In an environment where live acts are defined as much by their outlandish costumes and visuals as their music, dance artists survive and thrive by trying to one-up each other on the stage. Daft Punk brings the pyramid and the robot helmets, so deadmau5 brings a V-shaped structure and a glowing mouse head. Ãtienne de Crécy brings a cube, Girl Talk brings a house. Austin’s Ghostland Observatory hasn’t gone as far as all that, but the duo has made its name on the stage, where music is about half the appeal. Frontman Aaron Behrens prances around sporting sunglasses, bell-bottoms and androgynous Willie Nelson braids, wailing every word in his trademark nasal voice. Producer/keyboardist/occasional live drummer Thomas Ross Turner does no prancing, but his shiny, intentionally campy wizard cape is enough to keep your attention. Just in case, though, the band brings lasers, and lots of them.
This month, the minimalist electro-rockers wrap up their lengthy North American tour, but with their fourth and latest album Codename: Rondo fresh on the shelves, it’s likely they’re just getting started on this go-round. We recently had the opportunity to discuss all things Ghostland with Turner, the brains of this operation, and he is none too bothered by the reception.
How does this tour compare to previous tours? What’s different?
Well, we have a lot more lasers, and they’re actually really cool. We got some new technology, like blue lasers. You see this geometric grid on the stage, and then it kinda makes us look like Tron characters, too, ’cause they create these grid patterns on us and around us. So that’s pretty neat. I don’t know, we’re bumpin’ the new tracks, and the live show’s a lot tighter now, you know? It’s pretty cool.
Are you guys excited about the new Tron movie?
I am real excited about it. I wanna go check it out in the IMAX, you know? Go all the way with it.
Have you guys ever considered trying to work with Daft Punk?
No, I have never even thought of it as a reality. That would be cool but, I don’t know, for some reason it never crossed my mind.
It’s kind of a lofty aspiration, but I think it’d be cool.
At one of your shows, I noticed that, especially in the front, you guys had particularly rabid fans, including a guy who traveled to San Francisco from Dallas. What is it about Ghostland that makes people want to travel 1,700 miles?
I don’t know…I mean, we just try to give people the best show that we can. We definitely try to stand out from other shows that come through whatever town people are in and just try to give them the best performance we possibly can. I don’t know, some people just enjoy the experience. They’ll go to several shows or they’ll travel with some friends and go to a string of shows or whatever. It’s cool, especially when you see some familiar faces, or afterwards, people are like “Oh, we came all the way from this place or that place.” But, yeah, we just try to give people the best performance we possibly can when we play.
When you say you want to stand out, is it just the lasers, or is there a specific thing you do when you perform that you think you’re doing that other people aren’t?
It’s just everything, from what we sound like to the production, the choreography, lasers, Aaron. There’s a character and the costumes, just everything, you know. Whether people love it or hate it, at least it will stand out in their mind, like, “Aw, I love that. That was an awesome show,” or “Aw, I don’t like that at all. I never wanna see it again.” You’d rather it be something that people either love or hate than just like, “Oh, that was a pretty cool show.” A lot of people like walking away really excited or really happy and knowing that they got, you know, everything worth the ticket price.
Do you guys have any favorite venues or cities? You’ve been pretty much everywhere in the country.
I like the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.; I like the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. There’s tons of places; There’s even places that will really surprise you. You know, maybe they’re old or they kinda look rough or whatever, and then the people get in there and the energy of the crowd just takes it to the next level. There’s some really cool places to play all over the place. A lot depends on the crowd, the energy of the crowd. It’s always great playing Texas or playing in Seattle and New York. I don’t know, everywhere. I really can’t say there’s a place that I don’t like playing. I’ve never…hardly ever, like, “I don’t want to go back there again.”
Would you say that the Texas fans are still a little bit crazier for you than the rest of the country?
No, it depends on the night of the week. Friday and Saturday night, people are just going crazy anyway, no matter where we are. In the South, you know, some of the Southern states? Doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, people are just going crazy. They’re like, “Look, I paid however much to get in here, and I’m allowed to have a good time; I don’t care what day of the week it is.” Some other states — we just did San Diego, that was a Friday night and people went all berserk in there. So, a lot of them it depends on the night of the week in certain areas. But most of the time it’s just the Friday and Saturday night and Thursday night in most places, people are going nuts.
So you guys are starting to wrap up your U.S. tour.
Yeah, we did a West Coast leg, and then we’ll finish up with the East Coast, and then we’ll try to take a breather.
Do you have anything planned for 2011? Gonna do any festivals or anything?
I think so, yeah, probably do some festivals, and then probably do a spring/summer tour. Our album just got released, so we’re kind of releasing it at the tail end of the touring season. Most of the time, touring occurs spring, summer, and we released the record late fall. So we’re kinda reaching the tail end of the touring season, but we should be able to do that, a short fall tour, and then come back and do a spring and summer tour with some festival dates.
