Most shit-hot guitarists with established success playing high-intensity hard rock would be expected to spend their entire careers working in that general musical wheelhouse. It only takes a brief listen to Toronto expat Allyson Baker's long-gestating project Dirty Ghosts to figure out she is not your average shit-hot guitarist. A crafty collision of densely programmed beats and dubby, post-punk atmospheres topped by Baker's sinuous riffs and melodic lead vocals, Dirty Ghosts finds the musician challenging herself to explore a new sound.
"Things need to shift and change in order for me to want to do it," explains Baker during a recent interview, her hazel eyes peering through tousled bangs. That same need for change first brought the guitarist to San Francisco a dozen years ago. Having cut her teeth in punk bands since her teens, Baker earned some regional notoriety with the scorching Dwarves/Zeke-inspired Teen Crud Combo before the band and Baker's time on the Toronto scene had run their course. "I sort of felt like I'd played with everyone there was to play with," she remembers.
Though it took Baker time to gain her footing after moving to S.F. in 2000, eventually the pieces for her next notable outfit fell into place. Parchman Farm mixed the fuzz-drenched roar of Grand Funk Railroad and local proto punk-metal heroes Blue Cheer with elements of breakbeat-driven late-'60s soul. Despite earning a rabid following and critical accolades with its ferocious live shows, the band disintegrated in 2006. A posthumous release by Birdman Records of Parchman Farm's Lost Tapes offered a blazing set of hard-grooving tunes begging for a "bonus beat" treatment looping the songs' propulsive bass-and-drum intros. It also hinted at the guitarist's next move.
After months away from any sort of band activity, Baker began experimenting with drum loops provided by husband Ian Bavitz (aka hip-hop producer and MC Aesop Rock) in what became the genesis of Dirty Ghosts. Still teamed with Parchman Farm bassist and fellow Torontonian Carson Binks, the pair jammed over beats, sketching out song ideas with a Pro Tools approach that was new to Baker.
"I kind of started looking at music on a screen, laid out," Baker recalls. "I'm looking at where the drums go and where the bass is coming in and I'm seeing where there's space. Not only do I feel like I need to hear something there, but I can actually see a space."
Initial exploration hewed closer to a riff-rock-meets-hip-hop sound, but Dirty Ghosts gradually drifted into uncharted territory for Baker. Especially after a fruitless yearlong search for a lead singer pushed the reluctant musician into taking over vocal chores herself. "I had the melodies and everything in my head, so it seemed ridiculous to have someone else sing," laughs Baker.
Those melodies would become the focal point for the group's early songs, which were written over several years beginning in 2008. Bavitz's intricately layered beats and Binks' kinetic bass lines provided a rhythmic foundation, giving Baker an open canvas on which to develop her delivery as they slowly put together an album's worth of tunes. Riding the clatter of busy grooves that echoed UK post-punks Gang of Four as well as NYC no-wave acts ESG and Liquid Liquid, Baker brought hooky vocals that were at turns defiant ("Ropes That Way") and sultry ("Surround the Controls").
A growing confidence in her singing gave Baker the strength to soldier on after Binks left to join celebrated Oakland metal band Saviours in late 2010. And her six-string skills remained a key facet to the sound that would eventually score Dirty Ghosts a deal with Last Gang Records.
That led to Metal Moon, the band's recently released debut album. Here, Baker's terse, choppy riffs help propel the loping rhythm of "Shout It In" and beef up the catchy chorus of "No Video," while a knotty guitar figure makes up the melodic core of the percolating "Battle Slang." Dirty Ghosts manage to make danceable rock with real teeth. A stab at writing a song over a Chrome-style drum beat on "Katana Rock" and the aggressive, early Killing Joke-crunch of "19 in '71" hit as hard as anything Baker's ever done. Those tunes — some of them punched up by a last-minute remix adding live drums courtesy of local session wizard Michael Urbano (Smash Mouth, John Hiatt, Cake) — would make up the bulk of Dirty Ghosts' initial release.
Though song quality was never an issue for Baker, replicating Dirty Ghosts onstage remained a challenge. The guitarist pieced together a band featuring bassist Erin McDermott, drummer Ben Tuttle, and keyboardist/percussionist Nick Andre not long after Binks' exit. Limited prep time left the lineup a little rough around the edges for its stage debut at last year's Noise Pop Festival. "It was brutal," says Baker with a rueful grin. "We were not ready."
A year later, the quartet is decidedly more seasoned. A recent headlining gig at the Knockout revealed a solid performing unit with Baker commanding center stage, exuding the kind of grit and swagger so audible on Metal Moon. With Dirty Ghosts' long road to completion behind her, Baker seems ready to find out where the band's unique sound will take her next.