With his sex-you-up dance moves and high-pitched wail, the singer for Austin electro-dance duo Ghostland Observatory turned a lot of people on for the first time during a performance last July on Austin City Limits that was later broadcast on PBS.
“That was our first show to be exposed to a greater audience all at once,” Behrens tells CityBeat from a rented tour van headed toward San Francisco. “That got us a lot of attention because we weren't supposed to even play that one. We kind of just took over someone else's spot.”
Viewers who tuned in to see Bloc Party were treated to a freaky spectacle and auditory assault from Ghostland during the taped broadcast's second half. Behrens writhed and pranced around the stage wearing a blue embroidered tunic, tight white bell-bottom pants and sunglasses with his long brown hair parted down the middle and hanging in two braids. Think hippie-disco-Indian state trooper.
Perhaps not wanting to be upstaged, the other half of the duo, shaggy-haired producer Thomas Turner mans the electronics, keyboards and sometimes the drum kit while wearing a high-collared cape.
You might expect musicians with such eccentric stage presence to be obnoxious egomaniacs. Not so. Maybe it's his easy-on-the-ears Texas drawl, but Behrens is as chill and down-to-earth as can be. He's like a tall glass of iced tea on a warm spring day at an Austin tri-tip barbeque.
His personality is at once ethereal and grounded, likely a result of a life-long spiritual quest. Behrens grew up angry at religion but was somehow drawn to the Episcopal church next door nonetheless. He liked the way he felt being inside of the church, experiencing “that vibe that you can't explain” and “that feeling of a higher energy, a higher power.”
Behrens found what he was looking for in nature with a spiritual foundation that's more Native American tradition than Western dogma. “I needed something more real to focus on, instead of what other religions offer,” he says.
His lyrics, he says, are about “life, death, spirituality,” and they're more important to him than one might expect for an electro-dance act. He has said he enters an almost trance-like state during his energetic performances, but when it comes down to it, he says, his dancing is really “just movin' and groovin' with the tunes.”
“It's just kinda, like, whatever I'm picking up off the beats,” he says. “I've always danced my whole life, just out of love for it, just like anyone else, trying to have a good time.”
The group is currently touring in support of its third album, Robotique Majestique, which follows 2006's Paparazzi Lightning and Ghostland's 2005 debut, Delete.delete.i.eat.meat, all released on Turner's own Trashy Moped label.
The duo's music is often compared to Daft Punk. But one listen to “Dancing on my Grave,” the cut that greets visitors to the band's MySpace page, conjures thoughts of Freddie Mercury singing a Gary Numan tune. Presented with that assessment, Behrens' response is, “Oh, that's tight—that's really cool.”
Behrens grew up listening to hip-hop and metal, but he seems to be going through an '80s phase. The mention of Numan elicits an impassioned defense of the synth-dominated era into which he was born (1982). Behrens argues that making dance music influenced by the sounds of the '80s is no different than making rock music influenced by the sounds of the '50s.
“It's so surprising the way people are,” he says, referring to comments he's heard deriding the obvious new-wave influence. “I'm amazed at these fuckin' people.
“Why are people so surprised that electronic music is coming back around? [This is] music we heard from the crib. If your friggin' mom and dad [had] these radio stations on when you were growing up, how can you not be influenced by that?”
And he has exactly zero problems with being linked to the late Queen front man. “I love Freddie Mercury,” Behrens says. “I'm definitely not trying to be just like Freddie Mercury, but he's definitely an influence. Any performers that are just great performers—how could I not be influenced by 'em, you know? He [had] a great energy and a great vibe to pick up off of.”
Behrens says he and Turner are still tinkering with the smoke-and-lasers live show, which has been praised for its energy but panned for how it obscures the duo. “Yeah, dude,” he said, laughing. “I imagine for a lot of people it is [hard to see], because it's just so much light coming from behind us. But it's still amazing. It's definitely one big ball of energy.
“Hopefully, we'll fine-tune it enough so you can see some of my dance moves.”
Ghostland Observatory performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 15, at House of Blues. 619-299-BLUE. www.ghostlandobservatory.net.
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