An interview with Ghost Culture

Ghost Culture, real names James Greenwood, is one of the eight contemporary artists signed to Erol Alkan’s Phantasy Sound.

As is the case with the rest of the roster, he’s an artist with a certain level of mystery surrounding him (fitting – given the name), but someone quietly making waves in the underground scene.

The Ghost Culture sound sits at one of two points on the electronic music spectrum, explained by the clear distinction he makes between his live show and his DJ appearances. At one end you have some dark 80’s-infused electro pop comprising his self-titled debut album, in which his singer-songwriter sensibilities are established. Whispering vocals, bleeping synths, and fiendishly catchy pop hooks in tracks like Giudecca and Mouth resemble the likes of New Order and Depeche Mode, whom James (rather unsurprisingly) cites as influences. Even the artwork on the sleeve captulates this eery mood with an unlit room and peeping sunlight.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover some stylish underground techno in the tracks which preceded the album. In Red Smoke, Half Open and Understand, vocals are either minimal or completely non-existant, with sweeping melodies and expertly layered percussion taking the lead instead. It’s music made for a dark and dingy warehouse; a venue-type the guys signed to Phantasy are no strangers to.

With a successful European live tour under his belt as well a number of high profile DJ slots and album number 2 in the works, the spotlight is finding its way onto Ghost Culture. We sat down with James to learn more.

Hi! How are you?

Yeah good thanks. Just made dinner and stayed at home today and made some music.

Nice yeah I saw your Facebook post earlier and was wondering what you’d been working on!

Yeah I just set up here for a change, having a bit of a lazy one.

Thanks very much for your time today! So let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me about the origins of the Ghost Culture project and how it all began?

So it all started back when I started going to clubs when I was 17 / 18 and there was one particular club called BoomBox at Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen.  At this point me and a load of friends were coming down from Essex on the train to go and it was just this new and wondrous exciting place and there were some quite outlandish people and outfits and I think that got me into the electronic scene more than anything else. I mean I’d heard of New Order and Depeche Mode etc but hearing these new club records kind of took me on a journey back to where this music came from to start with and then I just kind of traced it back to those bands I’ve just mentioned and had a little bit of a thing about them.

But yeah, I never really wanted to go to uni I just wanted to go out there and do music. I did a bit of work experience and studio running, stuff like that. Then I started hanging out at this record store called Pure Groove and that’s where Dan Avery worked at the time. A mutual friend of ours said ‘oh you two should work together’ and then we did for a bit, cus I was still learning how to record and produce and he wanted someone to do that with his own music. So I started helping him do that, it was terrible to start with and then it got better and better as it went on. Then he introduced me to Richard Fearless who I worked with for a couple of years on a Death in Vegas project, that was his thing, and then during all of this I was writing music. I didn’t know what it was gonna be called, I was just writing, and then there was one day I remember when I got let loose on Richard’s studio where he’s got loads of synths and that became why I started using synths really. It was because I sort of had all these old references of the club music I was listening to and access to this studio. And that was the beginning of the sound was that one day. It just kind of went from there.

So at what stage was Dan Avery at this point? Was it around his debut?

Oh no this was years ago. This would be 2008 / 9. When he was still under the name ‘Stop Making Me’ – his name before.  And eventually I’d help him make his debut album.

And what was your involvement in that process?

Well I’m half the publishing so it’s a co-writing situation and I just helped him produce it.

That’s so interesting to know. So was your relationship with him how you ended up signed to Phantasy?

Yeah absolutely. Dan played my demos cus I was too scared to play them to anybody. But I had this Soundcloud link, I played them to Dan and Dan played them to Erol because Dan and Erol had started talking and were quite far along, and had maybe even put one of Dan’s things out – I’m not sure – but yeah, Dan has been integral to me being on Phantasy. I owe him one!

Does he have any involvement with your work at this point or was it just in the early days?

He does as far as the things I learnt through working with him have applied to the way I work now, just technically more than anything. But I write and make all Ghost Culture stuff on my own. For the next record I think I might get a couple of other musicians to be involved in the recording. I’ll write everything myself, but when it comes to recording I’m gonna get a drummer and I wanna find somebody to do some synth wizardry, some piano or something.

That leads me nicely onto my next question – do you play any classical instruments?

Yeah so my first instrument I used to play was clarinet, I did the grades and all that, and then I moved onto saxophone cus I was really into jazz for a long time. (I actually did a bit of a solo at my last London show!) But then I kind of realised pretty quickly that if you want to be proficient enough to have a professional career out of playing saxophone, you need to be the best of the best of that year group that you’re in at a conservatoire which is impossible to get into anyway! And I was more interested in recording and producing. I mean no one could’ve told me ‘you’ll make your own album’, that’s just what happened, probably just through obsession. I did A Level music and did well with that but beyond that not really anything else qualification wise y’know – got a laptop with some recording software and it all went from there.

