You’ve heard James Greenwood without actually hearing much about him. Over the last few years he’s worked with, and played keyboards for, Death in Vegas, graduated from making “terrible” bedroom productions with Dan Avery to co-writing the impeccable ‘Drone Logic’, and has signed with the eclectically brilliant Phantasy Sound for his debut album as Ghost Culture.
With an expertise grounded in his work as a studio engineer, it helps explain the remarkably high production values that surfaced on 2013’s ‘Mouth EP’, and that also make his self-titled LP a massively absorbing listen. It owes a lot to Greenwood’s brilliantly understated arrangements – gossamer synths, taciturn vocals, and snaking basslines all wind, pulse, and coil their way through minimal space and darkness – but, crucially, it’s the sound of a musician stepping out of the shadows with a determination to finish the unfinished.
As much a triumph of technical skill as creative will, Ghost Culture is an assured statement of taking control – that he’s making the switch from the studio to centre-stage sound absolutely effortless is all the more impressive.
Reef Younis: You played one of your first live shows the other night, how did it go?
James Greenwood: Yeah, it was my second show, really enjoyed it. It was packed out, got a good response to every song. The reason I started making a record is because I wanted to play it live. I’ve had enough of watching people stand behind laptops but, whatever, that’s the way they want to do it – I want to do a show. I’m going to start off doing it by myself then hopefully get a band together, but it’s actually been quite difficult because I made the whole record on one synth, so it was either get six of those and six people, try and play it live, or just do it another way. It sounds completely different from the record but I think that’s a good thing.
RY: Is it important for you to have a sense of excitement and spontaneity in the live show? The sense that it could go wrong.
JG: Yeah, there’s definitely that, and it definitely could. I’m trying to adapt the sound so it’ll sound better live, instead of putting it all on a backing track and trying to mimic everything on the album. I’ve got three synths and a drum machine and I’ve tuned all of them into what I think will be the best sound for each song live. There’s not a lot of stuff but there’s still the danger I could forget something or I could make mistakes, but if you can’t make a mistake, it’s not live.
RY: Did you always have one eye on the live show while making the record?
JG: It was definitely in mind but it was more I’d base the arrangements of the songs and keep an eye on the live elements; like I could extend one bit, or make a part shorter. I had my dream set up, and it was a bit like being a kid, really. You know, when you’re little and you want a tree house or something, and you imagine what you’d put in there? It was like that. Originally it was all a pipedream but then I ordered it and realised that I’m actually going to get all this shit! [laughs]. I made a synced-up light show out of four lamps that were in my room, which was quite homely. I wanted that part to look a little bit shit, not too over-produced, a little bit DIY.
RY: I presume getting all the right gear helped make creating the album a little easier.
JG: There’s always that difference between the dream and the reality. I have all these dreams about songs, and it’s going to have these elements, and it’s going to have this and this, then you actually do it, and it doesn’t. I don’t think anyone makes exactly what they intended to, and I’m very happy with the result, it’s just that I had to learn all of that. I set out with very clear ideas in my head and ended up getting really frustrated. So I just went with it and enjoyed the process of ending up with some things that aren’t worse or better than I thought, just different. As long as I like it, and it scratches the itch of finishing something, that’s the way I see it. With live, it was more of a process, more of a job translating stuff, programming things, and working out the best way of doing it without it sounding too mechanical.
RY: You’ve done a fair bit of work as a sound engineer for the likes of Daniel Avery and Richard Fearless. Was it difficult separating those more technical tendencies from your own creativity?
JG: I’ve always wanted to make my own music, and always have done, but I’ve never had the focus to finish it. I deliberately limited myself with equipment for my stuff because I didn’t want to think about it in that way where I’m technically minded. Being an engineer isn’t sexy so I just wanted to focus more on the writing and the production rather than how to record it. With Dan’s [Avery] stuff, I co-wrote and co-produced it, so it’s similar in some ways but this time I was just doing it for myself; it was all my taste and my decision on finishing things.
RY: So having that creative control and freedom to let things develop as you wanted was different but important.
