‘Woody Guthrie meets Tim Burton’

Longtime Ryan Gosling fans have known the man can sing since his Mickey Mouse Club days alongside Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, but he really upped his rock ‘n roll cred this year with his Kenergetic musical showpiece from Barbie, “I’m Just Ken.” The ’80-style, alpha-male, Oscar-baiting power ballad — which recently cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and respectively debuted at No. 4 and No. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts — was written and produced by Mark Ronson and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt (co-composers of Lady Gaga’s Oscar-winning hit “Shallow), and features playing by Slash, Wolfgang Van Halen, new Foo Fighters drummer Josh Freese, Jellyfish/Beck keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and even the Abbey Road Studios Orchestra.

However, “I’m Just Ken” isn’t the coolest, or most rock ‘n’ roll, musical project that the onetime La La Land warbler has ever undertaken. That honor would no doubt go to Gosling’s mid-aughts gothic-folk cult band, Dead Man’s Bones, who in another parallel/paranormal universe just might have made it to the big screen instead.

“I guess we’ll start a band”

Gosling, under the alias Baby Goose, formed Dead Man’s Bones — originally conceived as a “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire”-esque horror musical about “monsters and ghosts falling in love” — with filmmaker/screenwriter Zach Shields in 2007. The men had met two years earlier when Gosling was dating his Notebook co-star Rachel McAdams and Shields was dating Rachel’s sister, makeup artist Kayleen McAdams, and they became fast friends as they bonded over their shared childhood fascinations with ghosts, graveyards, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, and generally all things spooky and ooky. “Zach was wearing high heels when I first met him, and we were forced to live in the same house on the first day,” Gosling recalled to Pitchfork in 2009. “I thought, ‘Who is this guy, what am I going to do with this character?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, I guess we’ll start a band.”

It was when Gosling heard Shields slip a snippet of Disney’s 1969 Haunted Mansion album into a DJ mix at a party that he came up with the idea for Dead Man’s Bones; the plan for the group became official during a road trip to Las Vegas. “We started putting on these performances for our friends in the [hotel] bathroom,” Gosling told Rolling Stone in 2009. “We’d go in the shower and we’d use the shower curtain as the stage curtain.”

Dead Man's Bones' Ryan Gosling, Zach Shields. (ANTI- Records/Hama Sanders)

Dead Man’s Bones’ Ryan Gosling, Zach Shields. (ANTI- Records/Hama Sanders)

Keeping it real real weird

Gosling and Shields maintained that D.I.Y., lo-fi aesthetic once they started working on Dead Man’s Bones’ self-titled debut album, which was, amusingly, originally going to be called Never Let a Lack of Talent Get You Down. Quite the opposite of a typical Hollywood A-lister’s vanity project, Dead Man’s Bones was willfully unsophisticated and ego-free, with Gosling and Shields proudly embracing their amateurism. Just about the only thing “Hollywood” about the record, which was produced by Tim Anderson of indie electropop band Ima Robot, were its old-school Foley sound effects created with stomping feet and crinkling aluminum foil.

Gosling and Shields played all the instruments on Dead Man’s Bones, even ones they’d never attempted previously — Gosling taught himself how to play cello and piano for the project, while Shields learned drums — with one rule being that no electric guitars could be used. They also refused to play to click-tracks and only allowed themselves three takes per song while recording, and they left any “imperfections “in the final product. And somehow, it all worked, perfectly imperfectly.

“Dead Man’s Bones, for me, came out of a great friendship in my life,” Shields told Interview in 2019. “We started writing a story that would be something of a ghost musical, where there’s two worlds. There’s the living world and the dead world. And this group of kids, in Halloween costumes, are the border patrol between the two. And one day they go on strike, and then our two worlds collide. And out of that come all these different stories. And those stories ended up being our songs and our record.”

Doing it for the kids

The “kids” — members of the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir, which was founded by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea — were the real stars of Dead Man’s Bones’ LP, which was in part inspired by the Langley Schools Music Project’s cult record Innocence and Despair and Ghetto Reality, a 1969 album conceptualized by poet Nancy Dupree. Initially, Gosling and Shields had intended to have these untrained adolescents, ranging in ages from 5 to 17, handle all of the Dead Man’s Bones vocals, and certainly the choir’s naivete lent the band’s songs about werewolves (“Werewolf Heart,” with its opening line “You’d look nice in a grave”), lovesick ghouls (“My Body’s a Zombie for You”), and death (“Young & Tragic,” “Flowers Grow Out of My Grave”) a certain bittersweetness and gravitas.

But the choir’s raw voices melded unexpectedly wonderfully with Gosling’s own rarely heard Roy Orbison/Bryan Ferry-like natural singing style, which Shields described to Pitchfork as having “a ‘50s kind of crooner-y feel.” Gosling admitted to Pitchfork at the time, “I was always embarrassed because I sang like that, so I always tried [before] to make my voice sound more contemporary.”

