“I try very hard to not be the guy playing the same song as everyone else.” – Ghastly
“Right now I’m just chilling in my hotel with my snake.” These are among the first words Ghastly, otherwise known as David Lee Crow, says after answering his phone. He’s in Miami for a club performance amidst a summer that finds the 27-year-old producer/DJ criss-crossing the globe to perform at a number of high profile festivals. “It’s super humid here, but I really like it right now.”
The sun has been a constant in Crow’s life as of late. Riding a wave of positive fan and critical reception from a string of high profile gigs, the California-based musician has been performing in 90 degree heat for weeks. He speaks about his most recent festival set, which took place a few days prior to our conversation at Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the biggest EDM events on the planet. “I went on in Vegas around 10 p.m., but it was still crazy hot. The whole event takes place on a track, and it’s like the heat gets trapped. I told myself it’s just an hour of cardio, a lot of sweat, and I’m done.”
A little heat isn’t enough to make Crow rethink his career decisions. When asked about how he’d prefer to perform, he’s quick to acknowledge his appreciation for any show he can get. “I tend to make the best of any show that I do,” he explains. “I love festival season because it’s the only time of year that I get to see all my friends in music. Usually, we’re on polar opposite sides of the world, but around this time of year, I get to see all the people I’ve always talked to about playing these exact gigs. It’s always a good time.”
This isn’t the life Crow would have imagined for himself even a decade ago. A product of the underground alternative music scene, Crow famously served as the vocalist for The Irish Front long before EDM became a part of his life. Videos of him and his bandmates capturing their early days in music, as well as their final days in high school, can be found on YouTube to this day. “It’s all out there,” he says with a laugh.
It was a gig as the resident DJ at Exchange in Los Angeles that changed Crow’s life. His time there gave him the exposure needed to catch the attention of the genre’s biggest names, some of whom would go on to release the first Ghastly material the world at large ever heard. Though Crow has no current deal with any one company, he has tracks available through OWSLA, Buygore, and Dim Mak, among others.
The influence and lessons of alternative music lingers in other areas of Crow’s life today as well, from the metalcore shirts he frequently wears on stage and off, to the way he approaches his career. His latest hit, the sweetly melancholy smash “We Might Fall” featuring Matthew Koma, was born from a love of the music that first inspired him to perform. Crow was working on a remix to Jimmy Eat World’s classic Bleed American opener “Sweetness” back in 2016 when he learned the band would not allow him to release the material. “So I had this track with all the vocals pulled off of it and Matthew Koma contacted me with a desire to collaborate. I thought it was a little too serendipitous, but I sent him that file and his vocals were so fucking good that I rewrote the entire song around his vocals. Without Jimmy Eat World giving me a cold shoulder on the remix, this track and the doors it has opened for me might not have happened.”
“We Might Fall” is also something of a departure from the material typically released under the Ghastly name. Instead of remixing an existing track or giving fans a wall of bass-heavy sound, the track plays like something one might hear on pop radio. The lyrics speak vaguely of love and connection before building an eruption of sound that all but demands the listener move their feet. The structure is undeniably similar to numerous top 40 standards, but thanks to his distinct approach to the material itself, Crow still manages to stand apart.
“It was a decision I made early on,” he tells me in reference to how his sound changed with the release of “We Might Fall.” “I’m just happy in general to be able to make music that isn’t constantly aggressive. I’m in a position to expand my musical efforts in every direction, you know? That’s really special.”
Crow is referring to a trend in electronic music where performers feel the need to give their audience an endless string of big hits, bass-heavy drops, and all the other hallmarks of the genre for fear they might not care for something that breaks from the norm. “I absolutely try to take people on a journey in everything I do,” he explains. “Most of the music I play is my own, so that in itself makes me happy, but I’m not going to pander by playing the big songs over and over. There are so many DJs who play the same songs, the same hits, that everyone plays over and over at every one of these shows, and I’m not going to do that because I get fucking sick of it. At what point are you just any other DJ? I try very hard to not be the guy playing the same song as everyone else, and if I do I make sure it’s done in a unique way. Like right now, everyone uses [Migos’ hit] “Bad and Boujee,” myself included, but my version is played with MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” under it. It’s not what anyone would expect.”
