A decade of Ghostly International at Decibel Festival

It is quite fitting that Ghostly International be one of the central focal points of this year’s seminal 10th edition of Decibel Festival. The influential label, founded in 1998 by Michigan native Sam Valenti IV, and the increasingly relevant music and arts festival share common roots in Detroit. Both as a locale and a counter-cultural center, Detroit’s underground music scene provided an inspirational back-drop for the creative minds behind each of these institutions.

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Whether by design or not, Ghostly International is the only label to be featured at every single Decibel Festival, this year marking ten years of Ghostly International showcases. Lusine, one of the label’s most prolific artists and a Seattle resident, kicked off the very first showcase a decade ago.

Since then, thirty of the label’s artists have been featured, the most by any label at Decibel. It’s difficult not to see a symbiotic relationship between Ghostly’s iconic aesthetic and Decibel’s evident passion for expressive, diverse, artistic music and visual art.

I spoke with Decibel Festival founder and curator, Sean Horton and sought to clarify what sort of coexistence the two organizations have shared over their years establishing themselves and whether or not he felt any kind of artistic camaraderie as they have done so.

Long term plans and success seem to be inherently more apparent with a festival.  How much has your vision for the festival evolved since you started and how has that evolution been influenced by Ghostly’s presence?

Decibel, like Ghostly, has always focused on a wide spectrum of talent. From techno, to electro pop, to ambient, to downtempo; both Ghostly and Decibel have placed artistry and originality above genre when selecting artists we choose to work with. In addition, we’ve both consistently presented our music with highly curated visual art, marketing and care when it comes to the live experience. I’d also like to point out that prior to the festival when I was producing events under the name Dreaming in Stereo, we booked two Ghostly tours, both of which helped in establishing our initial connection to the electronic music community in Seattle. No other label has had that much influence on me or the festival. 

Decibel has emphasized visual art with a strong, unique aesthetic more than most music festivals, evidenced by their long-running OPTICAL Audio / Visual events and more.  In what way is that either tied to or inspired by Seattle’s culture of visual art of tradition of progressive designers and digital artists? What role has Detroit’s own artistic character played in inspiring that?

Prior to my musical career, I studied fine art. Growing up in Detroit, I spent a great deal of time drawing and painting, often of the world I saw growing up there. I found the haunting mechanical edge of the metro Detroit area inspiring. Because so much of Detroit is abandoned, the city is a virtual playground for urban artists and musicians that aren’t afraid of the post-industrial landscape. I can still visualize Detroit’s landscape in the electronic music that originated there. In many ways I’ve tried to recreate that aesthetic over the years with Decibel. 

In terms of the influence of the Seattle visual arts community, from day one we’ve enlisted local talent as art directors (e.g. Jerry Abstract, Justin Byrnes, David Kwan, Joel Pryde) and the majority of our VJs/lighting designers (e.g. Brandy Gray, Zach Walker, Scott Sunn, TJ Davis, Randy Jones, Leo Mayberry, Scott James, Jonathan Womack, Momo The Monster, Christopher Bryant, etc.). Seattle is filled with technically minded visual artists who have taken their craft to new creative heights through technology and collaboration. The importance of the local fine art, graphic design and film community in relation to Decibel is immeasurable. I blame the rain for much of it.

In terms of the festival’s visual art focus, each venue is outfitted with projections and lighting systems that are either operated by the artists themselves or a VJ and/or lighting designer that we carefully select to compliment the musical talent. We also produce the OPTICAL A/V events as part of the festival program, which we’ve been hosting since year one. The OPTICAL series take place in seated venues and place equal emphasis on the visual art, which is usually performed from the stage by the music talent. Aside from club and seated events, we additionally host dB Films which take place as part of the dB Conference. These films are usually a collection of shorts, music videos and documentaries all focused on highlighting the intersections between technology and art. We have also historically hosted art installations as part of the Decibel Festival program. These installations offer a meditative experience that allows participants a chance to live within the art itself, which can often be interactive and immersive. Lastly, Decibel continues to highlight regional graphic design and fine art through local galleries and art exhibitions at club events and the dB Conference. This year we’ll be combining all of these visual art experiences and more as part of the 10th Annual Decibel Festival.

