Beat of the Bay: Ghost Box Orchestra

A bi-weekly feature that looks into the lives of up-and-coming Boston musicians

Ghost Box Orchestra’s recording studio is an abandoned freemason lodge. The space is dimly lit, and the walls are covered in intricate hieroglyphic designs and colorful molding. The huge space holds, among other things, an eclectic collection of instruments, a worn-down couch, stacks of unmarked boxes, and a half bottle of Listerine mouthwash. The only thing resembling a typical studio is the large constructed box in the middle of the space, which holds the paradoxically modern and high-tech control room. This box is not only wildly unexpected but also a little eerie, which is perfect for a band that named itself after a ghost hunting show on television.

“When Chris and I went out looking at studios, we went around to a bunch of places, and when we were here, two feet in the door, it was like, ‘This is it,’” says Jeremy Lassetter, of the band’s guitarists. Lassetter and fellow guitarist Christopher Johnson show me how they usually set up the studio, and Lassetter plays a few notes on a pink toy keyboard. “We haven’t used this yet,” he says jokingly. However, given the Lassetter and Johnson’s daring musical sensibilities, it wouldn’t be surprising if they did use something so unconventional.

This five-man band, consisting of Lassetter, Johnson, keyboardist Nazli Green, drummer Martin Rex, and bassist Dennis Noble, formed in 2008. Since then, they have steadily risen in the Boston music scene, with their innovative instrumentals and psychedelic beats. This past year, GBO was named one of Boston’s 12 Best New Bands by the Boston Phoenix. Lassetter, originally from Texas, and Johnson, from Utah, had been producing independent music and playing with various bands for several years prior to moving to Boston. “I was playing with anybody I could play with,” says Johnson about his pre-GBO musical career. A conceptually ambitious guitarist, he was immediately impressed with Lassetter’s work when the two met in Boston. “I listened to [Lassetter’s] stuff and was like, ‘Oh this is cool, I could definitely play with this stuff.’ It’s minimal in a way that gives me a lot of room.”

Ghost Box Orchestra’s music possesses few vocal melodies, and instead relies on the musicians’ dense layering of guitars, drums, keyboard, and bass. The band deftly mixes this standard setup with a range of miscellaneous instruments to create an amalgam of sound that is influenced by space rock, krautrock, spaghetti western, and other genres of psychedelic rock. “‘What if we had an orchestra setup that was all channeling bits and pieces of different sounds?’” says Lassetter about his conception of GBO. “That’s what I wanted to do with music.”

Sitting with the guitarists, I can hear pieces of their new track being played and edited in the control room by their producer. Although it is muffled, the track possesses a constancy and energy that is both laid-back and uplifting. “It’s gotten louder and spacier,” says Lassetter about the evolution of the band’s sound. “Everything I did for demos was all acoustic guitars and really clean electric guitars. And with the five people together we realized that this is going to get loud real quick, and we just went with it.”

Hanging out with Johnson and Lassetter, it is clear that they have a strong bond as bandmates. “It just feels better when everyone’s playing together, and there’s not like that ‘James Brown type’ in the group,” says Johnson. Recounting memories of Psychfest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and an open-air show in Louisiana, Lassetter and Johnson sometimes have more of a conversation with each other than they do with me. Throughout the session, the two bounce musical ideas off of each other, often referencing memories or inside band jokes.

Just before we enter into the control room to get a better listen of the new tracks, we discuss the band’s aspirations. Because it is influenced by so many genres, GBO has the freedom to manipulate and innovate its sound. “I think that it would be interesting to swing us a little more away from the western front and focus a little more on the eastern,” says Johnson. “You know, without doing too much of either, implementing more groove, more polyrhythmic stuff. I’d like to see it get a little quicker and a little more ass-shaking without being dance-y.” Lassetter nods in agreement.

The control room is full of professional recording equipment. It’s about ten degrees warmer in here than it was outside. Lassetter, Johnson, and I sit back on a couch and watch the band’s producer move around a bunch of levers to mix the music. “We’re just going to be flies on the wall,” says Lassetter. For the next 20 minutes or so, we sit in relative silence, taking in the music. It’s repetitive without being boring, ethereal and slightly unnatural, and wholly infectious. It’s clear that the band has come a long way from Lassetter’s acoustic guitar demos.

Listening to the recording gives me good sense of Ghost Box Orchestra’s musical identity; the band hits all ranges of sound, from loud, crashing drums to mellow bass to the occasional chime and tambourine. They take pride in their adventurous textures and will continue to experiment as they progress in the Boston music scene. As Johnson puts it, they’re “turning up the bump.”

—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at jihyunro@college.harvard.edu.

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