Do you think that having instrumental training puts you at an advantage with producing electronic music? Do you think it gives you a sort of different level of musicality that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

I think yes in that it provides you with things you maybe just wouldn’t have heard before, methods of composition that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. For example – this is a bad example – if you’re writing a song, or even if you’re writing a club track, you could use a Bach Chorale as your starting point. I can’t think of any other examples but I’m sure it has presented me with phrases and little licks that I’ve used for basslines or whatever. So definitely I think there’s ways of writing that I wouldn’t be employing otherwise if I hadn’t had musical training. But other than that I think if you’re musical innately and you just pick things up and do things by ear quite easily then that’s really valuable. That can teach you something very powerful.

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Definitely. Personally whenever I listen to techno or anything that involves lots of layers or super complex melodies I always assume the producer has some sort of instrumental training. I guess that’s not always the case though.

Not always. Sometimes you can just start something and go off on one and you might end up with something great without having much prior knowledge to composition. I’m not saying it’s easy but it’s possible. If you have a computer with some software on it and you have some instruments around you and you just do it, it might end up being quite good. It’s just practice at the end of it.

Let’s go on to the album. Were they tracks you’d been sitting on for a while or did the production come after the signing?

Oh no I’d had them for a while before the signing happened. What happened from the signing was just mixing it. By the time I got the signing it was all ready to be mixed, so that’s what me and Erol did at his studio. He really helped me to finish it off and get it done. And it was amazing to have somebody to say when it was definitely done, have a second pair of ears, cus I would just go off on one.

How much of an advantage do you think you have being on a label with such a small roster of artists? Do you get more attention?

Yeah definitely, you’re not at the bottom of a pile. It’s like five or six people the whole thing – I mean I’m friends with all of them! If I wanna talk about something I’ll just find Erol, no problem it’s not like ‘oooo it’s the boss’ it’s just plain and simple – no awkwardness or anything like that.

And how long have you been DJing now?

I hadn’t really done it much before I signed to be honest – like six months before I signed? Cus my album I saw it at the time more of an album than something that would help me as a DJ. But I had made these club tracks, and Erol was really interested in putting those out first to kind of start something. So that’s how the DJing started from these more club-sounding tracks. I’m making some more of them at the moment because in between now and the next album it means I can do some DJing. So I’m not extensively touring with the live show – if I was doing that then the next album just wouldn’t happen.

Do you enjoy DJing as much as the live show?

It’s different. Both have their amazing points, both their not so amazing points. Like DJ sets can be extremely late! That sort of thing. But you don’t have to take nearly as much equipment, you can just rock up and do it and pretty much every DJ set is gonna be to a pre-existing crowd. Unless it’s just you – like Dan does a lot of this now – the ‘Dan Avery’ gig. But when you have a club night with people who go every week you’re never really gonna have a bad one. Unless you really mess it up! You’re always gonna have people. Although saying that I did a gig with Erol once in Reading where the promoter hadn’t done anything and there were like five people in like a Wetherspoon’s set up. It was really bad. And that was with Erol!

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That sounds like a nightmare. How do you find the album translates into the live show? Do any of the components get lost?

I mean I kind of had to start again in as much as I wanted it to sound different to the album. If I wanted to have the live show sound just like the album I’d have to have like ten people on stage with the same synth – so I just couldn’t do it! I made it a lot simpler. Some things were lost but I tried to make up for those bits in other ways. So like I would extend certain sections and make more of certain bits and just change it up. So the songs are still there but just so that it works in the live set-up. For a long time it was just me on stage with my lamps that I take around with me and a bunch of synths and drum machines. At the end of last year I did a couple of shows with a drummer and it was just another level and that’s what I wanna keep doing just build on that y’know. Like maybe build it up to a 64 piece orchestra or something….

Haha take it to a whole new level. So do you feel like now you have all this experience from DJing and your live show evolving, when you go into the studio do you have a different audience in mind than say, when you were producing the debut?

Erm, only in that maybe I’ve changed. So at this stage of making an album, I’ve only got to please myself. That’s the way I look at it. So I guess so. But I don’t consciously think like ‘oh I had too many young kids at that last show and now I want to produce for Guardian readers’. Like as long as I’m happy with it that’s all good.

Ha imagine. I was reading one of your recent interviews and you were saying that you want to take everything you’ve learnt from the first album and from DJing and ‘take it to a whole new place’ and ‘reinvent’ your sound. Can you expand on what you mean by that?

Well I still want to use the electronics, but perhaps not as the absolute basis for every track. So for the new album I’ve got some tracks started from live drums and live bass. I hadn’t done that before. And just the direction of it. It’s gonna be a lot more live sounding – like a band rather than an electronic producer. But I do still want to use my – I don’t want to call it my ‘signature sound’ but y’know like my sounds from before somehow. But in different ways. So like maybe a bassline I used before I might move it a few octaves up and use it as a top line. Or use the electronic drums in the distance instead of up front. Things like this. I mean that’s talking quite technically but I think more than anything I want to get my head around traditional song-writing even more, using those methods and bringing them into what I already do.