While the grand plans for the Dead Man’s Bones rock opera were scrapped when Gosling and Shields really how cost-prohibitive such an endeavor would be, the project was still quite ambitious and incorporated many of their most theatrical and magical concepts. “We’ve worked on it solid for two years. I made a couple movies because I had to, but this is all we do,” Gosling stressed to Pitchfork in 2009. He and Shields rehearsed and recorded with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir every Sunday for months, and on their final day together they shot the music video for “In the Room Where You Sleep” during a kid-friendly wrap party that included a taco truck, bouncy house, and piñata. (Another D.I.Y. Dead Man’s Bones video, for “Pa Pa Power,” starred a cast of reveling senior citizens at a Pasadena assisted living facility called Chancellor Place.)

It’s a Dead Man’s party

The resulting album — a phantasmal mix of Southern Gothic, ‘30s jazz, ‘50s doo-wop, and psychedelic ‘60’s garage-rock, released in October 2009 on Epitaph’s rootsy imprint ANTI- Records — was not quite the Billboard hit that “I’m Just Ken” and the Barbie soundtrack would become a decade and a half later. But it was a critical smash, hailed as a modern-day indie masterpiece by Rolling Stone, Mojo, NPR, Filter, and Entertainment Weekly. Pitchfork described Dead Man’s Bones as sounding “like John Fahey doing the Monster Mash,” “middle-school assembly gone goth,” or what Arcade Fire would sound like if that Canadian band was recast with second-graders and fronted by Vincent Price’s exhumed corpse.

L.A. Weekly called the record “Woody Guthrie meets Tim Burton,” and Prefix said it was “equal parts macabre junk-shop theater, avant campfire tales, and heartfelt noisemaking.” The band’s ANTI- Records press released cited influences ranging from the Cure, the Misfits, and Joy Division to Sam Cooke and James Brown to Shangri-Las, the Shags, and the Andrews Sisters, and all of that was accurate.

“It doesn’t work without the puppets”

Dead Man’s Bones’ amateurish ambition carried over to their live shows. They started by building an old-school indie-style buzz on L.A.’s hipster circuit, by doing a residency at the legendary Bob Baker Marionette Theater with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir and a rotating, vaudevillian cast of magicians, mentalists, and skeleton and ghost puppets. (“People kept coming up to us after the show, like, ‘You’re taking the puppets with you on tour, right? You have to. It doesn’t work without the puppets,’” Shields recalled to Rolling Stone.)

Dead Man’s Bones’ carnival-of-souls spectacle was described by the L.A. Weekly as an “all-ages Halloween prom, with a generous helping of balloons, cotton candy, and popcorn,” and when the band played L.A.’s FYF festival in 2010, an advertisement hyping their appearance declared: “This is not a show, it is an event.” There was so much happening onstage during a Dead Man’s concert that the presence of one Hollywood superstar actor in the midst of the madness could almost be overlooked.

Dead Man’s Bones embarked on a 13-city North American tour the month their album came out, accompanied by a different Halloween-costumed, ghoulishly face-painted local children’s choir at every stop. Each date also featured, instead of a regular opening act, a talent show for that city’s aspiring entertainers. “We’re trying to find acts that are unconventional. I want to find somebody who knits food — knits steak, knits carrots, peas,” Gosling told Rolling Stone at the time, although a behind-the-scenes tour documentary, seen s showed Gosling’s nicely rejecting one New York City-area talent show contestant who tried to audition with what she called a “poop opera.”

A poster soliciting entries for Dead Man's Bones' talent shows in 2009. (ANTI- Records-)

A poster soliciting entries for Dead Man’s Bones’ talent shows in 2009. (ANTI- Records)

Dead Man’s Bones’ legacy lives on

Despite all the acclaim, and how much fun Gosling and Shields clearly were having, they never released a follow-up to Dead Man’s Bones. But while their one-off record is still mostly a curious footnote on Gosling’s ever-lengthening résumé, and Shields has gone on to record as one half of the musical duo Night Things and work on spooky movies like Krampus, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Kong, the group’s legacy carries on. Indie chanteuse Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, recorded her own ethereal version of “Pa Pa Power” for her 2022 album Covers; death metal legends Behemoth were inspired by Dead Man’s Bones to hire a youth choir for their 2018 album I Loved You At Your Darkest; and singer Lydia Night, who performed with Dead Man’s Bones and the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir when she was 9 years old, grew up to front buzzy L.A. punk band the Regrettes. (“He knows how to play so many different instruments — ones I don’t even know the names of,” Night said admiringly of Gosling during a 2012 Hollywood Reporter interview to promote her preteen band at that time, Pretty Little Demons, admitting that she “really didn’t know that he was like, huge” when she and Gosling first worked together.)

And Dead Man’s Bones’ sense of childlike wonder and subversiveness can be felt, in a way, in Gosling’s work in the multi-layered Barbie, so there’s always a chance that with all this new attention of his rock ‘n’ roll skills (Ken’s Matchbox Twenty cover in the film is pretty legit, too) the band might reunite someday.

“You know when you’re a kid and you get crayons and papers and just draw whatever you want and it’s just a bunch of messy lines, but to you it makes sense, and then they put it on the fridge? From that point on, you’re always trying to get back on the fridge,” Gosling once told Pitchfork. “You start drawing things that look like something, like, the more it looks like a horse, the more chance you have of getting it on the fridge. We wanted to get back to that place before we were trying to make the fridge. We wanted to work with people who hadn’t been affected in that way yet.”

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, X, Instagram, Amazon

Leave a Comment