“Pain is Temporary as Long as You Recognize It:” An Interview with Ghostie

Lucas Foster speaks to the experimental music polymath about being a music obsessive in high school and "reflecting on being a shitty person."
By    August 6, 2019

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Ghostie is difficult. His music is dense and experimental, braiding together dozens, if not hundreds, of threads of influence into rough-edged, “disharmonic” compositions that challenge and discomfort listeners as a rule. Vocal production is often tonally flat and fuzzy, drowning or strangling lyrics about self-hatred, depression, frustration, and disassociation. Brittle synths bend and crack at the right and wrong times, sometimes an entire six-foot tall DAW seems to morph into a beautifully grotesque off-key orchestra. 808s become something more than a percussive backdrop or a plug-in, Ghostie’s re-interpretation of their possibilities is subtly brilliant, simultaneously left-field and restrained. As often as his music is brilliant, it is disorienting, and for normal rap fans, it can be hard to listen to.

His albums this year, Devour and Poltergeist Slim, are some of the finest experimental music released this millenium. Ghostie has created something like the post-hardcore to Trap Metal. The intensity is still there, but so are sojourns in melodic wonderlands, in indie pop and pop rap and IDM and Drum and Bass. There are fits and starts of something authentically original between abrasive basslines and disconsonant synth loops. It’s beautiful, ambitious music that doesn’t mean to be anything more than the ideas and realities of a 24-year-old father, worker, oddball and artist from West Baltimore. He sings and raps about pain and shitty jobs and days gone by because that is his reality, and like all of Ghostie’s work since 2016, it is music that stands out in its authenticity in a landscape dominated by those who feign sadness and suicidal ideation as a fashion statement.

Ghostie was also difficult to get ahold of. When I finally got him on the phone he asked me to kill him, then he asked me what I was wearing, and began what I thought was going to be a bizarre interview that would make me look like an asshole. We ended up talking for an hour, about music, art, life, his approach to all three, his chic post-trap music collective Anti-World, and metal and 4chan. — Lucas Foster

Listening to your music, it’s obvious that you make stuff besides rap, are you a trained musician, or do you play a lot of instruments?

Ghostie: You know, I can play a lot of instruments but I’m not trained, where it’s just – I don’t know – you’d have to see it to believe it.

What do you play?

Ghostie: I play piano to a degree, I play drums to a degree, I play bass pretty well, and that’s about it, as far as physical instruments go.

How’d you learn to play music?

Ghostie: Well, my father is from DC, my mom’s from Massachusetts, Cape Cod, my father, being from DC, he played Go-Go all his life, my mom worked for a radio station. So, you know, I got musically-inclined parents, so it was always a part, but I didn’t start making music ‘til six or seven years ago.

On Devour and Poltergeist Slim there’s a few tracks like “I Like This,” “Payin’ For It All” that have a pretty obvious electronic, maybe IDM or Drum and Bass influence, with the breakbeat percussion, did you listen to shit like that?

Ghostie: I didn’t grow up just on rap. If I were to explain the smorgasboard of sounds that I’ve been introduced to since a really young age it would almost be unbelievable. Those two specifically are Drum and Bass loops. I grew up on dubstep to a degree just like anybody else, and Drum and Bass, the difference between the two is dubstep was just kinda like trash, you know what I mean, just more like “phase” type music, but Drum and Bass was so deep-rooted, it had a real serious impact on me sonically. It derives from house music, and I love house music – my mom put me on house music when I was really young and it just stuck with me. So I was like, you know what man, I’m gonna make some real garage-ass, nasty-ass shit, and then just complain on it.

I didn’t quite hear that Drum and Bass influence on Fear is Present, or Digital Ghost, or is that inaccurate?

Ghostie: Well, it’s just a piece and an element of the many things I grew up, and I decided just to extend with it more. It’s like the same mentality of a whole bunch of dudes who listen to metal. I listen to a lot of metal, I used to be in a band, I have a Cannibal Corpse tee on right now, I listened to “I Cum Blood” by Cannibal Corpse before I even got home today. It’s that same mentality but it’s a different – I just did some different shit! I just did it with Drum N’ Bass.

What type of metal band were you in?

