Cometh the chameleon

Ghost to Falco_behind_tumbleweedI find myself walking alongside the River Thames. It’s a walk I take most Thursday evenings whilst making my way to Waterloo Station for the long train journey home. It is a pleasant evening as I occasionally glance over to the House of Commons,  Big Ben, wearing my headphones and navigating the tourists, whilst flipping through the Bandcamp app on my iPhone. I’ve just pressed play. The Soft Shield album by Ghost to Falco kicks in with openner Enemies Calling and I instinctively stop, take a public seat and listen to the whole album whilst viewing the river and the features on the opposite riverbank. Finally finding my way home I purchased the album and email the brain child behind Ghost to Falco, Eric Crespo who lives in  Portland, Oregon, USA.  This blog mainly consists of email exchanges between Eric and myself, as well as the virtual digging I have managed to undertake. Portland of course has one of the most vibrant music scenes in the USA. My earliest recollection of a band from Portland was The Kingsmen, who had the hit Louie, Louie in the early 1960s. It’s a little know fact that In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the United States, alleging that the lyrics of Louie Louie were obscene. The FBI investigated the complaint and, after four months of investigation, concluded that the recording could not be interpreted because it was “unintelligible at any speed”.

Eric Crespo was born in Los Angeles, California where he lived until eight years. at this ripe age his parents moved the family to Burlington a small town in North Carolina. Burlington is situated 40 minute drive from Chapel Hill, which would prove to be a critical influence to Eric given its underground rock music scene. Eric recalls Chapel Hill has a college town.  “In the time (mid 90’s) there was a quite a scene there.  The most noteworthy bands from Chapel Hill that were active when I started going to shows were Superchunk, Polvo, and Archers of Loaf.  Polvo was my favorite out of those three but I’d go see all of them, and they’d usually have some other interesting bands on the bill with them.  And all the touring bands would come through.  While I was a teenager I 10264709_10152161629904302_3003215836447863725_nsaw bands like Dirty Three, Mogwai, Guv’ner, Modest Mouse, Shudder to Think, Fugazi, June of 44, Pavement, Storm and Stress, Sebadoh, Blonde Redhead, US Maple, Elliot Smith, Unwound, and many more all playing at various small clubs–sometimes to about 10 people.  I saw Sonic Youth play secret shows in Chapel Hill on two different occasions at a smallish club (probably 650 capacity?) called The Cat’s Cradle.  I even saw Radiohead once at the Cat’s Cradle right after the Bends came out.  I wasn’t really a fan (and I’m still not) but I’d just go to shows..”  Eric then moved to Asheville, NC to go to college.  In his sophomore year he found himself living with friends and rightfully having fun. “I knew I had to leave though.  I felt like I was just waiting for something important to begin. I played in two bands that toured around the region a bit.  We’d go play in Atlanta or DC, but my bandmates in those bands weren’t really up for touring like I was.  Touring was all I really wanted to do at the time, so I was trying to come up with ways to play out alone just so I could tour as much as I wanted.  I may have never started Ghost to Falco if the people in my bands really wanted to tour like I did.”

10371438_10152270693314302_1731744634009158020_nSo how did the solo work start to evolve? “When I first started thinking of playing out solo my first idea was to go the acoustic guitar/singer-songwriter route.  I had a nylon string classical acoustic guitar, but I felt like I needed a steel string acoustic for some reason, and oddly enough I actually ended up finding one on the street one day.  In the middle of a crosswalk in downtown Asheville.  It seemed like it had fallen out of a car or something.  So I started trying to write songs on that but it wasn’t happening.  I had no frame of reference really for being a singer-songwriter.  I had no interest or knowledge of folk singers or anything like that.  I kind of put the acoustic away after a few months (or weeks—I can’t remember).  A little later I started messing around on my electric guitar with a looping pedal and I put my newly acquired monophonic 70’s analog synthesizer into the mix and I started making up these loose song structures that sounded pretty full even though I was the only one making the sounds, and that excited me. I thought maybe I could play shows like that but wasn’t sure. Around this time I was also getting interested in a lot more stuff that was outside of what I had grown up listening to.  Minimalist composers (Steve Reich, etc.), late 70’s industrial music, Glenn Branca, and “freer” bands of the era. Another thing about starting Ghost to Falco is that I had played in bands since I was fourteen years old.  I didn’t know how not to be in a band.  It was, and still is the way I find friends, my motivation to travel, my motivation to do anything really.  So, starting a band that could never break up unless I wanted it to was pretty appealing.  I left North Carolina in October of 2001.  My bands played our final shows, I got my wisdom teeth taken out, and then hit the road to Portland.” 

The Ghost Falco moniker began in 2001 as a solo project consisting of electric guitar loops, synthesiser sounds and field recordings. The band has gone on to became something of an underground institution with a rotating door of musicians have joined for tours and recordings bringing with them a whole range of instruments. “The first Ghost to Falco show I ever played was in Athens, GA (a place I have never lived) on the way to Portland, followed by shows in Shreveport, Louisiana, Lubbock, Texas, and a kid’s garage in a suburb of Los Angeles.  These shows were painstakingly booked by sending out a cassette of a song I sneakily recorded in the studio of my college on an exam day of my last semester.  I didn’t really know how I would feel about doing Ghost to Falco live, but it turned out that I generally felt pretty good about it so I decided to keep doing it.  I always thought I might add some band members to the mix at some point down the line and I did that in 2005 and live shows have gone back and forth between being me solo and having bandmates.  Nowadays I prefer to have bandmates in the band.”

