Old friends reunite to form Repo Pilots, issue COVID-inspired debut, 'The Ghost of 1918'

Sean Woosley and Dave Nicholas turned pandemic restlessness into a new project featuring Megan Palmer, with a release show at Rumba Cafe on Saturday

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
The live incarnation of the Repo Pilots (from left, Sean Woosley, David Murphy and Ben Lamb) rehearse for the band's release show.

Back in the ’90s, Sean Woosley played in a Columbus band called the Hangboxers. All the bandmates lived together near Ohio State’s campus, as did Woosley’s friend and roommate, a pilot named Dave Nicholas, who was also a musician. Nicholas gigged in a cover band, and he also played alongside Woosley and the late, revered Columbus songwriter Jenny Mae

“When Jenny Mae would come over, we would play as a three-piece: I would play drums, Dave would play guitar and Jenny would play bass,” said Woosley, adding that Mae bestowed the nickname “The Squeezer” on Nicholas, which for some reason stuck. “We only played like eight or nine shows, but that band was called the Fükstixx. … It was kind of ridiculous.”

In March of 2020, soon after COVID-related shutdown orders went out, Nicholas, who lives in Wadsworth, Ohio, began texting Woosley and his old Hangboxers bandmates, saying, “Let’s make a record.” Soon, the Squeezer was sending out drum tracks he recorded at home with potential song titles that served as creative prompts. Woosley played along, writing lyrics and recording vocals, guitar and bass for a handful of COVID-centered songs that complement the working titles and the drum parts.

Pretty soon they had a new band, the Repo Pilots, and the beginnings of a debut album, The Ghost of 1918.  

For three days in May of 2020, Woosley and Nicholas traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to re-record the tracks with friend Bernie Ramcke (also a pilot, friend and fellow musician), who engineered the album at his home recording space, Freak City Studios. Woosley didn’t tell anyone he was flying to Arizona during those early stages of the pandemic. “That was insane. It was like, ‘I should not be doing this,’” Woosley said. “I would just go to the back of the plane and stay there. At that time it felt like, ‘Are we all going to die?’” 

Sean Woosley tracks Repo Pilots songs in Arizona.

During those sessions, more musicians came onboard, including backup vocalist Kelsey England. Later, after tracking in Arizona, Woosley and the Squeezer recruited Columbus expat Megan Palmer to add violin and lead vocals. Last month the Repo Pilots issued The Ghost of 1918, and on Saturday, July 24, at 9 p.m., the band will play a release show at Rumba Café. For the live version of the Repo Pilots, Palmer will drive up from Nashville to accompany Woosley and local musicians David Murphy (Two Cow Garage) on drums, Benjamin Lamb (Lydia Loveless) on bass, Paul Gault (Secret Life of Houseplants) on electric guitar, Michelle Ishida (Gathering Stars) on keys and Bob Ray Starker on saxophone. 

The Ghost of 1918 plays like an art-pop concept record inextricably tied to the COVID era. "Dave is all about stories. We tried to write a book together back in the '90s. We would get together at a coffeehouse, and we had all these pages, but it was a total mess. It was about a traveling band, and all the characters’ names were based on primates,” Woosley said. “It was tentatively called Shovel the Roof.”

1918, on the other hand, leads off with “Wartime President,” a scene-setting intro that splices together clips of sensationalist TV news anchors and audio of former President Trump, which leads into the track “Weedsucker.”

"The idea of ‘Weedsucker’ was this truck driver who doesn't really believe in the pandemic, and he’s patient one. … He's really promiscuous and drinking and having sex and making out with everybody as he travels out to Aberdeen, Washington,” Woosley said. “He falls in love with this girl in Aberdeen and gets incredibly ill for two weeks, and then he's feeling so exuberant and relieved that he didn't die. He parties so hard that while he's celebrating, he collapses, falls back into a baby pool and drowns.” 

Even if listeners don’t follow the entire storyline of the trucker, songs like “IPA Isolation” (“Nobody follows the rules/We’re all gonna die”) and “Masked Man” offer early pandemic flashbacks, with Woosley singing, “Who was that masked man/Who’s the guy without the mask/Looking danger in the face or/Is he looking right past it.” 

While the record brims with some of the absurdist qualities that have characterized Woosley-Nicholas collaborations since the ’90s, Woosley also sees The Ghost of 1918 as a time capsule of those early pandemic days, replete with worrisome hallmarks that foreshadowed a longer-than-anticipated COVID era. “At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I feel like we’re screwing this up,’” he said.