Westword Music Showcase headliners: Ghostland Observatory's live show is as mesmerizing as it is unforgetable
From the beginning, Ghostland Observatory has gone into its musical endeavors with a certain level of personal ambition to make it the kind of band they've always loved themselves. Mixing a variety of electronic music styles with rock, soul and funk, this Austin-based outfit is often compared to Daft Punk because of its clear agenda of making its live shows a fun and unforgettable experience for anyone who shows up.
Ghostland, an outfit that has always done things on its own terms, from setting up shows to releasing its albums on its own record label, Trashy Moped, has new album, Codename: Rondo, set to release in the late summer or early fall. Frontman Aaron Behrens often draws comparisons to Freddie Mercury due to his flamboyant stage persona, but sonically, the band is more like the aforementioned Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem.
In advance of Ghostland's appearances at this Saturday's Westword Music Showcase (8:30 - 9:55 p.m., Main Stage), we had a chance to speak at length with the group's synthesizer wizard, Thomas Turner, about the new album, his new electronic gear and the band's history.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Is the "Wall of Machines" something you actually use or is it something of a visual joke?
Thomas Turner: I have a lot of studio gear, you know, synthesizers and things like that. It was just basically a phrase like "Wall of Machines" was a slogan on the home page while we were working on the new record. The record is finished, and it's just been sent off for mastering.
WW: When do you plan to release of the new record, and is there anything you were able to do on the new album that you haven't been able to do in the past?
TT: Oh yeah. Sonically, this album is probably the best we've done. I had a studio built by a wonderful engineer, who was an engineer at Warner Bros. in the early '80s, named Chet Hines. He had his own studio in L.A. called Amigos back in the day. He worked with Christopher Cross and other people -- whomever was going through the doors at Warner Bros. back then.
He was a really good guy with a lot of knowledge. He built the studio last year, and that's one of the reasons we didn't put out a record until this year. Instead, we kept touring. He made me a kind of miniature version of what he was using back then. I really relied on analog recording techniques, and tried to use the computer basically as only something to edit or like a tape machine. But everything went in analog and came out analog to the console. Sonically, you should be able to hear that. It's really clean.
Instead of layering the sounds, as we did on previous records, stacking the sounds, we went with more of a linear approach: One sound happens, that stops and another sound happens and vocals. We tried to keep a lot of space and dynamics on this record. To hear the end result ... I was really excited about it. We had more fun doing this record than any other.
We'd like to do a late summer or early fall release. Other records we kind of rushed and went on tour, and this one we'd like to set up a little better and take some time with it. Let people know there's a new record instead of, "Oh, Ghostland is coming to town. When did they put out a new record?" -- know what I mean? It's called Codename: Rondo.
WW: Have you had a big stage production from the beginning, and how has that evolved over the years?
TT: No. In the beginning we played in small, sweaty little bars with no lights. We did well with that, and we had fun, and the shows were energetic. But when he started getting into the larger venues, we didn't look at it so much as, "We can sell 'X' amount of tickets, and we can make more money," we looked at it as, "We can sell 'X' amount of tickets, that means we can put on a kick-ass show."
No one was telling us what our budget or restrictions were or anything. We thought, "Hell, we'll just spend the whole budget on lasers." We've stuck with that, and now the laser company's been with us for three years and become part of the team. It's cool because they've become part of Ghostland and people go to the show and of course they want to hear the songs and see the performance but they want that whole experience.
It's just neat to see that go down live from the stage looking out into the crowd. I'm excited, too, when we're playing, because I see all kinds of cool stuff going on around me. We want people to go to that show, and whether they like it or not, they're not seeing another show like that the next day, the next week or the next month -- it stands out.
WW: Seeing as electronic music is an integral component of your music, is there any equipment you've been incorporating lately, and how has your electronic rig changed from your early days?