So what are the challenges facing an artist like yourself? “Probably the biggest challenge in getting my music out there is the music I’m making!  It’s sort of always existed between worlds.  I designed it like that initially.  I liked avant-garde music and I liked good songs with singing.  I sort of wanted to do something to unite these two worlds, and in doing so I didn’t really create a new scene, but I just sort of made Ghost to Falco this free floating entity.  When you’re doing something different and it doesn’t adhere to the tenets of an established scene, or have enough people involved to create a new scene you just end up existing as a free floating anomaly.  People might agree that it’s good but people want to align themselves with things that make them a member of a tribe or a community.  People want connection.  Most of the time it takes some kind of noted tastemaker (preferably with lots of money) to step up and champion it before even a decent amount of people will take notice.  We’ve had a few minor taste makers sing our praises over the years, and that’s why today we can boast that we have 980 Facebook likes”  
Then there’s the whole music establishment?  “Let me just go off on this for a minute, because I’ve been meaning to write this down for a little while.  Within the realm of the kind of music we’re making, this is my perception of how things generally work (of course there are  exceptions):  It’s a 1978818_10152266495739302_3771852591971329847_n big whirlpool where everybody is paying each other.  The noteworthy record labels, (not even talking major labels unless you count Merge, Sub Pop, and Matador as majors, which I guess are majors at this point) are probably like the sun that all the other planets of the industry revolve around.  So these labels pay the PR firms.  The labels buy advertising on Pitchfork and other popular blogs and music magazines.  These popular blogs and music magazines are obligated to write about bands that are being pitched by PR firms who are hired by the record labels, who buy advertising on these blogs and in these music magazines, which pays the salaries of the people who run the blog or music magazine. When these bands get written about by the popular blogs and magazines then the booking agencies start calling and then these bands get a booking agent.  The booking agent book the bands on high profile tours and festivals and the bands get popular.  This system doesn’t work if the popular blogs and such write about anything that any nobody band sends them.  Then no one gets paid.   And the booking agents aren’t going to want to book a band with no hype behind them.  You can’t blame people really.   There’s only room for so many bands and writers and promotional agents and such in this world.  And there’s even less room for people who are making risky music.  To make a food analogy: Even a big city can only support a certain amount of high end vegan restaurants, while the pizza places on every other corner are turning a fine profit.  People like pizza and it’s fast and it’s cheap and it fills you up.   There’s nothing wrong with pizza.  I like pizza.   The music I tend to make requires a little more patience and a little more time, maybe it’s a little harder to find the entrance to the place, but I hope that in the end it’s going to be more nutritious.”  
 Back to the whirlpool, “there are bands that get thrown into it and don’t connect with people that happens all the time, and then they just fade away.  And some are on the edges of the whirlpool and some are right in the middle of it.  Ghost to Falco has never been in this whirlpool at all and never really had the chance to connect with a lot of people in this way. No one at a popular label (or management company who gets you on the popular label) has had enough of an interest to take Ghost to Falco on.  I wonder how we would do if we were to get thrown into that whirlpool.   We might do fine, but who knows?   It’d be nice to be able to connect with a lot more people, but it’s sort of cool running the band how we do.  We only tour when we want to and we can play whatever kind of venue and play with whatever bands we want to play with.  No one is shaping our career.  It is a freedom I appreciate.  We don’t really make money, but it’s never a situation of the label is making us tour, this sucks, kind of thing.  I’ve had friends in those situations and it seems terrible.”  

Soft Shield is Ghost to Falco’s fourth full length album. The albums initial sessions began at the Portland-based Type Foundry Studio (known for producing recorded output by the likes of  Dirty Projectors and R.E.M. among many others) in June of 2009. A few days after the first sessions Eric left town for six months of touring and traveling. When he came back with his limited funds, Eric realised that going into debt on an album at a top-of-the-line recording studio maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But it was too late.  He earned money from odd jobs and spent it on studio time, and/or relied on generous favours from recording engineers. It took three-and-a-half years to finish Soft Shield. Eight different studios were used in all. The album is properly the most cohesive of any record in Ghost to Falco’s discography.

Soft Shield still casts a wide net that marks most of Ghost to Falco’s output, one could find evidence of just about every rock- affiliated musical movement of the past fifty years, but Soft Shield corrals those disparate elements into a vision that feels firmly planted in the American-West. Trippy desert guitar lines and arid pedal steel are intertwined with a lush and intimate, Northwest-specific, Twin Peaks style of mystery— a duality that points to both Eric’s love of the American desert canyon country and his longtime Portland address.  As Eric says, “There’s contentment, anger, humor, regret, fear—and hell, some of it you can even dance to” and I could not put it better myself.

During my virtual journey of discovering Eric and the Ghost to Falco’s back catalogue I came across another of Eric’s projects Centers, which was formed by Jay Demko and Eric Crespo in mid 2010.  Whilst I absolutely adore the Ghost to Falco catalogue and have no hesitation in recommending them the Centers album is also a piece of magnificent beauty and worthy of any serious music collection. 

Eric Crespo is a musical chameleon who weaves genres together and pushes creative boundaries, avant-garde sound structures, alt-country, world fusion with carefully crafted lyrics all blended together. He is the is type of artists we should increasingly celebrate given the quality of his work and the creative space he occupies often results in very few finding full commercial success. His craftsmanship finds itself at odds with the conveyer-belt of mass consumed music that is often found seeping through many a MP3 player.  Neil Young is credited with saying, “When people start asking you to do the same thing over and over again, that’s when you know you’re way too close to something that you don’t want to be near.”  It’s an interesting observation from an artists who is respected and who has influenced many. Neil Young of course had the means to take a left-field turn from middle of the road comfort before he cranked up his amplifier. In reality the true creative forces on this highway are artists like Eric Crespo, who did not take the middle of the road in the first place.

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