by Elliot Davies
If the spoof advertisement from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is to be believed, when synths first became wildly available – to the extent that they could be bought from Argos – they were marketed as instruments that were so easy to play, anyone could be a pop star.
Indeed, the perceived accessibility of synths reminds me of something Phil Oakley once said. He remarked that synthpop has more punk credentials than punk – for whereas punks boast about their three chord invectives, synthpoppers can create simple and infectious melodies with just one finger.
What rot! As anyone who’s spent ten minutes with a synth will tell you, it takes an extraordinary amount of work just to create a sound that doesn’t resemble one of Daphne Oram’s painful sonic recreations of a toothache. And it’s one thing to program a synth; it’s quite another to use your carefully crafted sounds to create even more carefully crafted songs; the kind that can lodge themselves comfortably into the minds of millions for decades.
Live, the whole thing is even more impressive. There are so many buttons, knobs, presets and wires to take into consideration that it’s staggering to think about the amount of work that must go into preparing a live electronic set. Even when the musicians are performing on laptops, yes, it might look as though they’re simply checking their emails up there, but there are potentially hundreds of hours of work behind every single note and beat played onstage.
But that’s the problem. Though I really admire the technical expertise of electronic musicians – particularly when they replicate their sounds live – I cannot deny that, visually at least, the whole live electronic thing can sometimes be more than a little boring. Well, perhaps “boring” it the wrong word. It’s just that, when the only signifier onstage is a moody individual scowling at a bank of equipment, things can be a tad…unengaging.
Not so with Ghost Culture!
Playing in Nottingham’s brand new Rough Trade store, rather than arranging his gear in a neat little array on a height adjusted table, James Greenwood seems to have intentionally made things difficult for himself. He’s a bank of sequencers to his left and a MIDI keyboard to his right. To play any of his deceptively simple songs, he has to constantly turn, stretch, and twist. He’s never not tinkering with some sort of baffling control interface, and his expression is one of deep, almost meditative concentration.
He’s like an astrologer, turning to his arcane instruments to fulfill some kind of inexplicable cosmic task – like aligning the planets, or something – but it’s even better when he starts playing his sample pads. They’ve been positioned in such a way that he can’t strike them without resembling a less terrifying version of Chris Cunningham’s Monkey Drummer.
The stage is decorated with antique lamps, which blaze and flicker in perfect time with the music. Initially, I’m reminded of the band Alfie. Remember Alfie? Jesus Christ, they were fantastic. They had a similar light show, but they used it to make their stage look like a magical living room. For Ghost Culture, the effect is more like the work of a poltergeist. This is the work of a more malign spirit, and it’s been summoned, against its will, by these dark arpeggios.
I’m so taken with the craft of Ghost Culture’s live show that it feels like a betrayal to say that the best part of the night came in the middle, when Greenwood abandoned his marvellous machines in favour of an unaccompanied black electric guitar. The stripped back version of Glaciers he played was so haunting that I’d quite like to hear an “unplugged” version of his entire debut album. I’m not the type to insist that a song is not a song if it requires specific sounds and instruments to play it. But still, based on this performance, the music of Ghost Culture would evidently pass the test of such purists.
Most every review I’ve read of Ghost Culture’s debut album has contained a paragraph that’s essentially a long list of the bands he sounds like. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that he sounds like a sadder, more soporific Dan Snaith fronting a particularly broody, but no less melodic Depeche Mode. But towards the end, as the insanely catchy Answer segued into an incredible pulsating synth jam, Ghost Culture transformed from Caribou into Daphni.
Oh, it went down a treat, to the extent that Greenwood was actually smiling as he thanked the crowd for being so fun.
“You’re a better crowd than London,” he said. Or perhaps he said we were bigger?
In any case, damn right. Damn right we were bigger and better than London.