Ghost Against Ghost is the brainchild of New York City-based composer/songwriter/producer Christopher Bono. He began performing his ambient, electronic wall-of-sound compositions around the city with multimedia components in 2008.
Recently Bono released Ghost Against Ghost’s EP Unarm, and it began receiving critical acclaim from outlets like Stereogum and Ghettoblaster Magazine this year, and was kind enough to answer some questions about his mystifying music and creation processes:
This project came about from a concept album you envisioned in a dream back in 2008. Explain how you approached this and what it took to stay on track.
Christopher Bono: It’s been a long, long road with several unexpected detours. I originally began Ghost Against Ghost back in ’07-’08, and wrote a bunch of material for a surreal socio-political concept album, a concept that did come in a dream.
We performed some shows in NYC, which I believe people enjoyed, but I took a sabbatical from performing to try to realize a neo-prog meets epic-classical style I imagined, but had no idea how to execute technically. This led me to years of studying different music and production styles and techniques, three classical albums under my own name, and then finally the decision, several years later, to return to Ghost Against Ghost.
Now, writing and production has been done on three full length Ghost Against Ghost concept albums, all with a different theme and character. The first to be released (still love LP, June 2016), strangely enough, is the most recent to be written. In essence, I’m working backwards from here towards the origins of the idea.
What did you find to be the most difficult part of producing and arranging a concept album?
Maintaining and developing a theme that weaves cohesively through the whole album, creating dynamic interest on a micro level and on a macro level. It’s relatively easy to write consistent music; it’s very hard to write consistent music that relates to itself from both a present moment and big picture perspective. Particularly in this soundbite era, where it feels the ‘concept’ album is lost upon most of the general public, it’s challenging to maintain focus on one single theme.
Of course, it’s much easier as a writer when that theme is close to your own heart and mind. I don’t claim to be successful at it, I just use the overall strategy to try and reach the end point.
How did you link up with fellow artists Anthony Molina and Thomas Pridgen, and how did they contribute to your vision from the start?
Anthony and I have been friends for some time and had worked together on a few different musical projects including the improvisational ensemble I founded, NOUS. As I began to write the material for the still love LP, I reached out to Anthony to see if he was interested in doing the pre-production and initial tracking with me. We worked together on the songs for a couple months, really got their base solid, and then did some initial tracking for the overall skeletal structure of the album.
On each of the Ghost Against Ghost albums, I’m approaching the instrumentation with a slightly different focus . On still love I wanted to experiment with live drums and dense layers of analogue synths along with moments of heavy, ambient guitars. I had not worked with live drums in awhile, so it was interesting to experiment with. I had spoken to Thomas in the past about working on a project together and he was interested, but I had imagined it being more of an experimental music thing for another project or a special live performance. Thomas was supposed to be on the road at the time touring, and literally the day I was writing emails to other drummers trying to find the right player for the record, Thomas texted me saying he was available. So we flew him out to [the record label] Our Silent Canvas’ upstate New York studio and recorded drums all day for three days. The results were amazing; the guy is insanely talented.
After the drums were tracked, and the initial skeleton was laid down, I took over the production to flush out the orchestration and arrangement on my own. That’s taken me… oh about 15 months!
Tell us about what it’s like to build a live set when you’re dealing with ambient music and multimedia.
Every project is so different; from having a large chamber orchestra play with live video and sample tracks, to having a group of musicians playing vertically in a spiral tower with dancers and electronics, every scenario has a distinct set of challenges.
For the upcoming tour of Ghost Against Ghost, we’ll be using 3-4 Ableton Live rigs, along with live instruments. The entire rig is quite complicated as it’s important for us to leave a high level of improvisation in the set. Aside from several instances of Ableton and on-stage controllers, mixers, and processors, we’ll be running things at will through several amplifiers onstage, as well as playing live guitars, synths, drums, and other things.
We’ll also be performing live to some amazing visuals. We’re currently working on two epic music videos with film maker Craig Murray, the first comes out this spring. Each of the videos is 16 minutes long, so they’re not your standard music videos but more like short films. Craig created hours of footage for these films which we plan to use live with a video artist who can improvise with them alongside the performances. We’re still working on the technical details of it all this spring. The ambient music portions of the set are easier to execute as they’re not as time dependent as the very precise rhythmic moments, of which there are many on this project. We’re still trying to determine how we can do what we dream of doing on a small indie budget, but we’ll figure something out.
