10 Years of Photos — 3 The Future Sound — 11
WE’LL NEVER STOP LIVING THIS WAY: A Ghostly Primer Presented by self-titled & Pop Mart Media Editor Andrew Parks Art Director Aaron Richter Artwork (unless otherwise credited): Photos by Will Calcutt Cover by Michael Cina All contents C Ghostly International MIM-MMX. All rights reserved. www.ghostly.com / www.self-titledmag.com
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The Interviews: Sam Valenti IV — 17 Tadd Mullinix — 19 Lusine — 21 Matthew Dear —23 School of Seven Bells — 25 Solvent — 27 Tycho — 29 Of Art and Artifice: Friends With You on Magic Monday — 32 Deanne Cheuk on Midrange — 32 Michael Segal on Idol Tryouts — 33 Michael Cina on Glider — 34 Tim Saccenti on “My Cabal” — 35 Doug Coombe on Winking Makes a Face — 37 Further Listening — 41 — 02 —
From left: — Kill Memory Crash at Pianos in Manhattan, 2004. — Matthew Dear in Detroit, 2003. — Will Calcutt, self-portrait — Adult. performs at Labrynth in Detroit for the Disco Nouveau party, December 2001
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All photos: — Matthew Dear performing solo and alongside Hot Chip at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, 2007.
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Clockwise from right: — Dabrye performs in Detroit, 2004 — SV4 spinning records during Ghostly’s party at the Necto nightclub, 2001. — Matthew Dear breaks records, 2001 — Jannis Noya Makrigiannis of Choir of Young Believers — Dykehouse drinks — The mirror ball at Womb in Tokyo, 2009 — 07 —
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From left: — Ryan Elliott at a Detroit Electronic Music Festival party, May 2007. — The crowd at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2002 — Seth Troxler at a Spectral Sound party in Miami, 2008 — Audion masked and in Berlin, 2009 — Just cubes
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Introduction by Andrew Parks
The Future Sound
ghostly international: the first 10 years
It all started with a simple record sleeve: a trio of cartoon characters who can’t help staring at the iconic logo above them. Weighing the double LP’s price tag against its stark, striking design and a hastily scrawled recordstore recommendation, self-titled scooped up Ghostly International’s inaugural Idol Tryouts (gi-13, 2003) compilation and tossed it on our office turntable the second we stepped through the door. That’s what we used to do after a record-shop run: listen as if our life—or at the very least, our taste level—depended on it. In this case, a random purchase was rewarded with a crystalline Wire cover (Dykehouse’s dead-on rendition of “Map Ref. 41 N 93 W”), the carefully cleaved microhouse of Matthew Dear (“Some New Depression”), the heady hip-hop of Dabrye (“Making It Pay”) and the hypnotist-like hooks of Midwest Product. Taken together, Idol Tryouts presented the front line of Ghostly’s Avant-Pop attack on a fledgling music scene, a battle plan that’s changed countless times in the label’s first 10 years while remaining true to founder Sam Valenti IV’s mission statement: “to compel, engross, and subvert.”
Origins and Ambitions: 1999–2002 From left: Sam Valenti IV, performing as SV4, in disguise at Motor Detroit 2002; BoyCatBird toys at the Ghostly store in Berlin, 2009; Ghostly posters in NYC.
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Launched in a college dorm room by a 19-year-old art-history student, Ghostly International was inspired by Sam Valenti IV’s teenage years in the Detroit area—a time spent spinning, and shopping for, records. Not to mention sneaking into a lot of hip-hop shows. These myriad influences, as well as a steady influx of import LPs, inspired the idea of an American label as a complete aesthetic package, from music to merch to every last design element. This is why Ghostly quickly became known for its visuals and its music—because of brilliant visual artists like designer/photographer Will Calcutt, photographer Doug Coombe and illustrator Michael
Segal, whose BoyCatBird characters would become the label’s de facto mascots. Ghostly’s first releases came from chance meetings at house parties (Matthew Dear), record stores (Tadd Mullinix, aka Dabrye), friends of friends (Midwest Product) and ridiculously odd demos (Dykehouse, Kill Memory Crash). No two artists fell into the same record-shop section, but they all shared the same hard-working, left-of-center ethos that Ghostly would soon be recognized for. Take Matthew Dear’s first release, the “Hands Up for Detroit” 12-inch (ghs-01, 1999), which offered a skewed, post-Belleville Three take on European house. And then there was local DJ/ producer Tadd Mullinix, whose demo led to no less than four aliases—more than 50 percent of Ghostly’s initial roster. On top of the declaration that electronic music was an art form and not simply “rave” or “wallpaper” music (depending on whom you asked), Ghostly also proved you didn’t need to hail from a major city to make a dent in the international music scene. Hell, you could be from Ann Arbor, knee-deep in Detroit’s lingering legacy of dusty Motown sides and posteverything techno. No wonder, then, that Ghostly’s “non-genre-fied” roster spawned a dance-floor offshoot in 2001, as Spectral Sound was launched to focus on 4/4-infused shades of techno and house. Needless to say, the imprint was immediately bolstered by the early work of Matthew Dear, a Texas-born, Detroit-raised music fan who’s fond of both Daft Punk and the Beatles. With a solid foundation of releases in place, Ghostly’s profile continued to rise with the success of 2002’s Disco Nouveau compilation (gi-05, 2002), a love letter to a bygone era that
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dovetailed with the rebirth of electro-pop. The collection quickly became an international best-seller, and its 12-inches literally couldn’t be pressed fast enough. True to Ghostly’s reputation for “art and artifice,” the CD’s first pressing was produced as an elegant hardback book with artist bios and even an Art Nouveau bibliography. While Valenti declared the disc his senior thesis, its critical/commercial success (even Rolling Stone noticed it) gave him the confidence to purse Ghostly as a “real job.” With the first phase of the label coming to a close, Ghostly moved from Valenti’s apartment to an office. The game was on, as they say.
