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Ghostland Observatory succeeds with dance music and work ethic

Michael Corcoran

Aaron Behrens and Thomas Turner, who make up the Austin dance rock duo Ghostland Observatory, are as different as a live wire and a solid state circuit, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. The gregarious, pigtail-wearing Behrens, 28, is a natural entertainer who's been performing in public since he lip-synced and danced to "Achy Breaky Heart" as a third-grader at the mall. The soft-spoken Turner, 31, is more at ease surrounded by a bank of synthesizers, or programming beats in his home studio. On stage, Turner wears a satin cape his wife made for him, but all eyes are on Behrens, who dances as if electricity pumps through his veins.

Together, these opposites attract thousands of wildly devoted fans all over the country. With Behrens raging on vocals and electric guitar, backing by Turner's thumping techno beats and the framing of spectacular shards of laser lights, Ghostland has played rock music for the dance crowd and vice versa on the bigger stages at all the major music festivals across the country. On Thursday night at Cedar Park Center, the duo may make local music history, with the highest single-date gross ticket sales ever by an Austin act not part of a package show or festival. With an average ticket price of $30 and a capacity of 8,200, the gate potential is almost $250,000 , which is more than Willie Nelson or Stevie Ray Vaughan could pull in at hometown gigs during their respective heydays. A sellout is realistic, as Ghostland grossed about $300,000 at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels over two nights in July.

What makes the accomplishments of the two-man band even more impressive is that they've never had a manager, and they put out their records — the fourth, "Codename: Rondo," is out today — on their own Trashy Moped label.

When they take their big production on the road, they travel light, with three crew members — a sound man, a production engineer and someone to run the lasers. Behrens and Turner do their share of driving two passenger vans on long hauls between shows, such as a recent run that took them from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Denver on three consecutive nights.

"Whatever it takes," Behrens said. "That's how Thomas and I connected in the beginning. We were both willing to do whatever it takes to make this thing happen."

Both married with children, Behrens and Turner had day jobs when Ghostland formed in 2004. They'd rehearse from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. every day at the Music Lab on St. Elmo Road, then have just enough time for breakfast and a shower before Behrens headed in to work as a mail clerk at a law office and Turner got back to running a small construction company.

It's a work ethic born of big dreams in small town Texas. Behrens grew up in San Saba, 140 miles north of San Antonio, and Turner in the West Texas town of Fort Stockton, where his father owned a construction business and ran a ranch. Both have Texas drawls, which is somewhat surprising after you've heard the band's aggressive, techno-laden music.

The "whatever it takes" mantra was front and center in January 2007, when the band earned its reputation as a live act willing to give fans that extra bang. After a sensational coming out party in front of 20,000 fans at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in September 2006, Ghostland decided to keep the momentum going with a special show. They rented the Hogg Auditorium at the University of Texas, but two days before the show an LED lighting tech the band had hired backed out, for unspecified reasons. "We were sold out, at $25 a ticket, which was way more than we'd ever charged before," Turner said. He Googled "laser show," and a company in Pittsburgh called Lightwave International came up. "It just so happened that the head of the company was in Dallas, showing his lasers for a Roger Waters tour. He asked us what kind of budget we had, and we said 'we'll give you whatever money we take in.'\u2009" Lightwave owner George Dodsworth drove his lasers down I-35 the next day, and his company has been handling light shows for Ghostland ever since. An expected element of their stage show, the lasers go wherever Ghostland plays, including a recent trek to Hawaii. The cost is around $5,000 a show, but for a big event like that at Cedar Park Center, it could cost "several times as much," Turner said.

Despite the visual wow factor, Turner said the band's attitude about performing hasn't changed since they played for 20 people at Momo's just six years ago. "We're trying to put out nothing but positive energy," said Turner, who occasionally plays a drum kit live. The duo avoids any scent of negativity, including lukewarm reviews of their records and random backlash from scenesters, seeing it as "a waste of energy."

Ghostland's charmed existence began on July 4, 2004, when the men played on a relative's back porch in Liberty Hill. In homage to Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnics, Behrens put his long black hair into pigtails and gave birth to his trademark look.

After playing every rock club in town, Ghostland got its big break when it performed at intermission during a roller derby match at Playland in August 2005. Charles Attal of C3 Presents was in the audience. "They were just so different from what everybody else was doing," Attal said of the band's frantic brand of dance music, which could be tagged "Rage With the Machine." It just so happened that an act dropped out of the Attal-booked Lollapalooza, which was only a week away, so he asked Ghostland if it wanted the gig.

To make the fest in Chicago, Behrens and Turner had to drive all night and half the day. As soon as their well-received set was over, there was no time to bask and party. The men had to get back in the van and drive to Austin overnight to make a show at Emo's the next day.

Whatever it takes.

Turner's path to GLO, fans' shorthand for the band, began as a teenage promoter of raves in Dallas, an experience that has helped him devise and run the Ghostland business model. "It taught me that you have to be responsible for every aspect, every detail. There's no room for carelessness," he said.

Behrens said Ghostland is different than his previous rock groups because he and Turner almost never talk about goals or strategies. "We don't have meetings," he said. "It's always just, 'Do you want to do this?' When you have only two members, it's super easy. Every decision has to be unanimous."

Behrens said his mindset when performing is to "just go with the flow" and he gives a recent example. "We were playing 'Midnight Voyage' and I just love that guitar part. We build up to it and then there's this great release, But right when we got to that part, I stepped on my guitar cord and it came out. No guitar sound. So I plugged back in and started tapping on the strings in time to the rhythm. We took the song in another direction for awhile. I could've thrown my guitar down or yelled at somebody, but we just rolled with it and came up with something cool."

mcorcoran@statesman.com 445-3652

Ghostland Observatory celebrates the release of ‘Codename: Rondo' with a show Thursday at Cedar Park Center. Tickets are $27.50 to $34.50 (plus fees). 2100 Avenue of the Stars, Cedar Park. www.cedarparkcenter.com; 512-600-5000.