Making their bones as fledgling musicians
Actor Gosling and pal scare up a band
For as long as they’ve been told, ghost stories have been intended to haunt us, making the darkness unbearable for what might emerge from it. But the guys in Dead Man’s Bones don’t interpret them that way at all. What you might consider scary they think of as fun, even tender, and they’ve just released an entire album that tells a different side of your standard ghost tale: a love story.
Dead Man’s Bones is the duo of actor Ryan Gosling, star of “The Notebook’’ and indie films “Lars and the Real Girl’’ and “Half Nelson,’’ and his friend Zach Shields, who met in 2005 when they were dating sisters. They bonded straight away, but over the strangest (their word) things: the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland and a mutual fascination with monsters, ’50s doo-wop, ’60s girl groups, and children’s choirs.
And that’s exactly how their new self-titled album seeps out of the speakers, like a soundtrack to a monster bash with the Shangri-Las as the house band. (That also explains Dead Man’s Bones’s press photos depicting Gosling as Frankenstein and Shields as a werewolf.)
“I think we both wanted to hear this record, but we had to make it in order to hear it,’’ Gosling says from Los Angeles with Shields on another line. “We kind of just wished there was a place to have access to all of those things. I think we genuinely thought that you have to be me or Zach in order to like it, and that made it easy for us to make it.’’
Well, sort of easy. Gosling and Shields - who perform as Dead Man’s Bones at the Middle East Downstairs on Wednesday - had envisioned their love story as a work for the stage. That eventually felt too daunting, and they instead morphed into a band. There was one problem that would have sabotaged the project for most people: Neither Gosling nor Shields played an instrument.
That didn’t stop them; in fact, the naivete of their ambitions inspired them. Gosling and Shields had both admired the Langley Schools Music Project, a collection of pop songs recorded by a children’s chorus put together by Canadian teacher Hans Fenger in the mid-’70s, and the similar pioneering work of Nancy Dupree on the album “Ghetto Reality.’’
As Dead Man’s Bones, Gosling and Shields identified with the innocence of those recordings and felt it reflected their own aspirations as budding musicians. For their debut, they enlisted LA’s Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir to sing on several of the songs. The young voices are so pivotal that Dead Man’s Bones will perform with a local chorus in each of its 12 tour stops.
Especially when the material grows dark, there’s an undeniable poignancy to hearing the children sing on songs with titles such as “Young & Tragic.’’ Gosling says they never worried that the songs might not be appropriate for youngsters.
“I guess we thought this is going to be weird for them, that we were going to have to do a lot of explaining,’’ he says. “But it isn’t as dark as it might seem, because to us it’s a love story about monsters and ghosts and finding love.’’
“I don’t think we necessarily knew at the beginning what this project was going to be,’’ Shields says. “As kids, Ryan and I were both obsessed with ghosts. It took up a lot of our imagination.’’
Their album was recorded in pieces over a few months, and it was as slow-going as you’d expect from two people who didn’t quite know how to conjure the sounds they wanted to hear.
“We didn’t want to try to mask where we were musically, because the best part of the Langley School records or the Nancy Dupree one is you can hear where they are at, the evolution, the learning,’’ Gosling says. “You can hear the struggle.’’
Gosling, whose disembodied croon sounds like that of the spirits he’s summoning, has an otherworldly presence on the album, which veers from doo-wop (“Paper Ships’’) to indie pop (“Flowers Grow Out of My Grave’’) with forays into creepy ballads (“Dead Hearts’’). On “Dead Man’s Bones,’’ a woman breaks down into unsettling sobs.
Gosling acknowledges some of his band’s fan base will be borne out of his celebrity status. But he also knows Dead Man’s Bones is just odd enough to attract a niche audience beyond that.
“I want people to find it honestly, without it being shoved in their faces,’’ he says. “We just wanted to put it out there in a lo-fi way, and we hope like-minded people will gravitate toward it.’’
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.