Both Ghostly and Decibel have featured many different styles of music, respectively, over the years that all seem to share underground or electronic leanings. You seem to share similar visions in that way. How are your similar approaches informed by your common background, in a city where there has been for a very long time a tradition of underground, unique, original music?

Growing up in the Detroit area I was exposed to some of the most influential and ground breaking electronic dance music the world has ever known. I feel privileged to have experienced Detroit Techno in its hay day through artists like Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Carl Craig, Kevin Saunderson, Mike Huckaby John Acquaviva, Claude Young and Clark Warner, all of whom had an influence on my cultural upbringing as a teen. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1996, I was a burgeoning deejay and producer carrying with me the D.I.Y. tradition of Detroit’s electronic music community. One of the first events that I produced at The Evergreen State College hosted an artist I discovered in Detroit through Plus 8 Records -Fred Giannelli aka the Kooky Scientist. Over the year’s we’ve hosted over 20 of Detroit’s most beloved electronic music artists, including Richie Hawtin, Theo Parrish, Carl Craig, Matthew Dear, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Octave One to name a few. Looking at the 2013 program, we’re excited to be hosting a wide variety of Detroit area talent, including Kyle Hall, Jimmy Edgar, ADULT. and Shigeto.

The Sight Below and Lusine, two of Ghostly’s most prolific and respected artists, are both from and based in Seattle. What does their presence here mean for Decibel as an artistically influential event? How does Ghostly relate to Seattle as a scene by representing those artists?

Both Rafael aka The Sight Below and Jeff aka Lusine have played major roles both with the festival and the Seattle music scene as a whole over the past decade. Rafael was co-curator of the OPTICAL series and an important member of the festival staff from 2006 to 2011. Jeff kicked off our very first Ghostly Showcase and has performed for Decibel every year since. More importantly, they’re both friends whose music and opinions I respect greatly. It’s been a pleasure watching both of their careers expand over the years -Jeff as an accomplished film scorer/composer and Rafael as a festival curator, mastering engineer and prolific composer. I consider them both international ambassadors to Seattle’s music culture and with each remix, track, score, collaboration, performance and curated event, they help perpetuate what I feel is one of the most talented and highly productive music communities in the world. Seattle owes much to both of them as does Decibel. 

What does Decibel and Ghostly celebrating 10 years together mean for your organization and where do you see things going in the future?

For me, it’s a testament to both of our organizations. It’s a testament to our ability to remain relevant in an ever-changing music market. It’s a testament to our audiences, whom have continued to support the music we believe in. More than any other partner, let alone label, Ghostly has helped inspire and shape the Decibel program. Every year they’ve delivered and every year I look forward working with their artists, who much like the label, are humble, passionate and genuine. This year not only marks 10 years of Ghostly International showcases at Decibel, it marks the 30th Ghostly International artist we’ve booked over that time. The list includes, Gold Panda, Tycho, Matthew Dear, Audion, School of Seven Bells, Dabrye, Lusine, Shigeto, Aeroc, The Sight Below, Com Truise, Mux Mool, Christopher Willits, Michna, Solvent, HTRK, Midwest Product, Kill Memory Crash, Cepia, Twine, Loscil, Kate Simko, Ellen Allien, Bodycode, Geoff White, Jeff Samuel, Gadi Mizrahi, Beacon, ADULT. and Dauwd. As long as both Decibel and Ghostly are in existence, I will curate Ghostly artists as part of the festival program.  

Written by Kyle Young

Click HERE more information in the 2013 Ghostly International Showcase featuring Shigeto, Lusine, Beacon and Dauwd.