world, it’s like that. Everyone is doing something that is theirs, because you have got to be able to exist as a solo artist in some capacity. We are instrumentalists first but, in reality, you have to be a solo artist too. You have to start your own project, you have to write your own music, you have to market yourself. So our guys are doing that and it is casting a web of sorts… The guys have some music going on, Xavier sings as well…
B.Getz: You guys are sorta like a syndicate. A group of killer cats that spiral into a myriad of directions, musically, personalities, skill sets. Ghost-Note casts such a wide web for having existed for such a short time.
Sput: Don’t forget that Xavier plays in Toto, too. We get out there and play with a lot of different projects, but Ghost-Note is our main thing, and has been for a while now.
B.Getz: On the topic of New Orleans, where you wrote and recorded the incredible Swagism, we are approaching Jazz Fest 2019 and, predictably, Ghost-Note is very busy. Let’s talk about all Jazz Fest stuff for a moment, please. I see you guys have a huge Swagism show planned for second Saturday at One Eyed Jacks! There is major buzz around this gig in Jazz Fest circles. Lots of rumors of guests and such, which is normal for Jazz Fest gigs in general, but since you guys are relatively new on the scene, there is a whole lot of chatter.
Nate: It’s really perfect for what we are discussing, Bee. For the Swagism show in NOLA, we are trying to re-create that vibe that we had in the Parlor. Basically, the large majority of the guests on the record will be sitting in at the show, and then some new guests that will be there that we are super excited about.
Sput: Yeah, we got [Eric] “Benny” Bloom from Lettuce, and a percussionist in Weedie’s Hands of Time.
Nate: Bobby Sparks will be up there with us too. I’m very excited about that as well. Plus, because it’s Jazz Fest, we have a few surprise guests we can’t tell you about…but we can tell you we are very excited. We can say that we are very excited…
Sput: We are talking about Grammy award-winning producers, and one of the greatest jazz musicians of our time will be there. *Hint hint*.
B.Getz: I have some sneaking suspicions as to who might be involved, but I don’t wanna jump the gun. But I can tell by your mannerisms and tone of voice that something truly epic is being planned. You guys just got *really* pumped when we started discussing surprise guests. So are you guys are gonna play the full album, or selections from the album? How are you coming at the Swagism show at One Eyed Jack’s.
Sput: Now that we have the record Swagism out there, we are able to perform it, we can tour the record, and it’s developing into to some crazy psycho funk. Man, we have fun onstage, a lot of energy up there, and we bring it, as much as we can—because we are big fans of each other, first. Whatever audience is in front of us, they are going to have a great time, but we are always feeding it and giving the performances all our energy and receiving the energy, as well. You can hear that come out on Swagism, but even more in the live shows.
B.Getz: You guys have invested a lot of yourselves into the community in New Orleans. You’ve been coming down there and doing Snarky Puppy stuff first, superjams like Sputacular night a Bluet Nile for several years, the Purple Party, etc. So it’s kind of appropriate you recorded your album there, and now you’re going to rebuild this record onstage there, with cats you connected with there…. And beyond. Sounds serendipitous!
Sput: You know, NOLA is very special to us because it’s the first city Ghost-Note ever sold out.
Nate: It’s also a city where we have so many friends that live there. Another extended member of the band, Alvin Ford Jr., he lives down there and he will be there at One Eyed Jacks on second Saturday.
B.Getz: Sounds like the Swagism show is going to become a part of the special Jazz Fest magic that happens every year.
Nate: Jazz Fest is just special….there’s nothing like it. Sput, how many years in a row have you gone to Jazz Fest?
Sput: I think this is year 6 for me, been doin’ it maybe 5 years now.
Nate: Yeah, 5 or 6 years for me as well. At first, it was like “this is my vacation,” and then soon after that it was like “wow, people keep asking me to do gigs with them while I am down here,” and next thing I know, I am playing every night at Jazz Fest and Sput is too—he’s playing every day, multiple times a day. So forget about vacation [laughs], we are down there pretty much working now. Last year, things got a little too crazy for me with the giggin’ so I toned it down a little this year. Doing about half as many hits. Which is still a lot, ya know?
Sput: Yeah man, you are never sleeping at Jazz Fest.
B.Getz: We don’t need sleep, we need SWAG!! For Swagism at One Eyed Jack’s, can you maybe tell the people a little bit about how are you planning this gig? Play the album front to back? That is a crazy long album. Gonna have to go all night!
