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#Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century

We asked 11 artists, collaborators, and associates of the influential leftfield label to talk about their favorite records, merch, and memories in honor of its milestone anniversary.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century

Illustration by Cady Siregar

Twenty-five years ago, Ghostly International was born inside a University of Michigan dorm room. Sam Valenti IV was a 19-year-old art history major studying Jackson Pollock by day and DJing warehouses by night; in between, he pressed records and drove around the city to different record stores, selling them copies from the back of his car. The first release was a 12” featuring Matthew Dear’s seminal techno anthem, “Hands Up For Detroit,” which went on to be sampled in Fedde Le Grand’s 2006 worldwide dance hit, a culture-shifting moment that Valenti can’t help but feel “tangentially proud” of.

Since then, Valenti’s influence has only grown thanks to a curiosity that has never waned. Unlike other label heads, he’s never been a fan of creative restrictions, streaming data, or business mandates. Instead, Valenti allows his roster of leftfield artists the creative freedom to experiment and get weird, “surfing on the edges” on the cultural zeitgeist, often to long-standing success.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Ghostly International’s “Around The World” logo.


 

Illustration by Michael Eugene Burdick and James Carland Noellert.

His primary focus has always been the careful curation of a label that traverses different genres and mediums. On Ghostly, harpist Mary Lattimore’s ambient soundscapes co-exist with Hana Vu’s aught-inspired bedroom pop, and the militant synths of coldwave revivalists Xeno & Oaklander. Then, there’s the recently formed All Flowers Group, Ghostly’s new hip-hop and R&B label with drink sum wtr; not to mention its affiliation with the ever-growing Secretly Group. And, of course, there’s the Ghostly offshoot Spectral Sound imprint, which has released some of today’s most forward-thinking dance music from producers like Avalon Emerson, Seth Troxler, and Hieroglyphic Being. Ghostly’s roster also extends beyond music and includes a number of visual artists like Eric Hu, Shawna X, and Tim Saccenti.

In honor of what Valenti refers to as its “Saturn Return moment,” The FADER asked 10 artists, friends, and collaborators to reflect upon the past 25 years of Ghostly and share some stories from the label’s consistently exciting quarter century.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Ghostly founder Sam Valenti IV’s basement DJ setup. 1997.


 

Photo by Sam Valenti IV’s mom.

Matthew Dear

[In 2003], Sam, Tadd Mullinix, and I toured Europe for the first time. I’d never left the country before, and I remember feeling so happy and proud that our music was now allowing us to see the world and interact with a global community.

Jakub Alexander (Heathered Pearls)

It’s hard to pick just one without feeling like I’m hurting a good friend’s feeling… but I’ll go with Galactic Melt by Com Truise. I wrote him first on Myspace, and we went in that day mainly talking about his contemporaries, his sound, and, funnily enough, [I signed him when I was doing A&R for Ghostly] that night.

This record, at the time it came out, was unmatched in its [sound], it felt like Seth [Haley] created a whole world out of something as simple as paint swatches… via his mid-tempo approach to synthwave. [There was also] the pleasure of experiencing a new take on something that felt familiar.

Go put on the “Brokendate” music video and try not to tear up. People would sell a kidney to have written that song. And “Futureworld,” what is happening in that song? Even if you make synthesizers for a living, you couldn’t explain what Seth did there. Maybe you could, but it wouldn’t sound as elegant.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Sam Valenti IV in Ghostly’s Ann Arbor, Michigan office. 2003.


 

Photo by Martin Thoburn / The FADER issue #19

Caleb Braatan (Sacred Bones)

The idea of an independent record label existing for 25 years alone is [incredible], and Ghostly has not only been able to do that, but they have thrived, continuing to be fertile ground for some of the best current music… I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam’s keen eye for beautiful merchandise. I myself am a man who likes things, and Sam knows how to make nice things.

[When it comes to releases], the catalog is deep and wide. But if I had to pick one album that I’ve gone back to over the years, it’s likely HTRK’s Work (work, work), a true genre-defining album that sounds as fresh today as it did in 2011. Black Marble It’s Immaterial and Mary Lattimore’s Silver Ladders are tied for a close second.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Jakub Alexander (Heathered Pearls) in the Ann Arbor mailroom. 2003.


 

Photo by Martin Thoburn / <i> The FADER</i> issue #19.

Geoff Rickly (Thursday)

For me, I’d have to give my favorite Ghostly release to HTRK’s Psychic 9-5 Club. This record was such a departure from earlier HTRK stuff that it took me a moment to connect with, but, once I did, I became obsessed with the band. I listened to it almost everyday for an entire summer and wore out the grooves on the record. I bought the peach vinyl pressing after the black one wore out and am about to buy the anniversary pressing.

