Inside The Big Top: An Interview With Ghost Circus' Chris Brown
Ghost Circus are a progressive rock duo of Chris Brown (vocals, guitar, bass, and keyboards) and Ronald Wahle (drums, percussion, guitar, keyboards and mellotron) who formed in 2004, and self-produced their 2006 debut CD Cycles, which was released by ProgRock Records. An interesting fact is that Brown is located in Tennessee and Wahle is in The Netherlands; each artist's parts were recorded in their own studios and mixed together. Their style of prog includes elements of AOR, alternative rock, goth, and melodic rock - specific bands cited included The Cure, The Smiths, Tears For Fears, U2, late-80s Genesis, and Rush. The duo are already working on their follow up. Last November, Joshua Turner spoke with Chris Brown; this is part one of that interview.
Chris Brown: [After the customary hellos] How's life in Wisconsin? [He says the state's name with a drawl.]
Joshua Turner: How is it in Wisconsin? Well, you know what's funny? It was really warm out for like the last week or so, and I actually go running quite a bit. And yesterday it snowed and now it's freezing.
CB: So, it changed that drastically overnight?
JT: Oh yeah. It went from like really hot, whereas I was walking around in shorts, to like really cold, whereas I was taking out the down jacket. I've heard it said, if you don't like the weather in Wisconsin, all you've got to do is wait an hour.
CB: Well down here, it's been unseasonably warm. We were watching the Georgia-Auburn game down there in Auburn, Alabama. They're wearing shorts on the sidelines.
JT: Oh really?
CB: Yeah, it was ridiculous. [He laughs.] It was crazy. I want your weather, man.
JT: The cold?
JT: You like to ski?
CB: No, I don't ski. I'm a big hockey fan. Watching the NHL and all that stuff this season, and it's still warm outside. It's just wrong, man.
JT: The [University of Wisconsin's] Badgers are the National Champs in hockey.
CB: I know.
JT: Okay. Hockey is big around here.
CB: We don't really get college hockey around here. I can keep up with it online, but we don't get to actually watch any college hockey. We get NHL here and that's about it. We do have an NHL team here in Tennessee, but we don't have any schools or anything that are big on that yet. So, it'll take a little while, but hopefully we'll get there.
JT: Well, you know what? I have a bunch of questions here. I thought maybe we could jump right in here.
CB: Sounds good.
JT: I was reading some of the background information on your band and it seems you've come together in a unique fashion. Can you delve into that a little more? Can you tell me about the origins of the band?
Ron and I met -- Ron Wahle, the other fellow in the duo -- we met online, just kind of out-of-the-blue on Neal Morse's forum of all places. It was right when he put out the Testimony album, and Ron had posted some of his material on there, and I downloaded it and listened to it, and I was like "this is pretty good stuff." So, at the time, I had just finished doing the acoustic stuff. I had put out two acoustic albums and was really bored with that, cause I'd been doing the solo-acoustic-instrumental thing for like ten years, and I had really hit my point where there's only so far you can go with this sort of stuff.
So, I started demoing some rock stuff here at the house, you know, messing around with it, and I ran across Ron's stuff, heard it, and really connected to it. I was also doing mastering for people at the time and trying to get into that. And so I emailed him back, and I said, "This would sound really great if you let me master it. Do you mind if I mess with it?" And he's like, "Sure, go ahead." So, as I was listening to it, I was like, "You know, there's just some little empty spaces here where I can put guitar parts in," and I said, "Do you mind if I add that to it?" So, that's kind of how it started, and so I worked on that first track and then sent that back to him. I sent him some of my stuff, and we're both like, you know, this needs a vocal. So, I didn't really want to do the singing thing, but I just kind of fell into it, and it just sort of snowballed from there. And actually that first track, the one I downloaded from him, that is the first half of "Mass Suggestion" now.
So, when you hear the guitar duels that go on after the verses and such, when it gets into the instrumental section, that's like some of the first stuff we ever cut. So, when you hear him play, he starts some, I start it off, and then he comes in and plays. He does the real, uh, more mellow-type of guitar parts. So, when you hear those, those were already there, and all those spaces were there in the original. So, it's like it was custom-made for that.
