When we last saw him, Austin Thomas (a.k.a. spookyghostboy) was glowing, still fresh from a year-long tour across the U.S. with Cavetown. With a summer of festivals already lined up, 2020 was trending as a breakthrough year.
Then, well, 2020 happened.
This new reality has not been easy for the DIY artist who grew up in a military family and was accustomed to life on the road. Without the ability to experience life as we once knew it, let alone play live, spookyghostboy feels rather adrift.
“Art and music have always been an expression of the things happening in my day-to-day life,” he contemplates, “and that came to a screeching halt. Without input, it’s hard – no one wants an album of 13 songs that are all ‘I’m very lonely and stuck inside my house’,” he says with a laugh.
Besides, he adds, lockdown lethargy is real.
“The greatest irony of all is [that] it’s the most free time I’ve ever had, but the least motivated I’ve ever been.”
To stop himself from going stir crazy, Thomas made a conscious decision to work on his sound. He’s outfitted a new home studio, complete with racks of synths, amps, and guitars, and professional-grade foam on the walls. Although the suite of gear and tools are a far cry from how he used to work (recording tracks in a closet with a camcorder), Thomas feels right at home.
“I’ve always felt this gravitational pull towards stuff that sounds a little broken and distorted,” he says about his love of recording to cassette and deliberately messing with the audio files. Or his current muse, a DX7 synthesizer. “It has what I call a ‘mid-fi’ quality, where it sounds slightly degraded but not like it was recorded through a toaster,” he elaborates. “That’s my sweet spot right now.”
Ethereal and textural synths prominently emerge from his experimentation, as does “shoe-gazey, slow-core guitar stuff.” His winding, self-taught approach imbues his lo-fi sound with a resourceful, DIY distinction.
That insistence on making the best of what’s around gives his music its spirit.
Emerging from this process is his most recent release, “This Is The Motto.” It’s fuller than his previous work, a little denser too.
“I wanted it to feel interesting,” says Thomas, “with more elements stacked on top of each other.” To build this foundation, he played an electric guitar through a nine-watt Fender practice amp, recorded his acoustic guitar through a USB mic, adding “really spacious synths.” Simple and authentic was a goal; the production not getting in the way of the song was another.
For example, he’s no longer afraid of mixing elements like electric and acoustic guitar.
It’s a fitting approach for the track’s lyrical inspiration. “It’s about trying to appreciate the happiness of other people in an altruistic way, and just living in the moment,” he explains. In isolation, Thomas has been learning to take joy in the small things again, valuing what we have, and the people who illuminate those pleasures.
I try to live my life’s smile
when I see you smile
A model for a better way of living then?
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”
Playing shows will happen eventually, in some form or other, and Thomas is already dreaming of being back on stage; for him, it’s “the most fulfilling aspect of music.”
“Whenever I write a song, I’m thinking about the end goal,” he says. “Which is playing in a room full of people that are feeling exactly what I’m feeling as I’m writing it. To not have that anymore has been really sad.”
But he’s optimistic, not just that gigs will return, but that they can be better than ever.
“Listening to smart people, it might be a good few years after the vaccine and the shellshock of Covid-19 wears off. But it’s really exciting that the last half of the 2020s will be the Roaring Twenties once again. I like the idea of being able to say that.”