Friday, February 6, 2015

Interview with Austin O'Brien from Ghost Key

Ghost Key is a relatively new band from Peoria, Illinois. Despite their youth, these guys have been busting their collective asses the last couple years, already having completed multiple tours around the U.S. Sonically, older dudes like me will hear elements of classic late-90's/early 00's band like Strongarm, Taken, and Misery Signals; more contemporary comparisons would be bands like Counterparts or Hundredth. 

2015 promises a flurry of activity, as they already have a couple tours announced for the first half of the year, and their new e.p. "The Things I Am Not" will surface soon on Vacant Records. 

The thing that impressed me most about Austin throughout our conversation was his humility, honesty and sincerity. Expect big things from these kids.

So talk a little bit about the background of the band. Had you guys all grown up together and played in previous bands prior to forming Ghost Key, or did things come together a little more rapidly?

We all knew of each other’s existence through going to shows and having some mutual friends but we didn't really hang out. Chris and I were trying to start a youth crew band and needed members when we heard Ryan was looking for a band. Him and our friend Jeff Stuckel were trying to start a band that sounded like mid 2000's Deathwish bands (Killing The Dream, The Carrier) and we sort of combined forces and went down the "melodic hardcore" path. 

Andrew was in a metalcore band full of some of our friends and they were nearing the end of their run so we snagged him from them. Stephen is the only member that isn't part of the original lineup. He's from a town called Bloomington about 40 minutes outside Peoria. He was also playing in a metalcore band when he saw we needed a guitarist and just hit us up about playing. 

The band played its first practice around four years ago under the name False Light and the original lineup was myself (Austin O'Brien), Jeff Stuckel, Ryan Murphy, Chris Bayless, Chris Elliot, and Andrew Buchanan. I'm honestly not sure why Chris Elliot stopped practicing with us but after him we went through three other guitarists before Stephen. Tyler Berchtold, Koby Ward, and Sam Pennell were the other three members.

I actually used to go to shows every so often in Peoria at this spot called the Morton Optimist Club because this label I ran back in the day put out a record for a band from Peoria called Subsist, this was around 1999-2000-ish. Anyway, how is the scene in Peoria these days? Also, I guess I feel like Peoria is sort of the stereotypical Midwestern town. How would you say coming from there has influenced you; both as an individual and in terms of the band as a whole?

As in that Subsist? That's so sick. I never saw them but I always heard about how tight their shows were and I've watched all the videos. I started going to shows in like 06-07 when I was 12 or 13 and by that time the Optimist Club wasn't around. 

Peoria has always been up and down as far as the scene goes. We had a ton of solid bands for a long time. Serpent Son, Black The Sky, Devil's Pie, Waster, Black Teeth, Hit The Ground Dead, Scout's Honor, Have Your Say, and the list goes on. I'd say the biggest influence Peoria has played on us as a band and as people is that growing up we had a lot of sick bands to look up and when we started as a band our only goal was to be another cool Peoria band that people looked up to like we did to all of the bands we loved. 

The scene has always been solid and we've always been lucky to have some really great shows. Lots of people taking responsibility to make sure shows keep happening. Currently there are a crop of young kids who are starting awesome bands and carrying the torch. Hardcore isn't as popular as it used to be there but there are tons of talented bands playing all types of music. Drained, Yusuke, Must Build Jacuzzi, Hope For Now, Howlback, Delta Waves, Time Machine Guns, and The Oceanographers are some of the ones I can think of. Sorry if that's excessive haha. We've got a lot of love for Peoria and all our friends playing music.

Hell yes that Subsist, haha! So your lyrics obviously address a broad range of deeply personal issues....from loss ("3:33") to depression ("Past. Present") to loved ones struggling with addiction ("Re-Written"). I'm curious what your writing process looks like in terms of lyrics and what your goal is when you sit down to write.

