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Ghost Funk Orchestra Lands on Planet 47

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

Ghost Funk Orchestra has entered the cosmos after their explosive new record, A Trip To the Moon, touched down on shelves this past February. A sonic lovechild between the intergalactic nodes of Jean Luc-Ponty and the soul-shattering spaced-out groove of Parliament-Funkadelic, this newest record takes listeners through the cosmic joyride of a lifetime.

Nostalgic in its use of the Apollo recordings and uncanny in its timelessness, A Trip to the Moon fuels the sound of a generation growing weary of typical earthling pop-and-roll. The small but high-octane ensemble seamlessly blends the sounds of jazz, bossa nova, funk, and psychedelia under the masterful direction of Seth Applebaum, the intergalactic captain of the Ghost Funk Orchestra starship.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Seth in Zoom-Land to chat about this current record, his inspirations for crafting multi-dimensional music, and what lies beyond the cosmos for Ghost Funk Orchestra.

Daniella Fishman: Seth, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us about Ghost Funk and this insane new album. To get started, how would you describe the hodgepodge sound of Ghost Funk Orchestra?

Seth Applebaum: It’s tough. I get this question a lot, and as many times as I’ve had to answer it, I’ve never come up with a good answer because I feel like I keep changing my interests.

I think it kind of starts at its core, jazz. But then, it’s jazz underneath the facade of funk, psych, rock, and psychedelic soul. It’s a very shape-shifting thing. But, I think at the heart of everything, jazz is where, when I’m writing the songs, it all starts. And it just gets amped up and built out into a bigger thing.

That’s kind of how the name came about. I was making recordings for Bandcamp, and when I was trying to come up with a genre to tag it, I was like, I don’t know. “Ghost Funk” was what popped into my head. And it just kind of made sense.

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

DF: How would you describe the sounds of this new album concerning the core of GFO’s usual buffet of sounds?

SA: One thing that was a mission of this recording, or at least part of the process, was that for myself and the other musicians involved, I wanted everyone to sort of like, let it rip!

You know, a little bit more no-holds-barred. Because the last record, A New Kind of Love, was pretty. My focus was on making things really tight, very close, and intimate. Then, for this one, I kind of wanted everyone to, no pun intended, blast off.

It's a continuation of the interests that I’ve been exploring on previous records, be it groove building, arranging, and trying different arrangement ideas with the horns, strings, and all kinds of things. But I wanted it to be a little looser this time around. I wanted it to feel rowdier than the last one. 

DF: You could definitely feel that with this new record. It's not drastically different from your other albums, but it’s almost more retro, especially in its use of the Apollo recordings. So, why space? It’s an incredible task to tackle. How do you assign noise to something that’s so void?

SA: Well, the space thing, that kind of was the theme that showed up halfway through me making the record. I started writing songs with no real end in sight. But then I found the public domain recordings and I just started playing with them. And I just sort of found all these clips that I thought were really interesting. They, at least to me, worked really nicely to provide some sort of context or at least a narrative glue, even if it’s not overt. I liked what they were adding to what I already did. On previous records, I’ve tried other things like spoken word passages or voiceovers and things I’ve always been interested in, non-musical elements being part of the record listening experience.

This one was pretty specific because it was the Apollo recordings. I probably got halfway through writing songs and decided I was going to use the Apollo stuff. Then, the rest of the songs I wrote to finish out the record had more of a space theme in mind.

There are so many records that were made in the 60s during the space race, where everyone was trying to put their finger on space travel and how to invoke space travel in music. Some people went with noise, some people went with synthesizers, like just trying to use the latest technology to get that sense of “new horizons.” I guess, for me, it was kind of like taking influence from all of that; all these records that I love have this space theme, but they’re using different arrangement ideas to get the point across.

I like to think that I did my job of capturing that vibe on some of the songs. But I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s like a mystery; there’s gotta be some kind of mystery to the chord progression or the arrangement that leaves you wondering where it’s gonna go next. I think that, as an arrangement idea, it is probably the best way to capture the idea of space travel. There’s a lot of unknown, so you’re trying to keep the listener wondering what’s going to happen next but also not make it super clear. Also, adding little weird bells and whistles in the stereo field makes it sort of an immersive experience. So, there are a lot of ways to get the point across, and everyone does it differently. 

