by Brittany Reeber
The Monday after the 2009 Austin City Limits Music Festival was a day of recovery from a weekend with little sleep and lots of noise. I had my doubts about the interview scheduled with Ghostland Observatory for that Monday night. If I was dead tired, I could only imagine how the Austin duo felt
after two days of shows, blowing up both Zilker Park at the ACL Fest Saturday night and then downtown at Stubbs’s BBQ the next day. But sure enough, Thomas Ross Turner, exactly one half of the spacey ensemble and master of multi-tasking (managing synthesizer, keyboard, drums, and backing vocals), showed up on my friend’s front porch around ten o’clock.
This weekend has been crazy for you!
-Yeah a pretty intense weekend, a lot of preparation.
How did you feel about your show at ACL?
-That was really good, really large crowd, and everything went really well. The crowd response was really good and we had a good time up there.
At one point during the show, you brought the UT marching band out. What brought that on? Have you ever done that before?
-Yeah, we did that before at our CD release party, and it was really fun and we thought it’d be exciting to do it again at ACL fest because you know we’re an Austin band and we’re representing Austin playing ACL fest to all the visitors. So we might as well bring out the UT marching band and really just take it as far as we can.
How’d you feel about the after show at Stubbs?
-That was cool, a little more raw…you know… smaller venue. We saw a lot of people in the crowd that we hadn’t seen in a while. I remember looking out and seeing some fans out there that came to our early, early shows like when we would play Emo’s inside or Flamingo Cantina. There were some fans there from way back that I thought had been like, ‘Oh we don’t do that anymore.’ So it was really cool to see them out there, it was nice.
Do you prefer playing a festival or a club show?
-They’re all pretty surprising because say you have your mind set on how a certain show is gonna be or a certain city…in the beginning when we were touring, it’d be like ‘Oh this is gonna be the best ever… it’s this city or its this festival,’ and then you’re kind of let down. Or sometimes it’s the opposite, you go in to some town you’ve never been to before and you’re like ‘Oh I wonder how this is gonna go,’ and it end up being insane. So you never know what you’re gonna get, they can both be fun.
What’s the best unexpected show experience you’ve ever had?
-There’s a couple. We did this show in Rexburg, Idaho when we first started touring. When we got there, it was a little strange, not in a bad way, but it was a Mormon community so there was no drinking and no smoking. When we got there the promoter was like ‘we’re real strict here, no drinking or smoking on stage and no swearing.’ And everyone was real serious, really polite, really attractive people and everything… it was just kind of strange, you know? And then…they just went bizerk. There was no alcohol being sold or anything and there were people climbing up on stuff, just jumping down and dancing on everything. There were people jumping up on stage. They were great fans.
Also, we hadn’t really played the South too much until this past year. We did a string of shows, Atlanta, Nashville, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we didn’t know how they would respond. All three shows were just insane. There were people going crazy and doing things I had never seen people do in a crowd.
-Just really strange provocative things.
Haha, what does that even mean, just weird dancing and stuff?
-Yeah, among other things. They were just losing it. And now we go to the South and we know they’re there for one reason only, and it ends up being a really great time.
Have you always had the whole light show?
-No, because in the beginning, like right after the Paparazzi Lightening record, we’d go on tour and play a show in Los Angeles for like ten people. After we got home, I was like, ‘yeah this may not work, we may have to think of something else.’ Because you know we’d go up to Seattle and there’d be like eight or nine people there. We played some coffee shop in Bellingham, Washington and people were trying to study and we were trying to rock out. And then we’d have to drive all the way home from Bellingham and have to think about that. Like, ‘okay we just did a string of shows that maybe equaled up to fifty people total and things are not looking to good.’ We did a lot of shows like that in the beginning but we just kept going and eventually it worked.
How did you find the motivation? That seems pretty deterring.
-Well we’d come back to Austin and get rejuvenated. We’d play a crazy show at Emo’s or something and there’d be a thousand sweaty, hot people and a lot of energy. It would be so fun and we’d be like ‘Oh alright let’s try it again.’ We’d go back out and more people would be at the shows and it just started to grow like that.
So when did you start adding on the lights and everything?
-We did that for the first time at the Hogg Auditorium on the UT campus. We had done Emo’s, La Zona Rosa, and Flamingo Cantina, almost every venue in town that you could do. So we were like ‘let’s try and do something a little different and create a party or an event as opposed to just going to a show.’ We called it ‘Ghostland at the Opera’ and we had these posters made up. We wanted to do something cool so we were gonna go with a bunch of LED lights, but there was a snow storm that week and everything was shut down and I couldn’t get a hold of the lighting guy. I was freaking out because word had gotten out that it was going to be this crazy light show. So I got on the internet and just typed in ‘laser show’ or something and this company from Pittsburgh popped up. I called them and for some reason the guy was still there working late. I was like ‘here’s my situation: I need lasers for a show in Austin in like 2 days, can y’all help me out?’ And they were like ‘well the owner of the company is in Dallas previewing lasers for Roger Water’s upcoming tour, I’ll see if he can go down there.’ And he called me back and said ‘Yeah he’ll go down there, what does your music sound like?’ Then he checked it out and was like ‘oh that’s pretty cool,’ He ended up liking it and they’ve been on the road with us for three years now ever since that show.