Ghostie: I was in a progressive metal band, Deathcore, there was a couple elements, I don’t want to label myself but briefly it was just a mix between Deathcore, thrash, and progressive metal.

Were you doing that before you made rap?

Ghostie: Yes.

When were you in a metal band?

Ghostie: 2014.

Can you find any of that online?

Ghostie: You can but I’m not gonna tell you shit! Ha-HA! Time and place man.

How’d you get into making the type of stuff you make now? Like with Anti-World?

Ghostie: Well Anti-World, I’m a founder. Before that we were Weird Clvn, we started it all together. Me, Shark, Wolf, Chase. We started it together, we didn’t live far from each other. We all lived together in Green Belt, Maryland – I’m not from Green Belt, I’m from West Baltimore, let’s get that very clear – but I went to high school with them for a year and that’s where it all started.

That was like 2013-2014? How old were you guys when that all came together?

Ghostie: I think I was like 17-18, and they were like two years younger than me, you do the math. We were the oddballs out man, we hated our situation, we hated this fucking place, we hated everybody and we just made some shit happen.

What was your guys’ scene like in school?

Ghostie: Well it was a very select group. First of all, I’m comin’ from a Baltimore city school program where we had to wear uniforms, they were white, or pissy-yellow, some navy blue khakis, just very systematically different. I was coming from some High School Musical-ass bullshit, you know what I mean? And it was so fucking weird to adjust. I was always just so alienated, granted, I wasn’t always so great with people, but I didn’t go to class, I went to every lunch, I hated everyone, no one understood who I was, shit was fuckin’ wack, I didn’t do any work. Sybyr, Wolf, Shark, it’s so hard to explain, you have to look at it from an energy perspective. But basically: nobody was fuckin with us. Nobody was fuckin’ with us! Everybody just knew that we made music, that we made beats, and everybody would try to lil’ bro us cause we made beats. Just shit on us.

Were you guys all into like metal, Drum and Bass, dubstep, house, weird shit like that?

Ghostie: I mean, I was! I can’t speak for them niggas. They’re into some very different shit too. I know Shark’s into metal. I put Sybyr onto metal after awhile, just taking him back and forth from Baltimore I put that nigga onto some Voodoo ass shit. I wouldn’t say that we were all on the same phase sonically, but, at the same time we were.

I remember listening to Sybyr’s old shit in 2015-2016, and then your old shit like Digital Ghost, and just being blown away. It didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard, and still no one sounds like you guys. It almost came out of nowhere, so I was wondering if you guys had any influences, or if it was just kind of spontaneous?

Ghostie: Well I mean, I had influences. I’m a huge metalhead, I don’t really know about my brothers. System of a Down is my favorite band of all time, let me make that very clear, and my favorite and biggest influence of all time. Did you know they made a song that was a remix of Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga?” And they were talking about the Armenian genocide? Look it up.

What other metal do you listen to? The type of music you make, I’d almost compare it to One Man Black Metal, like Xasthur or something, these massive projects, concept albums that people slave away at in isolation their whole lives.

Ghostie: I can grasp that concept. I listen to Doom Metal, Thrash, I just got into Norwegian Black Metal, Mayhem, them niggas are crazy, look them motherfuckers up, their crazy for real. I like a lot of Tech Death, a lot of Sumerian Records, a lot of their bands are a huge influence, Thy Art is Murder is a huge influence, Infant Annihalator is a huge influence, Rings of Saturn, fuck I can go on and on about this shit. Seriously, I love fucking metal.

What were you listening to rap-wise?

Ghostie: Look man, I cover a whole spectrum of rap, R&B, Soul. DMX to Black Eyed Peas. If you’re asking me to hammer it down, sonically, for me? Probably like Biggie, I went through that phase. I’m a huge Tribe Called Quest, and I’m a HUGE Big Pun fan, he’s a fat evil nigga and I love em.

I was just curious because your music is so amazing and original. I’ve been listening to Devour non-stop since January. What was the concept behind “Devour?” I’ve pulled bits and pieces of it but I still don’t have a full grasp of the vision.

