Former Ghosts interview: ‘Soft, understated and really beautiful.’

31.03.11 Words by: Charlie Jones

A Former Ghosts song is an unlikely piece of magic. They come from songwriter Freddy Rupert being in really, really low places. Difficult relationships, his mother’s death from cancer. It’s brave that he puts these things out in the open. His last album ‘New Love’ made for one of the most visceral listens of last year. The magic though, comes from the fact that despite all their emotional weight, the layered darkness, damaged feelings, a Former Ghosts song soars.

LA resident Freddy Rupert pulls better tricks than many get-your-heart-out-there songwriters. His compositions stretch further than simple, autobiographical bare bones. Sounds are meticulous, rough noises, textures, deployed with a spell-binding sensitivity for mood. And then they are immaculately placed in a way that pulls the heartstrings upwards. You enter the Former Ghosts hurricane, and emerge elated and breathless. It’s pop music. Dark pop music to be sure, touching on the eerie confessional post-punk of Joy Division, the industrial scrape of Throbbing Gristle, but still essentially about hope, and loving life no matter how difficult it’s being.

Back at the end of 2010 I interviewed Freddy over the phone. He’d just got back to LA following being on tour with Xiu Xiu and Zola Jesus, and was beginning to sketch out his third album, which should be out some time this year. He talked frankly about his obsessive working methods, collaboration, and putting so much of himself into his songs.

How did Former Ghosts get going? That isn’t your first project?

Yeah. Before that I was doing this thing called This Song Is A Mess But So Am I which was kind of more really electronic, cathartic burst kind of thing, trying to get through and trying to deal with some of the stuff I was going through at the time – my mum had passed away from cancer – [so it was] kind of more directly focused on that and kind of obsessed with that. And then it kind of reached a point where it wasn’t really cathartic anymore, it was more dwelling, and sometimes I’d try and move on with my life and be at peace with that so… So after that I kind of took a big break from music and wasn’t doing music anymore. And Former Ghosts started almost by accident, where I wasn’t really making music in particular for anything, like a record or anything. I was just kind of in like a tumultuous relationship at the very beginning, at the start of Former Ghosts, and I was just posting songs onto my personal blog that I’d written to communicate with this person, because it was kind of my only form of communication at the time. And so that, that’s kind of where it started. And then Chris from Upset The Rhythm was familiar with This Song Is A Mess… and he heard the songs and was interested in putting out a record for it. And so once that kind of happened, Jamie was on board because we’d always talked about doing a project in this kind of sound together. He said he would contribute and collaborate on it, and I was like that would be awesome, I’d love that. And then Nika’s voice! I really loved, I was a big fan of the first couple of Zola Jesus 7”s, so I sent her an email and she was like, Oh yeah I would love to. So she sang on the songs, sent it back, and I was like, Oh fuck! Your voice is like so good I just have to collaborate with you more! And she was definitely into it. So that’s how it all kind of came together. In this weird, haphazard… I mean, a record wasn’t even really supposed to come out. It kind of like ended up becoming this thing.

“It was this weird, haphazard thing… I mean, a record wasn’t even really supposed to come out. It kind of like ended up becoming this thing.”

What kind of musicians or people would you say have been important in informing how you work?

I mean I guess probably a lot of stuff I listened to when I was growing up, like in high school, that was when music kind of really took over for me. And like, I first started getting into electronic music in an industrial way. I was really into ‘80s industrial bands, I was really into like Skinny Puppy… And bands like that. And then I started getting into that whole late ‘90s, early 2000s like glitchy, IDM-type Warp Records stuff. And then I also went through a phase where I was listening to synth pop, and like goth music and punk. And then also getting into like top-40 pop, like hip hop and R&B… So I really hope that Former Ghosts is like a combination of all these things that like influenced me a lot towards the end of high school.

Yeah. The R&B thing is quite interesting, because I suppose with that you do have these sometimes quite odd sounds, but then they’re put together in a really ‘pop’ way…

Yeah definitely. It’s pop music, and it’s top 40 and everybody listens to it, but there are really strange, unusual sounds like you said. The production is always really interesting. That always really grabs me. And I think when I think about a lot of the way I arrange Former Ghosts stuff it’s like weird sounds arranged in like a pop structure, you know? But I’ve always been into like glitchy electronic textures, industrial noises and stuff like that. It kind of comes together in that way.

“A little bit of trying to like… for love to actually work… And a sense of what romance is or should be, I think that kind of hope comes through in a lot of the songs.”

Because even though you’ve got quite dark lyrics and quite dark sounds, there is this really soaring, uplifting feeling about it.

