Ghost Funk Orchestra Makes DIY Latin Jazz From His Brooklyn Apartment

Seth making recordings on the first tape machine he owned, at his former apartment in Bed-Stuy.

Seth making recordings on the first tape machine he owned, at his former apartment in Bed-Stuy. (Cherylynn Tsushima)

When multiple friends from different social circles mention the same guy’s name to you for completely different reasons, it’s often a strong indicator that you two ought to meet. That was my initial reason for wanting to meet Seth Applebaum, the Brooklyn garage rocker and bedroom recording wizard behind several releases on King Pizza Records. But then I heard his music.

King Pizza is different from all other Brooklyn labels (and there are quite a few labels churning out psych and garage these days, as you know) because they have a mission statement baked right into their M.O—”10 percent record label, 90 percent community.” That’s what Applebaum’s bandmate and former roommate Greg Hanson was thinking when he started King Pizza a few years ago. This spirit has kept the quality high, the support structure strong, and the consistent creative output all in the family.

But what makes King Pizza so appetizing is that the label has a sense of humor, too. Consumate showman and funnyman Dan Soto’s got a band called The Gabba Ghouls that plays only on Halloween, throwing out sausages and pasta into the crowd and ensuring you’ll have to get spaghetti out the grout of your shoes for at least a week. King Pizza’s annual Pizzafest, meanwhile, brings all the bands together each summer for three days of garage, surf and fuzz, with ample breaks for you to grab a slice.

While King Pizza’s output continues to grow and bands like the wryly named Big Huge find themselves play bigger and bigger rooms, Applebaum has his own thing going on. That’s called Ghost Funk Orchestra, a mostly solo affair that allows him to explore his long-gestating love of Latin music, particularly salsa and jazz. Ghost Funk’s new EP, Night Walker, is a stunning achievement not only because it was recorded by one dude at his ever-evolving Ghostload Sound with a minimal amount of help (his brother plays bass and a variety friends fill out vocal duties, violin and trumpet parts) , but because it sounds so fully realized and mature.

‘Latin jazz, they just didn’t get it, or they thought it was elevator music.’

Which is to say, this isn’t just the vanity project of some hipster kid appropriating another culture’s genres with minimal respect for the form. Everything about Night Walker, from Applebaum’s drum sounds to the production, pays respect to the sounds he loves while infusing a bit of his own sonic sensibilities into the mix for good measure.

We met outside Little Skips for the following chat to discuss Ghost Funk, the first release on Applebaum’s new King Pizza imprint, Ramble Records. In a city that largely imports its popular garage and psych acts as they tour from the West Coast, King Pizza has managed to carve out a name for itself. And talking to Applebaum about the importance of community and joys of discovering new sounds, you can’t help but get the sense that Ramble Records will soon carve one out, too.

 

I’m not a deeply spiritual man, but I like it when different friends know the same people and things loop around. It convinces you that there’s logic to the universe, or to chaos of your social circle, at least. It’s a small world. We went to the same alma mater, Emerson, right?

Yeah, I graduated in 2011.

And you know Dan Soto, you recorded the Dan Soto and the High Doses EP?

I did, yeah.

A great fucking record. Are you the guy with the studio where bands pay 50 dollars a song all-in?

[laughs] Pretty much, yeah. I relocated recently from where I did all those recordings. I’m in a new spot. I used to be in Bed-Stuy, now I’m in Ridgewood, and I’ve got a basement but I’m still working out all of the kinks in the room and making sure I can do it again without bugging neighbors.

Less a business opportunity and more a space for your friends to realize their shit and get creative.

Yeah, and I never did the recording as a business, it was more [that] I had bought gear and wanted to make a little bit of that back. I was getting gear off Ebay to record my own stuff, and when I started to realize my set-up I had all these friends who were as broke as I was. I thought, man, I’m pretty sure we can do this. Come over and record one song, five songs. With Dan, with that EP, that wasn’t even with his band. He literally showed up to my apartment a couple Saturdays in a row with a little parlor acoustic and a cheap keyboard. He would play and sing a song on the acoustic then we would build it out from there. I would play drums to his acoustic, which was tough because the tempo was all crazy, and then we’d build the songs track by track. Just the two of us, or occasionally with one other person doing tambourine or vocals.

This is the recording setup Seth used for Night Walker. Located in his bedroom at his former apartment above a tire shop in Bed-Stuy.

This is the recording setup Seth used for Night Walker. Located in his bedroom at his former apartment above a tire shop in Bed-Stuy. (Seth Applebaum)

Well everyone in that circle speaks really highly of you and your adaptability. On the Ghost Funk Orchestra album, you play everything?

Yeah, well almost everything.

