The Man With Two Brains
The secret of Ghostland Observatory
Braids intact and trademark shades whipped off, Aaron Behrens bursts through the sturdy door of Thomas Turner's home studio, letting the dog in. Boo-boo, a fluffy white rescue, bounds enthusiastically across the spotless red wood floor and skids toward Turner, poised serenely by the console, before doing a 180 and heading back to Behrens, flopping at his feet for a belly scratch. Clearly, this scene plays itself out on a regular basis.
Behrens and Turner greet each other with affection, as if they haven't just spent a week together in Hawaii, toured for a month before that, and tracked an album previous to both outings. Practically married for some eight years, they've forged a classic creative bond, a friendship that transcends art and spins off into ethereal realms.
More than that, it's a wild-beyond-dreams successful collaboration and collusion that manifests in Ghostland Observatory, Austin's resolutely independent two-man band that has sold out every local venue smaller than the Frank Erwin Center and bigger than Emo's. Eschewing labels and management, they've conquered the ABC festivals – Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, and Coachella – and even the modern mother of live music gatherings, Lollapalooza. Their infectious electro rock is unique enough to have landed the duo on the Austin City Limits TV show and ubiquitous enough to be sampled and remixed itself.
Ghostland Observatory. The very name intrigues, suggesting innate mystery, otherworldly insight. But Turner and Behrens – from Fort Stockton and San Saba, respectively – aren't X-Files exiles, more like fictional detective twosome the Hardy Boys, adventurous boy wonders of hook-driven, beat-laden, laser-pulsing performances.
In a quiet North Austin neighborhood tucked away near Northcross Mall, at the end of a hallway in Turner's sprawling and pleasantly unassuming family house, the opening door unseals a vacuum of quiet: Welcome to the inner sanctum of Ghostland Observatory.
The room is sparely lit, an acoustic dream in dark wood and black trim, designed to specifications by Austin studio legend Chet Himes. In the silence, it hums with a life of its own and lends a warm resonance to voices. In action, it's GLO's musical laboratory, with Turner cast as the mad electronics genius. It's easy to picture his lanky frame haunting the studio in the dark hours of the morning, crooked over the synthesizer, quirking out beeps and bops over beats and pops.
delete.delete.i.eat.meat was ordered for April 2005 on local imprint Indierect Records/Trashy Moped Recordings, not quite three years after Turner and Behrens met via the Chronicle's musicians ads (see "Terror From the 'Chronicle' Classifieds!"), unleashing favorites "Silver City" and "Over Again." Paparazzi Lightning struck in January 2006 on GLO's Trashy Moped, crackling with tracks such as "Vibrate," "Stranger Lover," and the band's version of a hit single, "Sad Sad City." Robotique Majestique in 2008 heralded "Holy Ghost White Noise" and "Heavy Heart." Where Turner now stands over knobs and buttons and keys, he conjured their latest, Codename: Rondo.
"For Codename: Rondo, we did it like it was our first record. We'd clock in at the same time, and I'd sit down at my equipment, and Aaron'd get at his microphone or guitar and start going. If something worked, we'd form it into a song then go on to something else; the next day, if we liked it, we kept it. If we didn't, we'd scratch it and start over. We made sure there were no rules and that we were free to experiment as much as we wanted, [with] no fear or worry of: 'Are people going to like this? Is this the Ghostland sound? Is this better than our last record?'
"You never worry about making your first record, because you just want to make a record. You're so excited to get your sounds onto a recording where other people can hear them. We tried to get back to that place, where we're thinking of making a record and having it be as natural and raw as it can be."
Earlier, when Turner mentions 2008's Robotique Majestique, something in his voice suggests he wasn't as satisfied with it as Paparazzi Lightning. True, it wasn't as lauded as its two predecessors, recordings that garnered critical acclaim as well as awards, Turner, who's played keyboards since high school and moved to Austin for the purpose of "starting raves," noticed.
"The first record was fun and experimental, had a happy, fun vibe to it. With the second record, we'd started to tour, gotten exposure, and things changed. If you listen to it, it's still fun, but it turns moody. There's a melancholy vibe under it and the third record even more so. When we did our first record, we weren't thinking of playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival or being on the TV show, traveling, and playing music. Those records have an element of change, maybe confusion or darkness under it. "For this record, the only rule was to have fun, because no one's getting frustrated at 2 or 3 in the morning saying it isn't going to work or it's not as good at the first record – 'Don't hear a single.' We either had a good night or we laughed about it being a bad night. Fun is sprinkled all over this record."
Born To Be Wild
Behrens sprawls in a chair, sunglasses dangling in his hand with Boo-boo crashed at his feet. Across from the frontman, Turner sits up straight, legs crossed and hands folded, fingers laced. Even in repose, they contrast in styles and personalities, twain that meet in music. If Turner is the man behind the curtain of sound, Behrens is the face of Oz with the voice of a wizard. He dances, prances, prowls, slinks, shimmies, and throws himself into the wicked vortex of GLO's aural funnel cloud.