Take America, Save the Artists (Not Necessarily in That Order): 2003–2004 After the initial fanfare of Disco Nouveau, Ghostly avoided being pigeonholed as an electro label by setting its sights on North America and a core roster of album artists and road-trippers—rarities in the electronic-music realm. Initial label-centric tours were shambolic exercises in organizational amateurism, but had enough foolish naivety to get the acts from coast-to-coast, fed and alive, while gaining a small fanbase in return. Venue-wise, the dance clubs that had been the obvious go-to for “electronic acts” were eschewed in favor of rock clubs, following in the steps of the previous decade’s DIY-or-die movement—only with fewer guitars. Somewhere along the way, Ghostly started its second wave of signings. Always favoring the underdog, the label’s new blood included many import-only artists who had been largely overlooked by an American audience that rarely looks for music overseas. They included a beat-making auteur
Clockwise from top left: Painted ladies at Labrynth in Detroit for the Disco Nouveau party, December 2001; Midwest Product at Temple in East Lansing, MI, 2003; Skeleton & the Girl-Faced Boys, before the name-change, 2005; Derek Plaslaiko in Detroit; Audion at Womb Tokyo 2009; Dabrye in NYC, 2005.
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(Lusine), an ambient/noise duo (Twine), a Canadian electro-pop icon (Solvent) and a minimalist producer/multi-instrumentalist from Ohio (Geoff White, aka Aeroc). To accommodate its increased diversity, the label made a conscious effort to separate its subversive “Avant-Pop” tag—coined with the release of 2003’s Idol Tryouts compilation—from a mysterious, sound-sculpting group of “SMM” artists, including Kiln, Cepia and Christopher Willits. Meanwhile, Spectral began its expansion into Europe, continuing a long-held dialogue between Detroit and Berlin—a brotherhood of machine music with a melancholy yet triumphant soul. The crossover success of Matthew Dear’s classic debut LP, Leave Luck To Heaven (spc-11, 2003), owes a lot to these travels and its brazen paring of icy beats and vaporous vocals. The worldwide success of the LP would change the label’s image, in one fell swoop, from a fly-by-night curiosity to a trusted trendsetter.
Pushing Out: 2005–2006 If you were to ask Valenti about Ghostly’s latest round of signings in 2005, he’d say they took the
label “further away, yet closer to” its Avant-Pop core—all thanks to the introduction of two proper “bands”: Mobius Band and Skeletons & the Kings of All Cities (then Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys). Matthew Dear’s techno-pop tunes took similar steps with the addition of live vocals at shows. Many critics and beat-savvy fans were perplexed by these actions and signings, wondering if the label had pushed its denouncement of genre too far. The Avant-Pop plan was finally manifesting, though, and attracting new audiences at larger rock venues in the process. With that in mind, the music industry was still fighting a fouralarm fire in the mid-’00s. While brick-and-mortar stores continued to close—including Ghostly’s “birthplace,” Neptune Records— roughly ripped MP3s became a dominant source of music for many people. This disconcerting climate was met with a “Death Is Nothing to Fear” mantra, a theme song for Ghostly meetings at a moment in time that would test the team’s resolve. Efforts were made to maintain the label’s musical/visual integrity while actively exploring the digital arena of diminished cover sizes and sound files. Ghostly Digital
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(or GIDG) began as a new label, releasing everything from stopgap EPs to proper full-lengths like The Right Kind of Nothing (gi52, 2006). The desire to keep the physical design aspect of musical releases was met with a fortunate opportunity to work with internationally known design shop Moss, a collaboration that culminated in one of the first USBonly albums in existence, M/GM 1 (Moss/Ghostly Music 1).
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the… (Now What?): 2007–2008 The success of Dabrye’s longawaited Two/Three LP (gi-50, 2006)—J Dilla guest appearance and all (“Game Over”)—left Ghostly with one clear goal: Start 2007 off with a similar success story, or call it a day. Sure enough, Matthew Dear had recently gained fame with his Audion alias, clobbering international clubs with the convulsive loops of “Mouth to
Mouth.” The shit-hot single shifted more than 10,000 12-inches throughout 2006. Meanwhile, Dear’s eponymous side had undergone seismic changes, revisiting his Texan roots and pushing his sound toward a devilish brand of experimental pop. This is where the next Ghostly incarnation would be found. Asa Breed (gi-65, 2007) was confusing but compelling, a forward-thinking masterwork that troubled techno diehards even as it attracted countless new fans. Spectral hit its stride with the aptly titled compilation series Death Is Nothing to Fear. The label also began tapping new talent, both domestic (Seth Troxler and Kate Simko) and international (Jonas Kopp and Daso), opening a path to great parties from Ryan Elliott and Derek Plaslaiko across the globe. The year 2008 found collaborations with cult television programmers (Adult Swim) as well as new artists who reflected the Avant-Pop ethos to a T (The Chap) and a commitment to Ghostly’s Ann Arbor roots (JDSY). The label’s newfound tenure in New York fostered new signings Michna and School of Seven Bells, whose album Alpinisms (gi-81, 2008) brought
Clockwise from top left: The crowd at Womb Tokyo 2009; a sudsy floor at Labrynth in Detroit for the Disco Nouveau party, December 2001; Ghostly 10-year anniversary posters in Berlin, 2009; Ryan Elliott and Matthew Dear at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, 2005; Audion, masked, in Barcelona, 2009.
