By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 3:56 PM
It's hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy when Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl discuss the beginnings of the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, their band. He, the only child of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and she, a globe-trotting magazine and runway model, had been dating for a year and, according to Kemp Muhl, "the only thing we were doing was going to cafes and sketching together and talking about movies and things." It sounds like a scene straight out of a Godard movie, or the fantasies of any would-be bohemian.
"We were just joking around one day, and we wrote 'The World Was Made for Men,' " Muhl says in her gentle wisp of a voice. The sparse, spooky song is built almost entirely on lush vocal harmonies and appeared on 2010's "The Acoustic Sessions" album. "I had started this chord change, I showed it to [Sean], he finished it, and we wrote our first song. We joked, 'We should have a band.' "
That joke became a reality and the band - GOASTT, for short - soon made its debut. Opening for Rufus Wainwright. At Radio City Music Hall.
There's that twinge of jealousy again, right?
Muhl, 23, had long been a casual musician, but nothing more. Her dad once gave her an old acoustic guitar that she lugged around the world and strummed during downtime between fashion shoots, but that was the extent of her playing.
Lennon, 35, has been deep into the music world for most of his life. When he was 20, he backed his mother on her album "Rising" and soon after joined New York art-pop group Cibo Matto as bassist. A solo career never gained much traction, though. His 1998 debut album, "Into the Sun," was an accomplished collection of psychedelic pop released on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label but failed to win him much of a fan base. The follow-up didn't come until 2006, and the commercial impact of "Friendly Fire" was even more mild.
With GOASTT, Lennon seems re-energized, mostly thanks to Kemp Muhl. He's quick to praise her growing musical skills at every opportunity during a chat with the couple on a Sunday in December, just after they returned to Manhattan from a European tour.
"In the beginning, you weren't writing as much," Lennon says when talking about the band's creative process. "Now you're just like, 'Check it out, I wrote 15 chords to go into the second verse.' She's really learned a lot about chords and melodies in the last four years. I've never seen somebody figure it out so quickly."
The songs are always collaborative, but they emerge from varying bits and pieces each time. Sometimes there will be a bass line, a chord change or even a single word that springs the process.
"It's really like filling in a crossword puzzle for us," Kemp Muhl says. "We'll start at the top of the pyramid, like a title, and work our way down."
However the creation plays out, the duo has landed on a specific sound on the debut album. It's one that plays off opposites. The songs are both delicate and dark, with sweet melodies and foreboding lyrics.
"He climbed aboard/An upside down bus/With bottlecap eyes/He soon realized/Nobody else but he survived," the pair sing in perfect harmony over lightly plucked guitar on "Robot Boy." The lyrics about death and disaster paired with the pristine sound is an intentional dichotomy.
"You don't want to be too saccharine," Lennon says. "But then you don't want to be too self-indulgently morbid, so you want to have some musical beauty to relieve it."
"We really get off on imbuing a lot of subtle dissonance and weird undertones to the words and melodies but disguising it with a pretty, traditional twist," Kemp Muhl adds.
Traditional may fit as a description of the music, but both Lennon and Kemp Muhl are aware that their backgrounds bring baggage. That's one reason they are keeping things low-key, eschewing a label and releasing the album through Lennon's own label, Chimera Music. As for preconceived notions people may have, it's something they're used to dealing with.
"It makes people very cynical of you," Kemp Muhl says of being a musician with a modeling background. "I'm probably more shy onstage since I've become aware of the stigma of it."
Lennon, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of living in the shadow of one of the most beloved musical figures of all time.
"There are always going to be some people who are only there for [other reasons]," Lennon says of Beatles obsessives and other curiosity seekers. "We welcome one and all," he says matter-of-factly.
And while their songs may work with both light and dark elements, Kemp Muhl is happy to put an all-positive spin on the future.
"When people don't know the music, and you can't expect them to yet, they'll go for whatever superficial reason they are going," she says. "But eventually when people hear the music, they'll come for the right reasons."THE GHOST OF a SABER TOOTH TIGER
Appearing with Julianna Barwick on Tuesday at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Show starts at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15. 703-522-8340. www.iotacluband cafe.com.
The Download: For a sampling of GOASTT's music, check out:
From "The Acoustic Sessions":
"Jardin du Luxembourg"
"The World Was Made for Men"