With pretty much all of “Winter” my lyrics were written before the music existed. I wasn't being picky or trying to write music. I was just writing and then forcing the words to fit over songs once the music was written. As a band we've all kind of moved past those songs and lyrically I've moved on from them as well. Those songs were written about 3 years ago before any of us really knew what we were trying to do/sound like. 

Nowadays I usually wait until a song is fleshed out musically and try and write something that matches how the song feels. A lot of my inspiration comes in small bursts. I'm constantly jotting down pieces in my phone (thank you Google Keep!) Sometimes a phrase comes to mind that I like and sometimes I flesh out a whole piece. It's also not uncommon for me to wait until we're down to the wire to get inspired either. Something about pressure motivates the hell out of me. About 80% of "Attention To Detail" was written while everyone else was recording their parts in the studio. I've only ever set two goals for myself when writing. One is to push myself and figure out the absolute best way to convey my thoughts and the second is to invoke some sort of feeling in people. That's kind of a cliché but my favorite bands have always had that effect on me and so I strive for the same thing. 

Another HUGE part of my writing process is bouncing ideas off our producer who is pretty much a sixth member. Chris Galvez is that dude. He recorded/mixed/mastered the new EP and also did "3:33" and "Attention To  Details”. He always has a good sense of what I’m trying to convey and really pushes me. He's definitely been a huge help in making me a better writer.

In "Stones" you address the issue of faith or spirituality and seem to dismiss belief in a higher power or any sort of spiritual framework. At the same time, I know some of your earlier material was promoted by that Faith/Hope/Love promotions group and you guys have recently played Takehold Fest which is held at a church in Grand Rapids. I don't know too much about that promo company or the people behind that fest, but it made me wonder whether or not "Stones" is meant to be a definitive statement from the band in terms of your feelings on religion/spirituality or if you guys have a more nuanced stance on those issues.

“Stones” is a song about my grandmother who I lost when I was in Jr. High. The day before she died my mom came into school and pulled out of class to explain to me that my grandma was losing her fight with cancer and that we needed to go to the hospital to see her before she passed. I was extremely close with my grandmother and I credit a lot of me being who I am to her so this was especially difficult to deal with. She was a devout Christian and always told me about how God had a plan. When her cancer got worse she would always tell me that if God wanted her she had to go. 

When she died, as a young kid, I was angry because I felt like she'd been stolen from me by the God she always talked about and that song was a manifestation of the feelings I'd been holding to for a long time. I actually wanted to revisit Stones on the new EP so I wrote it from my perspective now, as a young adult. I'm not nearly as angry as I used to be and that's reflected in the revisited version. I've grown up a lot since "Stones" and even though that song was written from the eyes of a 17 year old kid who was very much Anti-god, I am no longer that same person. 

As far as our bands view on religion, three of our members consider themselves of the Christian faith but those things have never been an issue. As a band we take no definitive stance on spirituality because we are 5 individuals with different belief systems. We do seem to get thrown onto "Christian" festivals though and honestly, they are always a blast to play. We have tons of friends who are at those fests and nothing is cooler than being invited to play and getting to meet so many new people and here so many people share their stories. Last summer we played Audiofeed festival in Champaign, IL and it was one of the best shows we've ever played up until Take Hold Fest in November.

You guys strike me as a very d.i.y.-oriented band, you have all your material up for free download which I always think is awesome, That said, you recently announced a partnership with All In Merch. I have zero experience with those folks personally, but I feel like I often read things online suggesting they can be a little sketchy at times (who knows whether that's true or not). Anyway, I'm always interested in why bands farm out certain aspects of their operation, be it in terms of merch, booking tours. etc. Why does the partnership with All In make sense for Ghost Key?

Some bands remain D.I.Y. forever and there's nothing wrong with that. We've been a D.I.Y. band since we started and it has worked out alright for us so far. In the past couple months though, with Taylor managing us, we've had so many avenues open up for us that just weren't possible when we were taking care of everything ourselves. All-In is a big step for us because not only do they represent some of our favorite bands but, they make large merch orders much more feasible since we don't have to pay thousands of dollars out of our own pockets up front to get everything printed. We're stoked to be working with them.