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the band to the front page of the New York Times Arts section and around the world on a staggering non-stop tour. Visually, the label looked to new collaborations with design community heavy hitters, approaching Michael Cina of WeWorkForThem and the Miami/ NYC Friends With You crew to create covers for its new releases.
We’ll Never Stop Living This Way: 2009– In 2009, Ghostly looked at its 10-year anniversary with the same amazement that humans feel when they age a little—a few gray hairs gained along with some muchneeded wisdom and friendships. Yet, the fire remained to be dimmed. The label celebrated 10 years with a series of international events featuring Ghostly acts, both new and vintage, as well as special guests and friends, hitting up festivals such as Sonar, Movement (Detroit), MUTEK and Seattle’s Decibel, bringing the classic multimedia Ghostly experience to new and longstanding fans. New albums from Lusine and Bodycode landed on many critics lists and Matthew Dear’s Audion project
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saw him deconstruct the album into a barrage of monthly singles spread across the year alongside an impressive live visual feast entitled “Hecatomb.” Another major advancement was the unveiling of Ghostly Discovery, an iPhone application that allows users to access Ghostly and Spectral’s deep catalog using a color-based mood search. The application jumped up the iTunes charts and created a new appreciation for the label from both fans and critics. Ghostly has continued to expand its musical horizons with the addition of Justin Broadrick’s Jesu side project Pale Sketcher, and newcomers Mux Mool and Ann Arbor drummer/ electronics prodigy Shigeto. Throughout the years, Ghostly has consistently defied expectations and music-business tumult by providing an experience that no other label can offer. As one critic noted, in relation to other labels: “Ghostly…never promised us a rose-tinted garden, so they’re free to follow their wayward muse wherever…” Today, Ghostly International continues to follow its own muse, providing music and art experiences that will be of value to its fans and listeners well into the future.
Sam Valenti IV Sam Valenti IV was still in college when he started Ghostly International, so it goes without saying that the DJ/de facto entrepreneur didn’t know what the hell he was doing for the first few years. Here’s the thing, though: Valenti figured it out somehow, blending art and commerce in the footsteps of such hometown heroes as Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin and J Dilla. Here are hints as to how that happened.
What’s the story behind Ghostly’s name and logo? The logo was something I’d drawn since high school in Michigan. It was a tag that represented my DJ alias. The name Ghostly came around the same time. I kept seeing the word in print, and “Ghostly International” had a certain ring. Especially the “International” bit, because it had a fake corporate sensibility. It was a coat of arms to enter the world in—a puffing of the chest, if you will, albeit one with a sense of humor. You were an art-history major. Did you head into college thinking
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you might be a teacher or researcher? I came into college with literally no plan other than I liked music, was a DJ and wanted to start a record label. I didn’t think it could be a full-time job. After my first year, I found my art-history courses to be the ones that excited me the most. I enjoyed watching how one art movement would rise, only to be overtaken by another. It directly related to the workings of music and culture in general. We as humans create a style, then someone else creates the opposite, and then we go back to what we created before and reclaim it. And the cycle goes on and on. Let’s say someone’s new to the label: What are five releases that represent a nice cross-section of just how diverse your roster is? I think you could pick any five chronological releases and you’d find a wealth of styles held together by a certain something. What are some of the high and low points from Ghostly’s first 10 years? There’s been a lot of high points. One that immediately comes to mind is when Richie
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Hawtin first played Matthew Dear’s tracks. We were in the DJ booth for some reason, and both flipped out. Another was seeing our music on TV for the first time. It felt like we had infiltrated the media in some small way. Recently, our whole US team convened for a session to discuss our vision and plans for the future, which was professionally my proudest moment—to see how far we’d come from a one-man shop. With any small company, there a lot of potentially low points. The mid-2000s were tough, as you could really feel the bottom falling out of the “industry,” and digital had yet to really come into play. I was also exhausted at the time from doing the label full on. It was almost the end of the company. We had really run aground financially, and I didn’t want to scare the artists or employees, so I sort of hid that, and it only exacerbated the feeling. Luckily we rebounded thanks to the blessing of some great releases, but it’s something that will always remind me to stay humble ’cause you’re inches from victory and defeat at any moment. Any advice you can give to someone who’s decided to launch a record label in such an unstable music industry? One thing I really wanted to say with Ghostly was that you can start a movement from anywhere really. Just look around and there’s talented people ready to get involved. As far as a credo, I’d say stick to your guns, don’t believe your own hype and—as easy as it is to forget—you do this because you love it. Photo by Jessica Miller, NYC, 2004
Tadd Mullinix Like his fellow Ghostly lifer Matthew Dear, Tadd Mullinix is nearly impossible to pin down. Depending on the day, he could be serving up sleek hip-hop beats as Dabrye, delving into pitch-dark dance music as James T. Cotton, or pairing up with his longtime friend/ label mate Todd Osborn as the acidslinging duo TNT. In the following interview, he helps us make sense of it all. At least for now. We wouldn’t be surprised if the guy suddenly delivered a total pop LP—with his trademark touches, of course. You originally thought you’d release house records through Ghostly, right? Yeah. I was working for Todd Osborn at his record store, Dubplate Pressure, so I was familiar with Ghostly’s only release at the time, the house 12-inch with “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” on it. When Sam came to the shop, he told me he was interested in hearing my music. I had a few house tracks on a tape along with a bunch of other tracks. After Sam took it home and checked it out, he told me something to the effect of, “I really like a lot of music on here.” He eventually came back to me with a plan for multiple releases. Your aliases have been misunderstood over the years. Describe Dabrye, James T. Cotton and 2 AM/FM. Dabrye is my hip-hop project. I have listened to hip-hop since I started collecting music. It was an important part
