Exclusive Interview: James Marsters on reforming the band GHOST OF THE ROBOT – Part 2
James Marsters, Charlie De Mars, Kevin McPherson and more talk about how the band got back together and made the album MURPHY'S LAW
The band Ghost of the Robot, headed up by James Marsters, Charlie De Mars and Kevin McPherson, has reunited with new members guitarist Sullivan Marsters (James Marsters’ 15-year-old son) and drummer Jordan Latham. With guest vocalist Micah Biagi, Ghost of the Robot has just released a new album, MURPHY’S LAW, on iTunes, with plans for a CD edition, more new albums and a tour next year. This is Part Two of our exclusive interview.
ASSIGNMENT X: What did you do differently this time in the studio?
CHARLIE DE MARS: [On Ghost’s previous album MAD BRILLIANT], we just did all tape recording. Now, with technology, we just did direct to digital, made our edits and moves, and then went to tape, and then mastered off the tape. Pretty much, we did a blend of tape and digital. It makes the record sound cohesive. That’s what the tape does, it adds a natural compression and a little tape hiss that kind of makes all the songs flow together as one thing, instead of these really harsh digital signals, which [is how] most albums are produced. So we’re a throwback to the days of old, with a little bit of new in there.
AX: Who was in charge of the sound mix, or were you all arguing over things like, “More bass guitar!” “Less bass guitar!”
JAMES MARSTERS: [laughs] Well, that was the thing – we were all kind of in charge of it, to the point where Joe the engineer just took his hands off the [sound mixing] board and said, “Okay, just so you know, I am no longer in control of this mix whatsoever,” because everyone was throwing stuff at him. But the beautiful thing was that none of us were in conflict. We all had ideas. When there was any kind of disagreement, there was a very quick way of resolving, because there usually is one best idea, and if you remove ego from it, then you can admit that the other person has a better idea, or they can admit that you have a better idea. In fact, Charlie was wanting to restructure a couple of my songs – my structure worked well when I was singing it with just one guitar, but if you wanted to juice it up and make it fit with the album, then we needed to get to the chorus on some songs faster. I remember going [tense voice], “Charlie, I have a problem with that – lyrically, it’s not as strong any more.” But then within five minutes, I figured out, “Well, he’s right, actually. With a couple of good conjunctions here, I can still make the lyrics make sense, and it actually is much better to get to the chorus quickly.” So there were a lot of cooks making this stew.
AX: Do you ever want to be signed to a label, or do you feel like independent production is part of the album experience for you?
JAMES MARSTERS: I don’t want to say never. I know labels can put you places you can’t go without a label, but this is a new age, and I feel like the artists are given control in a way that they haven’t before. And I’d hate to give that up.
KEVIN McPHERSON: A label will have their own idea as to what they think you should sound like and I’ve seen that happen with many of my friends and many of the artists I’ve worked for as a freelance musician. The label keeps them in this state of, “they’re not good enough,” not because they’re not actually good enough, but because [the label doesn’t] have a need to release the record. It’s such a b.s. excuse sometimes. A lot of bands think, “Once we get signed, our problems will be solved.” And I always tell them, “Once you get signed, your problems begin. You might get a nice check at the beginning, but you’ll owe that with dividends.” Working with your friends and working on your own music – our studio is so wonderful, they allow us to spend the night there. And we would just not sleep for three or four days and just record parts and just try to make as much sound as we possibly could, given the time that we were able to afford. And that kind of energy – that’s how I always want to make records. I think that’s how we’re always going to put out our best product.
DE MARS: We’re on the cusp of the industry changing, and there’s just really no need [to sign with a label]. They give you expertise and capital, but we’ve been able to, in our own professional respective fields, save up enough to be able to afford this opportunity to do [independent records]. We’re breaking the bank, but in the end, if we can break even, that’s really what it’s all about. Because once you break even, you still have the product, and if it can affect people in a positive or negative way, they will be different.
AX: Has the music changed at all in terms of what it’s about?
DE MARS: Definitely [the songwriting has changed] in a lot of ways, but this is a mixture of pretty old songs [and new ones]. One song on this record I wrote at the very same time I wrote “Liar,” which is the first track off of MAD BRILLIANT, but we’re now releasing the song ten, eleven years later.
JAMES MARSTERS: I would say that it used to be about, “Oh, poor me, she broke my heart.” [Now] mine are about love, and the complexities and the difficulties of love, but there’s not so much self-pity in them. Charlie can speak for himself, but I would say that his have no self-pity whatsoever. They still have a huge amount of longing, but there’s also a lot of love realized that has happened in his life.
McPHERSON: [The music has changed] in some regards, because we’ve been influenced by a lot more. The spectrum on this record is pretty astounding. It goes from some songs that people remember from Ghost of the Robot – layered guitars, layered sounds, to very simple, stripped-down, to the point where there’s one song that James came to us, and he said, “I want to sing this song a cappella, with no instruments.” So it is music from its most simple to its most produced. It’s all happening on this record.
DE MARS: The theme [of MURPHY’S LAW] is that that which can go wrong will go wrong. We’ve all experienced that in some way or the other in our lives. There are a lot of songs in there that I recently wrote [about] my life, so it’s pretty telling lyrically. I think people can draw about their own conclusions. Instead of having a song with fifteen verses, I like that we blended lines, we decided to say three different things at the same time, so it’s really up for the listener to dissect what they want to hear. I thought it was cool, because it’s not like we’re saying one thing or the other. The first track is “Go Luck Yourself,” which is what Ghost of the Robot’s message is to everybody. Make your own fate, make your own luck, and just let go of ego and create.
