Exclusive Interview: James Marsters and the band mates of GHOST OF THE ROBOT reunite – Part 1
James Marsters, Charlie De Mars, Kevin McPherson and more talk about the band's reunion and new album
The story of Ghost of the Robot is one of rock ‘n’ roll reunion. Back in 2001, Charlie De Mars, then in his teens, moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles. His new next-door neighbor was James Marsters, then in the midst of playing Spike on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Marsters and De Mars began jamming together on their guitars. De Mars’ Power Animal band mates, bassist Kevin McPherson and drummer Aaron Anderson, and De Mars’ brother Steve Sellers came aboard. In 2002, the quintet became Ghost of the Robot. The band made an album, MAD BRILLIANT, plus several EPs and singles, toured the U.S. and Europe, and then broke up in 2004.
However, original Ghost of the Robot members Marsters, De Mars, McPherson and Anderson – sadly, Sellers passed away in 2009 – got back together for a live performance at their old Santa Monica stomping grounds the Central Social Aid & Pleasure Club (formerly 14 Below) in 2010, joined by Marsters’ then fourteen/now-fifteen-year-old son Sullivan. This kicked off a California tour. Subsequently, Anderson moved out of state, so De Mars recruited Jordan Latham to play drums on the band’s new album MURPHY’S LAW, which just debuted on iTunes. A CD edition, plus more albums and a new tour, are planned for 2012. At a listening party for MURPHY’S LAW in Los Angeles, the Ghost of the Robot membership, plus MURPHY’S LAW vocalist Micah Biagi, talk about the band’s new incarnation.
ASSIGNMENT X: How and why did Ghost of the Robot get back together?
JAMES MARSTERS: I think it was about a year ago. My son Sullivan had been a fan of our first album MAD BRILLIANT, and he started playing guitar. Ghost of the Robot became one of his favorite bands, which was really cool for me, and he started pressuring me to get back in touch with Charlie. And I kept telling him, “Oh, yeah I will,” and I put it off. Finally, I told him that I would. Two weeks later, Charlie calls me out of the blue and says, “How’s it going?” And we immediately made time to get together. Sullivan wanted to learn a couple guitar licks off of him and so we started going over to Charlie’s house.
SULLIVAN MARSTERS: I was, “I really love [De Mars’] style” from when I first heard MAD BRILLIANT. It’s one of those styles where I couldn’t figure it out without his help. He has this weird sound. We went over to [De Mars’] house and I played “Blackbird” for him And he was really nice and he’s taught me all I wanted to know and he’s really helped me develop and we’ve become really good friends. I never thought it would come to another album. That was like a faraway hope.
JAMES MARSTERS: Charlie lives up in the Delta, south of Sacramento. Whenever I was inNorthern California, we’d go over to his place and play guitar. Charlie at one point just said, “Look, we should just do a reunion show.” Kevin was in between tours and Aaron was available. We played that show [at the Central], and Sullivan played with us for a few songs, because he’d been laying in lead parts to some of the songs I’d been writing. That night, Ghost of the Robot voted him into the band without asking me. They said, “You can veto this if you want to as a father, but as a bandmate, you’re outvoted.”
AX: Sullivan, when you were hoping the band would reunite, was your hope that you could hear them, or was your hope that you could join them?
SULLIVAN MARSTERS: Hear. That wasn’t even in my mind, that I could join them. Actually, [Ghost of the Robot] were having their reunion show and they wanted me to play with them and I had just written a couple of things to go with my dad’s songs. And I brought my friends, and we had been making our own stuff [as the band Mars Police], but we weren’t really in [Mars Police] until the day before the first [Ghost] show. My dad was like, “Would you guys like to open for us?” And we said, “Yes.” And [Mars Police has] been a band ever since. So I started both at the same time.
JAMES MARSTERS: At that point [by adding Sullivan], we had another guitarist. We had enough guitars, and we just started making play dates around California, and they all went really nicely and at some point it became obvious that we had more than enough material for an album. And then it was just a question of calling up Joe Johnston at Pus Cavern [where MAD BRILLIANT had been recorded] in Sacramento, and started recording. And it just really took off. We were young when we were first together, I was hip-deep in television fame and it was a heady time. I feel like I’m a better musician and a better singer than I was back then. I don’t know if we’ve mellowed actually [laughs], but it’s been really good. There’s just a lot of love for each other. I just think that frankly we missed each other, and so maybe because we’re a little bit older, we’re willing to tell each other that.