JT: Oh wow.
CB: Yeah, it's weird how it all fell into place. And then the other track, the first track I sent him is "Broken Glass." So, that one was pretty much done. It just needed drums, and it just so happens, he's a drummer. [He laughs.] It all just worked out.
JT: The thing that I kind of wonder about is that, traditionally music is made where people sit in a room and brainstorm and kind of throw some ideas out. You obviously are using the Internet and your computers and stuff.
JT: Can you tell me a little bit more about the songwriting process? Like, what kind of software are you using? How do you piece these songs together? How do you really do all that?
CB: Sure. Basically what we do is, I'll work on material myself, and he'll work on some of his stuff, which he already had a pretty much a backlog of stuff 'cause he had always tinkered for several years. He had played in different cover bands and stuff like that for many years, but he had tinkered with a lot of things at home 'cause he's got the drum kit and all that stuff there, and all of his MIDI material. He's a Q-Base guy. I'm an Innuendo guy, because I've got kind of a background in doing production and that sort of thing. And when the software started to come out, I looked at all of them, and there was a time there, I don't know if you remember or not, but ProTools was strictly a Mac thing for a long time, and I've always been a PC guy, and then they came out with the free version of ProTools, and it was crap. It didn't work with certain chipsets and stuff like that. I just never got into it. Finally, Steinberg put out Innuendo, and I tried that, and I took to that like a duck takes to water, because the interface to it is exactly like a studio console.
It's setup the same way that a studio is, so it was just totally intuitive to me, and so that's what I use when I'm recording. And Ron uses the Q-Base stuff cause he does a lot more MIDI things. You know, mostly all of the keyboards and stuff that you hear, that's mostly him. The only time that I play the keyboard is when I hear, oh wait, there's like a chord that needs to go like here.
CB: 'Cause I don't play keyboards worth a damn, and so you know, I do little things like organ sounds or when you hear weird little sound effects that's usually me. But I'm primarily a guitarist more than anything else. So, I'll sit and I'll work on stuff here, and if I think it's Ghost Circus-worthy, then I'll send it to him and the same goes for him. There are some things that we just start off with little parts. Like a good example is "Trick Of The Light." That was written in such a way that Ron had the first five or six minutes of it. Where right to the part where, you know, after it does the second section and then it kind of fades down, all the drums and everything drop out, and it fades down to that creepy little synth part. That's where it ended originally. I'll just kind of take it and pick it up, and go from there, and so that's the way that we do it. Either we have an entire piece that's ready to go, just needs the other individual parts on it, you know, like maybe it needs Ron's drums or Ron's keyboards, or it needs my guitar leads and that sort of stuff, and then the vocals. So, we just sort of go back and forth like that every now and then. But usually we just take something that the other one's done and just kind of run with it, and the chemistry's just there. You know, I can't explain the chemistry.
JT: Interesting? Now have the two of you actually met in person?
JT: Oh you have, okay?
CB: Yeah, he came over. We recorded the whole album pretty much without meeting each other.
JT: Oh, wow.
CB: Towards the end of that, well, we would do like webcam stuff. We had webcam meetings and that sort of thing. We kind of took our cue from the way that Peter Jackson was doing Lord of the Rings at the time. 'Cause that's the way he had to coordinate with everybody. [Funny how so many Progressive Rock artists mention LotR in some fashion.] So, I figured, if it works for a big production like Lord of the Rings, I think we can maybe pull off a prog album communicating that way. [He laughs.]
JT: Right, right.
CB: Anyway, we wrote and recorded most of the album over the course of two years, 'cause it took time for us to totally gel, for us to get our studios really up to par, to record the quality of an album that we got, and just to flush out material long-distance. Now we're both kind of like, we're going into the second album right now, and we have so much stuff to go through. It's like, what tracks are we going to leave off the album.
JT: So, you almost have a third album then?