AX: Do you have a favorite song on MURPHY’S LAW?
SULLIVAN MARSTERS: “If This is Love,” “Transferring Energy,” “Go Luck Yourself.” They’re all really great, but if I really had to pick three, those would be the ones.
McPHERSON: They’re all my children. It’s very tough to say. “Truth is a Heavy Stone” turned out really cool.
JORDAN LATHAM: The first one right out the gate [“Go Luck Yourself”] is a real, real ripper. I like that a lot. I love the energy, I love Charlie’s voice on it. Also his song “Turn Blind Eyes,” I kind of think towards the middle, you can’t not love that song. And I’m really fond of James’ song “Moonshot.”
DE MARS: [laughs] A lot of people won’t think I’m serious, but every song in their own right is what it is and I like them all. They’re all good, they all stand alone and they all work together, and I think at the end of the day, we did a good job.
AX: Do you have a preference between playing live for an audience or working in the studio?
McPHERSON: They’re both amazing experiences. I love the energy of a live concert – nothing compares with it. But in the studio, as was the case in this last go, it was such a wonderful, creative process. I can imagine that other studio experiences aren’t as good, but we had a great time.
DE MARS: I like both. I definitely like the studio more. It’s more intimate and it’s a close-knit thing [where] you’re creating something. The shows are very organic. I do want to get more into the shows, [where] I will freely admit I kind of go into my own world. I close my eyes, wear sunglasses and, once it’s over, I’m like, “Did that just happen?” I would like to get more involved in the live shows, other than just worrying about playing the right part. I think as the music and the band changes with the people that enjoy the music, it will allow [me] to do that.
SULLIVAN MARSTERS: In the studio, the sound is developing. [There is a] really magical sound live. I got to hear [Ghost] live, and they sound like the record. We haven’t really performed any of my dad’s [new] songs live yet, so I can’t wait to go out and get to play these songs live. [Playing live is] actually totally fine. Before, I fluctuates from really nervous to not that much to really nervous. And then when I get on stage, I’m just totally relaxed.
AX: Elsewhere, you have described your solo musical gigs as a “poor man’s Grateful Dead,” that there are a group of people who enjoy the gestalt of showing up for the gigs and seeing each other. Does that apply to Ghost of the Robot as well?
JAMES MARSTERS: Yes, very much, very much. When I said that, what I mean is that, at some point, the music is not the point any more. There comes a point where the fans are showing up for each other as much as they are for you, and I think that is beautiful. I think that that means that you’ve helped – you’ve done exactly as an artist what you’re hoping to do, which is bring people together, remind them that they’re not alone and help them enjoy each other.
AX: What are Ghost’s plans as far as making more albums and touring in 2012?
McPHERSON: Definitely. We already have enough material for another album, maybe even two. Getting back together kind of brought that out in us. We’re all great songwriters as a collective and we all really want to tour as well. And we really want to reach our fans that way.
DE MARS: The next one’s going to be really good with everything we’ve learned with this new process of recording, because we just now tried this technique of producing a record, so this is kind of like a test for us.
JAMES MARSTERS: Certainly our plans are to do a West Coast tour next summer, quite an extensive one. That’ll be really good.
AX: Anything else you’re working on right now?
JAMES MARSTERS: I’m recording an audiobook [THE GREYFRIAR by Clay and Susan Griffith, from Buzzy Multimedia]. You can still hear my stuff as Lex Luthor online – they keep calling me in and paying me an outrageous amount of money for a day’s work to come in and do evil for [the Massive Multiplayer Online Game] SUPERMAN for DC Online. You get to in and design your own villain or hero, and play as that, and they either make carnage or try to save Metropolis. In fact, when they showed the trailer for it at last year’s Comic-Con, some reviewer said it was the best Superman movie that had ever been made. It’s actually really cool.
AX: Anything else that you’d like to say about Ghost of the Robot?
McPHERSON: I can’t believe that it’s happening again. It was unique and cool and random, on all levels, the first time, and the fact that we’re all back here inHollywood, listening to a record that we just made in Sacramento in 2011, still baffles me. I cannot believe it. I’m just really thankful.
LATHAM: I really hope and pray that there’s a future to this. I very much want to be a part of that. I’m having a great time.
MICAH BIAGI: It was really magical, collaborating with them in the studio and being able to share my ideas with them. It’s been really fun and they’ve been really kind and accepting of my ideas. It’s been awesome.
DE MARS: We’re all just humans trying to make music and any stigma we can just throw out the window, like one of the last lyrics of the first song. It says, “And your ego, I’ll let it go/Go luck yourself.” We’re just going to do what we do and have fun doing it, just not worrying what anybody thinks.
SULLIVAN MARSTERS: It is beyond what I’ve ever wanted. I’m so lucky. It hits me sometimes – I know that not a lot of people get this and I’m just trying to make sure I don’t take it for granted and that I enjoy every moment of it.
JAMES MARSTERS: Just that it feeds my soul. I think that iTunes is a fabulous thing. It used to be that you really had to work to get Ghost of the Robot albums, and now you can just get online, press a button, pick it up and pay what it’s worth, which is eight bucks, and not twenty, twenty-five, fifty bucks from a middleman. Our catalogue is available now on iTunes. We get sales all over the world. We get people on Facebook telling us, “I loved your first album and it helped me through hard times,” from Argentina, from Yugoslavia, from all over. And that’s just an incredibly good feeling, to want to spread love, and spread my experience, and know that I can share my experience with people all over the world.