Ghostie: I guess I do. I was just going through a very hard time. I was being the worst person I could be and it just showed through the music. I was doing the most terrible things, hurting people along the way, burning bridges, burning relationships, and just really feeling like I’m eating everything around me. It’s really just sheer pain. It has a couple good melodies and shit but it’s just, it’s me reflecting on being a shitty person, the shittiest person I could possibly be is Devour. Also I went by “Devour” in person, I was always Ghostie but Devour is something I identify myself as.

Like an alias?

Ghostie: No, it’s like a different shade, a different color, you know what I mean? It wasn’t so much of an alias as just like who I was at that point in time, what I identified as. It was some grim times man, it was awful, I was sleeping on fucking floors man, roaches, barely making ends meet, I was drinking every day, shit was fucking awful.

That’s what I love about that album and Poltergiest Slim, they just seem like really honest slices of life. There’s no part of those albums that doesn’t seem believable, when you’re talking about being broke, having a shitty job, being depressed, and, like, drinking way too much.

Ghostie: Yeah.

It’s cool, there’s a lot of rap that’s supposedly confessional, or even “emo” or whatever right now but when you listen to it the subject matter is very surface level, not really authentic expressions of pain.

Ghostie: Man, I mean, I’m just in pain, all the time. And that’s gonna sound like a “woe is me” type. And I get it- you know, I wouldn’t even discredit this plastique “emo rap” bullshit. At first I did but that’s just how people confuse themselves into expressing their pain, it’s just like a shoe, you know? I choose to walk in the off-brand. People choose to wear shoes that fucking hurt their feet, my nigga. I’d rather wear shoes that look like they hurt then the shoes that look like they ain’t hurtin’, you know what I’m saying? I kinda just wear that pain, everywhere I go. I mean why the fuck not? It’s your career you talking about. Why be a carbon copy? We’re all gonna die someday so why would choose to step out of your bed, hop out of your home and just be lying to yourself and others? Just wear your pain man! Pain is temporary man as long as you recognize it, and I try to translate that to my music.

Are you still drinking a lot?

Ghostie: I had to slow down man, I’m still drinking, I’m not supposed to, but I’m actually drinking responsibly for the first time in my life. I’m a father, you understand? There’s a core progression to what I’m doing right now and alcohol has only hindered a lot of my progression.

Your music’s obviously reflective of your day-to-day life, so what’s that like now that you’re not drinking as much, trying to do right?

Ghostie: Well, I wake up, go get my daughter, we hang out all day, dance and have fun. Then I walk around — I live in Central Baltimore — and I go and make music. The Baltimore scene is very nuclear, potent, it’s almost unimaginable. I’m known here,I’ve put in work, and I get work done with my peers, focus on enterprise, planning, tapping with my Anti members. I feel like work is the only thing that keeps me at bay, tethered to this world anyway. I just get down to the grit man. Time is God. You got to get to work.

Anti’s got a lot of energy recently from collabs with Lil Darkie, how’d y’all link up with him?

Ghostie: I don’t even remember how I found Darkie. I just found him and I was like “hey man, I like what you doing?” Cause I legitimately like what the whole Spider Gang is doing. They are extremely talented and ambitious, and that shit is awesome, that shit is awesome as fuck and they deserve some shine, bruh. I don’t know how he got in touch with my Anti homies, they probably caught wind just how I caught wind. We’ve been around for awhile so i just feel linked and connected through like, mutual bodies, like Bruhmanegod, Eric North, I don’t know. It’s funny as shit cause every time I call Darkie I’m at a bar, and he’s like “man, hit me up when you’re home!” and I never do it. My role is just, them motherfuckers deserve some goddamn shine, I don’t need to make a song with them, I’m just gonna be in their corner, rooting for them. That’s what it really takes, it’s respect, just ‘cause we have an understanding doesn’t mean we have to make a song together. But also shouts outs Wendigo, that motherfucker is one of the craziest artists, craziest producers ever, he sent me some beats and their still being used. I feel my role is just genuine support.

Your production is crazy too. Listening to your albums this year, your 808s are nuts, I’ve never heard anything like them, and then your synths seem to be off key sometimes but they are so specifically composed. It’s really just genius shit. What do you use for production and how does it happen for you?

