The stairs lead up to an outdoor balcony. On that balcony sits a very large cage and in that cage sits a large cat, basking in the spring sunlight. “Oh, he loves it in there. And if we don’t leave him in there, he will literally scale the side of the building—I mean he actually climbs on the walls,” laughs Ryan Gunwitch-Black, of his cat Zucca. “He’s a ninja and we can’t trust him to let him roam. If we let him outside, he’ll literally be hanging on the front of the building.” It’s apparent that Black isn’t a sadistic animal abuser. After all, this appears to be a happy, well-fed cat (who is, in Black’s words, “weirdly addicted to kale”) who kind of leans on the wires of the cage, rolling his head out of curiosity rather than any distress signal. But in conjunction with the now-40-year-old—Black’s 20-year, dark presence in local music, comics and grim attire—fierce black hair, similarly dark clothes, tattoos—a visitor being greeted by at least something in a cage seems appropriate.
Inside the Riverside apartment that Black shares with longtime partner Tulpa Black, the décor and vibe is pure rock-and-roll sarcophagus. The walls are covered in art (much of it his own, all of it on the darker side). Shelves throughout the place display comic superhero and fantasy memorabilia. Nag Champa incense permeates the space and an altar-like shelf on the living room wall is covered with dozens of Iron Man statues, many leaning on each other like superhero dominos. “These are my drunken Iron Men,” he says, his lighter firing up what will be the first of many smokes.
Name any current (or defunct) local rock, punk or underground bar, and in those past 20 years, Black has surely played it. Either solo or as a band, Black uses the name Ghostwitch. Black’s prior band, Porcelain Black, wrote everything on computers; as Ghostwitch, Black digs deep into older music roots; albeit, roots that tendril through graveyard dirt. “I wanted to see if I could still just write on an acoustic guitar; if it’s good on an acoustic guitar, it’s good regardless of the instrumentation,” he says of the dark, “creepy country” he pens. “I’m essentially mixing Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash with The Misfits—it’s ‘Doom Country.’”
Black recently finished up his new release, Halo, Horn & Broken Wing. For the course of the album’s 10 tracks, Black puts his gothic and metal underpinnings through the paces. Each song on Halo is atmospheric, yet each has its own distinct atmosphere. Black seems to enjoy sequencing incongruent songs back-to-back. The opening track, “Inverted,” is driven by galloping drums and a guitar that sounds like an early ’90s black metal album, as Black barks out strong vocals with a hateful delivery that would make Melvins’ frontman Buzz Osborne proud. “It’s [“Introverted”] in the classic tradition of the vampire love song, where you give someone that gift of eternal life and darkness … but then you’re stuck together forever,” laughs Black. “I realized way too late that the first song on the album is about a vampire and the last song [“I Am Wolfen”] is about a werewolf.”
Conversely, tracks like “All Gone Wrong” and “Boots” are straight-up stompers, with bluesy acoustic guitar, the latter song underpinned with a pulsing metallic, industrial-style beat. The rest of the album has the same kind of multiple-personality production. While a four-on-the-floor beat is prevalent, Black might disrupt that rhythm with a flurry of pulsating electronic sounds.
Recorded at home on his laptop with the Logic Pro platform, Black played guitar, bass, drums, synths and samplers. Philip Newton, guitarist for local black metal band The Noctambulant, guests on trumpet. Kyle Munford added a guitar solo to the track “Blue Girl.” For his upcoming Ghostwitch gig on April 22 at Nighthawks, Black will be joined by Newton and Munford on guitars, along with bassist Jason Howe and drummer Brian Hall. But, ultimately, Ghostwitch is a solo trip for Black. Consequently, being the sole songwriter, musician and producer leads to self-editing problems. “I tend to write and record in a kind of vacuum and then when it’s done, you enter the probably universal stage of—‘Is this crap? Will anyone like this and is it even a song?’”
Black started writing Halo three separate times; roughly 35 songs were whittled down to 10 and the record was finished in August 2016. In conversation, Black seems to bring it back home to country music. “For a long time, I didn’t know how to write country music in general and put it through my filters,” citing what he calls “Dirty Americana,” sourced from everything from murder ballads and Danzig to Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. “Even if they weren’t directly playing something bluesy or country, people like Marilyn Manson and Danzig were absolutely ‘in’ their music in that same pretty intense way.” While Halo, Horn & Broken Wing doesn’t have a set release date, Black is in no absolute rush; as file downloads still currently supersede much tactile (i.e., vinyl and CD) releases, any pressure to press an album seems off the table.
A large drawing board is to the right of where Black sits, the laptop where he records music a literal arm’s length away. Halo was essentially recorded within this 10-foot-diameter space, where Black’s guitar amp coexists with recent visual artwork on the walls, tables and couch in that same area. A previously published comic in an edition of 200 copies sold out immediately. “Sequential art like a comic takes a long time to make and right now I barely have time.”
Speaking with Black, it’s apparent that there’s some kind of plan involved; not so much a career path, but rather creative intent. He seems too direct and articulated to appear as if things are just “happening” as he whittles away at music and drawing. “You know, when I was a kid, I always made art. And when I was maybe eight years old, I knew that I’d be making music,” he says.
Black admits to a definite overlap between his music and illustration, together a conjuring up a weird juncture where werewolves meet Hank Williams under the same moonlight. There’s surely a bit of persona at play—the Black in a thoughtful conversation in his apartment is not the same Black onstage, at times slathered in goth-style makeup. But it’s more about the myth and narrative than guitar amps and black greasepaint, narratives and mystique that Black believes have been usurped by things like social media, with its demands that we all provide a constant update, refresh and reload on our lives.
“People expect to know you now, even though they’re really having a relationship with some presentation of you. They want to look on Instagram and Facebook and see what you had for lunch, when you went to Disney World … It’s strange, since now everyone, whether they’re a musician or not, feels like they have to do this or nobody’s going to pay attention to them,” says Black, then adding with a laugh, “maybe that’s true because nobody’s paying any attention to me.”