At Consequence of Sound, we’re really big on festivals. Can you give me any specifics? Do you have any festivals booked already?
I think there’s one in Toronto; I don’t know the name of it. There’s a couple more going on, but they’re not confirmed yet, so everything’s gotta get squared away. By the end of the deal, they all kinda start to come in together, right around the same time.
Let’s talk about the album. A lot more lighthearted than Robotique Majestique. How was your approach different on Codename: Rondo than your past albums?
It’s real easy, especially when you release several albums or you know the fanbase…it’s real easy to fool yourself and to start thinking, “Oh, we gotta make a record that’s better than the last one, or it needs to sound like this, or this is the current trend of music and we need to make sure it fits into that.” And it’s real easy to just try to start making music. And that wasn’t the way we started making music. We just started making music to have fun and to do a live experiment and not worry about if people love it or hate it, or if it fits in with what people are making right now or whatever, you know? Years ago, you go back, nobody was making music like that. When it came out, people were like, “Who’s this crap?” So, now they’re reading some review and they’re like, “Oh, wish they’d go back to making music like they used to” or whatever. And we’re like, well, when those reviews were happening, they were like “This is garbage.” [laughs] It doesn’t make any sense.
But the main thing was to just really focus on– like, try to pretend like, all right, let’s pretend we’re making a record for the first time again and there’s no rules and we’re not worried about what anybody’s gonna say about it or how anyone’s gonna…You know, whatever you worry about when you’ve already had several records. Is it gonna sell well? Are people gonna respond to it? We just threw all that out the window and had the best time. Tried to make things more minimal. Cause the other three records, there’s tons of layers, tons of just noise that doesn’t stop; it doesn’t ever stop because there’s no release. In this one, we tried to make it a lot more linear and have more space and less sounds and choose the sounds wisely. I think we accomplished that and tried to make it sound like an actual record. You know, there’s five tracks on side A and five tracks on side B. There’s a fade out. Once the vinyl comes out we’ll see…It’s perfect; It ended up being exactly the way we wanted it to be. I don’t know. I know we had the best time doing it and it was a lot of fun. It was just great, and I would recommend making a record like that.
You can’t make music for other people. You can’t make music to try to please anyone or try to make music that critics will like or whatever. You just gotta make music that you enjoy making. Because once you start making music for someone else, you might as well just start doing commercials or selling yourself to ads. You know, let them tell you what to change and how to make it better or whatever so you can sell products. We don’t do that when we make records.
Speaking of critics, do you think the blogs have given you a cold shoulder for Codename: Rondo? If so, does that bother you?
What I’ve noticed is that people either love the new record or hate it. There’s no, in between, like, “Oh, well, that’s good.” People are just like, “I can’t believe they did this,” or “I love it, it’s brilliant.” That’s the first time that we did the right thing because that’s what we’ve always wanted to do. Like, go back and look at interviews from seven years ago…we’ve always done that. We want people to either love it or hate it. We don’t ever wanna make music that’s just kinda, like, mediocre and that anyone can just get into and kinda listen to at a low volume and then, you know, not have any kind of opinion on it.
We want people to have a strong opinion on whether they really liked it or it’s just really not for them, because that means we’re pushing ourselves. I think that’s a good sign. I don’t know if we’ve ever had any kind of love or respect from critics or bloggers or anything, you know. Maybe the ones who go to the live shows or have come to see our festival performances or whatever. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, the crowd was going nuts.” Because you can’t really lie about that. But as far as the records we’ve put out, none of our records that we’ve put out have been like, it’s never been across the board bloggers or critics or anything just saying that we’re the greatest band or just made the greatest record that normally only, like — “Look at these guys that are, you know, out of left field trying to bat.” You know, so…par for the course. [laughs]
I was reading an interview with Aaron on Austin360.com where he said, We dont make albums, we make trotlines : hook after hook after hook after hook. Do you agree?
Yeah, I think theres catchy things that are in all the tracks. You can see in the crowd, people will latch on to certain phrases or notes or, you know, just little things that get people locked in. So I think he was referring to that. Normally, in each song there’s some kind of hook or some kind of catchy thing that goes on.
Are you into making traditional albums or just putting out catchy songs?
From a production standpoint, this one was really made to be like an album. Like I said, you put the needle on the record: track one, two, three, four, five, straight out. Flip the record over, you start at 5B and then it takes you on another journey. The length of the record…You notice old records, it wasn’t like 13 songs or 16 songs on a record; you pretty much did like eight, or six, or 10 at the most. And they have to be short, because the longer the material is, the worse the sound quality is. So that’s why people didn’t make records that were as long as CD’s. And the sound of it, where I kind of squash it and make it sound like as loud as it can possibly be on your iPod or whatever. We wanted to make it sound like a record, have dynamics and have space and not just be cutting your head off the whole time you’re listening to it, you know?
Yeah. Would you say that you’re drawing from any new influences production-wise? Was there anything buzzing in your head as you were making this record?