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

DF: It’s very interesting that you decided to focus specifically on space travel and the human reaction/experience to it. We now have all these recordings of space, like the scream of a black hole. But you were able to capture the human aspect of “us” trying to express something otherworldly and make it nostalgic and almost relatable, even if most of us will never experience space travel. 

SA: Thank you!

DF: You touched on spoken word a bit. What are your literary references for lyric writing and thematic inspirations?

SA: I don’t pull from published writers, but my uncle was a poet. The thing I liked about his poetry was he was very intentional and creative in the way he formatted his poems. Just visually looking at how they were laid out, his use of indentations, and how he would split up his lines was very inspirational to me. They weren’t always rhyming; it was a lot of prose. Sometimes, he would do haikus and things like that, but it was just such an interesting visual aspect of how he laid out his poems. It definitely influenced the way that I write lyrics because it’s fun to be playful with rhyme schemes and things like that.

Involving spoken word, I liked having these moments where the music I was making was just kind of laying a bedrock for something non-musical with no rhythm. It’s just another interesting color or tool for creating a mood. I know a lot of artists who are more single-minded, but I thrive or tend to function more in an album-building experience. 

Whenever I write a song, I try to think about it as part of a bigger thing. I like to add things to the greater album experience that keep it interesting. It's almost like it could be a palate cleanser or just something that sets up the theme, the same way the Apollo recordings sort of tune your ear or tune your mind to what the theme is, even if it's not like directly setting up the content of the next song. It's part of the overall building experience. 

DF: Is that how most of your records come about? You make a song or two and then create the theme around it?

SA: More or less. I don’t always think about a greater theme. It always happens that I have to have one breakthrough and then write and record one song that I get excited about. And then that kind of gets the gears turning. 

Every time I've taken lessons from the last record I made or just life experience. So, I'm always going into it with some kind of new insight about how to technically put it together. But then, if I've been listening to different stuff, my inspirations for whatever the new thing is might be different than the last because I listened to a lot of records, and I try to listen to different stuff. So, if something catches my ear and makes me want to try my hand at a new genre or style, that kind of will be the catalyst for embarking on a new project.

DF: So is the opposite true for A Song for Paul because I feel like you went into that with, I assume, a very clear theme, being a homage to your grandfather.

SA: There’s a lot of things at play with that record because it was the first proper full-length album I did with this project. So, in a way, I was testing the waters with a lot of different songwriting ideas and sounds. It was our first record we put out with Colemine [Records], so a little bit of testing ground to see how left-field their audience would be willing to go. I was actually surprised, I didn’t think they were gonna hate it, but I was surprised at how much overwhelming support there was for it. The album was pretty different from what Colemine had historically been releasing. 

But, anyway, that's to say, it was a habit of mine for a while that I was dedicating music to influential family members who passed away. For A Song for Paul, most songs on it weren’t specifically written with him in mind. But I added a lot of things to that record that evoked him being a musician himself. So I was trying to add these little bits and pieces, like some interlude tracks. And then the closing interview with my grandmother on it, stuff like that added context. 

There were some songs where I was just trying to make choices with the tone and with the chords that, to me, sort of sounded like his presence, even if nobody who was listening to it aside from my family would have known that. I tried to make it a subconscious thing.

But that’s also to say that a song like Walk Like a Motherfucker, was its own thing. There was no goal besides writing a riff and then turning it into a song.

DF: On a personal note, I want to mention that I think about that conversation with your grandmother on a daily basis. The way she described Paul and their life is so beautiful. I’m grateful that you chose to share that with everybody; it is truly touching.

SA: That was a tough one for me to listen to for a long while. I would get very emotional listening to that song. I haven’t listened to it in a while because it kind of fucks me up. My grandmother, Pearl, has since passed away, so it’s extra heavy to listen to that now. But, in a way, I feel like that sort of solidified a lot of people’s interest in the project. Seeing what we were going to be going forward. Because I did come out of the gate at Colemine with a very, very emotional record.

There are no images of me on the packaging. I barely mentioned myself except for songs written by myself. But on the back cover of the LP, it's just the wedding photo of my grandparents. So I didn't say that much on the packaging about what it was or, in the press releases, but also if you just listened through it and you hear a conversation, then that kind of tells you everything. But yeah, just like coming out of the gate with a very personal record kind of showed that we weren't just making noise with no substance, I guess. 

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

DF: Switching gears a bit, you mentioned that you have a background in jazz, and I feel like, for my generation especially, jazz has this tragic misinterpretation of being “old” or “uncool.” People don’t take it as seriously as they should. But GFO is basically rewriting that narrative. How important is it to you to align yourself with funk and jazz, specifically? 