JG: Exactly. Playing around in your own time is something to be savoured and if you’re doing something with someone else, it’s very much on their time and it’s a very different dynamic. I did the same with Richard [Fearless] and helped him in the same way to make an album. That’s when I started making my stuff, because I wanted to. I’d done the engineering thing, and it’s cool, and I like it, but when I started getting creative with him, I started getting creative on my own. He had all these amazing synths, and I just wanted to get one, so instead of sitting on a computer trying to make digital stuff sound good, I got a synth, and it was the one that was used on ‘Drone Logic’ and with my stuff.
RY: That’s that vintage Korg one.
JG: Yeah, it’s called the KORG Mono/Poly. It’s mono but you can do old-school style chord memory stuff as well. I think Richard told me about it, and I think he wanted it, but I just went and got it the next day. Sorry Richard! He’s already got a great collection so I don’t feel too bad. [laughs].
RY: So the Korg became the focal point of the album?
JG: Yeah, absolutely. I think when people ask ‘What influenced you?’ I’d say it was more trying to get sounds out of that that scratched the itch, over a certain era of music or a certain band. I had that and a sequencer and was just playing with it going ‘that’s nice’ and recording the bits I had that reaction to.
RY: Didn’t you feel like you were limiting yourself, approaching your first album that way?
JG: There was definitely a few times I was trying to get to the sound I had in my head, and I settled for the next best thing, which I still liked. So I might have settled for a sound that spoiled another one but then I’d change that or change the snare to bring it together. It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle where there’s a part that’s a bit wonky but it still fits… or you just end up cutting your own pieces [laughs].
RY: The record is kind of dark, snaking, withdrawn and moody.
JG: I restricted myself to three albums when I was writing it: one of them was ‘Construction Time Again’ by Depeche Mode, ‘Fear of Music’ by Talking Heads, and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie. That’s what I stuck with and avoided everything else because I didn’t want to be in competition with modern stuff.
It was a conscious decision for this album because when I’d written stuff before, I was all too aware of what was going on in music or I’d go on blogs and think, if I make something like James Blake I’d be really popular. Really, more than anything, I wanted to have fun, entertain myself, and make something for myself.
RY: In terms of the album dynamic, then, did you have an experience in mind? Is it an album intended for headphones, the club, live…?
JG: It’s a little bit of everything but I’d say a lot of it was made with headphones so that would play a part in it, especially mood-wise, but I was always thinking about the arrangements coming to the live show. I wanted to make a distinction between my album and club-sounding stuff, and that’s why I did the B-sides as club tracks, and none of those are on the album. It’s a way of saying ‘this is for the club’, but obviously it’s influenced by club sounds, and they echo in the background somewhere. But I neither mixed nor mastered it as a pumpy thing; I just wanted to use that as an anchor underneath the music. I like that thing Burial said where he always made music for walking home from a club, the idea that the atmosphere’s still in your head but you’re moving through a dark city.
RY: With the live show, the DJing, the mix between club, headphones and sound engineering, how do you see yourself?
JG: I’m a musician. I never set out to DJ; that just happened. I always wanted to perform and DJing is great fun, but I never grew up wanting to be a DJ. As a kid, I always wanted to be a producer without quite knowing what it meant, but when you go and do music, and meet people, you just don’t know how it’s going to end up. I’m really happy it’s ended up this way. I’m very fortunate.
RY: And signing to Phantasy Sound worked out pretty well.
JG: It kind of just happened. I was working with Richard for Death in Vegas, and I’ve worked with Dan since he was StopMakingMe, where we just made stuff in our bedrooms, really badly. Then Dan started putting stuff out on Phantasy and he played my Ghost Culture demos to Erol [Alkan] and it went from there. It seemed to make sense with all the connections and it seems a good place for the music to fit.
RY: 2015 already looks like a busy year for you.
JG: Yeah. The most exciting thing for me is to see how good it can become. If I can entertain myself, people like the music, and I can tour, that’d be amazing. I toured with Death in Vegas and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Bands going on the road should always get better as they play in different places. If you make music, that’s everyone’s dream, right?