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How did people initially react to your performances, and how did it evolve?
The first performances with Ghost Against Ghost I think blew some people’s minds; they were loud and noisy with lots of lights and video on a very lo-fi level. These upcoming shows should be a little more refined, but hopefully still unpredictable and chaotic at times. This project is at it’s best when it oscillates between delicate beauty to apocalyptic noise within an 5-10 minute spectrum.
What kind of advice can you offer to indie artists who perform music that they worry may be difficult to translate live?
Honestly, I battle with my own doubting demons every day. The one thing I tell myself is to trust in the process, and although the ideal version of your dreams may not manifest, some version eventually will. Chances are this version will be pretty cool, and have its own unique merit you could not have foreseen. I have a hard time keeping it simple; it seems my brain likes to build more and more complex systems, so I’m working hard as I get older to write and organize from a more simplified standpoint.
If someone asked, I would recommend to not allow your own voice, or someone else’s, to tell you “it can not be done”, but at the same time use discernment, intelligence, and detachment to allow for an evolved and practical version to unfold.
Tell us about the impact that classical music wound up having on your musical journey.
A very big one starting in my mid-twenties. It’s a long story, but essentially the first Ghost Against Ghost record (again the third in line to complete) drove me into studying classical music. I imagined these epic soundscapes and arrangements, but I didn’t know how to technically achieve them although I heard what I was looking for in the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Wagner, John Adams and tons of other people. This led to a five year period dedicated to studying classical music.
The more I got into it, the more I drifted further and further away from more popular music. At one point, I was even planning to go back to school for a masters and doctorate in composition. The study and world of classical music is so vast and rich with interesting detail and subtlety; it really is extraordinary. But there was a point where I woke up from this beautiful intellectual trance I was in and remembered my original vision, so I began the process of building a bridge back to the post-rock world from which I came.
Unarm has received critical praise from some super credible sources. What are you trying to express emotionally on this release?
It’s a song written to a damaged and lost soul, an old soul who for a long time has been on a destructive and dangerous path. The lyrics are written in second person perspectivefrom a person who loves this main character immensely. The lyrics are like a whispering into the heart of the lost soul, an inner, telepathic dialogue telling him to look within for his answers and not continue to seek outward gratification in order to fill the deep wells of sorrow he has inside.
What kind of inspiration went into the recording of Unarm? Do you actively practice Tonglen?
The still love LP, (from which the Unarm EP comes- yes, I know, confusing), is about a deeply difficult personal situation. As most artists do, I worked to transform the confusion and pain of this situation into a work of art. Unarm marks the moment in this narrative where the lyrics speak directly to the ‘villain’ of this tragic love story. Up to that point, I actually am singing and writing lyrics that are not from my viewpoint, but from that of the victim.
I’ve been interested in Buddhism for many years now and have practiced meditation pretty regularly for about 10 years. I’ve read about Tonglen and listened to teachings on it a few times. The whole visualization of it has always fascinated me, and I have tried it in my own life on several occasions. I do believe these practices have an incredible psychological power to recondition the neurological patterns in the mind to stop perceiving the world from such a selfish perspective, which is so habitual for so many of us.
How long have you been producing and engineering? What do you feel are some of the pros and cons of having your hand in all facets of a release in this sense?
I started experimenting with recording and engineering when I first got into music around 21 years old. I bought a BOSS multitrack recorder in my early 20s that I ‘produced’ my first album on, (which was never released). I then wrote a singer-songwriter record while living in Boston that I recorded with the producer, Zoux.
During this 8 month period I learned a lot about the studio process and approach, and after the album I began expanding my own studio and studying recording techniques, which I’ve continued to evolve over the last 11 years. Trying to produce my own material in my late twenties was very challenging, particularly wearing the subjective and objective hats of both artist and producer. I found over time though that I became better at managing the process; it mainly comes down to having faith in your self and not judging things too early.
The biggest difficulty with being in charge of so much is the amount of time it takes to finish a project. I wish I had the budgets to be able to hire a full on production team; however, it’s not in the cards at this time. So instead of it taking 2 months to finish a record, it ends up taking two years; but that’s ok, in the end it’s great to know you tried your best and were able to do your own work the way you wanted to.