When pressed on why he’s so determined to break from what is expected of him, Crow continues, “I always make it a point to ensure people hear something different because that is what makes you excited for the next drop. If you’re always hearing 10 out of 10 intensity, it is not the same. I always explain like this: If you watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and it starts off with him blowing people’s heads off and continues with that—no dialogue, no anything else—it gets old. You get tired of the thing that once made you excited because there is nothing to tantalize you in between. You have to cleanse the palette and start again.”
Late last year, Crow had started publicly discussing plans to work on an EP, his first proper collection of material to date. The songs released since that time, including “We Might Fall,” are not part of that effort. “No one has heard that material yet,” he says. “I am hoping to put out a four song EP because that is the maximum I think an EP should be or else you just make an album. I’m going to do that and then see what comes from there, but eventually there will be a record.”
The conversation turns to the differences between Crow’s life today and his one as part of a band in a van traveling the country. “I guess it’s easier and harder. I don’t have to rely on anyone to come up with creative content or to put myself in a position to do too much. If I need a break, I can take it, and I don’t have to feel like I’m letting another person down. I get to choose how hard I want to work and when. There are no more debates, so you get to be the person who is driving the vehicle and the one building it. That’s great. But because of this, there is also a lot more stress on your shoulders. Before, I could just come to practice and my guitarist could tell me he’d just written a new song. I could feel like I was moving forward without having had to do anything. Since literally everything is on me now, from instruments to mastering, it’s more arduous, but I prefer it.”
Electronic music has experienced a boom in recent years, both in artists and audience. Competition is fierce, but Crow seems calm in spite of it all. “It has been the result of a lot of change for me,” he says in regards to his success up to this point. “Change in my music, change in who I am, change both physically and mentally. I see this scenario all the time where someone is coming up and they have all these opportunities because everything is working, but then they stick true to that one style, and it never connects to the point things explode. Sometimes a song style can get you to the point where you are recognized, but in order to hit the next peak or to evolve into the next best version of you, it’s necessary to take some risks that you aren’t always sure about. I was making bass house, but then I decided I didn’t want an audience that was only into bass house. So at that point, I started expanding into dubstep, and then I decided to make happier music that sets people’s hearts on fire, and that’s what I pursued from that. It was a huge risk for my brand at the time. If you remember, I had black hair and wore death metal shirts every chance I got. Now I have grey hair, orange glasses, and I’m covered in snakes. It’s like a business. When you look at businesses, it’s change that keeps every great business successful. If you’re not willing to adapt, it will leave you behind.”
It may all seem a bit calculated, but Crow confesses he’s just being himself. “The thing is, I don’t know how many friends in the world I haven’t met yet. I don’t know who has been touched by my music or my writing. I have no way of knowing where they are in life or what they’re going through, but I know they’re constantly growing and changing. If my brand is just squishy, dubstep happy sound it’s great—for a while. People will come for a few years, and then it will go away, it always does, and you have to hope the next generation of kids are into the same thing the people before them were. You either do that, or you change and mature with them. You show them it’s okay to change and be a different person than who you are perceived as. Fuck what anyone thinks.”
He adds, “Every day there are new 18 year olds who want to go to festivals and want to explore EDM because it’s new to them, and that’s great. But you have to remember that they are new 18 year olds. They are not the same people from two or three years ago. They have a completely different mindset, and they might not care for what was selling when you first got recognized. You have to take the risks.”
When you call Ghastly’s phone and he’s unable to answer, you might expect the sound of an automated message telling you his voicemail is either full or not entirely setup (a hallmark of musicians’ cell phones). Instead, you hear the man himself performing a parody of the Moviefone hotline—a number those of us who lived before the Internet would call to learn movie times—before asking in his own sweetly profane way that you not leave a message. He might not want to listen to what you have to say, in fact it’s almost certain he won’t, but he goes the extra mile to make sure you’re entertained. S
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!