Ghost - Biography
Ghost are a free-floating Japanese psychedelic band/commune built around founding core member Masaki Batoh. Much regarding the band is shrouded in mystery, which seems to contribute to the other-worldly reputation the band has garnered during it's history.
Masaki Batoh grew up in Kyoto, Japan and attended a private school that afforded him access to music and influences not readily available to the average Japanese student. While attending the school, Batoh became fascinated with American rock music, especially from the 60's and early 70's. Early favorites included the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd and Japanese psychedelic bands such as the Flower Travellin' Band and the Taj Mahal Travellers. The latter two bands free-floating aesthetic as well as the influence of such bands as Can, Amon Duul, and some of the late 60's American West Coast psychedelic bands such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane contributed to Batoh wanting to form a new kind of communal rock band, though with a decidedly Japanese outlook and one that would emphasize spiritual concerns over hedonistic abandon. Differing sources place the band's formation in Tokyo as either taking place in 1984 or 1988, and the group became known for their shadowy, nomadic existence and other-worldly performances in venues not usually associated with rock music. Ghost took up refuge in some of Tokyo's forgotten corners, living for periods of time in ancient temple ruins and disused subway stations, all the while forging their improvisation-based musical aesthetic.
Ghost remained an underground presence in Tokyo until their eponymously titled debut album appeared in 1991, released in the United States on the Drag City label. The core group of Batoh on vocals, acoustic guitar and banjo, Taishi Takizawa on guitars, flute and saxophone, Kohji Nishino on bass guitar and Mu Krsna playing percussion were joined by no less than 11 guest musicians to craft an album that swings from gentle, spiritual contemplation to out-and-out noise fests and then back again while keeping a surprisingly consistent vision. Ghost established the band as carrying on the tradition of such band/communes as Amon Duul, but with their own unique Eastern bent. The group followed up their first album with a second effort released in 1992, titled, appropriately, Second Time Around (Drag City). The album continued the band's synthesis of influences both Western and Eastern, including using a Celtic harp on one song, and finger cymbals, Tibetan bells and a bell tree on another. All of the members of Ghost contribute percussion throughout the album, which contributes to the feeling the listener gets of stumbling across the recordings of an ancient and mysterious ceremony. Ghost next released a live album of some of the material off of their first couple of recordings in 1994, Temple Stone (Drag City). The album was recorded in two locations, a Christian church and a Shinto temple, and further showed how the band was interested in presenting itself in traditionally non-rock venues that have a strong connection with spirituality. The group included a reworking of the traditional folk song “Blood Red River” on the album, starting it as a faithful rendering of the standard, but ending it as a noisy blues-based freakout. Temple Stone showed that Ghost were just as effective live, (if not more so), than they were on record.
Batoh's underlying fascination with Eastern mysticism and, especially, Tibetan culture, fully came to emerge on the group's next album, Lama Rabi Rabi (1996 Drag City). The band carried through with its reliance on pieces built around masses of mostly Eastern percussion instruments combined with acoustic instruments like banjo, flute and cello and the more traditional rock instrumentation of guitars, bass and drums. It bears mentioning that it seems at no time has Batoh or Ghost tried to make the band sound like any one type of music or have they ever changed their sound to appeal to a wider audience. Ghost appears to be a band that runs off of whatever spiritual energy the members of the group have at the time of recording or performing, and thus even performances of the same song can be different on different nights depending on where the group decides to venture.
Ghost didn't release another album until 1999, and then released two albums within weeks of each other. Batoh has said that he sees the band as an added benefit to the members lives, not as necessarily their main focus, and so work in the band is done when the spirit moves them and when time allows. Batoh explains; “We are like an amoeba. There are members who fluctuate in and out. For me, I am an acupuncturist first,” he says of his main means of employment, “ and a member of Ghost second.” The two albums released on Drag City in early 1999, Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet and Snuffbox Immanence. Both albums showcased the band's almost head-spinning eclecticism, with Snuffbox featuring a Rolling Stones cover song, a psychedelic work-out featuring electric guitar and harpsichord, and several songs featuring such instruments as cello, vibraphone and flute. Tune In... includes mostly spoken word vocal tracks asking the rest of the world to do what it can for the Tibetan people and to free Tibet from occupation by China, and features Ghost's usual battery of instruments along with various Tibetan wind instruments. Tune In... also features a cover of a Pearls Before Swine track and the mind-blowing improvisational tour-de-force title track, which clocks in at over a half hour in length.
After completing the dual albums, Batoh considered leaving Ghost and his music career in general, instead focusing on his acupuncture career and his work in helping to free Tibet, but was urged to continue by his friends Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski, the former rhythm section of seminal American psych-rock band Galaxie 500, who now record under the name Damon & Naomi. The pair teamed with Batoh and Ghost members Michio Kurihara and Kazuo Ogino and recorded the album Damon & Naomi With Ghost (Sub Pop), released in 2000. The album showcased all members feel for the hushed, quietly spiritual side of music and included cover songs of Tim Hardin and Alex Chilton.
Following a brief US tour in 2002, nothing was heard from Ghost until 2004, when the group released Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City). In the intervening years changed were made to the band, with cellist Hiromichi Sakamoto and percussionist Setsuko Furuya leaving and being replaced by the young rhythm section of Takuyuki Moriya on bass and Junzo Tateiwa on drums and percussion. The new version of the band had time to jell, and the band released one of their most fully realized albums to date. Ghost stepped into the new century with all of their psychedelic/hippy influences intact, but infused the new album with a more electric edge and subtle use of electronics than they ever had before. The line-up of the band stayed relatively stable and released another album in early 2007, In Stormy Nights (Drag City). In Stormy Nights showcased all the contributing elements that went into Ghost's sound, from noise to free improvisation to folk to psychedelic rock and even modern classical composition. The centerpiece of the album is the 28-minute long “Hemicyclic Anthelion”, a track that was constructed from various Ghost live performances and edited together by Batoh. The album again showed how Ghost did not adhere to a certain sound or working arrangement, but constructed songs as their members heard them and were able to construct them with their formidable skills on different musical instruments.
As if In Stormy Nights wasn't enough to cave their fan's heads in, the band released a dual CD/DVD set of a performance in 2006 in Japan called Overture: Live In Nippon Yusen Soko (2007 Drag City). Both the CD and DVD document a single evening's performance at a warehouse space that had been converted into a venue for art happenings. The group is featured lined up in front of the audience with large, lace screens separating themselves from the assembled crowd and from one another. The entire performance is one long improvised piece, with the band listening to each other and shifting the dynamics of the performance by what each member hears and feels at that particular moment. The effect is more in the line of a religious ritual or modern classical performance rather than a rock concert. Ghost continue to forge their own path in music and carve out their own niche in whatever direction they decide to move in.