Venus in Leo has my two favorite HTRK tracks — “New Year’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” — but Psychic 9-5 is an entire world. It’s a place I know I can always go to. The neon sign is always lit, the sleepy attendant is always reading a book in the front window, [and] the curtains are always whispering a healthy dose of inner peace.

Bre Morrell & Shaun Durkan (crushed)

Bre Morrell: It has to be Psychic 9-5 Club. Not only is it my favorite record Ghostly has put out, it’s very easily one of my favorite and most influential records of all time. This release was my introduction to HTRK and it completely blew me away. The minimalist production and the intimacy of Jonnine [Standish]’s vocals are so hauntingly beautiful and have been stuck in my head forever. A total heartbreaker and an instant classic.

Shaun Durkan: My fave release is [Kllo’s] Backwater.

Davon Bryant-Mason (dreamcastmoe)

The New Monday by Shigeto. This was my first introduction to the label back in 2017, and I ended up playing “Detroit Part II” over and over again that year.

It gave me a sense and ear for musicianship within house music, a genre that had been saturated with Splice samples and stepped-on ideas. Shigeto gave my ears new life with this record.

Steve Hauschildt (Emeralds)

My favorite Ghostly release also happens to be the first release I heard on the label nearly two decades ago, which is Audion’s Suckfish.

This particular record by Matthew Dear holds up quite well in the pantheon of mid-’00s post-minimal Detroit techno. I think the reason it succeeds is that it doesn’t fall into a lot of the tropes of “common techno” [from that] time. Instead, it employs more of an emphasis on texture and spatiality than simple repetition or some impetus towards pop music. A lot of great pseudo-metallic and rubbery sounds that anticipate some of the later work of SOPHIE or Rrose.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Matthew Dear in upstate New York. 2010.


 

Photo by Will Calcutt

Jessica Gentile (Jubilee)

ADULT.’s “Shari Vari” single! I am a huge fan of ADULT. and really associate them with my move to N.Y.C. in the early ‘00s, discovering new music, and remembering the way I felt the first time I listened to them.

Then, they kind of stopped making music for a few years, so when they made their return, I was not only excited, but I was thinking, “Oh, sick, and they are back on Ghostly? Let’s fucking go!” I just remember being so happy to have them back.

When an artist or band whose records you have listened to a million times comes out with new music after a break, you never know how you are gonna feel… But I remember loving it. Now, I’m listening again at 9 a.m. with my coffee… and I’m gonna have a good day.

When I moved to N.Y.C., it was the age of torrents, Myspace, and forums. I didn’t know anyone. It’s not like I had some musical network to link up [with] when I moved… like everyone has now. I wasn’t even a DJ yet. I literally had to make friends out in the real world.

One thing I remember about Ghostly is that I was looking for cool music nights and shows to go to. Everyone whose music I was into had that cute ghost logo in their [Myspace] “Top Friends.” It was just always there and stuck out. So, finally, I was like, “Fine, I’ll bite.” And, of course, it was what I needed. Basically, I’m saying I miss Myspace and [that venue] Subtonic on the Lower East Side.

Hana Vu

My favorite Ghostly release I think is this big ass Liquid Sky x Ghostly bag and also the Ghostly headphones. Truly amazing, high-quality products. And also both fleeting for me. My prized liquid sky Ghostly bag was stolen out of my car, along with many other things, but none more sentimental to me than that extremely practical bag. and then also I think I sat or stepped on the headphones or something and they are now broken but I remember the quality of sound from them was like nothing else I have experienced. I also must briefly mention my Ghostly rice container as another amazing piece of decor for my rice.

Ghostly at 25: Key moments from the label’s first quarter century


Shigeto playing Ghostly International’s 20th anniversary celebration at Movement Detroit. 2019.


 

Photo by Polish Katie

Margeaux Labat (Margeaux)

One of my all-time favorite Ghostly releases is Khotin’s Finds You Well from 2020. I remember discovering it from its review on Pitchfork, as I was immediately intrigued by the pixelated album cover. Looking at it filled me with nostalgia without even having listened to the music yet. In hindsight, it reminds me of the cover of Sora’s Re.sort from 2003, [which was] one of my all-time favorites and an album that gives me similar feelings, both aesthetically and musically.

Finds You Well came out in the fall of 2020, and I can vividly remember listening to it on late, humid nights in my childhood bedroom after moving back to my hometown of New Orleans, LA, during COVID craziness. I especially remember listening to “Ivory Tower” on loop, which is now one of my favorite songs. I just love how Khotin is such a low-key, seemingly introspective artist. He makes the kind of atmospheric, nostalgic, ambient house music that I am always seeking out and naturally gravitating towards. That record was my intro to his musical world — I also love Release Spirit from last year as well. I haven’t gotten a chance to see him live yet, but I’m dying to!

*Quotes have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


By Sandra Song

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