The band has definitely been going pretty hard the last couple years in terms of touring; you did a pretty extensive West Coast run earlier in the year...what have been some of the highlights from the road for you personally?

This summer was one of the best tours yet and we had a ton of cool experiences. Over the summer we swam in Boise, ID in one of the clearest lakes I think I've ever laid eyes on. We also played that nights show in a day care. In California we played a bar show and had to lie about Stephen's age to get him in. A really cool part of touring is honestly the drives. Not only the conversations with your friends, but seeing all the new scenery is so awesome. I remember waking up on morning and we happened to be driving on a road that you could see the Golden Gate Bridge from. Another was rolling into the desert and watching the sun rise over the sand dunes.

So you guys recently announced a management deal with Artery...what does that deal actually look like (i.e. what are they going to be doing for you) and how did you guys hook up with them?

Artery has been nothing short of incredible to us since day one. We're being managed by our good friend Taylor Lumley who currently plays for the band Beartooth. His job is sort of all encompassing. He's been responsible for us getting the All-In store, getting us on the tour with Beartooth; he's helping us get a booking agent, and a ton of other things. A manager is not something we ever thought we'd need but they've been a huge help to us. We hooked up with them through Taylor. He was offered a position at Artery and the only requirement is he had to find his first band. He offered us the slot because he's been following us for a couple years and believed we deserved it. Definitely thankful for him being such a solid dude.

In terms of "The Things I Am Not", what elements of your past material did you want to continue to include and build upon and what was perhaps different from your previous efforts?

With the new EP we really wanted to refine everything we'd done before and we especially wanted to build upon the last two songs we'd released. When we wrote and released “Winter”, we weren't entirely sure of what kind of band we were going to be. We just wrote some songs really quick, recorded them in a friend’s basement, and released them because we were just eager to share the music with our friends. With both "Attention to Detail" and "3:33" we started writing music that was a bit heavier sonically and we started to let our love for hardcore bleed through a bit more than with Winter. We realized with those two songs we had hit the sound we really wanted to go for so with the new EP we used those two songs as references. We wanted to keep playing with reverb, delay, and other effects but we also didn't want to be afraid to just riff and throw in some raw, heavy stuff. 

A huge challenge for me was that after doing several tours I started to realize that I could no longer yell like I used to. My voice had gotten significantly deeper and so I had to adapt to that change. I was both nervous and excited when we recorded because of how different the vocals sounded (at least to me) when compared to the old stuff. I think the record we've ended up with is some of our most well written material to date and I hope everyone else thinks the same.

With regard to its release, are you guys still gonna do it up D.I.Y. or are you looking for a label this time around? Is the intent for kids to be able to physically snag this thing on CD, vinyl, or both?

The record is actually being released with help from a small label that our friend Josh Epple runs. Josh hit us up around two years ago with some interest in doing a record for us. He put out a second press of the “Winter” tape for us and we finally have the new material he was hoping would show up eventually (Sorry Josh!) The label is a small DIY effort called Vacant Records that he uses to help out his friends. So Josh is helping us put out the vinyl version, we will most likely be releasing a digital version for pay what you want, and I believe we will have a small amount of CDs around the release time. The vinyl will actually be released on a 12" LP with all four songs on side A and a beautiful screen print, designed by our friend Troy of New Merit Designs, on Side B.

What's the main thing you hope people take away from Ghost Key, whether they are witnessing you in a live setting, or listening to your recorded output?

Honestly, I've only ever wanted people to listen and take what they want from it. I didn't always have someone to talk to about the shit going on in my head and that's kind of why I joined a band. So recorded, I just hope they listen and if they can identify with it then that's even cooler. Live, I've always aimed to make people see how we put all of ourselves into what we do. This band is everything to us and I think seeing us live really makes people understand that. More than anything though, it's the coolest thing in the world that ANYONE could even give us a chance so I'm just thankful for that.


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