People don’t realize hard it is to capture a perfect drum sound on recording, the right timbre I guess. Is that something you either obsess over or are kind of focusing on?

Well when I record myself playing drums I use one mic, and I’ll just find a good spot for the mic and play to where it is. I’ve also been using this drum kit for so long that I just know where it sounds good, and I’ve recorded it on so many different projects. But I’ve got a snare that I like, and I don’t really do a lot of cymbal stuff. So it’s really about finding a good spot where the kick and the snare sound as big as they can. And I’ve got a bunch of 15 dollar mics from Ebay that just sound really good.

This record sounds great, and we’re both beared Jews, so I wonder where the Latin instrumentation comes in for you. You can hear certain music and tell that the person who made it listens to everything, but just with regards to the vibe of this… it’s hard to make us Jews dance I guess.

Yeah, I’ve been to enough Jewish weddings to know you can get ‘em going! [laughs] But the Latin thing is… I grew up in New Jersey and there was a CD store in my hometown called Sound Station, and that’s where I was introduced to so much of that kind of music. The Latin thing has always stuck with me, and is something I didn’t really have a lot of friends I could relate to [about]. Latin jazz, they just didn’t get it, or they thought it was elevator music.

People like Herb Alpert kinda ruined the genre for everyone.

Well yeah, that’s what people think of, they’ll think of “Spanish Flea” and I’ll think, ‘wow, you are so way off base!’

So who are your heroes of the genre?

I think early on it was Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente, and then I was working for Wax Poetics right out of college. When I came in they had just done a big reissue project with Numero Group to reissue all of the Fania releases. That’s the label for upper-Manhattan salsa, and I just got really into Salsa music. Earlier this year I got to see Willy Colon, the Salsa legend, and there was always something about Latin music, the percussion, that just got me going. It always felt good to listen to.

‘There was always something about Latin music, the percussion, that just got me going. It always felt good to listen to.’

But this record doesn’t sound like the music of an outsider, it doesn’t sound like you’re appropriating it as an audiofile or a fetishist. It sounds like you’re going to these shows, watching these dudes play, interested in the technique and even the scene too to some degree?

Yeah, and in working those styles in it wouldv’e been weird for me to just go in and make a straight salsa record, because that would’ve felt like plagiarism in a sense. I like working in some of those elements, and having my friend singing in Spanish is cool because I don’t speak Spanish.

What was her name again?

Adrii Muniz. I gave her a blueprint, wrote lyrics in English. She translated them, edited them to fit and it just fit so well. Even though I’m not a Spanish speaker, it felt right to match that percussion and rhythm with the language that it’s usually attached to.

And the language that you had as a recording artist too, right? I let the Soundcloud play after the record and your old shit came on, and it’s very different. I’m wondering if the new EP has the old things that you learned, the old sounds and the old styles that you loved, infused with the Latin styles or blended in. Is that fair?

Yeah, I’d say so. The first one was done way more haphazardly and with way more limitations, so I was kind of figuring out while I was doing that one what the project was even gonna be. I didn’t know. For this one I did way more pre-production—wrote and demoed songs before I committed them to tape—and there were certain elements that I couldn’t work into the first. I said I’m gonna push myself a little harder and make this one more fully developed. The first one doesn’t get much more beyond beats in my mind. This one I wanted to be more songs, and it was a lot of just messing around in my apartment when I had time, either drums or guitars first, and just finding something in the building off of it.

How do you get that back when you wanna start playing these songs live?

I don’t know. [laughs] Everybody that’s a fan of the project has asked me when I’m putting together a live band, and I’m working on it.

Maybe it’s just a matter of going to these shows and embedding yourself in the scene enough to find players.

It’s possible. On the first EP I did everything, and this was the first time I involved anyone else. I had my brother play bass on a few tunes because he’s a better bass player than I am, and I had the singers. It kind of forced me to have my shit together, because I’m telling people to come over now and contribute, I need to have something for them to actually do. I can’t say, ‘you figure it out.’ And I gave them freedom, it wasn’t like I told them exactly what to do, but I knew I wanted to have my ideas more fully formed before they came in. And to that effect, when I get a band together, I gotta have all my ideas down and it’ll be a little more rigid. This is what you’ve gotta play on this part, you know?

Seth sound at a show at a King Pizza Records showcase at IDIO Gallery.

Seth sound at a show at a King Pizza Records showcase at IDIO Gallery. (Greg Hanson)

Well I don’t think you’ve made a studio recording in the sense that you won’t be able to pull it off live, but it’s interesting to think about playing a record that’s not a studio concoction, but maybe studio realized? You kind of make your own genre here. You’re in a liberating place with it because you can really align yourself with a number of scenes. You could work into a groove slowly, like a DJ, with a drummer who works slowly into the groove of a song and then the song comes in and then it fades away. But I thought talking about a scene would be interesting, because you kinda have one, but you also live in Ridgewood, where maybe Trans Pecos is it as far as the live avant-garde music community?

