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Thomas Turner Digs a Crowd Response

After a breakneck beginning, Ghostland Observatory took time off to recharge. For the band’s caped keyboardist and laser light wizard, the fallow season has been fertile.

It’s the early eighties and this flamboyant dude in Minneapolis is singing about fruit cocktail, banana daiquiris, sex, and raspberry berets. People don’t quite know what to make of him, or his mix of funk, dance, and rock rhythms, but they are riveted. “People think he’s a freak!” Thomas Turner says, obviously delighted. Prince is that increasingly rare thing—an utterly unique industry game changer.

It’s 2003 and success is calling their bluff. Within a matter of months, the Austin duo Ghostland Observatory, (a.k.a Turner and lead singer Aaron Behrens), went from playing tiny rooms of, say, five people to auditoriums of 500 to major markets around the globe, including Tokyo and Dubai. “It was everything we wanted to achieve, but there was also a feeling of full speed ahead, with no brakes,” Turner remembers.

Early last year, Ghostland Observatory (locally known as GLO) did hit the brakes. The two musicians who came together so effortlessly (after meeting through a classified ad) without rigid, preconceived rules about what kind of style or genre that they wanted to embody, parted ways.

Because I’ve long admired Turner’s smarts and thoughtful decision making (not signing with a major label in favor of self producing, incorporating the UT Marching Band into a GLO performance, volleying emails with industry legend Rick Rubin), I was curious to hear what he’s up these days.

So on a recent Saturday afternoon, we hung out in his studio, a dusky man cave of synthesizers and speakers. The light is dim but Turner’s eyes flash with enthusiasm when he talks about Prince, or Queen, or anyone that came along—especially in the 1980’s—and shook up the industry by defying easy description, freaking people out, and playing music on their own terms.

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You’ve had more time to get out and see music lately. What’s the best thing about being in the audience?

I like seeing peoples’ reaction to music and studying a crowd. You can have this passive crowd with arms folded, but I like seeing movement and a physical response. As a performer, I know that every show is an experiment; you never know how it’s going to play out.

You’ve been doing a lot of studio work in Los Angeles. What do you like about that process?

I’ve been working with eight or nine different songwriters, some have some shiny brass (Grammy’s) and some people are just starting out. The schedule is pretty intense. You might start at nine in the morning and do one session in Hollywood, then hop in a car, fight traffic, and zip over to Silver Lake or Santa Monica to a different studio. It’s crazy, but it’s a lot of fun. I like going nonstop until song is finished.

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What kind of music is capturing your imagination these days?

I have my ear to the deepest underground experimental dance music. What I’m interested in is young producers taking chances, revisiting older styles and mixing them with new ones. It’s not the polished sound that defines most of the industry. There’s been a backlash against that homogeneity, and a movement towards a different kind of electronic dance music.

What are some examples?

There are musicians recording to cassette, and others who are not afraid to blend psychedelic with house, or experimental music with drone. The best new producers are trying to get a response, a reaction, rather than simply blending in. When I go out, I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. There’s no one like Queen these days that really stands out.

Who are you listening to?

There’s a label called Long Island Electrical Systems, a noise punk sound produced by Ron Morelli that carries artists like Delroy Edwards and Greg Beato, a teenage producer from Miami. I also like No Rules, the Dutch electronic musician Legowelt, and both Kyle Hall and MGUN from Detroit.

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What to you think provided just the right pixie dust for Ghostland?

When GLO first started, there was a definite divide between the camps of rock and electronic. Those people didn’t really hang out. We brought them together and didn’t lean too much either way. It’s how both Aaron and I were as people. We wanted to be different, and not lukewarm.

Sometimes it’s just the right time and place, and a band catches on. They create something that’s never been heard. It’s pretty magical when it does come together. When I met Aaron, it wasn’t a typical classified that said you must be into…a certain style of music. We were willing to explore outside of our comfort zones.

Your loyal fan base wants to know—what’s next?

For GLO it’s hard to say, we’ve toured for so long that it’s nice that we don’t have that grueling schedule anymore. If a show sounds fun and we’re both up for it, we’ll do it. Over the past year, I’ve started to enjoy music again and dig into what other people are doing. My main goal is to continue to have fun with music—good things happen when you do that.

Credits

Photography by Chad Wadsworth

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