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Ghostland's Aaron Behrens talks creativity, dynamic shows and helping kids

Chad Swiatecki
Aaron Behrens (above, at 2009's ACL Fest) says he feeds off the energy of Ghostland Observatory partner Thomas Turner and of a live audience.

If there's a human personification of Prozac, it looks a lot like Ghostland Observatory's Aaron Behrens.

That's because it's hard to not smile and feel better about life when talking to the singer and guitar player of Austin's electro-dance rock duo, whether he's holding forth on his band's early days, its dynamic and shape-shifting live shows, or his recent volunteer work with Austin Bat Cave to foster creative expression for teens.

After a recent spot headlining May's Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and ahead of Ghostland's now-yearly July engagement at Whitewater Music Amphitheater in New Braunfels this weekend, Behrens talked deeply and passionately about what moves him as an artist and how that helps him move his growing mass of fans.

American-Statesman: When did you and Thomas (Turner) decide to make the live experience something really special, since that's what you're known for?

Aaron Behrens: It was never premeditated. I've always been a fan of the live element, of the moment, of the freestyle. To me that's the most precious thing that can ever be. A moment can't ever be duplicated. It's impossible. There's so many happenings going on at one time, and we love making the most of that. Thomas feels the same way, so it's something that naturally happened. Thomas took elements from raves he used to throw back in Dallas and took that feeling of never stopping and flowing all into one song. We take you on that ride, which I got from watching the Doors, and Queen and more psych music, too.

What were the steps you took to get the live show to the level it's at now?

With the whole laser thing, that happened when we were doing a show at Hogg Auditorium and we were supposed to have big LED screens in the background, but, two weeks before the show, the guy who was supposed to bring them fell through and wouldn't call us back. Thomas Googled "laser light show" and the first thing that popped up was this Light Wave International out of Pittsburgh. We called them up and said, "We'd like to get some lasers." They had a guy in Dallas auditioning for Roger Waters' show who'd hop down there and do the show. Turns out it was the owner; they loved us and we've been kind of their baby band ever since, since they do huge acts like Waters, Rihanna, people like that.

You've also become known for the Whitewater shows (coming up Friday and Saturday ). How did those come about?

They contacted us a couple of years ago when it was a new venue. It's turned into something cool, where people make a whole weekend out of it. They go tubing in the river and have a blast; the people who run it are super cool and since it's two days now I was saying it might become our version of Willie (Nelson) in Luckenbach, an annual event. I have a friend who reserves cabins the whole weekend every year for this thing.

So do you take opportunities as much for the vibe and experience as a big paycheck?

Yeah, totally. If it's a cool place, we'll do it. Especially if it's a cool place we like that no one else thinks is cool. We love anything that's for the middle class and lower class, and to take chances.

You recently started working with Austin Bat Cave on self-expression workshops for teens. How did that come about?

I've been feeling a calling to do stuff like that. An old high school friend taught at a middle school, and I went in and talked to them and their students. A lady from St. Stephen's was there and she loved it and asked it I'd come to their lit fest. When these come to me, I feel I should say yes, because otherwise no doors will open. So I did it; the film director there is head of Austin Bat Cave and asked me to try some stuff with them. Man, it was great. The more and more I do it, the more and more it's like a show. I see how to get through and how to do it better.

How much do you feel kids lose out on by not expressing themselves like you pushed them to do?

They miss out on life, who they are and the chance to really find out what they can be instead of what other people are going to judge them as. It's a "this little light of mine" type thing — everyone's got that light and they should let it shine. By me talking and making them more comfortable being themselves, that's the way to make the world a better place. If, slowly, more people preach how to help kids find the good stuff in life before the bad stuff finds them.

Did you have anyone like that in your life growing up, pushing you?

I've always been a loudmouthed kid. I grew up in a small town and TV was my entertainment, including lots of loudmouthed comedians. Eddie Murphy's "Raw" and "Delirious," Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, I loved all those guys growing up. Later it was Tommy Davidson, Jim Carrey and all the guys from "In Living Color," a lot of the "Uptown Comedy Club" guys like Tracy Morgan. They were just speaking truth. It was in a different way by breaking things down, and I carried that into when I started listening to more music and seeing great performers. I'll soak anything in. Coaches and athletes as well. It came from everywhere.

What's your creative process like, for Ghostland songs versus solo songs?

For Ghostland, I bring in riffs for guitar and work that into some loops, because that's what we're based out of. With that, I like to play off of Thomas because he's a visionary with the equipment and I love to feed off of what he does when he gets going. I love to feed off of energy, which plays into the live experience again. With solo, it's more dealing with a darker element, a sadder element. Country, bluesy, confessional type stuff. There's something so powerful to me about a man and an acoustic guitar. Nothing's closer to my heart. So I'm kind of different characters in a play.

How much of your day is taken up by creative pursuits?

I try to dabble in everything. I've done some painting and want to do more. I've done lots of photography and really love doing that. I tend to not have as much time as I used to, because having two kids will do that, but I try to do something pretty much every day, even if it's just creative thinking and doing some meditation type stuff. I try to write every day, at least some poetry that doesn't even have to be a song. That's what I try to tell these kids, is it doesn't matter if you're not a superstar with it. You don't have to make money with it. Just be a Joe Blow, but you need to feed that thing inside you. You don't have to be in any scene or hotspot like Austin to get that enjoyment.

You've got a new record finished ('Codename: Rondo'). Time to share.

It's definitely different. The sound quality is amazing. I'm squelching and squealing on only two songs. Some I'm just talking all the way through. We had fun on this album. The past records have been dark and brooding and emotion because there was some dark push and pull going on. This one, we just went in, had fun and let it come to us. Our quirkiness came all the way through. The last record had all those strings because there was so much tension and emotion going on. But it's all a party here and very quirky. Our individual personalities are coming out. It's still got your hooks. We don't make albums, we make trotlines : hook after hook after hook after hook.

cswiatecki@statesman.com