Ghostland Observatory in Aspen: Big show, minimalist music
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – When Ghostland Observatory, an electronica act from Austin, Texas, performed outdoors at the bottom of Aspen Mountain last January, the effect was maximal. The show could be heard from the far side of town and, thanks to an extensive laser component, seen as well. The crowd response was huge; Ghostland Observatory returns to town Friday, playing Belly Up, and the show quickly sold out.
But Ghostland Observatory delivers this big hit with an eye for minimalism. The light show features just 16 lasers; as the group’s Thomas Turner points out, “You could plug it into the electric socket in your house, and run it off there.” For an act of their stature – they get high billing at major festivals, and were voted band of the year in their home base, Austin, Texas, also known as the live music capital of the world – they travel small: Their crew and equipment fit into two passenger vans. And the band itself is no band, but just two guys: Turner, who plays drums and synthesizers, and Aaron Behrens, who mainly sings, but also picks up a guitar for parts of the performance.
“It is pretty minimal. There’s not a lot of fat in it,” Turner said from Austin. “We’re just making the most of the tools that we have.”
As Turner’s career goes, Ghostland Observatory is about as expansive as it gets, in terms of moving parts. He got his start doing electronic music in his native West Texas, and spent his late teen years throwing raves and warehouse parties. On occasion, he’s bring in a DJ, but for the most part, electronic music meant he was on his own. A few years ago, having the urge to work with other musicians, Turner moved to rock-rich Austin, figuring it an ideal spot to experiment with his ideas about blending rock and electronica. He placed ads, and heard back from Waking Helix, an experimental noise-rock band.
Turner joined up as the keyboardist, but the group lasted only another few months. But a key connection had been made between Turner and the Waking Helix guitarist, Behrens. The two continued writing songs and tried to form a new band. “But the drummer would quit mid-rehearsal, the bassist would flake out,” the 31-year-old Turner said. “We decided, if no one wants to take it as serious as us, I can play drums, keys, sequencers, and Aaron could do whatever.”
The duo began performing as Ghostland Observatory, and quickly began introducing small elements to the show that somehow added up to big entertainment. Behrens put his hair in Indian-style braids; there was a lighting component. And Turner looked to do something to raise the production values, knowing he was glued to his drum set and keyboard.
“Aaron is mobile, can run around and entertain the audience. I’m stuck, boxed in by the drums and machines,” he said. Turner figured a costume might do the trick – nothing trendy or difficult, but unique and in line with his personality – and he asked his wife for ideas. She made him a cape.
“And I said, Yeah, that’s perfect,” he said. Turner has gone through a glitter cape, and LED cape and, most recently, a Texas flag cape.
With only two musicians and little equipment onstage, the cape stands out. But gradually, it has become overshadowed by the lights.
“At first, the show was real raw, nothing fancy. Just the two of us up there,” Turner said. “But as we progressed and got more people to the shows, we didn’t think, ‘Oh, we can make more money.’ We thought, ‘We can add more lasers and stuff.’ We always grew it out as our fan base grew, always tried to give the fans more of a show. It’s a lot bigger show than it was five years ago.”
The music, though, at least on record, has gotten smaller. Ghostland Observatory’s latest album, “Codename: Rondo,” released in October, is minimalist by design, and a turn from earlier efforts.
“Our first three records, there was experimentation going on, but it was just stacking one thing on top of another to create a rich sound,” Turner said. “This record, I wanted some breathing room, some space. You can’t have space when there’s constant noise going on. This time, each sound counts. You can take all the rest away, and each sound stands on its own. I’m not afraid to stop it altogether; it doesn’t have to hit you with sound from start to finish.”
“Codename: Rondo” reflects, in a way, some of Turner’s other interests. He’s into minimal architecture, minimalist music – “Things that are real simple, that can still hold their own,” he said.
“I like to go to old cities and look at concrete, steel, glass, old brick buildings in old cities, old refineries,” he continued. “I think there’s something interesting about those, especially the ones that are abandoned, left by themselves, and you know nobody’s touched them in a long time.”
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In 1895, the fad sweeping Aspen for women was to dye their hair red.