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of my childhood. James T. Cotton fulfills the part of me that loves techno and house music. I started going to raves as a high school freshman. Detroit musicians and DJs are so talented, and I was indulging in this druggy night scene where thousands of people of all different kinds of backgrounds came to dance together. This was a magical experience. 2 AM/FM is a opportunity for me to share my love for dance music with D’marc Cantu. I met him as a roommate in a huge house that we shared with seven others in Ypsilanti. You and Todd Osborn have worked together as TNT and Soundmurderer & SK-1. What’s made Todd such a perfect production pairing for you? Todd is just into cool stuff. My friend Proxy and I also used to check out a local drum & bass DJ named Rotator. He was nuts behind the decks! When I heard him spin, I realized I’d missed out on some serious records. I would go to Dubplate Pressure and describe them to Todd. But these records were super obscure, especially in the states. I started making mashed-up ragga/jungle tunes because I needed to hear more music like that. I shared my music and software with Todd, and we started trading song files and adding parts to our tracks before I moved to Ann Arbor, and we could collaborate in the studio. You haven’t released a Tadd Mulinix record since 2002. Any chance you’d put out music
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under your name again? I have plans to return to that project, but I want to change my approach. Back then, I didn’t have the equipment to complete my vision. The success of Dabrye and JTC kept me away from returning to music like that. I’m nearly finished building my dream studio, so I am ready to get back to making more music under that name. Your second Dabrye album, Two/Three (gi-50, 2006), received a mixed reaction— some claimed the MCs on the record ruined the flow. Since you clearly worked hard at making the collaborations sound seamless, did it bum you out when people missed the point? I was not surprised by the mixed reaction. Because of the way I was positioned in the music world, I knew it would be a letdown for some of those that prefer instrumental beats. But at the same time, Two/Three opened new doors for me in the hip-hop world. I never enjoyed being identified as a “glitchhop” artist, and the LP served as a vehicle for me to break out of the pigeonholing. Each installment of your Dabrye trilogy has taken years to complete. Do you ever regret titling the LPs like that—as One/Three (gi-02, 2001), Two/Three, etc.? Hahaha! It’s in my contract to complete another Dabrye LP, so the title would be the least of my problems, but since Two/Three I bought a house, got married and had some devastating technical problems with my studio. These things kept me from being able to have the focus and tools I need to be more prolific. I recently switched the software I use to make beats because the old program was only compatible with some dangerously old technology. I feared that if I continued touring and producing with this old gear I would set myself up for disaster. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Lusine Ask Jeff McIlwain what he thinks of his first album (a self-titled Isophlux LP) and he’ll tell you it’s terrible— that he was several sample banks deep in a Warp Records obsession at the time, and still finding his sound. The guy’s clearly being hard on himself, but there’s no denying how much McIlwain grew as a producer in the following decade, whether he was applying his CalArts schooling to a scene-stealing film score (Snow Angels) or balancing his experimental/pop tendencies with albums as varied as A Certain Distance (gi-87, 2009) and Serial Hodgepodge (gi-37, 2004). And then there were those MTV deals... Critics often say your music connects the dots between Detroit techno and IDM. Do you feel like that’s a fair comparison? I honestly didn’t know what Detroit techno was when I first started making music. I have come to understand it in hindsight, but it was never a direct influence. I will say that in ’92 I caught Cybersonic (Dan Bell, John Acquaviva, Richie Hawtin) opening up for the Prodigy and it pretty much blew my mind, so from a live
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perspective, yes. A Dallas radio station was your first proper exposure to dance/electronic music, right? What were some standout artists from that time period? Well, I used to make mixtapes. I didn’t know the artists, though; I mainly knew the DJs that were spinning back then—lots of breakbeat and some pretty good house music. When I started getting into artists, my US influences were aligned with what was happening on the West Coast: Single Cell Orchestra, Jonah Sharp, Heavenly Music Corporation, etc. And then obviously stuff like Speedy J, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Wagon Christ, Black Dog, Pete Namlook, Orbital and the Orb from the UK and Germany. How have your influences changed between when you got started doing this—in the late ’90s—and now? My influences are constantly changing. I draw a lot of my inspiration from music that really has nothing to do with what I’m doing (indie rock, folk, etc.) because it puts me in a certain mind-set. Too much electronic music kills my brain. Except for production purposes.
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I’m always learning on that front. People that are just starting have some interesting ideas, and it’s nice to get a fresh perspective. One of your songs slipped onto Road Rules once, right? I’ve had five or six licenses to either Road Rules or Real World. I think it’s good to get it out there, but I don’t really watch those shows. The best episode I’ve seen my music used in was a This American Life TV segment called “My Way.” I love that show. Do you find yourself writing lyrics more these days, and do you write them with other vocalists in mind? Any chance we’ll hear you singing anytime soon? If you hear me singing, it would probably be very processed like “Thick of It” (from A Certain Distance). I’m not against it, but I prefer to work with people who can actually sing and bring a different style to the mix. Yes, I work on lyrics, but they are hard to write, so I only really do it when I’m focused on a particular track. How has living in Seattle—a city that isn’t widely recognized for its electronic music—shaped your work as a producer? It’s great because it’s such a tight-knit scene. Seattle is actually pretty passionate about electronic music. It’s just hard to see it unless you live here. I think the people, conversations and scenery affect my music quite a bit. Most of your music is sample-based. What are some really random field recordings from over the years? Well, I’ve made some recordings from a shopping mall, some guys doing construction outside my apartment, subway sounds, sounds from Japan, airports, textural stuff like grass, rain, leaves. Anything I think could be useful later on. Photo by Eva Blue
Matthew Dear Ask Matthew Dear why he’s stuck with Ghostly International since its very first single (“Hands Up for Detroit,” ghs-001, 1999), and he’ll simply say, “Sam’s smile.” While that’s probably true—Dear met Ghostly’s founder at a University of Michigan lecture about the “mutation of pop music” and has been one of his closest friends ever since—there’s another reason why the producer/singer/ multi-instrumentalist hasn’t left for another label: the creative freedom to pursue everything from psychedelic techno (Audion) to twisted pop tunes that bounce between lean house loops (Leave Luck to Heaven, spc-11, 2003) and echoes of Eno (Asa Breed, gi-65, 2008). And you know what? In the house that Ghostly built, it all makes perfect sense.