Yeah, that’s definitely the most active spot. There’s a new place called The Footlight but it’s very new and they don’t really have a foothold in any scene yet, they’re still kinda figuring it out. That’s another thing, if and when I put a live band together, where do we play?

Trans Pecos seems to do a really good job hosting weirder shit, branching out and embracing then connecting some really disparate musical communities.

Definitely.

Which is what a good venue does. They could have different shit every night and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Yeah, my friends run this dub label and they’ve been doing backyard shows there, Dub-Stuy Records. I’ve been buds with those guys since they’ve started, and that’s been cool, too. I haven’t worked those sounds into myself at all, but it’s cool being weirdly involved in this dub scene that I probably never would’ve sought out on my own.

Well how do you get involved with a new scene or a new genre? Dudes like Bowie would hop from sound to sound or Station to Station every album or two and go somewhere else but throw away the past sounds, but I get the sense that you don’t do that, you keep building.

Yeah. The way I’ve kind of approached it is, I’m satisfying a lot of different needs. When I’m in my main bands like The Mad Doctors and The Fucktons, those are my garage rock bands, that satisfies the need to get out aggression and make crowds go nuts. But Ghost Funk is more [nuanced.]

Ghost Funk Orchestra's "Night Walker"

Ghost Funk Orchestra’s “Night Walker” (Seth Applebaum)

Explain to me the difference between King Pizza Records and your imprint, Ramble.

King Pizza was started to release The Mad Doctors’ first records, because like so many garage and punk rock bands before us, we got no love and decided that we had to do our own thing. Our former roommate and the drummer in Mad Doctors Greg Hanson started the label to put out the record, and then as time went on we were meeting other bands in a similar spot. He decided to start bringing bands in and putting out their tapes. So King Pizza was started more to put out tapes, a community of bands that wanna go out and support each other. We created a great community out of it.

The Ghost Funk release is the first release on the Ramble Records imprint, and that was started for people that are maybe already involved in the King Pizza circle but have releases that are maybe on the mellower side, that are a little out of character for the King Pizza name as we’ve cultivated it. If there’s something that’s not just gross rock’n’roll, that’s who Ramble was started for.

What do you see next with this, a residency in Ridgewood somewhere? Is there some already existing subset of the New York DIY community that you would connect with to help promote Ramble and get it going live?

Everyone that follows King Pizza knows that Ramble is an extension of that, so there’s a bit of clout that King Pizza already has that Ramble will grab on to. It’s not like we branched off and started a whole new thing.

Seth after a Mad Doctors show in Charlottesville, VA.

Seth after a Mad Doctors show in Charlottesville, VA. (Josh Park)

It’s the same kids.

Yeah, same kids, same umbrella, but with a different name and logo. So it’ll be interesting. We only have the one release so far and at least for the time being it’s strictly a recorded project. Pretty much everything King Pizza has put out is for bands that are really active, and they’re going out on the road, playing lots of shows, moving their records. But as far as Ghost Funk and Ramble, the Ghost Funk LP is gonna be sold person to person. It’s going to be a while before there’s a show that can promote it. But so many people keep bugging me about it, too many, to the point where it’s gotta happen.

I wrote about The Gun Club a few weeks ago and started tripping out on this idea that punk came from the psychedelic garage of the ‘60s, that bands like The Seeds bled into that. Don Giovanni aside, it seems like most of the popular garage/psych music that get booked at the bigger, more reputable venues around here are West Coast bands.

It’s kind of true.

What is that about, and how does King Pizza keep the community expanding despite what can often feel like a sonic monopoly? 

Sure. Maybe this is a generalization, but I gotta imagine that the flood of psychedelic bands is a trickle down from the old San Francisco scene. It’s just set a tone for West Coast music that’s lasted and went through a revival.

Well it went back and forth maybe, because the Dead Kennedys and a lot of the famous West Coast punk bands were kids that found themselves pissed off at their hippie parents for tripping all day, and they started being punks as a sort of response to that. So maybe it’s just reverted back to where their kids see grandma’s hippie high vibe roots.

We’ll see, I mean, I don’t know what your politics are, but if Drumpf makes it into office, there’s gonna be a whole new wave of punk music. Because that’s been the response to people in office. Reagan spawned so much punk music, especially Dead Kennedys.

Ghost Funk Orchestra Makes DIY Latin Jazz From His Brooklyn Apartment