SA: I think what helps, even if it's subconscious, is that I am making music myself. Essentially, I'm making things that I want to hear because it is true to what I care about, and it's honest. I think that resonates with folks. 

I feel like it's an interesting time for jazz, though, because, like, even for Gen Z, you have artists like Domi and JD Beck who are making pretty heady jazz music. But they're also not taking themselves seriously, in the sense that they're amazing musicians; they write awesome songs, but their whole online presence is basically like a fart joke.

It doesn't feel like it's about jazz giants anymore. It's about relatable folks who are just

making undeniably good music made by people who are relatable rather than like these unattainable monoliths. And I think maybe that's just a product of the social media age that everybody wants to see behind the curtain, but it's not all about the facade anymore.

DF: Do you think that's why you almost pulled your personal brand away from the Ghost Funk blanket?

SA: Yeah. But if you put yourself front and center, that would almost change that public perception. I guess. I've been putting myself out there more recently, partly because it's become a necessity since our membership kind of shapeshifts a lot. Depending on availability, I try to go out with big bands, but I can't always get the exact same people; the only safe bet is to put myself out there. But then, you know, to that effect, I never went into this project with the intention [of promoting] it as my name. I'm not interested in the vanity of that. But also, it doesn't tell you anything. You know, if you just see if you just saw Seth Applebaum, that doesn't mean anything to most people. But when you see the words “Ghost Funk Orchestra,” you can kind of

approximate whether or not it's going to be something that's up your alley. 

I also like that having a name for the project, rather than my own name, means that I can take the focus away from myself or put it back on myself like it can move around as I see fit. It doesn't have to be; you listen to the record, and you're supposed to be focused on what I'm doing. 

Most of the time, I'm just kinda laying the bed for horns and singers to do their thing. I'm not the most front-and-center element of my own music. I know I write it all. But if you were listening to a record and it was just my name, I think the experience would be different. Where it's like, this amorphous band, you can just choose where to put your focus. 

DF: Just to clarify, how many musicians were involved in the making of your new album?

SA: Around eight or nine musicians contributed-- beyond myself. 

You know, the recorded version of the band is quite different from the live version; verses for the recordings, I’m playing all the rhythm section, which is layering myself, and then live, obviously, is a whole band. So, the way I interpret my own songs is not necessarily how my bandmates interpret them when we play them live. Things are a little different each time we play.

DF: And that's jazz!

SA: Exactly!

It made me kind of uncomfortable for a bit because I was worried that people would be confused. If they were coming from the recordings and then wanted to see the show, it may be too different for them. Or vice versa, where they discover us at a show and then go to the recording and find that it’s not what they heard live. But I think most people have actually gotten into it because it gives you a reason to see both.

The idea of doing a carbon copy version of the recorded songs in the live setting almost cheapens it; you're not adding to the experience because it's already fine-tuned enough that if you listen to it on a record, that would be it at its sort of purest form, I guess. But because we do things a little differently live, it's like okay, now it's we've tailored it for a live experience where, you know, it's not a “sit in a dark room and listen to a record” thing. It's like we kind of amp things up to make a good show. 

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

DF: The first time I saw you guys live and heard “Seven Eight,” I DM’d your Instagram account after the show and was like, “I need to know what this song was with the insane sax solo.” Then, I listened to the recorded version and realized the true awesomeness of Ghost Funk live and Ghost Funk on the record. It made me want to see you guys again that much more!

Most of your projects follow the format of an opening track, followed by an interlude or pause, and a conclusion track. Thematically, does that help you craft your stories? Do you record with these tracks in mind? 

SA: It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t go to music school; I went to film school. So, I think just by virtue of that, when I’m building the ark of a record, I historically keep doing it over and over again. I’m always thinking about a prologue or an epilogue and then just kind of building ebbs and flows, making an arc to it. 

So that's the reason why I will have a short introduction track and outro, maybe some interludes that break things up. It's because I do think about the listening experience, almost like a movie, which I wanted to have, even if there's not a clear storyline. I want it to feel like it's taking you on some kind of journey. 

I also love film soundtracks. It's the way that I think about a record experience. You know, you're dedicating 30, 40, 50 minutes to a thing, and if it's just like, “song, song, song, song, song,” that, to me, feels like something different. That would feel like a compilation where it's like, my,

I want the world of my records to feel very, like finished. I just wanted to feel like its

own world, a complete start to finish. You enter, you're in it, and then it kind of eases

you out.