So is it going to be more vocal than the last one then?

I think so yeah. There’ll still be some more dancey moments, lots of that, but yes I want try and write songs. That’s what I want to do.

Moving onto your production process, what sort of order do the different components arise in?

It can be different but usually it would be the music first. So drums and a bassline, or one melody, or one line of lyrics. But with the last album I did all the tracks first with all the ideas for melody and then I did the lyrics last, which was very difficult cus you’re trying to fit in everything syllabically into pre-determined melody. I was thinking a lot around a melody. So now maybe I wouldn’t do it quite the same but I mean it’s kind of random.

So the lyrics are secondary really? That’s interesting.

They have been. But I think now I’m concentrating a lot more on the lyrics as an important component because I really want them to be this time. I don’t want anything to be secondary. I want everything to have the same amount of room to shine.

Do you have an end date in mind for album number 2?

For handing it in yes. I want to finish it by mid-May. I mean I have a lot of tracks just ready to be worked into. So it’s definitely doable. I mean that’s eleven weeks so if I can’t do it in that time then I shouldn’t be doing it at all!

Are you touring in between now and then or are you taking a break?

Just DJing because it’s a lot easier. Like if I was gonna do another live show I’d need new stuff now because there’s such a quick turnaround these days between releasing something and touring with it. It’s crazy how quick things have to be. It’s also crazy how if I deliver my album in May it won’t be out until October. That’s how much time they need. So I’ve set myself that target cus if it’s not out by the end of this year then I’m pretty screwed!

How exciting! I also want to ask about your remixes. The Django Django one I’m personally a big fan of. What is it about a track that makes you want to remix it?

It’s usually one element. I’ll hear one thing and I’m like ‘that would be a great loop as a vocal’. It’s just finding that one thing.

And how do you feel about the remixes that have been done on your material?

Ah they’re all really good! Gabe Gurnsey’s one’s brilliant. Who else did one?

Gerd Janson.

Oh yeah! Yeah great, really stripped down Chicago house version. Yeah he is a booker for Panorama Bar in Berlin.

How was it when you played there?

Fantastic. I mean now I would hate to go to a club as a punter, I think. But to DJ and then be there as a punter was amazing. I’d go there as a punter any time. You just feel really safe and free to express yourself.

I’m desperate to go! What have been your favourite DJing performances apart from that one?

I DJ’d at Lux in Lisbon and that was amazing. Just a really good set-up there and everyone’s really into the music we play. And of course Panorama Bar was just a complete highlight. I really haven’t DJ’d in that many places though cus the main focus for me last year was the live show.

Wasn’t your first major DJ performance at The Warehouse Project? That must have been an intimidating debut as a DJ.

It was the first one as Ghost Culture yeah. It was the Phantasy stage so we were all there hanging around so it felt like ‘our thing’ and everyone was there supporting each other. I remember just being late and I just went straight out of the taxi onto the stage and it was scary but really fun.

I suppose that didn’t give you enough time to get nervous then!

Nah it was a bit nerve-wracking because it’s a big place. Our room was quite small and opposite the toilets like a through-way. But nevertheless it was fun. I think it’s better for us having a small room.

For both DJing and the live show where would you like to play most?

DJing – I’ve heard a lot about Sub Club in Glasgow cus apparently the crowd is amazing. No problems – play what you want and it goes down well. And it just looks like a dark and dingy basement which is what you want for what I DJ. I’d love to do the actual Berghain but that’s obviously a bit of a way off!

And then live….with Death in Vegas I played in Koko and that was pretty amazing. I’d love to do that with the live thing. I feel like I could do a show there as it’s a theatre so I could make it really theatrical. Costume it up y’know.
And I’d love to do Brixton Academy. I just need some records!

Finally, what other artists are you listening to at the moment? In or outside electronic music…

That’s a tough one. I’m actually finding it difficult to find new stuff at the moment. I really like Caribou up until the last album! But that’s it. I stick to back catalogue. I’m a big Bowie fan.

How did you take the news?

I was in the studio and I just thought the best thing I can do is just make more music. Carry on. I was really upset though it really hit me. I went to the exhibition in Paris last year and I’ve got every one of his vinyls. He’s had such a massive impact on everything – film, music, fashion. I quite possibly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if he didn’t exist because he made the new romantics do what they do. You know bands like the Human League, they wanted to be in bands so they could dress up. And their main influence of that is Bowie. The world would be a lot more of a boring place if he hadn’t done what he did.

Absolutely – the legacy lives on I think that’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for your time – it’s been great chatting to you and I can’t wait to hear the new album.

You too! Thanks so much.

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