Here is how the Ghoul School theme song begins: thirty seconds of cowbell, drum machine and several 8-bit keyboard lines followed by the lyrics, "I've got one more test to pass, I'm not giving up. Girl, I'm never coming back, no way I can flunk. Something is awry here, it's in the blood on the walls. Girl, I gotta get out of here, are there ghouls in the halls?" And then the chorus, "You're in a ghoul school." Repeat.
Ghoul School is a short film made by Springfield's Brook Linder. He raised more than $4,000 earlier this year to make the twenty-minute thrill ride set in a lethally haunted high school some 30 years ago. Completist fans of perfectly imperfect pop band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin may recognize his name — he's also responsible for the band's videos for "Let It Sway" and "Critical Drain." So when he went looking for someone to write the theme song for his movie, he was at a distinct advantage. SSLYBY's Phil Dickey cranked out the track, and he and Linder had so much fun doing it they decided to just start a band. They recruited Phil's sister Roni, dubbed themselves Dragon Inn 3 and recorded an EP, which came out digitally and on cassette tape last week.
Lately, there has been no shortage of homage to the synths, bubblegum and general bombast of the '80s — recent releases from Destroyer and Gayngs spring to mind. But neither of those bands had balls nor the devotion to go so far as to record a cover of "Danger Zone." Dragon Inn 3 has both — the Top Gun song wraps up the Ghoul School EP. What is remarkable about this band is the way it manages to find the heart beating under that thick layer of cheese. Linder and the Dickey siblings feel a deep connection to the culture of the '80s, and it isn't just emotional — there is a fortuitous actual connection as well: Tom Whitlock, the man who wrote the lyrics to "Take My Breath Away," is a Springfield native.
"Sometimes being in the same place as him feels really good," says Linder.
He and Phil took a break from their jobs working at (where else?) a Springfield movie theater to talk to us about recording in a van and chasing a very specific movie moment.
Kiernan Maletsky: How did Dragon Inn 3 start?
Brook Linder: It was exactly a year ago this week. Boris Yeltsin was on tour, and I tagged along. I was super bummed out — my girlfriend just broke up with me. I went along in the van, and I told them about how I was trying to make this '80s movie. All the best movies have theme songs. So Philip started making this dope keyboard theme song.
Phil Dickey: I was just trying to do a Will Smith song. Will Smith meets Ghostbusters. We cranked it out so fast that it didn't make any sense to stop there. It sounded like a hit to us.
BL: We recorded everything in the van. We realized we could do it anywhere.
PD: In fact, on "Ghoul School," on the chorus, if you listen really carefully in headphones you might be able to hear highway noises.
Was the whole thing recorded in the van?
BL: At one point we left the van and didn't go back. And then it became Phil's living room.
PD: About half of it was recorded with a decent microphone, and then half of it was recorded with the computer microphone on the first take.
How did your sister wind up in Dragon Inn 3 as well?
PD: I kind of recruited her to be in the band. I figured she could write all our good songs. She's way better at music than both of us. She can actually play the piano and guitar and all that stuff. We needed someone who could really play. Plus, we were in a band together when we were in second and fifth grade. We had this psychic connection.
What were you called?
PD: The Funky Monkeys.
BL: Terrible band name.
You said you're working on an LP as well?
PD: There are five or six more songs that we're still working on. When those are finished we can combine them with some of the songs on the EP and have a full-length. Early next year or something.
Do you think you'll try and find a label or self-release it?
BL: We're looking at the majors.
PD: Straight to Warner Bros. or Virgin...I don't even know what big record labels are anymore. I say that half laughing, but I'm kind of serious too.
Are there plans to tour or play live shows at all?
BL: Yeah. We need, like, twenty members to play all the keyboard parts. Right now we're just worried about getting the songs finished. But yes, eventually.
It seems like this might have started sort of as a joke, but it's definitely not now. When did that change?
BL: The whole theme song thing is kind of silly, but this is the kind of music that we like. I think we're pretty sincere about making really fun-sounding songs. It's a little silly.
PD: When we first started I would show the songs to my wife, and I think we kind of confused her. She kept asking me if the band was a joke. I think when we did "Rocket Launcher" and "Up in the Business" that's when she said, "Wow, this is actually a real thing."
For me, when I convinced her that it wasn't just a joke, that's when I started trying harder.
Phil, you've obviously been writing songs for a long time. Was it freeing to have this other framework?
PD: My favorite part about it was that I just got to go to an opposite world for it. I could do all the songs on tiny keyboards in GarageBand. With Boris Yeltsin it's always an out-of-tune piano and an acoustic guitar. So you just have to try different things. In the process it helped me finish some Boris Yeltsin songs too. I was able to separate the two really easily. I kind of had a writer's block thing going on, and starting Dragon Inn 3 helped with that. I'm not sure how or why.
Do you think there is a connection or overriding aesthetic between the kind of '80s movies and music you're creating here?
BL: I think there's totally a connection. They're really glossy, really well produced. When Phil started doing the score for the movie and we looked at, like, Tangerine Dream, that really awesome band. There's certain glossiness to '80s movies and the way '80s songs sound. There's a certain silliness.
PD: What we are trying to do with Boris Yeltsin is maybe avoid that. And this time we got to embrace it. Kind of go over the top.
BL: I don't think there's anything wrong with maybe being super sincere and maybe repeating messages that we've heard a thousand times. Sometimes you just want to hear a dope-ass love song that's like, "Girl, hold me."
PD: I hadn't watched a lot of those movies until Brook was kind of telling me what to look at for the soundtrack. RoboCop and The Thing and Die Hard and all that stuff. I went in thinking, "These movies are kind of cheesy, and it'll be fun to watch them." But when I actually watched them I realized they are actually bomb-ass movies.
BL: Now you can't have a film like that without it winking at you. And being super self-aware. It kind of takes the fun out of it.
What's your favorite musical moment in a movie?
BL: Well, there's this scene in Top Gun. Tom Cruise's character really lost his way after Goose died. And he's on trial because he crashed his plane. But there's this song that plays. And it's the best visual and audio moment ever. With him standing trial, and it's just this pulsing beat.
PD: Yeah that's right. We fast-forwarded to that part in the movie and watched it like five times in a row.
BL: It's the perfect tone. We're just chasing that scene from Top Gun.