In this digital age, transcontinental collaborations are becoming a viable way for musicians who live in different corners of the world to pool their individual talents and make a record together. Take multi-instrumentalists Chris Brown (who hails from Tennessee) and Ronald Wahle (who calls The Netherlands home). They met on Neal Morse's internet message board, decided to form a band and make a critcially acclaimed CD called Cycles. And now a new disc is in the works, too. Michael Popke finds out how these guys do what they do.
Sea of Tranquility: How did you strike up a meaningful musical relationship over the Internet?
Brown: It was just an instantaneous thing when we heard each others' music. The first piece I heard from Ron was a track he had posted there on the board. I had ideas for guitar parts, lyrics, and vocal melodies upon first listen. After a couple of e-mails, I bounced my ideas off of him and he said, "Go for it!" That particular piece later became "Mass Suggestion - Part 1" on the album. In turn, I also sent him one of my tracks that needed drums on it. That one was "Broken Glass," and it just kind of went on from there.
Wahle: I sometimes feel like this was meant to be. I finished mailing around my first instrumental solo album at that time to try to get a break in the world of film scoring. Chris had just released his two instrumental albums. We both had some positive feedback on our music, but to be honest nothing much happened for the both of us. Right at that time we ran into each other, and as Chris said, there was a click.
What is the greatest challenge of creating music with someone half a world away, let alone with someone you've never even met?
Brown: In this sort of situation, discipline is really the most difficult part of it all, I think. You're working long distance in private studios. There's never anyone else around to kind of kick you into gear when you're not feeling up to recording, or mixing, or whatever. That's where deadlines really come into play and are helpful. Apart from that, my greatest weakness as a producer is in the area of drums. It can be very hard for me to communicate specifics about nit-picky things I'd like out of drum performances. Fortunately for me, Ron is experienced enough as a drummer to understand what I mean when I express a percussion idea in my less-than-professional way.
Wahle: We also had to develop a method to put all of it together. Now, we never had a problem writing songs and adding parts to something the other guy wrote. The artistic part of Ghost Circus has been a natural thing from day one. It's the technical side of it that turned out to be a challenge. I guess the drum recording and mixing is a good example of that. At first I mixed down all the separate drum parts and sent them to Chris so he could upload all of them into his running projects. It turned out to be very time consuming on both ends without getting a satisfying result. So we decided to let me handle the drum mixing and send the entire drum track for each song as one stereo file. Usually this can be very tricky, because you can't change much about a single drum track in the final mix. But it ended up being the perfect way for Ghost Circus. Aspects like this took a fair amount of time to develop. But now we know what the right and wrong methods are, so album number two will take way less time to put together.
With so many disparate influences, how did you determine the musical direction of Ghost Circus?
Brown: I wouldn't say that there was ever a talked-about point of what we would sound like or what kind of overall direction we would take. We were just ourselves and played, and wrote, the way we do individually. Everything just came together as each song progressed. So much of the sound and musical approach of Ghost Circus is simply the natural chemistry between Ron and me. In fact, I think the only discussion we ever had about the style of Ghost Circus was about having an album of different songs and pieces of music that were unique to each other. Not just one individual, predictable sound throughout the album.
Wahle: After recording some songs, it turned out we had "a sound." To be honest, I still don't know what causes it. It's just a mixture of what the both of us do, and frankly we don't have the desire to figure it out because that might spoil the magic.
Your music has been called everything from progressive to AOR. Where does Ghost Circus fit on the genre spectrum? And do genres even matter in today's fragmented musical universe?
Brown: Personally, I'm very pleased to be able to call Ghost Circus "Progressive Rock" and to be accepted by fans of the genre. I have always wanted to play music that could be considered that. Then again, it's not really a matter of being labeled anything in particular to us. We just write and play whatever we feel. Nomenclature is best left for the listeners and journalists. Call us "Neo-Prog." "Progressive," "Modern AOR," whatever. It all seems to fit.
Wahle: I know music must have a label so people can figure out where you fit in. But again, we never had a plan. After writing all the music, we decided it was a mixture of progressive and AOR. I'm a great fan of general pop music, and Chris is really into metal. We both love prog. So it ended up being a mixture of those styles.
What can listeners expect to hear on the new album? Is the collaboration process working the same way it did for Cycles?
Brown: At this point, we have both agreed that we're going to continue recording the way we always have — if for no other reason than to maintain the whole "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" idea. And as for the music on the next album, without giving away too much here, it looks like we're going to be exploiting each other's individual tastes and talents a good bit further. In my case, it'll be a strange balance between my more metal-esque leanings, and also my acoustic work. I think what it boils down to is that we'll be leaving most of the outside influences aside and concentrating more on what we've both done in our own respective musical lives.
Wahle: For me, it's a bit extra-heavy guitar here and there, more expressive drums — better sounds and a bit more adventurous — and tons of keys I'm afraid (laughs). I'm having a blast with software synths, and I write 75 percent of my music on keys. So yeah, keys will always be a big part of the Ghost Circus sound, but the music remains guitar-driven most of the time. And there will be an epic on it. For now, that piece hits 16 minutes. But that is likely to grow into a 20- to 25-minute piece.
Would you two eventually like to meet each other? Or would that ruin the collaborative chemistry? (laughs)
Brown: We have met. Ron has come over here to the States a couple of times. Once when we were finishing the Cycles album, and then a year later, right before the album came out. The only thing we haven't done is work over an extended period of time in the same place together. There is one extremely positive upside to that, in that we always give time for new ideas when they are presented. There are no knee-jerk reactions to a new piece when either of us writes one. We usually listen to the idea, give it a day or so and think it over, and then send our thoughts about it.
Wahle: I agree — this is a big benefit. We listen to each other's demos at least 10 times before coming to a conclusion. Sometimes it takes a while to get it. And yes, I've been to Chris' house, both in 2005 and 2006. But to be honest, we never worked much on music when we were together. It's basically getting to know each other (talking, drinking, eating, watching DVDs and jamming) and talking about — and taking care of — the business side of Ghost Circus. Most of the contact we have is by e-mail and MSN/web cam, but that's always about Ghost Circus. So getting together is mainly about socializing.
Last question: What's the behind the duo's name?
Wahle: It's Chris' fault! He made it up! (laughs) To be honest, there's no deep meaning behind it. It sounds good. And, very important in this day and age, ghostcircus.com was still available!
Brown: Yeah, that's about it! I do admit that I'm into things like the paranormal, so that figured into it. But mostly it was just a good-sounding name. It just felt right and, much as with the music itself, you have to go with what feels right.
(Click here to read our reviews of Cycles)