There are a lot of great acts on the 2020 Okeechobee Festival lineup, but without a doubt, Ghostland Observatory is the most dedicated. Who else would drive 1,223 miles in a two-van caravan packed to the gills with synthesizers and fragile lighting rigs just so they could rock a crowd for an hour, pack up, and immediately drive to the next night's gig another 690 miles away?
“We click because we're both willing to give everything,” says Aaron Behrens, Ghostland's frontman. “It's such a ragtag operation, but honestly, I think it's the only way we can do it. I don't think we could have anybody tell us what to do — other than our wives.”
For 16 years, Behrens and partner Thomas Turner have DIY-ed their way to whispered legend. They don't have Billboard hits or Grammy nominations, but anyone who has seen Ghostland Observatory never stops talking about it.
There's something magic about Turner, surrounded by wired-up synths and drum machines, lookin' like a mad scientist in a flowing cape, and you might've never seen a frontman as wild and magnetic as Behrens. Add to that a blast of analog-driven electronic funk, giant light triangles, and lasers galore and you've got a vibe that's entirely unique — and considering the Austin-based twosome only recently returned from a four-year hiatus, it's something rare indeed.
“It's been a while since we have played a major festival, and I always felt like we belong on those big stages,” Behrens says. “It's very uplifting, giving me hope for the future, because people are wanting us back to play for them again. I'm very happy to be back doing it — and to be back in Florida, because we haven't been back to Florida in forever.”
Ghostland Observatory formed in 2004 and burst onto the scene with the neon shouts of delete.delete.i.eat.meat. The duo's 2005 debut is a retro hipster classic. Turner's synths hit like a funky buzz-saw horror show on fan favorites “Shoot 'Em Down” and drifted in melodic outer spaces on “Silver City.” Behrens' voice likewise struck a wild chord in manic shouts and a signature cartoon style that held true in deeper impassioned moments. Paparazzi Lightning followed in 2006, begetting more dance-floor favorites, such as the robot ballad "Stranger Lover" and the brassy opener, "Piano Man."
Still, the linchpin for Ghostland fans has always been the live show. Word spread about the skinny man with the long black braids who flailed his legs like a Native American Freddy Mercury, backed by the synth wizard in the bright, flashing cape.
“My wife has made all of my capes,” Turner laughs. “I'm surrounded by synthesizers and drums and stuff. I'm not very mobile or anything, so one day she's like, “You need something cool for your stage presence. She didn't tell me what she was doing or anything. She just showed that to me, and I've been rockin' capes ever since.”
The motley crew has always been in its own driver's seat. All five of the duo's albums are self-released through its Trashy Moped label (named in ironic defiance to the bling culture of 2005). They've been taking those thousand-mile drives across the country with their sound engineer Mark DuFour and a couple of other techs since day one. They're road-tested warriors with a perfected formula for sanity — which is good, because they couldn't fly with all of that lighting and music gear if they wanted to.
“If we're both awake and it's not time to sleep, it's normally jokes going,” Turner says. “Aaron can get into character real easily. It's just like nonstop entertainment. I get the best performances over anyone else because I'm around him so much. It is hilarious.”
“It's so fun now,” Behrens adds. “We're just laughing and having a good time, and I think it's because we just appreciate what we're doing.”
Ghostland is in what the pair describes as a “regeneration period,” spurred by a newfound obsession with analog visual technology. The duo's latest EP, "Channels," is a four-track audiovisual presentation that matches the mature mood of 2018's See You Later, Simulator. Here, psychedelic scenes swirl like hypersaturated kaleidoscopes set to deeply hypnotic synthwave grooves.
“I've had that camera sittin' around [since high school],” Behrens explains. “I took it out one day last year looking for inspiration, and I just started messing around with it. It ended up sucking me down a rabbit hole. I woke up a year later, and I've done nothing but work with these weird feedback videos with skulls and all my kids' toys. It's therapeutic too. I'm lucky I have people come get me out of the studio, because I would be completely lost in Wonka land forever.”
Turner remembers getting an excited call about tapes and monitors, and as soon as Behrens played him the visuals, Turner lit up his synths and let the jams flow. The old-tube-TV-and-camcorder aesthetic perfectly matches Turner's Juno and Moog palette, and the free-form improvisational style has both artists feeling like kids once more.
“You can take from any time period,” Behrens says. “That's what I did musically. I took from Bowie. I took from Freddie. I took from Jim. I felt like with 'Channels,' I was able just to talk from a true place again. In the past, I got caught in being that character of who that frontman was, and now I finally get to play from being honest again. I'm back at delete with my heart on my sleeve. We are just in such a creative spot. Everything is free and open, with all the knowledge from the past. We're just moving forward.”
Ghostland Observatory at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival 2020. With Vampire Weekend, Bassnectar, Mumford & Sons, and others. Thursday, March 5, through Sunday, March 8, in Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee. Tickets cost $279 to $600 via okeechobeefest.com.