CHARLIE DE MARS: I personally was being pushed by a specific person to reincarnate this band, which made us have that initial show. I had been meeting with Sullivan once or twice a month for about eight months. James would bring Sullivan up to the house and I’d just show [Sullivan] my hardest things that I could think of on guitar and he’d come back the next time and play it better than I could. “Okay, we got something here.” It was just a real organic reunion.
KEVIN McPHERSON: I think it was something we wanted to do again. [In 2004], we were just in very different points in our life where [continuing the band] didn’t really make much sense. Years later, we’ve gotten past that to where we’re ready again. And we realized how amazing and unique and how much fun we had on the first go. It all started just as it did the first time, just hanging out, being friends, and we said, “By the way, we have all these great new songs.”
AX: How has the band changed over the years?
DE MARS: Well, I’d have to say we’re different. We’re more mature as human beings, more experienced, we’re better musicians. This time, we just said, “Let’s really plan these things out before we do it so we can save time and money, and not finish until we [think it is] worthy of being done.” And that’s what we did with [the MURPHY’S LAW album].
McPHERSON: It felt like we were picking up where we left off. We’re still compatible, we’re still friends, we still appreciate each other’s talents and input. And it was also something new, because the songs were new and we’re in a new phase of our lives as musical maturity goes. So we were excited to explore that. I’m a side man in other bands and it’s great, but those other bands, I’m paid to just show up, be on time, know the parts well. Ghost of the Robot is my passion, it’s my project.
AX: Did you miss what you got out of being part of the group during its long hiatus?
JAMES MARSTERS: Oh, God. I missed that so much. I have pride in the two [solo] albums that I did [CIVILIZED MAN and LIKE A WATERFALL], but in the back of my mind, I always thought, “I wish Charlie and Kevin and Aaron could get their hands on these songs.” Aaron is no longer with the band. He’s decided to go to Utah and pursue a life there. But we found a new drummer, Jordan, who is just phenomenal. I think I have hungered for Ghost of the Robot the whole time. I got my panties in a bunch on our last tour, way back in ’04. We all got our panties in a bunch. It only takes a drop of success sometimes to ruin a good vibe. I’m afraid we let that happen and I think I always had more regret than I wanted to admit to myself and only realized how much I’d missed it when we started playing together [again], and I felt like I was back in the warm pool of water, like [sigh of relief], “Here I am.” We were barbecuing over at Kevin’s house, and I was saying to Charlie, “I’ve been waiting for this for many years. I’ve been waiting to really show my music off.” I’m not ashamed of my other albums, but I’m nowhere nearly as proud as I am even of the rough mixes that I heard off this album.
AX: As far as instruments go, Ghost of the Robot is three guitars, a bass and a drummer?
DE MARS: Yeah. We did some synth work on this. We wanted to keep [the synthesizer] to a minimal level. It was mainly just drums, bass, guitar, vocals and mild percussion. And some mouth percussion – a little Michael Jackson. We need a little “sss” [oral replication of synth hiss] sound in there [laughs].
AX: How did the new Ghost of the Robot drummer Jordan Latham join the group?
JORDAN LATHAM: I’ve known Charlie for probably close to ten years now, through high school. He’s always been really talented. He moved [toLos Angeles] for a number of years, and in that time, he began [Ghost] with James and Kevin and got pretty successful. I’m up inSacramento, so for a long period of time, I didn’t see him at all. I saw him two Novembers ago up at Best of Sacramento Festival, and he was just walking around on his own in a top hat and a crazy suit. I was working there and I told him about a band that I was in, Friendship. We were looking for a guitar player. He joined the band and we lasted for about a year. The band is no longer but we had a great time, and it was really great to be able to finally play music with him. Growing up, he was always someone that I wished that I had a chance to [work with], so it made me feel good. [De Mars] put in my ear that they were going to try to reinvigorate [Ghost of the Robot], and he wanted me, and suddenly I was just doing it, was up at his house, bringing my drum set, staying for the entire weekend, going there with all these songs and then step by step meeting the rest of the band, having a little rehearsal time and then going into the studio.