CB: Yeah, and not only that, we've got systems down. We really do have a set way of doing stuff, but right when we were wrapping the recording of the Cycles album, Ron came over for the first visit. That was a year from last August, I think it was, and then literally a year later he came over with his wife and kids, and we all got to hang out for a week, and he got to come spend a week in hell, in absolutely miserable heat here in Tennessee. [He laughs.] So, there you go. That's really how we've met. We've come face-to-face those two times, and each time we've had a good helping of both business and personal stuff, and you know, just hanging out and getting to know each other. We get along great, you know, just in general. It all worked out. We're like ying-and-yang together.
JT: Do you have any live performances planned? Is that anything that you're thinking about doing, or do you just want to keep this as an Internet-Studio sort of a thing?
CB: That's something we're working towards. The ultimate goal is to turn Ghost Circus into a live act.
CB: The material's really designed around that, and we both kind of fleshed out in our heads how we go about playing, you know, who would play what and what would go on.
CB: The thing is it takes money. [He laughs.] I mean, at the end of the day, one of us has to go over to the other one's country. Then we have got to hire session players to come in, and that's kind of the way we want to keep it. We want to keep Ghost Circus itself as far as the recording entity being just me and Ron, because it works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And then for live shows we would want to bring in session players. For right now though, we've put money into it. [He laughs.] We haven't seen money out of it yet.
CB: So, you do have to, we both have houses to keep up with and families and that sort of thing.
JT: If you actually did do it in concert, what instrument would you play and what instrument would Ron play?
CB: Ron would play; he would switch between keyboards and guitars for a lot of it. I would play the guitar for the majority of the show. I refuse to put my hands on a keyboard during a live show, because I'd embarrass myself. [He laughs.]
JT: You were talking about session players. Do you already have people in mind?
CB: We know, we've got to know a few people who we think would be a good fit. We're not looking at bringing in, like, Tony Levin.
JT: Yeah. [We both laugh.]
CB: I don't know if Ghost Circus will ever have that kind of money, but we have met some people that would be a good fit. It's really just a matter of making sure, not only can they musically accomplish what we need to do, and do it as well as we do it on the record. A big thing with me is, when you see a band in concert, they need to do their stuff as well or better than they do it on the records. [Think Flower Kings!] Also, the personalities have to match. There's no sense in putting together a band and being miserable on the road.
JT: One thing Rock Journalists and fans and whatever like to do when they hear a band is they like to draw comparisons. I have trouble coming up with a comparison.
JT: Maybe if I was hard-pressed, I might say you sound a little bit like the band Enchant. Maybe bands along those lines, but who would you say are your influences and who do you think you might share some similarities with?
CB: We run the gambit. I mean, there's no question when you're listening to "Trick Of The Light" that we are paying tribute to Phil Collin's-era Genesis.
JT: Yeah, I can hear that.
CB: Just 'cause we like that stuff, okay. Where you've got bands that have come up to this point, like Spock's Beard and stuff like that, you know, that's obvious that Spock's Beard is a big influence. Hell, we met on Neal Morse's forum. [He laughs.] Where you have those bands that were influenced by the seventies Prog, by Yes and Rush and Kansas and those kind of bands.
JT: Oh sure.
CB: We're coming from the next generation. We were influenced by the eighties versions of Rush and Asia and by Genesis in the Phil Collins era, plus all the pop and alternative music that was going on at the time. I'm a big heavy metal fan. I'm a big fan of everything from your hair bands all the way up to black metal.
CB: Stuff like Emperor and I know Immortal is getting back together, so I'm really happy about that. Nah, you know, I don't know, there is so many influences. That's part of what makes this so, I dare say, unique. When you listen to it, we really do take a little bit from this and a little bit from this and then that's sort of what makes us. That's what makes every musician. It's just [that] some [artists] kind of have one focal influence, and that's really what they do, and they emulate it. There's nothing wrong with that, but we're just very open-minded.
I know Ron is a big fan of Marillion and Flower Kings. So, he's got a lot of that influence. On guitar, I've got a lot of influence from my childhood idols like Steve Vai and those kind of people.