Like another Ghostly artist (Lusine), you’re originally from Texas. How did moving to Michigan influence your work, and your listening habits? My musical upbringing in Texas was an interlacing of folk, arena rock and loads of new wave/industrial music. Imagine Depeche Mode 101 era. Rockabilly meets gay disco. You could get away with anything
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in the right places. The Detroit landscape was entirely different. Cold dying machinery and sterile horizons replaced the wide open views. Musically, hip-hop and serious electronic music crept into my psyche. The car became a proving ground for my music, and I’d drive around Detroit taking everything in, listening to my early productions. What’s one of your earliest Ghostly memories? The first label tours. We were such a hodgepodge of musicians that probably shouldn’t have been sharing the same bill. One night in Portland, Maine—probably back in 2001–2002—we divided the audience up and asked them to choose between the letter T or W. Everyone picked their letter, and then Sam and I ordered everyone a shot of tequila or whiskey based on their decision. It was innocent fun back then, and we were all just learning what this music business meant to us. Let’s say you’re seeing a psychiatrist and he asks what part of your personality the following aliases represent: Audion, False, Jabberjaw and Matthew Dear. What do you say? I say, “I didn’t sign up for this,” gather my belongings and quietly leave
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his office. The visual element of Audion’s “Hecatomb” tour took a lot of planning. Did that experience make you want to take the A/V idea to another level down the road, or did it feel like the focus was being taken off the music too much? The intent was to take the focus off of the music a bit. Or better said, it was to put equal emphasis on the music and the visuals. It was a lot of work, but I felt the money I was earning to perform should be reinvested in the performance.… I feel we’ve gotten a bit lazy in the dance clubs. It’s the most hedonistic genre of music, and it’s making itself quite a bit of money these days. We have an open template to experiment with pure art here. I’d like to take more risks and operate in the unsafe. What are five records you keep coming back to over the years? Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, Our Mother the Mountain by Townes Van Zandt, Kid A by Radiohead, World of Echo by Arthur Russell and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno. Let’s say someone’s just getting into your music. What are five songs they should start with, and why? Some obvious choices would be “Dog Days,” “Mouth to Mouth,” “Don & Sherri,” and “Pom Pom.” However, I’d love to publish something specifically for them. Most likely with unreleased material that’s come up over the last few years. I believe firmly that I’m only as good as the last song I’ve made. I always need to make a new one.
School of Seven Bells With songs that are steeped in psychedelics and cut with enough ear candy to send audiophiles into diabetic shock, School of Seven Bells’ breakout debut, Alipinisms (gi-81, 2008), sounds like it cost millions to make. The final price tag for the self-produced affair was just $300, though, and most of that money went toward the drum tracks of “Sempiternal.” The rest stems from the trio’s apartment studio, making it abundantly clear that the simplest recording settings are sometimes the most transcendent. A lot of the songs on Alpinisms went through drastically different takes before you hit the studio, right? benjamin curtis: We did the whole session from scratch, actually. There’s no more than two or three versions of a song out there. That’s the weird thing about being able to record by yourself
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now: First drafts get off the ground at a really advanced state, sonically. It’s not like working with a fourtrack anymore. alejandra deheza: You don’t need a producer, either. All of these programs are designed for normal people, for a kid in a bedroom at NYU to make a record. Did you ever think you could really use a producer for a certain part? curtis: There were points of frustration. We didn’t want to do anything sub-par, but at the same time we didn’t want it taken out of our hands because we knew we could do it. We also wanted to be self-sufficient because you can’t expect anyone to do anything for you. deheza: The producer can also be ‘the other band member’. How they think things should be expressed is the record. Especially if they’re known for a certain sound. curtis: Yeah. Some producers are really great, but I think it’s important for kids
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[to try recording themselves]. In my opinion, GarageBand is the most radical thing that’s happened to music, culturally, ever. You can accidentally make a great record with it, so the ceiling is much more accessible. Eliminating privilege and all the bullshit from the equation is so awesome. It gives every kid the opportunity to be Phil Spector… Your ideas—your words and compositions, not technical virtuosity—are what makes your music float above other people. We feel totally comfortable with that. We don’t need to spend $100,000 to make a record. It must be difficult to figure out how to recreate your songs live. curtis: It was hard in the beginning because everything was just rough ideas. deheza: We experimented in front of everyone. curtis: We don’t care who does what. It’s really just all about the three of us writing together. [At first] Ali was just the singer, I played guitar and sang, and Claudia (Alejandra’s sister/the band’s other vocalist) played guitar and sang. deheza: Which is weird because I played guitar in my old band. I just wanted to play something different. curtis: We also had a drummer and a bass player. For some reason, we had this compulsion to make this “Williamsburg band” with friends we liked helping us out. But in the end, the three of us weren’t interested in a band dynamic, so it’s hard for anyone to exist on the periphery of that. It took us a year to realize that the chemistry between the three of us was enough to sustain this, period.