AX: How did Micah Biagi wind up singing on MURPHY’S LAW?
MICAH BIAGI: I have known Charlie De Mars for a really long time, so I’ve known about Ghost of the Robot from the beginning. I’ve played music with Charlie [since] 2004 on a project called Victim Effect. We were just getting started as a band and we didn’t have a drummer, so he said he would help us out, but he stopped doing that, because he was pretty busy doing some other stuff. [Victim Effect was] based in Utah from ’06 to ’08. We won the Battle of the Bands for the Warped Tour in ’07. We won ten thousand dollars in Guitar Center money, which we spent in one day. Typical musicians, I guess. Since then, I’ve kept in contact with Charlie. We’re actually really close friends. But he said he’d always wanted me to do stuff with [Ghost]. And he’s come to me recently and said that he needs me to work with him [on Ghost] and I was more than happy to.
AX: What was the songwriting process on MURPHY’S LAW?
McPHERSON: There’s one song on this record that I approached Charlie with the melody and the chords and the title, “Issues.” I don’t write lyrics. I give input on lyrics when I’m asked, but James and Charlie are the lyric guys. I said, “I don’t know what the lyrics could be for this, but I know it’s a catchy hook,” and I did a set of chords that would be fun to play over. Two or three days later, [De Mars] had these lyrics, and he sent me a demo that he recorded and it was light years beyond anything I would ever be able to do. It was a wonderful thing to hear and I’m really happy that I gave him complete control over [the lyrics]. I think it’s one of the best songs on the record.
JAMES MARSTERS: I provided about half of the songs, and then Charlie and Kevin started writing together, and came up with the other half. The other thing about this album that I’m very excited about is that Charlie is singing his songs. He’s no longer trying to get me up half an octave above my comfortable singing range [in order to sing lead on the songs]; he’s actually singing the songs that he writes himself. It’s something I’ve wanted since the band got together. We’ve always had the Beatles as a touchstone; the Beatles had no real lead singer but passed around lead vocals. Micah, who does background, his voice is just right in between Charlie and mine. And so when we’re all singing together, it’s really hard to tell who’s who. It really mixes beautifully. It took me a long time to know how to tell, “Oh, that’s McCartney, oh, that’s Lennon, oh, that’s Harrison,” because they’re all blended so well together. I’ve always wanted the band to be like that, I’ve always thought that Charlie had a great voice, and he has made such breakthroughs vocally. He really has an emotion that I am in awe of.
DE MARS: The previous incarnation [of the band], I sang a couple tracks, but nothing substantial. One of [the tracks] didn’t get put on the record, and one was a rap song, and then [vocals] from the “David Letterman” single. But yes, I sing [lead on] a few songs on this, as well as singing harmonies with James. We’re a lot more confident in our abilities and James is really adamant about us showcasing our specific talents. [It is] whatever suits the song. A lot of songs, I will be singing a verse, and then James will take over the chorus, where it’s hard to tell who’s singing what, when, who’s got the melody, who’s got the harmony, throughout this record. Our voices do blend very well together.
AX: Who does the arrangements or do you just hear what everybody sounds like when they play their parts and arrange based on that?
DE MARS: I usually have something in mind, but I would rather see what somebody else can bring to the table before I throw anything else in the mix. Usually they have better ideas than I do and I go with that, but if there are specific things, I like to guide where it’s going to better suit what it is I hear in my brain as a finished product. But Kevin and I really worked together orchestrating all the cuts.
LATHAM: Obviously, Charlie and Kevin and James have had these songs in their heads for over two or three years probably, depending on the song, so they were already very familiar to pretty much the rest of the band. So I was by far the most in the dark. But being a drummer, being a musician, you can’t not hear your own in your head what you feel the song calls for. So I did a little bit of that. You know, “I think this should go here, I think this would sound better if I did this instead of that.” But for the most part, Charlie knew what he wanted to hear and said, “I’ll give you a skeletal outline of what I want to hear; you do your best and fly free.”