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Let Loose and Feel Something

Rock/electronic hybrid Ghostland Observatory highlights the Gem and Jam

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Ghostland Observatory is the ideal band to headline Saturday night at the Tucson Gem and Jam. This is not simply because the fifth annual event has evolved into a mini-festival that celebrates not only gems, minerals, visual arts and music, but also because it has carved out a niche as a discerning showcase for both rock bands and electronic artists.

And the duo from Austin is nothing if not an explosive, sweat-inducing fusion of the hallelujah-shouting rock 'n' roll spirit and the cool, throbbing groove of electronica.

Gem and Jam 2009 will consist of three days of live bands, dance-music DJs and visual art installations, held at two locations--Plush and the Rialto Theatre--in conjunction with the Tucson Gem and Mineral shows. (See schedule box.)

Once upon a time--maybe the 1980s and early '90s--rock stuck to a corner of the musical map, and electronic music did the same, usually at a distance; rarely did the two meet. Thomas Turner, drummer and keyboardist for Ghostland Observatory, remembers the situation similarly.

"It was really one or the other, and both were standoffish with each other," Turner recalls of those days. "You were either into electronic music and didn't like rock, (or) there were rock musicians and listeners who hated electronic music. Now, I think those doors were broken down at some point, and people were just feeling drawn to whatever they liked, and sometimes that was rock, and sometimes it was electronic."

And these days, sometimes it's both, such as with Ghostland Observatory.

Turner creates beat-heavy sound collages that wouldn't be out of place in an '80s synth-pop record, but with an undercurrent of danger and swagger. Musical partner Aaron Behrens sings like Freddy Mercury channeling Tina Turner--yeah, he's got serious pipes--while cutting loose now and then with monstrous rock riffs. Their music has drawn comparisons to Prince, David Bowie and Daft Punk.

Their onstage look, too, is all about creating a flamboyant image, what with Turner in his mad-scientist cape and Behrens usually rocking a sexy-hippy, shades-and-braids style.

Ghostland Observatory, together since 2004, have released three full-length albums on Turner's boutique label, Trashy Moped Records. Their most recent CD is 2008's Robotique Majestique, which sounds like a whiz-bang chemistry set exploded all over the soundboard. They've played Tucson a couple of times over the years, but the Gem and Jam appearance should be special.

The duo is not on tour, so they're visiting Tucson for this date specifically, without being worn out by a string of dates. In tow, they'll have the eye-blasting laser show with which they have accompanied their performances for the past couple of years.

Ghostland has been on a roll since the summer of 2007, when they taped a performance on the legendary PBS music show Austin City Limits. Turner says after that episode aired, everything picked up for the band.

"It was just a fortunate string of events," he says. "We did Austin City Limits, the TV show, with the big laser show that we tour with now. Then we did the Austin City Limits festival, and there had to have been 50,000 people there. After that, things just took off for us."

Turner credits the duo's thriving hometown music scene for making it possible for Ghostland to develop its unique vision.

"I think that the variety of music played in Austin night after night just can't help but be an inspiration to any artist when they are starting out. ... It just creates a vibe of freedom; it's a city where almost any night of the week, you can go out and hear tons of every kind of music."

Turner and Behrens have been semi-hibernating there this winter.

"We just finished a yearlong tour ... and we really wanted to take the winter and record our new album. I just got a new studio built, and we really want to work together on that and focus. We've been on the road so much over the last few years, touring and playing shows; it's just nice when you get a chance to breathe and work."

But Turner says he and Behrens will be stoked for the Gem and Jam gig. One of Ghostland Observatory's goals is to help perk up its listeners, he explains.

"Foremost is that we try as much as possible to be positive, and in our live performances, we try to make it uplifting. No matter if you are having the worst day ever, if you come to a Ghostland show, for that 45 minutes or an hour and a half, whatever, you should be able to let loose and feel something. We want you moving and dancing by the end of our shows."

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