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By Tom Murphy
The archetypal rock band has one golden rule: No girlfriends/boyfriends allowed. Few couples can survive the asphalted adventures of touring, and fewer still can endure the even more harrowing experience of actually being in a band with one another. It's usually a contentious John Lennon/ Yoko Ono ordeal or an auspicious Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon success story. Either path is a risky one, and not for the faint of heart.
Marie Litton knows this best. The petite singer/guitarist for Ghost Buffalo anchors the band's newest self-titled album with laments and woes over her relationship with Matt Bellinger -- her fiancé and bandmate. For added drama, Litton has, until very recently, had to share Bellinger with his other mistress, Planes Mistaken for Stars.
"A lot of the lyrics are about me hating Matt for being gone so much and for having to be in a relationship with someone who's on tour all the time," Litton explains. "I feel like I'm speaking for a lot of people in this same situation. It sucks to have your boyfriend call you from the road and have girls screaming in the background and everyone partying. It's difficult."
Like any bereaved musician, Litton takes comfort in penning moody songs of frustration and loneliness that don't quite fit into any genre. Ghost Buffalo is a despondent coalescence of '90s-era alt-pop guitars that twang slightly with a whiskey-flavored Americana. Litton's voice has the ethereal force of a caged songbird that sings because that's all it knows. To someone peering in, it can seem like a melancholy existence for such a pretty thing. For Bellinger, who's on the inside strumming his guitar to words that are very audibly directed at him, it can be a much harder personal experience.
"It gets heavy sometimes," Bellinger admits. "But it's her voice and her way of exorcising whatever demons she has. It's hard for me sometimes, because it makes me feel like a shithead knowing that I made someone feel that way. But I try to step outside of myself for it, because they're good songs."
The strain of balancing a relationship and a career eventually came to a breaking point and left Bellinger with a heart-wrenching decision: After eight years, he left the familiar Planes convoy to roam uncharted territory with Ghost Buffalo -- and, of course, to relieve the tension between him and Litton. Many questioned why he would leave an established act to start over with a still-struggling project, but Bellinger sees things differently.
"To me, Planes was just feeling stagnant and like we were spinning our wheels," he says. "And I can't be a part of something that I feel that way about. Plus, I hated being away from her as much as I was. I knew I was going to lose her if I kept doing it, and I didn't want that."
Leaving Planes was -- and in some ways still is -- a sore spot for Bellinger. He was there with Planes from the beginning, and he hasn't entirely gotten used to the fact that he won't be there to the end. He admits that he hasn't even gone to see the revised Planes lineup play yet.
"It's like watching an ex-girlfriend have sex with her new boyfriend," he says. "But it's an ex-girlfriend that you still want to be friends with. You love them and you had great times, but things change, you know? Whatever happens, I have to live with it, and I know I made the best decision for myself, so I don't have any regrets."
Ghost Buffalo began two years ago as Litton's alt-country-esque project and has since evolved into a full-time band. But it was timing more than sweat that brought the quintet -- rounded out by guitarist Josh Coyle, bassist Tommy Ventura, and drummer Andy Thomas -- to where it is now. For a group that some initially wrote off as a Planes side project, it's been a trial in patience. Along with Bellinger, the band's first drummer, Mikey Ricketts, moonlighted with Planes for a while, and it became obvious that juggling the two bands couldn't last for long.
"We couldn't progress, because Planes was always gone on tour," says Litton. "I've been pushing for it and pushing for it and trying to do all that I can with it, but there's been so much waiting."
The wait ended last year, when Ricketts finally called it quits with Ghost Buffalo, a decision that coincided with Bellinger's departure from Planes. Fans of the two bands were left with a bad impression of what really happened, and many worried that the split was a malicious one, especially considering how the gossip got out. The news was spread like a game of telephone over the Internet, and the final message implied that Ricketts and Bellinger had parted ways due to irreconcilable differences.
"I kind of took that as a stab toward me with the way that it went out to the press," says Bellinger. "It was put out to every fucking online website that Matt Bellinger left Planes and, in return, Mikey Ricketts has left Ghost Buffalo -- which has nothing to do with why Mikey left. We knew he was leaving already. He told us from day one that he wanted to play shows in town and that's it. He didn't want to tour. We were already gone so much with Planes, and he hated it."
The minor misinterpretation, however, ended up being a stroke of luck for the members of Ghost Buffalo. Cheaper than a classified ad, the free press led to an e-mail from a fan looking to fill the vacant slot left by Ricketts. What they got was a wide-eyed kid who essentially Ringo-ed the band. Right after Thomas picked up the sticks, Ghost Buffalo signed a deal with local label Suburban Home Records, shot a music video for the song "Hell Here" with Minneapolis-based director Justin Staggs, and is now gearing up for a national tour.
"We auditioned Andy, and it's been synchronicity since then," Bellinger notes. "He got to have everything pretty smooth after us doing a lot of legwork, but we're stoked. If he hadn't come in, I don't know what we'd be doing right now. He went part-time at his job, where he was making twenty dollars an hour just to be in our band."
Now that everything's coming up roses for Ghost Buffalo, the players are mostly speechless and can only describe the recent momentum in one word: "awesome." The act is finally on track, as daunting as that may seem.
"It was a lot of waiting and wondering what we were going to do," says Coyle, "but there's been a lot of optimism, too. Now we want to take this as far as we possibly can. If it burns up, it burns up. Fuck it."
For a band that built its first record on heartbreak, a bit of agitation in the now-calm waters might be welcome. Good times can't last forever, and it's a wonder to see how the theme of the next record will flesh out. "It will be curious to see what happens musically now that we don't have that struggle going on between us," Bellinger says.
"We still fight," says Litton, "but it's different now. It's normal couple fighting."
As for songwriting fodder, Litton is sure that a blissful relationship won't spell the end of her angst-filled days. There's a world of trouble out there, and she's a magnet for it. "I'll find something else that I hate, don't worry," she jokes. "I'm never happy."