CB: Well, I'm a happy camper now. About three weeks ago, I finally got a Gem, an Ibanez Gem.
JT: I was supposed to ask you about that. [We both laugh.] How's that going? [He laughs some more. He's almost giddy about this guitar.]
CB: Anyway, I got that and we'll get to that in a minute. [More laughing from us two.] Yeah, I'm heavily influenced by that, but also by guitar players from the Prog world. You know, people like David Gilmour. So, you kind of take a little bit of the shred thing, but you manage to keep it under control, and add some taste and flavor to it. It can be done. Believe it or not, it is humanly possible. [He laughs.]
CB: They're just all over the place. I can cite? I can easily cite Genesis and Rush and Pink Floyd as influences just as easily as I can, um, Sisters of Mercy, Peter Murphy, all the way up to Strapping Young Lad and those kind of bands.
CB: I mean, it's all over the place.
JT: Okay. How did you come up with the name Ghost Circus? Is that because you're both in different countries and you're not present, and it's a circus of people who are not really there?
JT: What does the name really mean?
CB: It doesn't mean much. [I laugh.] Honestly, we started off, we were calling ourselves Element 115 when we started, and then I looked around, and I found there's like three other Element 115's.
JT: What's Element 115?
CB: [He continues without losing a beat as if he were waiting for me to ask.] Element 115 at the time, this was two years ago, was the newest element on the periodic table, and it was the heaviest of all the elements.
JT: Oh, okay.
CB: So, it was the most atomically dense element that they've come up with, and since then, they've come up with like two or three more that are even more dense than 115. So, we'd have been outdated anyway. [I chuckle.] They were talking about using that for things like anti-gravity, like for space travel. See, I'm big into all that stuff. That's part of where the Ghost Circus stuff comes from, is I'm big on the supernatural and the paranormal, that sort of thing. Everything from ghosts to aliens.
JT: Like physics as well? Like physics and string theory and like sci-fi?
CB: To an extent, yeah. I mean, because you have to, when you're dealing with space travel, you've got to think in those terms, and I could go on all day, so please don't get me started on that stuff.
JT: Okay. [I laugh. After hearing his enthusiasm on the topic, I sure do believe him.]
CB: We're talking about music, but yeah, that's part of where it comes from, and a part of it was just, you know, it was simple, easy-to-remember. I kind of came up with it off the top of my head, and it just has a feel to it, man. I don't know. It's hard to explain. When something feels right, you do it, and it felt right to call ourselves Ghost Circus.
JT: Yeah, it's a cool name. Also, speaking of names, what is Cycles? Is that about life? Like what is that exactly?
CB: Cycles is, well, the whole album kind of addresses aspects of life in general. If you go track-by-track, we can do that, but like the title track "Cycles," I come from a very small town. I lived in Murphysboro, Tennessee, which is just outside of Nashville. So, we're kind of incorporated, kind of a big area, and I moved here from a place called Cumberland Gap, which had the population of a 153 people. I went to a high school where we had a graduating class of like 90 people. So, you know, it was really the kind of place where people lived there forever, but there are people that want to get out and they are always saying, if I can just get away from here. Then, life would be better and yada, yada, yada.
CB: The song "Cycles" is about how, you know, in the first verse you talk that game, and then you up and you go, and on the second verse, you move to the bigger place, and you're still just as miserable as you were before, and it's all in your head. It's about the cycles in your own mind, and that's what does it. You don't clear your head and be happy with yourself; then you're never going to be happy with where you're at.
CB: So, we delve into that sort of thing. Um, I read your review by the way.
[And you can, too, at Prog4You.com -ed.]
CB: I appreciate the review. Nice to get a positive review.
JT: Thank you.
CB: And, one nitpick though sir.
JT: And, what's that?
CB: "The Distance".
CB: "The Distance" is actually, "The Distance" is about something completely different.
JT: Oh, okay.