Ghostie: I use FL Studios, I can use like 4 DAWs, but FL is what I’m most comfortable with and what I use primarily. As far as how I get shit done, it’s really spontaneous. I make like seven beats a day, not including songs. It’s all a reflection of how I feel, I have the attention span of a goldfish, so how I feel all the time, on the dime, whenever the fuck I feel like it. And I also believe in disharmony. Disharmony in disharmony. Disharmonic frequencies. It’s very hard to explain. As long as you can translate what’s in your brain it’ll be alright. I don’t know man, I don’t think I’m shit.

When you make beats like “AllYall” it sounds like there’s an indie pop influence, where did that come from?

Ghostie: Yeah man, listen, I listen to a lot of things, I discovered a lot of things. I have like a sharingan when it comes to certain sounds – they latch, they latch, I get it, I get it – and it’s funny as hell cause I’m actually coming out with something soon that is very similar to that only. You’ll hear it later on. “AllYall” is the type of shit I make when I’m frustrated, bruh, when I don’t wanna make something so serious.

So when you can’t tap into the disharmony, you make something like “AllYall”?

Ghostie: Well it’s all disharmony to me man. To me. That’s like the mentality I keep. I like Toro Y Moi, I listened to Toro Y Moi for two days and I was like “I wanna make a song like that” and I freestyled the whole thing! And it’s also an insult to people! So, it kinda just happened.

So is disharmony something that translates to your day to day life, your business, everything that you do?

Ghostie: Everything’s a disharmony. Nothing’s right, nothing’s white, nothing is anything. You look at everything ruptured, through a ruptured mental state, things will just kinda align.

I like that.

Ghostie: You’re listening to me but don’t listen to me ‘cause this isn’t really good advice. But yeah, “AllYall” is cool, I’m making a lot of shit like that. I like to rap, I like to sing, I like to rap, I like to sing, I like playing my hand, and I don’t like feeling like I shouldn’t, you know what I mean? Feeling like I shouldn’t do some shit will make me wanna just do it more.

Do you wanna do more production and that type of shit for people? You used to have this song on Spotify just yelling at people to buy beats, do you wanna get more placements and whatever?

Ghostie: Well, I wanna more beats for the right people. But I also gotta make money, I used to work in kitchens and I’ve just been avoiding that as long as possible. I’m also studying film, that’s something I’m really interested in.

What type of film do you watch?

Ghostie: I mean, it varies man, horror, sci-fi, drama, and any subgenres in between it all. I can watch a spaghetti western easy, i can watch the corniest of comedies easily. It gets deep man.

You seem like the type of guy who would only watch only really obscure TV movies from Czechoslovakia or just really weird foreign film.

Ghostie: Yeah! I like a lot of foreign films too. If it’s interesting and I can give it some thought, if it can capture my attention – like I said, I have the attention span of a gold fish – then it’s a go.

Do you wanna do something that would blend music and film? You seem like a RZA-type of guy who could just make a bunch of money scoring films and that sort of thing.

Ghostie: Honestly, RZA’s cool, but that nigga smoked crack, so I don’t know if I’m a RZA-type dude. He’s cool, but like, when I think of RZA I just think of him like “Kung-Fu movies! Kung-Fu movies is my favorite thing of all time!” you know what I mean? I don’t give a shit. But as far as blending film and music, I’m also a huge anime fan, I mean, you can hear it in my music, I sample anime shit. If you got me started about anime I could go for a year.

That makes sense in that, when I think about your music really, the audience for it, it reminds me of a lot of weird shit I would find on 4chan in high school, and like 8 other people would be into it.

Ghostie: You were on 4chan? I’m on 4chan right now, I have 4chan open right now. I go on there and lose humanity and then go to sleep and do it all over again. This nigga Robert I knew, honestly I think this nigga is retarded bruh, I’m sorry but he obviously has a mental illness, like a real mental illness. It was like high school when he put me on. I was like “what the fuck?” He knew I was gonna get addicted to that shit, and now here I am, years later still on /b/.

You still browse /b/? That’s ballsy.

Ghostie: I mean, yeah. Really I just go on 4chan if I want to beat off to something specific. Go to adult gifs, if I wanna figure out a piece of manga I’ll go in there. Sometimes I click a link and watch people get brutally mutilated and just lose humanity. I love it.

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