Nate: For the Swagism show, first of all, we are playing the record from start to finish, so if you are not familiar with the record, it’s a double disc that we recorded in NOLA, so i am talking about 19 songs…it’s a lot. On every song, there’s a new featured guest, sometimes two. The flow of the night is just going to be just one hit after the next, after the next, surprise guest, surprise guest, and so on.
We are doing two sets that night—Disc A and Disc B. About half of the songs we have never performed live, so that’s what’s exciting too. There’s a lot of vocal tracks that we have on the record, so those people are coming down for the gig, and for once, we will perform with the vocals that are on the record! Plus, we’ve got the rapping, the emcees are coming down to NOLA, so that’s going to be super exciting. We are really excited about So So Topic, he’s such a force. He is fierce.
Sput: Oh yeah, we got a singer coming… We got a dude named Jermaine Holmes coming through…
B.Getz: Yeah? from D’Angelo’s band, The Vanguard! He’s incredible. Jermaine sang at the NEON-Medeski gig last year at Jazz Fest and tore it down.
Sput: Yes, that’s him. He’s gonna be doing the song with So So, actually… “Looking at the World” is the track. So we are excited about that collaboration going down.
Nate: So if you are familiar with the Swagism record and Ghost-Note in general, you know that this is a very strong, ambitious goal to accomplish. It’s going to be an intense night of music, with the amount of guests and the amount of music that we have planned.
B.Getz: Well, if anybody can pull this off, you are up for the challenge. I mean, you guys gig so hard, you’ve been on the road so long. It ain’t going to be anything for y’all. You’re ready.
Sput: Oh yeah, I mean, we are totally geeked about it…this is our last shebang with the swagger… the Smack Em Tour, it’s pretty much over.
Nate: This is the end of the Smack ‘Em Tour. Last year we did maybe 70-80 gigs on the year, and this year we are set out to do over 130…and we are going back to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. So we are starting to expand and we were basically out on the road the whole time. It feels like we have been on tour since December 31st.
Sput: Because we have! [laughs]
Nate: Off the stage, we are growing more together and that is reflecting onstage. There’s all these things we are coming up with—there’s improvised moments that happen because of something funny that happened in the van, and the crowd likes to experience that sort of stuff. We like to experience that sort of stuff. So we are out here just trying to play funk and have a ball at the same time, you know?
Nate: Another thing about the Swagism show that I forgot to mention is that we don’t know what we are going to do with the footage.
Sput: Some sort of HBO concept movie… I don’t know yet, but we’ve got big plans for the footage.
B.Getz: Is this going to be a super late-night gig?
Nate: We have kind of pushed for the time slot that we got and, in my opinion, it’s the perfect time slot. It’s that 8, 9 p.m. showtime, 8 p.m. doors, you’re done by midnight, so people who are trying to leave the festival grounds and catch the show can go catch a nap and make that show. It’s also a lot of music, so you could even come and just catch the second set…
Sput: You want to be there for the first set!!!
Nate: If you miss the first set, you are going to have FOMO like a mother… That’s all I can say right now…
Sput: We are doing other things at Jazz Fest too. We are doing the Music Box, which was a popular thing last year.
B.Getz: I saw y’all there last year with Weedie. Was my number 1 show of Jazz Fest 2018.
Sput: Yeah man. Last year was with Weedie, this year it’s Ghost-Note at the Music Box. Another thing we are super excited about is the Neon-Ghost show, which is Monday, the 29th. Ghost-Note playing the music of MonoNeon. We really love this kid so much, he’s never really done a Neon show with his music, playing his records, so this is going to be his first endeavor. He is going to be singing, playing…
Nate: It’s crazy, because what we are doing at Jazz Fest is what a lot of bands like to do, and this is what we like to do—we are playing three times, but the only time you can hear Ghost-Note as Ghost-Note is the Swagism show…because at the Music Box Village, we are doing a completely different lineup. We have a lot of special guests from New Orleans that are going to be a part of it….Sput is on, like, trash drums and I am on weird metal structures…I guess they are building me a metal thing to play. I can’t wait. It’s going to be a dream come true. Then, like we said, we are playing the music of MonoNeon. Just come see Ghost-Note at JazzFest. We are going to be playing three completely different shows planned for you—but the major event is the Swagism show second Saturday at One Eyed Jacks.
B.Getz: We will see you on Toulouse St, deep in the Quarter, second Saturday. Thanks so much for carving me out a few minutes to get the Swagism scoop.
You can catch Ghost-Note’s special guest-filled Swagism (Live) show at One Eyed Jacks on Saturday, May 4th at 9:00 p.m. Grab your tickets here before they’re all gone.
For a full list of Live For Live Music‘s late-night shows in New Orleans during Jazz Fest, head here or check out the poster below.