Solvent Like his hero Apex Twin, Solvent squeezes an incredible amount of emotion out of synths and samplers. Listening to his twodisc Demonstration Tape (gi-70, 2008) collection is like peering into the mind of a machine that just had its feelings function turned on—a 21st-century Blade Runner soundtrack, if you will. Just don’t say the word “Peaches” around him too loudly… “My Radio” was a standout song on Disco Nouveau (gi-05, 2002), a “robot disco” compilation that dropped around the same time as electroclash. Did the popularity of that scene surprise you? No. Electroclash addressed the lack of blatant synthesizer sounds in good pop music, so it understandably got a lot of attention. It’s had a lasting impact, too—not just with bombastic buzzsaw techno like Justice, but also in mainstream pop and hip-hop, from Britney Spears to Kanye West. I’m definitely disappointed that the blatant, tasteless aspects (the Peaches end of the spectrum) seemed to catch on, rather than the subtle and classicist side of synth-pop. I wish it could’ve produced another Vince Clarke–type synthesizer genius,
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or another band with the kind of depth and originality of something like OMD or Fad Gadget. You use a vocoder on your vocals a lot. Has the popularity of artists like Daft Punk made you reconsider that approach? If a vocoder started turning up on every radio record—like AutoTune—that might make me drop it. Not many people use a vocoder for melodic vocals in the way I do—where you can hear my voice and personality coming through. That being said, the main reason that I use a vocoder so regularly is because I’ve wanted to make pop songs, but I’d rather not sing. Don’t get me wrong—sometimes the vocoder is perfect for a given track, but I also use it as a crutch. People have compared your music to Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and Human League. What are some non-obvious influences you’ve had? Kraftwerk comes up a lot, and to be honest, I don’t feel like they’ve been a big influence on me at all. The most obvious and direct one has been Aphex Twin. I was compared to him and Autechre at first, but people stopped bringing those names up after I started name-dropping synth-pop bands in my interviews and press releases! Another big influence is Skinny Puppy. They had some amazing,
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often funky basslines, and I’ve definitely been influenced by the way they heavily processed their 808 drums. The most non-obvious influence would be the Beatles, though. I rarely go out of my way to listen to them anymore, but I was absolutely obsessed with them when I was young. I’m convinced this played a significant part in my strong melodic/pop tendencies. You’ve been popular in clubs and living rooms throughout your career. Do you like toeing that line? Nothing depresses me more than being stuck in a club, listening to hours of pounding cookie-cutter dance music. So it’s never been a goal of mine to straddle this line. I’ve always just tried to make good songs with good beats, and occasionally they end up working in a club/DJ context. If you read a lot of interviews with Depeche Mode, they say more or less the same thing. I’ve come to respect some periods of dance music, though, like early Chicago acid house. I was just reading this article in Wire where they described how the earliest acid records cleared the dance floor before they became the biggest dance records in Chicago. This seems like an exciting chapter in dance music, where the biggest DJ (Ron Hardy) in the biggest club (The Music Box) is willing to play something totally alien. This kind of individuality and conviction seems to be totally devoid in clubs, where the DJ plays what the punters want to hear, instead of being there to tell the punters what they should want to hear.
Tycho Much like his art/design alias ISO50, Scott Hansen’s Tycho project unfolds like a stack of sepia-toned photos—the kind that lurk in shoeboxes and crawl spaces for decades at a time. Melancholic without ever being melodramatic, it’s music for long nights and nagging bouts of nostalgia. Not to mention an excuse to fill your wall with framed record sleeves. The easiest way to describe your music is to call it a cross between Ulrich Schnauss and Boards of Canada, but there’s much more going on than just that. For instance, “Past Is Prologue” and “The Daydream” have slight drum ’n’ bass beats in them. Yeah, I hear those references a lot, and for the most part they are accurate. Both Boards of Canada and Ulrich Schnauss showed me a new way of looking at electronic music. Until then, I was primarily listening to
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the more ambient side of drum ’n’ bass and trip-hop stuff like DJ Shadow. He was a huge influence on The Science of Patterns (Tycho’s self-released 2002 EP), but overall, LTJ Bukem’s Logical Progression series and artists like Photek and Roni Size were what originally got me into making music. Until then, I had mostly listened to rock. These days I really only listen to electronic music if it’s a hybrid-type thing like the Knife. Between ISO50 and Tycho, you’ve found a way to seamlessly blend your music and your art. When you were younger, were you as fascinated with records as you were design? I was exposed to very good music at a very young age. My dad and his friends would make me mixtapes of their best LPs, and I was obsessed with the cover art. My room was basically a shrine to it—the walls were plastered with every cover, case and sleeve I could get my hands on. I
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never really set out to try and unify the music and visuals of my work. They just sort of grew out of each other. Is the fact that Ghostly celebrates this dichotomy—art vs. music—one of the reasons you’ve worked with them? Certainly. Ghostly understands the relationship between a physical object and what it represents, which is something that’s lost on a lot of labels these days. This is right in line with how I see my own releases. The visual aspects should not only compliment the music; they should expand on it to color the listener’s interpretation of the work. You once said that design is the “search for efficiency.” What’s music then? Oh, man, who knows? I feel like I am still very much in the early stages of learning what music is supposed to be for me. I think that’s the next big phase of my life—trying to understand music the way I understand design. And when I say understand, I mean understand what I want it to be as it pertains to my own work. I have a clear vision of my visual ideals but I am still chasing that in music. That said, right now music to me is about evoking a desired emotional response in people, the idea of taking a feeling that cannot be summed up in words alone and relating it to another person. Photo by Joe Rossell