CB: "The Distance." Ron and I, both as kids? we both lost a parent as kids. It's another place where we have a commonality, and he lost his father to cancer that was brought about through alcohol abuse from many years. When I was 11 years old, my mother died of drug addiction. She was addicted to prescription drugs. She had been diagnosed with MS. She got into a cycle of just, you know, she gave up on herself and started taking the painkillers and just took them and took them and took them. And so, "The Distance," that is really about living with and caring for someone who is an addict to something, and knowing that if they don't help themselves, there's nothing that you can really do, and knowing when the time comes to walk away from them. And that's what that song is really about. And really, I was looking at that from my father's perspective, because he got a divorce from my mother when I was about 7 years old, because he had tried everything. I mean, everything that a man could do.
CB: He put her in the same rehab facility that they put Stevie Ray Vaughn in and got him cleaned up.
CB: That didn't work. So, I was looking at it from that perspective, more of what he was going through at the time and what anyone would have to go through, because Ron has really come to write a good piece about that with himself, and so, it just seemed like the right approach to take that song.
CB: So, that's really what that song is about. Now it's great that different people get different things from it. [He laughs.]
CB: That's what music is all about, man. If everybody heard a song the exact same way -- and here I'm ripping off what I read in a Joe Satriani interview years ago, but if everybody heard a song the same way, that would be great for the artist, but what do people really get out of it.
JT: That's a good point.
CB: What does the audience really get out it? The whole point of music is that people can interpret it their own way.
CB: That's how you get the emotional connection to music, you know.
JT: Would you say that this album is more of a conceptual album or are these separate songs?
CB: They're separate songs. There's a theme. That's for certain. That's really what I like playing is a theme. You know, there are themes about different cycles that people get caught in throughout their lives. We go all the way from, you know, materialism through to addiction through to just personal internal issues that someone might have with themselves, all the way up to religion. That's what "Mass Suggestion" is about. "Mass Suggestion" is all about breaking away from religion. That's what that song is, at the risk of offending people. [He laughs.]
JT: Yeah, exactly. It's a touchy subject.
CB: It's just breaking away from that whole thing, knowing if you feel that something ain't right, you know, it's not right for you to be there. Maybe you should just try something else, and it's okay to do that. The only two songs that don't fit into that pattern are "Let it Flow," which is about the music industry. Then the instrumental of course. That's just self-absorbed self-ingratiating wankery.
JT: Okay, yeah, wankery. [He laughs.] That's a good word.
CB: Well, we were so good for the rest of the album. We were restrained. Then we just kind of gave ourselves that one thing. You know, just let it loose and do what you want to do, but let's get back to the songs and focus on them.
JT: That's "Send/Return" right?
JT: Where does that name stem from?
CB: Now that's purely from the way we do it. That's it, because I started that piece. The first bits of it, when there's all the shredding guitar and shit on there, that's all me. Everything is written and played by me except for the drums, and when it dies down and goes into the next real smooth section where everything dies down completely, all the drums stop and then it goes into the next section, that's all Ron.
JT: Oh, okay.
CB: And so I started it, sent it off to him. He did his part. I told him just do your thing, whatever it is that you, however you express yourself musically, you do it.
CB: Then he sent it back to me. All I put on that was a bass part, and then we both kind of came to how we wanted to finish the thing off kind of in a fit of Arena-Rock fiery.
CB: So, that's the way that we did it.
JT: That's a clever name for it. Yeah, that's cool.
JT: You've covered almost every track. The one that I'm curious about, and I'm even looking at the lyrics and I'm trying to figure it out? what is "Broken Glass" about?
CB: "Broken Glass," that one has caused the most confusion. That song is basically about, imagine if you will, a typical self-obsessed career-climbing middle-twenties early-thirties type of individual? hanging out one day in his apartment, walking around. He lives in some big high-rise apartment, and he trips and falls out the window, [I start laughing] and only on the way down to the pavement below does it finally dawn on him that all this materialism that he's been fighting for and seeking after, is nothing compared to all the stuff, all the important things that he really missed, like relationships with people, someone to care for, and someone to care for him, and children and all that great stuff that life is really all about. You know, I'm really big on developing the spiritual self. I'm not big on religion per se, because I think religion kills it. So much of what I get to is very spiritual in nature, which is kind of inline with Prog anyway.