DF: Jazz songs sometimes demand so much of the listener that having these reminders helps you appreciate the potency of what you last heard. How do you decide what to play live? 

SA: I'll always have songs on the album that I know are gonna be live tunes. But I still like

to write songs that are meant to be just album cuts. Because, again, it's like I think about the album experience as its own thing. And then I'll cherry-pick songs that I think are worthy of [playing] live or even, in the simplest form, pull off live because some of them, it's like the arrangements are so involved that they are sometimes not possible to pull off live.

There is a little bit of an ebb and flow, a give-and-take, where I’ll write some songs on a record that I really want to perform, but then I’ll write some that I don’t want to perform, and I’m treating them as a “recording only” thing. I also pick from the records, play live, and arrange them for the stage by taking them up a notch and making them really alive.

DF: Is that what you find the audience responds to most? 

SA: It varies; I mean, obviously, there are some songs we play live that always work out. There are fail-safes like “Fuzzy Logic,” “Your Man’s No Good,” or “Walk Like a Motherfucker.” Those are songs that we can pretty much guarantee will be crowd-pleasers. 

But people also have been very receptive to us playing slower tunes like  “Nightwalker” and “Slow Down.” I think they appreciate that we could play slow and tight and use all the negative space in the venue to create those moments where, you know, everyone’s kind of chatting and whatnot; those are the moments that shut everyone up, and they get so focused in. In the same way that I’m very intentional about how I organize and order the songs on a record when I’m building a setlist, I’m also thinking about how to get people riled up and then take it down before taking it back up an insane level and then ending the set on a really extreme energy.

Thankfully, folks have been very on board when we throw in some weird time signature stuff, too. Stuff that's not very dancey, like “Seven Eight.” No one can really dance to that song; you just sort of take it all in.

DF: Just gotta let the face melt happen to you.

SA: Yeah! And I think that’s because we came out of the gate with our weird, like “Seven Eight.” People are already on board for it. So if we play something that’s a little more straightforward, like “Fuzzy Logic,” then people will just get super riled up. Also, the horns will just, I mean… you were at our Bushwick Collective show; you’ve seen our sax player… So when we have these moments in the set where we just kind of let loose, I think that's the thing that has made our reputation as a live band that is so much higher energy than what people expect just from listening to the albums.

DF: Absolutely! I mean, if “A Rare View” can make me have such a visceral reaction just from the record.. the live version will change me as a person.

Having such a well-rounded, incredible sound with the live band, do you feel like there’s anything missing from the Ghost Funk sound that you’d maybe want to implement into a later project?

SA: Yeah, absolutely. I just don’t know what it is yet. Every time I gear up to make a record, it’s because I’ve realized there is something I haven't tried yet.

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

DF: As we wrap up this interview, what advice would you give to today's soul/funk-hungry youth, especially those who are interested in producing the same sound?

SA: I would say, for one thing, the song is more important than the sound. You can get the right mics and amps, and things like that, you can recreate the sound of the past. But, if the music underneath it isn’t good, the song isn’t there, then it won’t get you too far. 

Work on the songwriting craft. Learn how to be a studio musician. I think the trouble with Instagram and TikTok is that it really favors people showing off chops. A lot of people are blasting off, but to make a great record, it's not all about that. Sometimes, it's about dumbing it down and playing simple just to serve a song. 

Don't get too hung up on being flashy; be intentional. Be honest, you know, write music that's honest, not just a pastiche.

DF: There is something to be said, especially in your case, about being humble as an individual when you’re leading this massive project not under your name.

SA: Yeah, that definitely plays a part. No shade to the TikTok kids, like a lot of

them are insane musicians. But being an insane musician for a TikTok clip isn't

necessarily the road to being a great songwriter.

DF: Thank you so much, Seth, for taking the time to talk to 47 about Ghost Funk Orchestra and A Trip to the Moon. I’m looking forward to seeing how you rework this newest record for the stage! 

Ghost Funk Orchestra by Daniella Fishman for 47Magazine

Ghost Funk Orchestra’s newest album, A Trip to the Moon, is out now and available on all streaming platforms. Check their website and socials for all touring info; trust me, you won’t want to miss the face melt that is a GFO concert.

Written, Interviewed, and Photographed by Daniella Fishman

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