So they’re your main guys after that one phone call?
-Yep, they’re the only ones we use.
It all seems to very be connected, the music and the lasers, do you guys work it out a lot beforehand?
-Yeah I mean that’s part of our partnership, being together for three years. It’s like a whole unit now: the sound, the lights, the performance, and the lasers. It’s all the show, the whole thing, so everything works together. I guess it’s sort of choreographed in a way to where it’s like nothing should be out of place.
Do you feel like it really enhances everything?
-I think so…with the lighting and the lasers and the different feelings and climaxes and parts of the set. I think it enhances everything because not only are you hearing it and feeling it, you’re seeing things happen. If there’s an exciting point in the set and the lights are going nuts, you see the crowd reacting and it helps.
Your whole setup on stage, you’ve got your keyboards and everything, what’s going on over there? It just looks like you’re doing so much all at once!
-Yeah I’ve got my synthesizers and my sequencer and my mixer and the drums. I’ve kind of got tunnel vision, I don’t really look out too much to the crowd cuz I try to make sure everything keeps moving along and everything is right. I get to groove out back there, but I can’t move around. That’s why I sport the cape, so I can just be back in my little control station.
I read online that your wife made your cape.
-Yeah and she made me a new one for ACL fest and it had lights on it so that’s pretty cool.
That’s a big deal! You never change from the other cape, right?
-I had the original and I wear the original still, and then she made me another one for ACL fest two years ago, but I threw that one in to the crowd.
Was she mad?
-No, she was alright with it, but she made this one and she was like, ‘no throwing this one.’ She spent a lot of time on this last one so I wasn’t gonna do it.
What’s it made out of?
-Hmm, I don’t know materials and things, but it’s some kind of material and she hand sewed it. Then got these lights and got this engineer to help her get all the lights connected to this thing in the back that has a switch and it runs off batteries.
Do you think you’re gonna catch on fire?
-No I don’t think its got enough juice to light me on fire, but it does get hot in there.
Aaron is your other half and he’s out front singing, do you ever get jealous and want stretch around or anything?
-He does what he does and I do what I do. He’s more like live and loose and entertaining and I’m just like: ‘Okay, we need to be here at this time. Alright, what are the lights doing? Okay perfect.’ So he’s perfect for what he does and I kind of stay back in my little area.
So you guys are perfect for each other?
How do you two stay connected? How does that work when you’re both playing such different parts?
-I think it’s just a musical thing and a type of feeling. We’ve been together for so long now, so many rehearsals, so many shows…it’s just something. Even in the beginning though it was like something we wouldn’t really talk about. If we were working on a song and it started to work, we wouldn’t be like, ‘let’s do this or lets do that,’ we would just kind of work through it without talking. We kind of communicate in some strange way live too.
The sound that Ghostland Observatory has is really unique, in Austin and in general. How did you guys come to find that sound together? Did you have something in mind or did it just happen?
-I think what we were trying to do when we first started creating was just push it out there, you know, be different. We really wanted to make music that was either loved or hated and not just kind of middle of the road. Same thing with our live show, we either want people to be like, ‘oh yeah I love those guys,’ or they show up and are like, ‘I can’t stand them, I would never go to see that ever again.’ It’s either or, you know, and that’s just all we try to do.
What do you think it is about Austin that breeds so much creativity?
-Austin, I don’t know! It’s just that so many things happen in Austin, like strange occurrences. You’ll run in to someone who knew someone that you would never think knew each other. I don’t know…there’s all kinds of strange things that happen here. I think there’s also really good energy here. For the most part people are really kind hearted and sharing and creative in all kinds of different ways. Man, people talk all the time about going over seas or to cool cities, but I think Austin’s the best. It’s always great to come back to Austin. I’ll get homesick on the road and be like ‘I can’t wait to get home.’
Do you believe in life on other planets?
-I’m sure, I mean, you can’t even chart how large the universe is, right? It’s like ever expanding, so how would you even know? You’d be taking a guess either way. There’s no telling what’s out there.
Well because your music is so spacey, how do you think aliens would receive your show if they saw it?
– Haha, hopefully they’d want to groove out. Especially the light set up we had at ACL fest; it was designed to look like a mother ship.
That’s how I felt when I saw it. I could see the show all the way from the other side of the festival.
-Yeah so hopefully they’d be like ‘these guys know what’s going on.’
What are you plans for the future? What do you hope to happen with the band?
-Just first get through these forty shows from now until January, take a little breather, and then start creating again and try to push it even further.