Ghostland Observatory Cracks The Code
Austin, TX’s Ghostland Observatory seemingly came out off nowhere in 2005 with its soulful electronic debut delete.delete.i.eat.meat. The album was a grassroots hit and the group’s colorful live show—which features two men on drums, guitar, synthesizers and vocals, as well as a silver cape—helped Ghostland score spots at festivals ranging from Nateva to Bonnaroo to Vegoose and ACL. After a relatively quiet year, Aaron Behrens (vocals, guitar) and Thomas Ross Turner (drums, synthesizers) returned to their home studio to begin work on their fourth studio album, _ Codename: Rondo_. The album not only reclaimed Ghostland Observatory as one of the funkiest bands on the electronic music circuit, but also reminded the band’s principals why they started making music in the first place. Below, Thomas Ross Turner discusses Codename: Rondo, his record label Trashy Moped Recordings and why Austin is known for both its raves and Widespread Panic concerts.
Though last year may have seemed like a quiet year for the band, Ghostland Observatory was actually quite busy working on a new studio album. Can you start by bringing us up to speed on the past few months?
We’ve started to work on Codename: Rondo but touring just kind of kept going. We did Coachella and a couple of other festivals and a lot of offers kept coming in. So we just continued to keep doing shows and then after New Years this past year, we decided, “Let’s just take a break and focus on a new record.” So that’s what we did—we did a New York show and then we came back to Austin and locked ourselves in the rehearsal room and just started working on the new record. We worked on the record for about 3 or 4 months straight and then we went into the studio—into my studio—and started laying down the tracks and got it knocked out.
It sounds like when you were working on the album you consciously isolated and fully immersed yourselves in the process. Was this process different from previous recording sessions?
Well, for this record especially, we got in the frame of mind of pretending that this was our first record. The first record we did, we just had so much fun doing it and there were no distractions like, “Oh, this has to be better than our last record, I hope people are going to like this new direction…” We just wanted to make a record and we didn’t care—we had no worries or concern. It is just a natural process and then you keep making records and you grow a fan base and you have all these kind of things that interfere with the creative process.
So, on this one, we just wanted to go back to, “Let’s just go have fun, go in there, create, work hard and see what comes out.” So, we both kind of clocked in around 9 or 10 PM and then we’d work through the early morning hours until 2, 3 or 4 AM. There were really no rules, it was just like, “Let’s be creative and experiment and not be concerned with anything else.” I’ll start working on a track or messing with sounds and then Aaron will hop on it and we’ll kind of just go back and forth off of each other. Then we’ll create a little grid for each song and then just work it out. We’ll move onto another one and then later on in the week we’d go through the songs, play them, pretend like we were playing them live. And then if they suck, they suck. If not, we just moved on to another thing. So that was kind of the process—just kind of being really free with a lot of clean slates. We said we do something Tuesday and we thought it was good and we’d go in Wednesday and we’d be like, “I don’t know if that’s really working.” So, we’d just erase it and start over with something completely off the wall. It’s really fun doing it that way and we had a blast. I think we had the most fun doing this record than any other record we’ve done.
Do you feel that because you had been on the road so much and become known as a live act, Codename: Rondo is tailored more for your live show?
Yeah, I think even in the beginning when we were playing small bars, we were never making music for ourselves. It was always like, “We got a show this Friday, let’s make a new song for it” or “We’ve got a show next week, let’s try to make something that will go over well. I think that was always in the back of our minds: to play music that goes over with a hang live.
It’s always just been us two—there’s never been anyone else in the room when we write. It’s also the relationship. We’ve been together for seven years now. So any relationship has its ups and downs or things going on outside of the band or whatever. There’s different emotions and I think that kind of comes through on our previous records. But [on] this one we just tried to block all that out. Once we went into the room we blocked out everything and had fun: “This is our time to just have fun and keep everything outside of the [box] and turn the equipment on and just go where we want to go.”
Any band who’s been together as long as you have, people get other priorities, commitments and families and slowly things change. But it is great that you figured out how to bring back that sense of excitement with this album.
Yeah, that was really important [and] I think that kind of comes through. There’s always an element of fun and in this record there’s extreme experimentation—like pretty far out stuff, but there’s still an element of fun to it, where it’s not like we’re taking ourselves too seriously or trying to prove some kind of point or anything like that. It’s just two guys having fun, creating [and] having a blast doing it.
I think that’s one of the reasons why the live show has always been so well received. Even, like you said, if the music gets experimental and psychedelic it doesn’t get too self indulgent or weighty.
Yeah, totally. We like to try to keep it a full-blown experience from as soon as we walk on stage until we take a bow and it’s over. We try to keep everyone interested and involved and keep everything flowing and if we look out and people are smiling and dancing and having a good time or going berserk, we feel great. It’s a good feeling and we play harder. So, that’s definitely what it’s about.
In terms of presentation, Ghostland is still a duo. Would you consider expanding to a player band onstage with the Black Keys or Jack White?
I think Ghostland is just the two of us. Ghostland started as a two-piece because we were unable to find other members who were committed to the project with us. We would try having a drummer and a bass player and then I would just play keys and Aaron would play guitar. Either the bass player would flake out or quit or the drummer would just disappear, and then after a series of that we were just like, “All right, these are the tools that we have. Me and you obviously want to do this, [so] let’s just make it work as a two-piece and then take it as far as we can take it like that.” I think that’s how it started, and it’s worked out well that way, and I just can’t change something that works good the way it is.