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Ghosts and Their Machines
Yeah, Ghostland Observatory use synths and samples. But don’t expect them to stand around twiddling knobs
Ever since Bob Dylan plugged in, pop music has turned a wary eye toward drive-by-wire music powered by electricity, circuitry or digital wizardry. Even after critically approved bands such as the Who, the Beatles and Pink Floyd incorporated synthesizers, the idea of going electronic was often seen as being akin to phoning it in. Even a decade or more after rock’s first electronic forays, more fully developed synth-based acts such as Electric Light Orchestra, Yes and Genesis were still viewed with suspicion in rock-god publications such as Rolling Stone.
One of the problems with going electronic was how to perform on push-button gear in a world reared on Gibson-stroking, face-twisting, pelvis-thrusting men and women onstage. Even the quintessential electronic band, Kraftwerk, appeared to be comically—perhaps even rebelliously—stiff and robotic at performances. More recent electronic-dance-music (EDM) acts (Orbital, the Crystal Method, Daft Punk) solved some of the problem, or, at least, they walked into a solution: Dance-floor denizens aren’t always looking for a long-haired guy onstage. They’re usually focused on personal space, so EDM artists have been free to pump out music almost anonymously, like DJs do.
Enter Ghostland Observatory, the Austin-based, indie electronic band that have brought back some of rock & roll’s showmanship without abandoning the dance floor’s inner vision. Artists today have more freedom to surf between paradigms (Kanye goes electronic, Will.i.am deejays, Moby picks up his guitar), and Ghostland have exploited the pop buffet to become critical darlings. The duo have been living off two-year-old material while cashing in via a heavy road schedule (including a stop at the House of Blues in Anaheim), but they promise a fourth album is on the way for 2010.
“We started touring off that last record, and we were supposed to take a break last January,” says Ghostland’s Thomas Turner. “Our new studio wasn’t finished. We did some shows. We did Coachella, which spawned tons of shows that we weren’t expecting, so we’ve basically been touring for the past two years. We’ll be on the road up until New Year’s, then take a breather, then it’s back to writing and production in the studio.”
Fans shouldn’t wait for the pair’s next long-player to go check them out, though. The real magic of Ghostland is live, where the duo hypnotize audiences with their electronic alchemy, which shares spheres of influence with electro-art act Fischerspooner, buzz-saw industrialist Nine Inch Nails and ambient performance artist DJ Spooky. The sight is rock & roll: Turner bangs on mostly analog keyboards, sequencers and samplers, while partner Aaron Behrens grabs the mic and assumes the classic front-man position. Ghostland’s aural footprint is something else: bubbly, groovy and mesmerizing, sure, but also cutting, jarring and invigorating. A Ghostland show often has a sea of bobbing heads and shaking fists, highlighted by the band’s blasting, pastel lights (which they haul on the road for each gig) and a pair of shamans bent on tweaking instrumentation with the glee and intensity of bluesmen consumed.
“Our stage attire, our live show, everything is pretty different from the norm,” Turner says. “We really enjoy the fact that we’re unique. You combine the lights and costumes and lasers, and it becomes its own thing.”
Turner and Behrens met in 2002 when they both joined a rock band in Austin. But when they tried to push the group in a more progressive, electronic direction, fractures ensued, and the pair broke off to create Ghostland Observatory. Interestingly, Turner is a veteran of EDM’s rave scene, and as a teenager, he organized parties that featured such dance-floor headliners as DJ Dan. He rifles off the names of his events: Nocturnal Playground, Implosion ’96, Situation Critical, Off the Hook. “Real ravey names,” he says with a chuckle.
“That rave energy just blew me away,” he says. “I heard Daft Punk for the first time at a party—it was Da Funk in ’95—and people just went nuts. I was like, ‘Aw, man, this is definitely where it’s at right here.’”
The high-BPM, glow-stick world of late-night parties is a long way from the more chin-stroking groove of Ghostland, but Behrens answers Turner’s ecstatic digitalism with stadium-band attitude. And while Ghostland have found a following in their otherwise-acoustic hometown—one of the capitals of indie rock and a magnet for the music industry during the annual South By Southwest conference each spring—the duo insist Austin’s high profile in the music world has had little to do with their success.
“Definitely the blues is respected here, and so is rock,” Turner says. “It’s a live-music town. I think Austin is like a little sister of San Francisco. There’s an earthy vibe going on here.”