WILMINGTON—Amid downtime at their jobs at Waterline Brewing Company, Graham Wilson and Dani Bearss went from making beer to punk rock during the pandemic. With the addition of local drummer Brittanie Smith, they formed Hot Ghost. Come Friday night, the trio will take over the beer garden at Waterline, with Wilson on guitar and vocals, Bearss on bass and vocals, and Smith on drums.
“It’s perfect music for a night of mischief,” Wilson said ahead of the brewery’s weekend of Halloween celebrations. “It will be a different vibe, not necessarily suitable for children.”
Though the pandemic forced Waterline to close March through May, owner Rob Robinson was able to open and bring back live music in June. The outdoor stage and picnic tables in the beer garden help patrons keep safely distanced via Covid-19 protocols. Tableside service also prevents multiple people from congregating at the bar inside the taproom.
Wilson took over the Waterline stage two weeks ago with his other band, Starlight Speedway, a Southern rock outfit.
“Graham is a very prolific musician,” Bearss praised. He plays piano, guitar, bass and drums.
“I prefer ‘musically promiscuous,’” Wilson quipped.
He has played in numerous local bands, including Roy G Biv and with Loose Jets last year during a Blondie tribute at Reggie’s.
In the middle of the Starlight show, the assistant brewer and Bearss found out the Great American Beer Festival medal was awarded to Waterline’s Wee Heavy aged Scottish Ale.
“It is one of the first beers I got to design and brew at a commercial level,” head brewer Bearss said. “It has dark grains, hops, special yeast, a little bit of flash—we haven’t made it since 2017.”
It came as good news in an otherwise bleak year, with Hot Ghost being another bright spot that provided an outlet for the musicians to let out their angst. During the shutdown, Hot Ghost would practice in the brewery’s taproom and even recorded the band’s first EP, “BDG EP,” over the summer. The release features four songs — “Everything Smells Bad,” “Deja Vu,” “Yesh” and “Butt List” — and will be available on their Bandcamp page Friday.
“Recording it live felt super easy,” Bearss said. “Going into a studio feels more stressful; live, we’re just playing with our friends.”
Wilson reworked two songs with sound engineer Steve Harrington at his house. “If I’m gonna hit a note, I’m gonna hit a note,” Wilson said, showing his penchant for finessing the final product.
Onstage, however, full adrenaline runs wild from his 6’4”, 270-pound frame. He and Bearss take turns on the mic.
“It took me a while to come into being a vocalist,” Bearss admitted. “But I learned that making things easy on the bass was the trick. Definitely the songs I sing are simplistic. I yell—Graham tends to be more melodic.”
Each musician complements the other, all arriving at their instruments from different backgrounds. Wilson is classically trained and has received numerous scholarships to study music and music theory at private colleges in Tennessee and Texas.
“It’s a slick way to get out of Duplin County, for sure,” he said.
“I like to say it’s Graham’s job to polish us up and raise us out of the gutter, and it’s my job to punk us down,” Bearss added. “I feel very self-conscious about being the least practiced musician because I haven’t played out in 10 years.”
“Dani doesn’t give herself enough credit,” Smith said.
Bearss is self-taught and acknowledges the majority of her progress comes from reacting to her bandmates. She played punk rock through high school and college, before she decided to travel the world. Once she met her husband, Jordan Bearss (bassist of The Explainers), the two settled in Wilmington.
Smith was born and raised in the Port City and first took up piano before finding the drums at age 9. Though she studied music at UNCW, she switched majors to psychology and is working on opening her own practice. In her downtime, she has played in Wilson’s girlfriend’s band, Dirty White Rags, and with The Explainers.
“The Explainers are much more political,” Smith noted. “See, look at our new album cover.”
The Explainers released an LP, “October Surprise,” on Wednesday. Its cover features Donald Trump grabbing the nether regions of the Statue of Liberty while Joe Biden sniffs her hair.
“Someone once called us the Port City Kennedys,” Smith said. “The band just started in the last four years out of the turmoil of American politics.”
“And here I just write songs about how everything smells bad, and I can’t go anywhere or do anything during Covid,” Bearrs said. “Seriously, though, Wilmington smells bad. Is it dead fish? Or maybe cat piss?”
The three musicians of Hot Ghost create a fun repartee out of most every exchange, which oftentimes becomes a song about love, loss, happiness and sadness. The band’s shortest tune, “Dogs,” came from a friendly competition with The Explainers.
“It started out as a joke between me and my husband because The Explainers have a 45-second song,” Bearss explained. “I thought, I can beat that. So we wrote a 13-second one about dogs and how they’re good all the time. We just stick it in [our setlist,] and are like, ‘Hey, audience, did you catch that? Or were you talking and missed it?’”
Hot Ghost’s fury culminates from years of its bandmembers listening to many of their idols, including Smashing Pumpkins, Afghan Wigs, The Ventures, and The Stooges.
Really, though, they embrace a primal and edgy creative freedom that may challenge a few perceptions and preconceptions. The bendy surf riffs, pelting frenetic rhythms and screaming into the void, according to Hot Ghost, is cathartic.
“We just like making noise,” Bearss said. “It’s vindicating.”
Hot Ghost will play Friday evening at Waterline with The Explainers. The free show starts at 7 p.m. and runs until 9 p.m. Papadom Food Truck will be serving from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.