Yeah. You know the lyrics aren’t usually something I spend a lot of time on, it’s more like immediate, personal like feelings… because even though it’s about my specific experiences it’s still about like a universal theme, you know? And I find that’s the way a lot of pop works, maybe it’s from a really personal place, or maybe not. But then it’s also about like the universal thing, that you can, you know, relate to and other people can relate to. And once you can relate to other people it becomes like a shared kind of experience. And that’s kind of the point to me, that’s kind of what I always got from music and was what I was always attracted to. Umm… And I think a little bit of like the soaring hopefulness and stuff, even though I think the records are both pretty dark, I think there is kind of a little bit of hope there, you know? A little bit of trying to like… for love to actually work… And a sense of what romance is or should be, I think that kind of hope comes through in a lot of the songs. Or at least I hope it does! (Laughs) Sometimes people tell me the records are like really depressing, and I’m like, Oh, to me there is a hopefulness to it you know? (laughs).

The idea of collaboration is obviously very important in Former Ghosts. What do you think your collaborators bring out in your songwriting?

It’s kind of really exciting, especially with the second record. Because I started working with Yasmin from Tearist and I was still working with Nika, and both of their voices are so completely different. But such beautiful voices, like Yasmin’s voice is so like fragile on the record, and so just like soft, understated and really beautiful. Whereas Nika’s voice is really strong and overpowering and really beautiful. Yeah, everyone I work with kind of brings out different elements in me that I maybe would miss if they weren’t there or something. And I think like with Yasmin I had her sing on the songs where I felt her kind of fragile voice would fit more with like the theme of the song and what’s going on. Whereas Nika’s voice, the songs that she sings on are written about like really, almost yelling at someone, or accusing someone or telling someone something like really heavy. So I used her really strong, powerful voice to kind of like get that across. It’s interesting because I’ll be like working on stuff, and as I’m working on it I won’t really be thinking too much about who to collaborate with, but then as it sort of comes together I’ll be like oh this would be perfect for Yasmin’s voice or this would be perfect for Nika’s voice, and then I’ll adjust to that. Kind of work towards that. But yeah, it’s important for me to kind of keep it collaborative, but at the same time I’m such like a crazy control freak that I need to like be in control over everything that happens on the record (laughs). I’m like a really big dictator! It’s kind of more like a dictatorship where I kind of (laughs) let people in, do some stuff, and then I take control of it. It kind of works in that way, but it’s important for me to continue to work in that manner. So I hope it continues to evolve in that way where it’s not set band members, you know. I want it to be like a loose collective of people that can come in and come out, where it’s rewarding for them and it’s rewarding for me. Yeah, I kind of want it to keep going in that direction.

So how’s the next record going?

I think the next record will be really interesting because so far the sounds I’ve been making for it have been really… restrained? Kind of really quiet, lots of small sounds, and really weird glitchy textures making up the rhythms as opposed to any actual beats. So far there’s not really any sort of drum sounds or beats but just rhythms made from textures, and then everything is really restrained. There’s a lot of like, sparse kind of tension so far. So I’m excited to explore this and see how it works. I think Yasmin’s voice would be like really perfect for it… And then, I don’t know, I’m interested to see how much restraint I can put into something without any cathartic burst. So much restraint and tension that is never, like, released. I don’t know, I want to see where that goes, what happens with it. But who knows? By the time it’s done, it may not even end up being that thing, but it’s what I’m currently obsessed with and currently interested in.

“I want to approach it from a way where it’s more textured sounds that are making the rhythm, so more small little sounds of static or something that are pulsing and coming in and out.”

That ties in to what you were saying about making rhythms from textures rather than beats.

I think umm, since I’m trying to create something that’s more sparse and more restrained, but I still want elements of pop and melody and stuff. I want there to still be rhythms, but I want to approach them in ways I’m not used to. I’m so used to like throwing in a kick drum and then a snare hit comes on the two or something, and I want to approach it from a way where it’s more textured sounds that are making the rhythm, so more small little sounds of static or something that are pulsing and coming in and out. That I’m making the rhythms from like strange textures, where the rhythm is not what is typically thought of, like a drum beat, but a rhythm that’s still present. And I think it would work really good with this restrained thing. So I don’t know, that’s kind of like the idea at the moment. But, you know, I don’t know for sure where it’s going to go… It could be interesting and kind of work, or it could totally fail and not come together (laughs).

Is there a particular theme to this album emerging already?

It’s kind of coming together in a way that I think it’s still probably going to be about my obsession with love and romance, but I think it might come from a different kind of lens on that. I’m not totally sure. Like I’m really crazy, head over heels in love with someone right now, but they live like across the world from me. It’s been a really tough experience, loving from a distance, you know? So I think a lot of that might kind of end up finding its way into the songs just like naturally. So I don’t know. Maybe this kind of loving from a distance theme is what will come from it. Which is why I’m trying to keep things like restrained. I’m only just starting to feel it out at the moment and see where it leads so everything is just in like initial sketches and demo stages and kind of just coming together. But I would really love to put out another record next year, and if Upset The Rhythm are into doing it then that would be really great.

Upset The Rhythm released Former Ghosts album ‘New Love’ on November 8th

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