TT: When I built the new studio, I got more equipment like modular stuff, some tone generators. I really got into the old '40s and '50s French and German style of electronic music -- when people were first experimenting with electronics and treating music and records with electronics. It was really minimal like Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen. I like that whole idea of going back to tone generators and analog synthesizers and all those things.
I got some random gear and some guy built me some tone generators here in town. I have this Commodore 64 sound chip synthesizer thing and a bunch of other stuff. Any delay that we used or feedback, we used tape delay machines, as opposed to using a plug-in or digital. We tried to keep everything as authentic as possible. You should be able to hear it on the record. I even use a Theremin on one thing but not like in the way you'd normally hear a Theremin -- more psychedelic.
While we were on tour, I would think of different things or see something or do research and think it was cool. By the time the tour was over, and we were writing the record, I had all these tools, and I created a work station in our rehearsal space so we could write, use those tools, and bring everything over to my studio, plug everything in and record.
WW: Some of that stuff is probably not very portable.
TT: I had to redo my set-up because I'll bring my Moog, my old set-up and my analog delay. I can't bring my tape machines, because even in the studio, those things, 35- or 40-years-old, will be running, and they'll screw up or do something weird, or go out of alignment, so taking them on the road would be a bad idea.
Some of the other things are just so big and heavy. I had to get this thing called a Lemur Device. I looked into what Daft Punk used for their live performance, and there's a company in France that makes the Lemur Device. It's a programmable touch-screen interface, and it controls all of your tracks and sounds and everything, but you have to design it to do everything you want it to do.
Pretty much anything you want this thing to do, times fourteen-thousand, it can do. So you set up these pages of touch screen effects -- anything you can imagine. Lately I've been programming it because it's not like it comes ready out of the box.
WW: That reminds me of that footage from Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. At one point, Roger Waters is at this console where he's plugging in wires and switching settings.
TT: That's an EMS-100 modular synth. That part where it's that arpeggiated thing from Dark Side of the Moon.
WW: Radiohead had something like that, too, at one point.
TT: They had a modular synth, but I can't remember what it was. It had patch bays like an old telephone operator, and that's how you route the signal or the sine wave to whatever waveform or LFO to get weird noises going. That's what the ideal is, all those routings you'd do with the patch bays, you do with the Lemur Device, but it has no moving parts.
That was the main selling point with this thing. Moving parts get thrown off the plane or whatever -- you know how people handle your luggage. Things break. But this is a touch-screen with an LED or whatnot that displays everything, and the only moving part is the on/off switch, so there's no keys or buttons to push. So hopefully, it's reliable. But I'll have my own rig and additional pieces, but I didn't want to have to bring my own studio on the road like some diva.
WW: Did you always have confidence in what you were doing or was there a certain point where any rock and roll dreams you might have entertained became a reality?
TT: People would always be like,"Why are you wasting your time with that? Why don't you go back to school or get a career?" At the time, I was working construction and Aaron was working in a mail room in an office building. You start to get older, and people wondered why we were still doing it. It was never a thought in our mind, like we were wasting our time.
We felt we needed to be doing this and however it works, it's going to work out one way or another. We had confidence in that for sure. We'd show up somewhere, and some people who aren't into music or you haven't seen us play would ask, "How's your little band going?" -- really derogatory. We just blew that off, and we never really planned or plotted out how it was all going to happen. We'd just play a show, whether that was just for five people or for family or friends. We took it seriously.
Our very first show was at my dad's ranch, and it was a Fourth of July party for my grandma, her twin sister and my little sister -- it was all their birthdays. He had the party, and asked us if we wanted to play, and I was more nervous for that show than almost any other, and it was kind of a low key thing.
We take each show seriously, and as soon as it's fifteen or twenty minutes before show time, we get really focused, and we go out there and try to give people the best performance we can. From day one, we treated the first show like we were performing at Wembley Stadium or something. When we did start playing larger shows, it was still just as important to play in front of five or ten people. It's just a bigger playing field.