Of Art and Artifice Ghostly has long been associated with the relationship between music and visual art—the two co-existing in a manner that elevates both while maintaing a clarity of vision. Inspired by the consistent aesthetics of labels such as Factory, ECM, Blue Note and 4AD, Ghosty has instead found a way to marry a variety of styles and art-historical references, much like its music. The desire to work with the vanguard has led Ghostly to connect with renowned artists such as New York’s WK Interact and Deanne Cheuk, Miami collective FriendsWithYou and Non-Format. Meanwhile, the label has nurtured its own artistic talents, including a Midwestern collective of artists such as Will Calcutt, Michael Cina, Mike Segal and Michael Doyle, who have created the core aesthetic for which Ghostly is known. The idea of Ghostly as a “gallery” in which the work changes but the philosophy remains has allowed the company to tread outside the lines, while maintaining its unique vision. Here, the artists responsible for some of the label’s most memorable covers reflect on their work. — 31 —
FriendsWithYou — (gi-72, 2008)
Michna: Magic Monday
So this electric city is the epicenter of a futuristic space colony. Its bright colors and worshipping people love to build the best buildings, and they also love to be super galactic. People who live there are all connected through a secret frequency. They love to float and never have problems except for deciding which amazing activity to do that day. This is so far in the future you can simulate your world, and that is probably how this was created in the first place. Eggy Weggy lives here. This is his favorite place. He and Mr. Cool
go on an adventure every day and laugh and have so many orgies, it’s crazy. Everybody is in love with Eggy because he really makes them feel good through his music. He holds ceremonies in the pyramid head and gets large crowds. Everyone loves to party and dance during his sets. And sometimes they die because they are so happy and feel like they don’t need to play the life game anymore.
— Deanne Cheuk (gi-33, 2004)
This was an open brief based on my own inspiration from Dykehouse’s record. I interpreted the album to be trippy and dreamy, and based on the only direction of including the carousel and Mike [Dykehouse]’s face somewhere in the illustration, I created a large poster-size image that could be cropped into for the cover. I wanted the image to be layered and to feel timeless; looking at it
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now seven years on, I still like it! The design includes my influences and style of that time that it was created, which was more in my “Mushroom Girls” style with themes of nature and space and utopia. I also hand drew all of the type to fit with the illustration.
— Michael Segal (gi-13, 2003) / (gi-51, 2006) Various Artists: Idol Tryouts: Ghostly International Vol. 1/2
I met Sam Valenti as he was ending his teens. He was a shopper, and I was a worker at Neptune Records in Royal Oak, Michigan. I would display and sell my art there, like drawings on blank index cards. Sam bought a few of these in addition to whatever French house 12-inch he was picking up. Through music and art we formed an aesthetic bond, despite our 15-year age difference. One series of cards had a boy in green pajamas, a large pink cat and an orange bird. This threesome was one of many oneshot teams of cartoon characters of varying feasibility. (Another was Hippy Steve; Bangatang, an excitable orangutang; and Jj, a purple anthropoid.) Sam liked the boy, cat, bird series and bought all of the cards featuring them. When he released his first Ghostly International record, these characters were blown up and were the back cover. Over the next year Sam and I developed the characters of Boy, Cat, Bird, and they were the early mascots of the label. On the first Idol Tryouts compilation they were used, literally, as an introduction. Sam and I were talking about the artists on the comp, and we were joking about some of them being
Michael Cina — (gi-78, 2008) / (gi-78x, 2008)
future figures of worship and this record was their tryout. (American Idol was just entering the public consciousness, so it wasn’t a play on that.) Things were getting more varied and harder to pin down by the time of the second Idol Tryouts. So for the sleeve, I thought we should bring the Boy Cat Bird brand to a point of abstraction—where you know it’s them, but iconized beyond being cute. This time they dictate the design by being pure design.
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The Sight Below: Glider / No Place For Us EP
The Sight Below was probably the easiest project I have ever done. I had spoken with Sam about this new project, and he described the music to me. At the time, I had been experimenting with materials around the office and had a couple of tests that I liked. I scanned them in and combined the two works, making this extremely dark and complex piece. I sent it over to Sam as an idea, and it was sent to RAF. RAF said this is exactly how he sees his music. Done. I had a lot of simple ideas for the layout, but the final was my first idea, minus a couple of lines. This is a perfect example of a project that flowed properly. The most-discussed part of the design was the gradient bar. Sam didn’t like it; I felt like it solidified the design. It still makes me a bit uncomfortable, and that is my test of whether it is good or not. When you let the design “set up” the art, things work out. They decided to give away an EP as well and have artwork for it. I had this film series I had been doing, so I compiled them and sent them over to Sam. He said they were fantastic and perfect for this, pretty much a repeat. I cropped them down, and it was done. We decided to do one artwork for each track—I really liked that aspect. It’s a great way to marry art and music.