Yeah, I think there’s always influences. I’m a big fan of production techniques, no matter what type of music it is. I really love electronic music, but I’ll listen to production techniques from older records. The first Roxy Music album, I love the production on that. Some of Brian Eno’s ambient stuff, I love that, how it’s just smooth. And it sounds good. You don’t turn it up and don’t wince ’cause it’s so loud and just chopping your head off.
I was listening to a lot of the earlier, electronic music from the ’40s, ’50s, just experimental stuff and things with tone generators. I’m a huge fan of stripped down minimal music, whether it’s electronic or dance or whatever; just minimal. When you listen to The Cars, you know, that’s as ancient as it gets, but they aren’t using a lot of sounds. They’re using a few sounds and the ones that they use, they count. They make those sounds count, and they stand out, and they have a character. I just kinda have in the back of my head, is this sound just in there to waste space or is it doing something? You can listen to all kinds of things and there’s all kinds of music that’s being made right now and it’s just layers upon layers upon layers upon layers of noise and effects. It’s all the stuff, like, it’s railing. It’s cool that people wanna do that; that’s just not what I’m into at the moment. I’d like things to breathe right now and have some room, dynamics, you know?
Yeah. If I were to describe Ghostland Observatory to somebody I would definitely describe it as minimal. As far as Aaron goes, on this record, he’s doing a lot of stuff vocally he hasn’t done before — using a vocoder on a couple songs, doing some spoken word tracks, and on “Kick Clap Speaker” it’s all Stephen Hawking, computerized voice.
Where were you guys going with that, was that just something he wanted to try out?
There’s no rules, so it’s like, Aaron doesn’t wanna scream on a song and it sounds good for him to just kinda cruise through it and really stick it out, so be it. It’s not like, oh, well, we’re Ghostland, Aaron has to be screaming on every song. You know? Nobody ever said that to us. That wasn’t an agreement that we made, like, “Oh, you have to sing like this.” He picked up a vocal processor and had fun with it on “Glitter”, made some noises with it that sounded cool, so we put it on the track. We’re not trying to over-think anything. “Aaron’s using too much effects on his vocals, oh, I don’t know, are people gonna like that?” You know, there’s never that thought in my mind. We just wanted it to be cool for us and that’s what we did. There’s some tracks that have vocal treatments on there that if you took the vocal treatments away and he was just singing regularly or screaming, you know, it wouldn’t be the same. Like “Give Me the Beat”, you know? If he was screaming the lyrics do you think people would like it more? I don’t know about that.
Right. So what’s up with the title track?
Yeah, it’s about an incident in Newark, New Jersey. Basically, it’s a combination of things but it’s at Newark, New Jersey. And then also everyday people that Aaron and I know, like the guy in the convenience store with Velcro shoes and his socks pulled up. And he’s like, in his late 60’s getting into a small, little pickup truck and he has a friend that’s meeting him. And you don’t know exactly what’s going on with the transaction but it seems to catch your eye. You know, things like that — just a combination of events and beings, and then just different characters that we’ve come across that are just not, you know, your regular people. Even people that most regular people wouldn’t even pay attention to, just being the odd characters that you see around. You know? You pay attention.
Why’d you go with that for the title of the album?
Uh, yeah, just… [laughs] ’cause it’s awesome. If you listen to “Codename: Rondo”, I just think it’s minimal, for one. Very stripped down. And it’s also so far removed from what anyone is doing right now. It doesn’t follow any kind of trend or anything that’s popular right now. So it’s just kind of like, that’s the end of it. That’s the title track, “Codename: Rondo”. Punch. That’s what we’re doing right now.
Got it. So, you guys have four albums in six years. Where do you go from here? What are your aspirations for your next album or next five albums?
You know, I can’t tell you. I never know. When we did the first record, you know, we put the second one out, and they never like, “okay, well we need to make another one” or “we need to make another one.” We just put ’em out when it’s time to put ’em out, when it feels right to go in the studio and start working on new tracks, then we go. It’s never like a planned out thing, like we’re gonna release Codename: Rondo and then eight months from now we’re gonna start working on the new record and release that on this day. We tried to do that once, and it felt so awkward. It felt so wrong that, you know, going and trying to force that. I don’t know anybody that can force creativity and make it sound good. Cheers to people who can do it, but we’re not the kind of people who can just…Once stuff feels forced, like we’re trying too hard to do something, then it becomes un-fun and unnatural, then that’s when you just pull the plug on it.
You’ve found your niche as a live band. What are your aspirations? Do you want to be headlining arenas someday or are you comfortable where you’re at right now?
Whatever happens, you know. We’ve played arenas, we’ve played large festivals, we’ve played for 50,000 people all the way to three people. Nothing in our whole career was planned, so it’d be foolish to try to start doing it now. So we meet this person or make this move or do this or that, then we’re going to be playing arenas…we’d rather not do it like that. We’ll just continue doing what we’re doing and we’ll try our best and we’ll see where it takes us. Not trying to plan anything.