Interview by Chris Zaldua.
Without hyperbole, it’s safe to say that the San Francisco dance music ecosystem would simply not be what it is today if it weren’t for the mostly thankless work of Ryan Merry — now better known as Elexos Park, but formerly known as Ghosts On Tape.
As Ghosts On Tape, Merry (alongside a cast of co-conspirators: Shawn Reynaldo, Will Fewell, and Bryant Rutledge) was a founding member of Icee Hot, a local DJ collective who threw parties on a semi-monthly basis for five years running (2010-2015). Icee Hot were instrumental in bringing a series of then-nascent sounds, mostly from the U.K., for the first time to San Francisco, long before Joy Orbison was showing up in Spotify playlists. Icee Hot mixed up “post-dubstep” (whatever you want to call it), deep house, Detroit techno, and funky disco in ways that no one did before (or has done since). And Merry, known then as Ghosts On Tape, was the crew’s best DJ.
Today, he’s still one of the best DJs in San Francisco, except he goes by (and produces music as) Elexos Park. Landing back in San Francisco after a stint in Berlin had him refreshed and revitalized, with a new sound and direction to match. His new AYLI podcast shows off that new sound — and this interview below will get you caught up on what he’s been up to since.
Make sure to catch him this Saturday Oct. 13 at an undisclosed warehouse location in San Francisco, supporting DJ Seinfeld on his DJ-KiCKS tour.
(Full disclosure: Ryan and I are long-time friends and work together on a project and event series called Vague Terrain.)
CZ: Tell me where you’re from and how you landed in the Bay Area.
RM: I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri and I moved to San Francisco in 2003. I knew for a while that I wanted to get out of there and be in a bigger city with more stuff going on and a better music scene. I sort of randomly took a vacation to SF, immediately knew this is where I needed to be, and moved here three months later. Even though it’s obviously changed dramatically in the past few years, it’s still the only place that feels like home to me.
CZ: I know you’ve been DJing for a long time now — how’d you get started? What inspired you to pick up the practice?
RM: I went to my first rave in ’97 and it resonated with me deeply. Like real underground warehouse Midwest rave shit. I ended up going to lots of raves in the late 90s before the scene got essentially shut down by the authorities in St. Louis in the early 2000s. I wanted to contribute somehow, to learn how to make this kind of music or DJ, but had no idea how it was done. A friend of my older brother taught me the basics on how to mix records and after that I started figuring out how tracks are made. I used to be more interested in just producing and performing live. I never really seriously DJed until we started throwing Icee Hot back in 2010. Once I had a regular monthly gig, I figured I should try to get decent at it.
CZ: Similarly, I know your style (and moniker) has shifted over the years. Tell me the broad strokes behind how Ghosts On Tape ended, how Elexos Park was born, and what changed over the years.
RM: The name change is something I wanted to do for a long time. What my music sounded like when I started and where it ended up felt so dramatically different that it just felt weird to keep using the name. In a way I was lucky to have a pretty good deal of attention so early on in my music making endeavors. Also, I felt a bit weird about it because I was just kind of messing around with samplers and stuff in my bedroom and then people started actually listening and that gave me a bit of anxiety. My tastes changed but there were people out there who heard my music in 2009 and expected that I was gonna keep doing stuff like that. By late 2016, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do anymore. I didn’t like anything I made. I felt a real lack of confidence and direction. Gigs dried up. It became clear to me that the Ghosts On Tape project had run its course. I needed a fresh start.
A lot of things changed in my personal life and I started to get new ideas that excited me again. Then the Ghost Ship fire happened and we lost some really talented people, which really put things in perspective for me. I realized that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed so I need to work on putting my ideas into action while I still can. Stop fucking around. I quit drinking and drugs and it helped me to focus on what is really important. Fresh creative inspiration started happening. It became easier to have clarity on what it is that I want to do.
CZ: Tell me about your AYLI podcast. How’d you put it together? Is it fairly representative of yourself as a DJ?
RM: It’s pretty representative of my DJ style. Some bongo stuff, lots of polyrhythms, deep psychedelic rave business, slow trance, wormhole techno. Just a bunch of tunes I like right now, mostly played at the wrong speed.
CZ: Tell me about your production work. You had several records out as Ghosts On Tape, but you seem to have found a great deal of new inspiration as Elexos Park. What’s changed in your production process? What kind of sound are you now chasing after?
RM: I got some new gear. Figured out how to use Ableton a little better. I try to put in a good amount of time on arrangements, I think that’s where a lot of the fun stuff happens in a song. It’s mostly about trying to be consistent. Having songs that work together as a record rather than just a random assortment of tracks. I work in themes.
Inspiration comes from nature and the city. Someone recently described my music as “botanical” and I quite like that. I like my tracks to feel living and breathing. Natural and mechanical. A certain amount of unpredictability is absolutely crucial. There should be surprises. Twists and turns. I like things to get a little overwhelming sometimes but not in a claustrophobic way. It should be fun and positive, but still heavy and weird. Slightly hectic and sometimes emotional.
A lot of the musical inspirations I had as Ghosts On Tape are still there. Just more refined.
I’ve been working in lower tempo ranges for a bit now, between 90-115 BPM. Maybe I’m old but slower just works better for me now. It opens up a lot of possibilities. It makes people dance in a different way. Slower does not mean more mellow! This is one of the things I try to convey in my DJ sets.
CZ: What’s your preparation process for a gig? Do you come fully prepared, show up and wing it, or a little bit of both?
RM: Yeah a little of both. Sometimes it’s planned out more than others. I usually like to have an idea of where I want to start and where I want to end up and figure out the middle as I go. Sometimes the circumstances require scrapping all those ideas completely, so it’s good to be a bit flexible.