Ghost Culture: from studio hand to Phantasy land
From the outside looking in, the circumstances of Ghost Culture’s debut album might suggest a degree of careful cultural calculation. Released on Erol Alkan’s consistently impressive Phantasy label, endorsed by tastemakers Daniel Avery and Andrew Weatherall – a cynic might argue that Londoner James Greenwood made a bee-line for the heart of a group of artists with a firm grip on the zeitgeist. But as the affable and self-deprecating Greenwood explained when we meet following his set at Bugged Out Weekender, his story is, at least in part, one of good fortune – of a rise from unassuming studio technician to indie/electronic man-of-the-moment.
“I was lucky that a really good friend of mine introduced me to Daniel Avery,” smiles Greenwood, perched on the dressing room sofa following his set. “We started making stuff, and he needed someone to press the buttons … the only reason Erol heard it was because Daniel played it to him. I wasn’t expecting anything. Erol hadn’t even heard all of the tracks on the album when he was getting the deal together … it’s mad. It’s been a process, but a process that I’ve loved.”
Chance encounters perhaps but still, it helps to have a pocket full of stone-cold killer material: early electronic and new- wave influenced techno lullabies which soar in a monotone kind of way. “I had Erol telling me it’s really good, friends telling me it’s good, but when you’ve spent so long with something, you don’t know how other people are going to react.”
The songs on his self-titled debut are delicate, romantic even – an assessment with which Greenwood is firmly in agreement. “I think they are romantic songs, yeah. Apart from two tracks, they’re all about one thing, one person,” he reveals. “The way the music came out was: ‘I feel this, I need some chords to go with it’.”
Despite a self-effacing lack of ego, Greenwood has the air of a person who’s become accustomed to working with people of high calibre – and who is quietly confident in his own abilities. No wonder, given that his ‘work experience’ learning the ropes in the studio involved interacting with some of the most respected names in leftfield dance music.
“I didn’t want to go to university, I just wanted to get experience in the studio,” he explains. “But I soon discovered that wasn’t my thing either – being really technical and helping people plug microphones in. I started working with Daniel, and it was terrible to start with! But you’ve got to start somewhere. It takes time … I spent a lot of time in the studio with Richard Fearless on the last Death in Vegas record. Weatherall was in the next room, with Tim Fairplay and a load of synths, that’s how he made his music. For me, that’s where I got obsessed with synths.
“I’m lucky enough to be doing what I want to do every day now. I haven’t set out to make a difference or anything – I’m just doing my own thing and I’m very lucky to be able to do it.”
If statements like these suggest someone with their head in the clouds, then the explanation Greenwood gives for the ‘Ghost Culture’ name points to a deeper connection with the world around him: “Ghost Culture is a metaphor for superficiality – for the culture I think we’d end up with if we all made music for profit instead of for ourselves. You’ve got people like Disclosure doing what they do, making loads of money, but I’d want to encourage a kid leaving school to make music that satisfies themselves. We need more people with ideas, otherwise we’ll end up with no ideas and lots of money, and that would be a sad place to be. That’s the ‘ghost culture’.”
Greenwood’s Bugged Out performance was a DJ set – although he’s clear that live shows are where his heart lies. “I’m starting from the basics with my live show, I’m not coming out with a full shiny production just yet. I went through a process of thinking ‘how am I going to do this?’, because technically it was quite difficult, really I need six people in the band. But I’m happy with where it’s got to. At the moment it’s just me and four lamps that are synched-up with the music – they’re my band members!”
Reinterpreting the recorded material for a ‘solo’ live show also means that the songs have stayed fresh. “Because I’m playing it live and learning the songs all over again, it still feels new.” And there’s little prospect of Greenwood’s enthusiasm for his craft dulling any time soon. “I think I’ll work on music until I’m 80. I’ll do it whenever I’ve got a spare moment, because there’s not any moment when you shouldn’t.”
Ghost Culture is out now via Phantasy. Catch Ghost Culture at Field Day, Victoria Park, London, 6 June