CB: You get into a lot of these [bands] like Yes. Yes is about that, if you can get through the craziness of some of their lyrics. I know Jon Anderson is all about that.
CB: Same with Spock's Beard. I think Neal's message came across so much better when he did it sort of without literally translating it from the bible. [He laughs.]
CB: When he was in Spock's Beard, I always thought that what was so great about him [was that] he conveyed a great positive spiritual message and messages about life without saying 'cause Jesus tells me so, you know. [He laughs.]
JT: Right, right, right.
CB: It's like I just do this, it's the way I live my life, and that's the way I am. I just live my life this way. I don't depend on a book that says that it's right in order to believe that it's right in order to believe that's the way to live. [He laughs.] That's sort of self-defeating.
JT: As long as we're on the topic, what did you think of the Question Mark album?
CB: Uh, I only listened to it briefly.
JT: Oh really?
CB: Yeah, to be honest with you, musically it sounded fine. I have no qualm with what he's doing musically at all.
CB: I think he is assembling some of the best players he's had around him.
CB: Anyone that can pull Kerry Livgren out of retirement is pretty impressive.
JT: Yeah, that's amazing.
CB: He's had some wonderful guys on there. There's some great players even in the Christian world. I think he's had Phil Keaggy on a couple things. Phil's a great guitar player. I saw him live. I met him before, and you know, he's still got Portnoy pounding the skins. I don't know how he puts up with that.
JT: Right, yeah. [This gets a small chuckle out of me.]
CB: I don't know. Everything I've ever heard from Portnoy, he swears like a sailor, and I know that he's not full-on into that whole, [he laughs] you know, thing. But, at the end of the day, [hey, wasn't that a song?] if you're just going in and cutting tracks, it doesn't really matter, now does it?
JT: Maybe he's just behaving when he's around Neal or something like that.
CB: There you go.
JT: They respect each other or something.
CB: I don't know, I kind of feel bad for him in a way, for Neal, just from a music business standpoint.
CB: He's stuck in a weird place.
CB: His stuff is still distributed by Metal Blade, [that is weird when you think about it] which means that? like I know, because I'm friends with a guy that runs a big Christian bookstore here in town, and that's where they sell most all the Christian music around here.
CB: Cause this is the place for that industry. Okay, all of it is located up in friggin' Brentwood, and the thing is it's a very closed circle, and so much of it is about making money, because it is a market that will always be there no matter what. As long as there are parents that think rock n' roll is the devil's music, there will be kids who want to listen to it, and some parents are a little bit stricter than others and therefore the only rock music that the kids can listen to is Christian Rock.
CB: So, it's a market that will always be there. So, they are very closed off people. I don't think that that industry has been very accepting of Neal, because of his ties to like Metal Blade and that sort of stuff. They don't like anything that might tarnish the image.
CB: Or, to tie them in with everything else in the secular world.
JT: That's too bad.
CB: And, you know, so he's, I don't know, he's still got some of the Prog fans, and a lot of them come out for the music, but by the same token, I don't see where he's making too much headway in the Christian world. I know that he's done a little bit, but it's just weird. Like I was telling you about my friend that runs the Christian bookstore. He's big into all that stuff. He deals with all the people from Brentwood, and I mentioned Neal Morse, and I said you got a minute, and he's like, "Who?"
CB: I say this out of concern, because I think Neal is one of the most talented songwriters out there. He's the most talented musician all-around. He's like a white Prince.
JT: Right, right. [We laugh.]
CB: He really can play and do pretty much anything he wants to, and you know, I'd like to see him, whatever he chooses to do; I'd like to see him be successful at it. This is the man that deserves it. And for all intent and purposes, he's been doing this forever, and he's tried everything, and this is the man that deserves some success, whatever it's in, you know.
CB: I just would love to see it, you know, for him, whether it's in Christian music or whatever.
CB: You know. And that's my honest opinion, that's really the way I feel cause he deserves it, and [he sighs] I think that the odds would have been better if he just stuck it out with Spock's Beard.
continues in Part B...