Exclusive Interview: James Marsters and the band mates of GHOST OF THE ROBOT reunite (english)By Sky • Jan 11th, 2012 • Category: 2011, Ghost of the Robot, in ENGLISH, Recent Articles & interviews
published: December 28 (Part I), December 30 (Part II), 2011
author: Abbie Bernstein
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.”
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.