"I used to practice in front of a mirror when I was little," Behrens chuckles. "My older sister had a guy over one time, and I put on Steppenwolf's 'Born To Be Wild' and ran around the living room in my boxers performing for them. I remember when I saw the movie Great Balls of Fire!, acting like I was playing piano on my sister's daybed. My mom saw me and said, 'You want to be in performance class like your sister?' I was all, 'Yeah!'
"So I go into that stuff – lip-syncing Billy Ray Cyrus, really bad stuff. But at the time, I was all about it."
Now married with kids like his bandmate Turner, being "all about it" is still the crucial element in Behrens' world. Born and raised in Central Texas' "Pecan Capital of the World," he graduated high school and moved to Austin in 2000 with one plan in mind: "I knew I wanted to be in a band, knew since high school." Before long, the aspiring songwriter picked up gigs playing acoustic sets at the old Ruta Maya on Fourth Street.
"I needed an outlet," he says. "I'd go Downtown after every show and call it 'politickin'.' I'd be by myself and just meet people. I didn't really know anyone, hadn't met Thomas yet, so I was watching people – seeing bands – and just wanted to get known and know people.
"There was a band called In Limbo. I loved them, and at the end of the set, they would ask for people to come up and jam freestyle with them. I was always licking my chops, just waiting for them to say that, and I'd be the first one up there. Guitar, anything, just get up there and rip it."
Behrens' sinewy strut propels him across the stage, evoking comparisons to classic showmen Freddie Mercury and David Bowie the way Turner invokes 1970s keyboard gods Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Swivel-hipped, knee-knocking, foot-shuffling, and braids flying, Behrens marches to the GLO beat, bracing himself on the monitors to high-five the audience without missing a note. Occasionally, he wields the guitar and sprays chunky chords at the audience. Mostly, he galvanizes them like a tent-show revival preacher.
On St. Patrick's Day in Dallas two years ago, Behrens' charisma calmed growing tensions between the imbibing crowd and sober security. He unexpectedly plays Mick Jagger, defusing a nonfatal Altamont as Turner delivers operatic synth swells to an uneasy audience. Behrens rising to the occasion in a moment of unscripted passion caught on camera and posted on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSqmoHvFyhI&feature=related) is a performance in itself:
"I got a little message for you, each and everybody. We're all here to have a good time, right? And I hope the security wants you to have a good time here, right? So everybody needs to cool it, calm down ... ease up. ... I don't want to see nothing but positive shit going on here. So get the negative out of the place, and let's bring in the positive, all right?
"'Cuz I ain't having it. 'Cuz we work too hard. ... Everybody needs the same sunshine in the morning. ... Everybody's on the same page. Even me, just putting on this fake-ass costume here in front of you tonight. Ain't nothing but a fake facade, but it's going to take you somewhere, only if you let it take you there, if everybody lets you go there. So, let's go there. Come on."
Behrens having soothed the savage breast, Turner starts pumping "Heavy Heart."
"There's something about duos," muses Behrens, scratching his clean-shaven chin. "It's the head of the snake and the body. Something crazy about it. You go to the head of the snake, but you need the body, too. You have the power of electricity behind it, God and electricity."
Is this the secret of Ghostland Observatory, revealed so casually by Behrens' vaguely cosmic revelations? Can that be the potent formula that puts GLO on the same page as Austin heroes Bob Schneider and David Garza, musicians that have inspired a sort of local Beatlemania since the beginnings of their careers?
"The two pieces of Ghostland were created out of necessity," Turner elaborates. "And no matter how hard we try to make it something else, it always resorts back to being a twopiece. To go seven years and to start changing stuff and adding stuff would be silly. Ghostland is what it is. If you go to our concert, you're not wanting more noise."
Aaron Behrens believes that he and Thomas Turner occupy "different parts of the same mind." It's a place not far removed from using hairbrushes as a microphone in front of the mirror and a bath towel as a Dracula cape, that moment connecting a childhood dream with grownup reality, the payoff for having faith in your instincts.
"I am very fortunate to have [Thomas] because this is the true meeting of us two. You are seeing our elements put together. He brings so much of the binding, putting the stuff together so it looks perfect and is presented well and in a great package. I remember before we had our actual lighting guy, Thomas used to be out there after sound check. You could see him working it, just visualizing everything, pointing to the lights. He definitely knew how to do things.
"The thing is," continues the vocalist, "there's no reason to add anything there because we've got so much creative depth between us. He and I can tell stories and connect in certain ways that other people don't. We have a certain way we like to talk to each other only. The creative depth in that allows us to go wherever we want to go, and only if we agree.
"And if we agree, we're gonna do it."
Ghostland Observatory lands at the Cedar Park Center with its CD release show next Thursday, Oct. 28.