Sadly, little new music followed.
Then in October, Ryan made his inaugural trip to Brooklyn to play at the dubstep-oriented Turrbotax® monthly, and the promise of his Mary Anne Hobbs set and "Mogadishu Night Life" came to life. Cross-fading between two antiquated samplers whose warm sounds were fed by floppy disks last spotted during the Clinton presidency, Ghosts' BPMs rarely broke 110. And after hours of wobbly basslines and evil shrills, you could tell that the girls who filled and stayed on the dance floor (too often an NYC rarity at non-disco parties) appreciated the straight-ahead groove. The experience resonated in the same way as his radio appearance: comfortable in a habitat that was not necessarily natural. (So too does his debut EP, Predator Mode, which came out in mid-November on Glasgow's Wireblock label.)
The following day, Ryan and I decamped to an East Village bar. In-between his earnest Midwestern mild manners and shock at the new (it was the 29 year-old's first trip to New York), we discussed the origins of his music and the relationship of Ghosts on Tape and San Francisco.
So tell me how you first got into making music, where your head was at, and what your initial experiences with it were.
In the early '90s, I had an older brother that was going to raves in St. Louis. This was in '92-'93, at the time when raves were new—or at least raves were new [there]. He would bring home cassettes of acid house and stuff like Terry Mullan. And I'd hear these tapes and I'd think it's the craziest shit I ever heard. How do they even make this music? I was 13, and I had only known about guitars and drums. I thought, I'm going to make music like this one day.
When I was 17, a couple of friends from my high school and I formed an industrial noise band; that was the first time I worked with music. I had an old Yamaha drum-pad, one of the electronic ones, with a Zoom distortion pedal; and my friend had a shitty keyboard. Then one of my friends got a drum machine, an old [Boss] DR-5, and that's when I first started programming beats. That was around '98, when I realized that I wanted to do a lot more [with music]. I saw this sampler that had just come out, a Yamaha SU-700. I bought it when I was 18 or 19, in '98 or '99. It's the one that I still use. When I bought it, it was state of the art. I paid like $1000 for it. I saved money forever to get it. And now you can get 'em on eBay for 200 bucks.
What were your inspirations at the time?
At first, I was definitely influenced by industrial music: Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, bands like that. Eventually I started going to raves. In St. Louis, we got a lot of Chicago and Detroit artists, because it's really close. So I saw a lot of Paul Johnson and DJ Funk, those kind of cats. House had a really big influence. When I first started coming into my own as somebody who was making music, house was what I was into. Listening to and seeing these great Chicago DJs live, at a semi-young age made an impression on me. And I think there's a lot of life in that.
So when I first started out making my own tracks, it was a weird kind of hybrid of industrial and house—though now listening to it, it sounds pretty terrible. The first stuff I started to make [was] 150 BPM [begins laughing] hardcore trance-house. From there, I started getting more into disco-house, filter-house, cause that was big in St. Louis too at the time. And when I got another sampler, I had a friend (through my older brother) who threw parties, and he put me on in 2000. I did mostly house [music] for a couple of years; branched out into sort of banging techno for bit; and then, once I got a Roland Groovebox, making moody melancholy electro stuff.
I moved to San Francisco [in] 2003. At the time, my whole living situation was not quite ideal for making music, so it took me a couple of years to get into it again. Around 2005, I started going to the city library downtown, and they had a CD section, a big selection of BBC sound effects CDs, field recordings from Africa and all sorts of places. I'd borrow and sample those. From there, the dancehall influence started creeping in.
It all had to do with something that I realized: I can't do house because there are people who are doing house better than I'm doing. I can't do electro because there are people who are doing electro better than I'm doing. And if I can't do it better, then I'd rather just do my own thing. I've sort of just continued on that path. A lot of what I've listened to has definitely informed my sound now. I like so much different stuff that it's hard for me to say I want to do this one thing. I want to make house—but I like dancehall, I like reggaeton beats, I like electro, I like dubstep, all that. That's probably why my sound is so all-over-the place, scattered around.
The name Ghosts on Tape I came up with because [when] I was sampling those BBC field recordings, and running them through a lot of effects, the natural product of what I was making sounded creepy and weird. To me it sounded like the physical action of recording ghosts on tape. There's an actual phenomenon, [called] the electronic-voice phenomenon; if you Google "ghosts on tape," that is mostly what's going to come up. I thought it was really fitting, and then I put up a couple of dance tracks on MySpace, got booked for a show, and started getting booked for others. I thought, well I guess I better keep it danceable. So I have gotten away from [the creepy vibe], because I want to make music that's fun and not music that's going to scare girls away.
When people ask you to describe your music, what do you call it?