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— Tim Saccenti (gi-86, 2009)
School of Seven Bells: “My Cabal” 12-inch
I had wanted to work with the band for more than a year before I had the opportunity to do a photo shoot with them. The band’s direction synched up closely with mine at the time, mainly in the realm of esoteric beauty, magic and the occult. Their layered and haunting music seemed the perfect subject matter for some of my more shamanic leanings, so I dived in. Working with stylist Alice Bertay, we fashioned a series of images involving various masks, outfits and makeup that brought out the alchemical spirit of the band. I used the term “Ritual Electronic” to describe the experience and their music. Over the course of the shoot, we created dozens of images in this vein, and a pattern emerged. The image for “My Cabal” came later in the shoot; we developed a technique of combining strobe lights with long exposure and blue-gelled fluorescents to give an otherworldly feel. The composition utilizes the symmetry of having twins in the image and also creates a triangle overall. From this world of still images, a suggestion was made to create films for their live performances. This was something I hadn’t done before, so it was exciting but daunting to create more than an hour of material. Using the aesthetic we developed during our photo shoot, I created a set of film pieces using various motion cameras, digital video, film, still cameras and analog techniques
such as video feedback and timelapse photography. I thought the analog, organic quality of creating the footage in the camera—rather than in a computer—would bring a sentience to the films that would complement and hopefully enhance the live show. Each film was designed to be viewed as large as possible, filling the viewers field of vision. Due to this, the films do not translate as well on a small screen. I incorporated techniques of hypnotism and subconscious flicker, and kept the edits long, with no cutting, to push the hypnotic, trance-inducing effect even further. I then worked with Flame (a digital film production device) artist Alvin Cruz over the course of two months to create the final films. Alvin would take the original footage and feed it into the flame, then adding various effects, filters, layers, etc., to enhance and re-create the films. At times, I would then go back and create more footage based on his artworks. In order to keep scale in mind we had three small dolls taped to the playback monitor, reminding us that these images would sometimes be as big as 25 feet high. Doing this helped keep our focus on creating bolder imagery that would work as a glyph to the audience. The final stages were matching the tracks to the footage and passing it over to the band’s live visuals artist, who then would mix them live, which was an amazing experience for us to see.
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Doug Coombe — (gi-01, 2001)
Tadd Mullinix: Winking Makes a Face
I remember being introduced to Tadd and Sam by ghettotech DJ/producer Dave “Disco D” Shayman. Tadd worked at the Dubplate Pressure record store owned by Todd Osborn, soon to be a Ghostly signing himself. Anyway, I went over to Tadd’s house to take some portraits prior to the cover shoot. I found a goodlooking, self-assured kid watching Drunken Master while enjoying a Tofutti Cutie. It was clear from my first meeting that Tadd was full of contradictions. Here was a well-mannered gentleman with an occasionally outrageous sense of humor, an incredibly intelligent
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soul who had never set foot in a college classroom. Instead, he schooled himself on obscure outsider music and art and had taught himself the program he was making beats with. As I watched the display on his computer pulse along to the fully formed hypnotic sounds of what was to be Winking Makes a Face, I was won over. I arranged for the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor to let us take over their marquee for the shoot. Sam was going to be present. If I had a clue back then as to Sam’s impeccable aesthetic vision with cover art in particular, or any idea what Ghostly was going to become, I would have been incredibly intimidated. As it was, we had the photogenic Mr. Mullinix and one great vintage marquee, so I was positive we would get some great photos. As I shot Tadd, I remember Sam right behind me offering ideas and suggestions (which I always appreciate). If he could have jumped into the viewfinder, then he would have. It was probably that moment that I began to appreciate that for Sam, okay is not okay when it comes to aesthetics and artistic endeavors. Greatness is always the goal. Did I mention Sam wore some outstanding pants to the shoot?
Christopher Willits Where to Start: Surf Boundaries (gi-54, 2006) The Vibe: Experimental pop that doesn’t lose sight of the whole pop part. RIYL: Color-coded chords; debilitating drones; classically trained chaos
ghostly’s extended family— in digest
Seth Troxler Where to Start: Panic, Stop. Repeat! (spc-75, 2009) The Vibe: What goes on behind closed doors in Berlin and the warehouse parties down the street. RIYL: Shuttered blinds, blocking out the rising sun; parties that start at 6 a.m.; losing control…and liking every second of it Bodycode Where to Start: Immune (spc-72, 2009) Vibe: The soul of a new machine. RIYL: Organ grinders; intergalactic dance parties; grooves that go deeper than a hail mary pass on Super Bowl Sunday
Osborne Where to Start: Osborne (spc-54, 2008) The Vibe: Completely unclassifiable dance music from a mad (beat) scientist who also happens to make a mean hovercraft. RIYL: Floor fillers; analog odysseys; heady techno and house that isn’t for rave heads
Ryan Elliott Where to Start: Spectral Sound Vol. 1 (spc-25, 2005) The Vibe: A staple of Detroit’s underground dance scene, now playing at a Berlin— or Berlin-esque—club near you. RIYL: Encyclopedic record collections; three turntables and a micro…effects rig; DJs that actually know what they’re doing
Choir of Young Believers Where to Start: This Is for the White in Your Eyes (gi-89, 2009) The Vibe: A chorus of one cast against shifting orchestral pop soundscapes. RIYL: Thom Yorke tendencies; downtrodden Danes; saying, “Well, that was epic”
Twine Where to Start: Violets (gi-59, 2008) The Vibe: The gloomy gray area between a waking dream and David Lynch’s worst nightmare. RIYL: Abandoned buildings; melancholic mood lighting; completely losing the plot
The Sight Below Where to Start: Glider (gi-78, 2008) The Vibe: Low-volume elegance, buried under a bed of nocturnal Eno emissions. RIYL: Sepia-toned stacks of faded photos; lake effect snow and a spot by the fire; watching yesterday pull away in your rearview mirror — 41 —
Check out Ghostly’s entire roster here. — 42 —