I say it's Tropical Booty. Cause there's definitely an element of what we used to call ghetto-house, the DJ Funk-type of thing, something really raw. So…Tropical Booty, electro-dancehall, slow-motion techno, cause I do a lot of techno that's kind of murky, 110 beats per minute. Just club, party music.
San Francisco has been—and is now—big on electronic hip-hop that my friends Lazer Sword do. Dubstep is really popular too. And I wanted to set myself apart from that. Not that I dislike that kind of music, but I don't want to do hip-hop music for myself. Rather than doing a beat that sounds like a rap beat, I would rather do a four-to-the-floor beat at 105 bpm and sort of make it murky, funky, driving, mellow but banging at the same time.
For me, I want to have something that sounds like it could be old, but could be new. In the house music realm, there's a lot of room for that. It's a basic backbone to a lot of what I do. And it's easy to retain the grimy characteristics that I like and still keep it danceable. Because that's the thing: a lot of times, when I am in my studio, just messing around, trying not to focus on making a track, I'll often start making stuff that's grimy, creepy and freaky. I want something that people can dance to, but I definitely want to put a little dirt on it, for sure.
Is there something about living in San Francisco, its past or current cultural scenes, that's affected your music?
The whole time I've lived in San Francisco I've lived in the Mission Disctrict, which is a mostly Latino neighborhood. So definitely reggaeton has had an influence. You hear it blasting from cars, from bars, you hear it on the street, it's everywhere in the Mission. I've always thought the reggaeton beat is sick. I loved that sort of bounce, that shuffle. But the music that went on top of that I found to be kind of unbearable a majority of the time. So I thought, well what if somebody took that rhythmic template and applied techno techniques and sounds to it. I think that idea has informed my sound almost more than anything.
There's also a record store in San Francisco called Aquarius Records, and they are pretty amazing. Pretty much everything in there is obscure. You could go in there and not know anything about the music, but they write little reviews on the CDs, so you could read the review and [pick it up]. So I ended up getting a lot of world music stuff there. Being from St. Louis, there definitely is not as much of a global influence there. There's a lot of white people, and a lot of black people and not a lot of international flavor. So I started checking out more African records and Jamaican records. When it comes to stuff like kwaito and kuduro, I just love the snare placement of it, the energy of it, you know?
Gear-wise, you still use the old Yamaha to make music. On-stage the other night you had two old machines that you were cross fading between, and using old floppy discs for inputs. How different are those from what you create
They're kind of one and the same. When I'm in the studio, I make the tracks on the Yamaha SU-700 samplers that I use live. I have a lot of sample banks, drum machine sounds, Reason, which I get a lot of sounds from as well; and instead of actually constructing the tracks on Reason, I sample the sounds and construct them on the sampler. Sometimes I make little loops and sample that. But I feel so comfortable with the gear that I've been using for ten years, it's hard for me to sit in front of a computer and try to make beats there when I know I can just get a sound, put it in the sampler, get some other sounds that go with it and just fucking jam out and see what happens. That's generally the music-making process that I have.
As far as live sets go, I'm just using the two samplers and that's it, and I have to make things fit. That's why there is, a lot of times, a lack of melody, because I have such a limited amount of space memory-wise on the gear I'm using. Basically I just take the rawest thing that I can get away with, trying to do the most with as little as possible. I think that's one reason my live sets sound the way they do, because I'm working around a lot of gear limitations.
So, with San Francisco's music scene being so diverse, and your sound being even in your own words, "scattered," what kind of parties and crowds do you find yourself playing?
It's actually kind of all-over the place [laughs]. Since dubstep is pretty big in San Francisco—the whole future-bass or laser-rap or lazer-bass, though Lazer Sword will kill me for saying that—I get booked at those shows. I get booked at beat-head shows, techno shows. The crowds and the parties I tend to play at are also all over the place. Which I think is cool—the fact that people will invite me into their scene, even though I do not exactly [play] that particular thing the party is based around.
Actually one of the best shows I've done was [Bersa Discos monthly] Tormenta Tropical, where I did a set with Low Limit [from Lazer Sword]. People were freak-dancing, dry-humping, sweating, screaming, acting like maniacs and that was awesome. Another party I played at that had a really great reaction was a predominantly gay house night, where they play obscure underground '80s electro disco. People were really into it, going ape-shit for it. Trannies were dancing. I think it was so unexpected, and that's a general reaction that I tend to get out of people: they're really surprised and pleased with what they hear.
I don't want to sound like I'm the shit or anything, but there's not really anybody doing what I do right now in San Francisco, and I think people tend to like that. It's really hard to stand out, and the fact that I can do it, makes me feel really lucky. I worked at it for a while, trying to do something different and unique, and I've sort stumbled across a formula that works for me. So I'm just kind of riding it out.