Interview: Ghost Box Orchestra drummer Martin Rex, author of ‘High Turnover at the Cult of Cults’

In any psych-rock song worth the salt of Arthur Lee, there are patterns and themes buried beneath the surface of the sound, enabling the listener to dive deeper with each listen, peeling away textures and layers to discover new sensations among its rhythmic structure. It’s a fun exercise with the music of Boston’s Ghost Box Orchestra, who, among its five members, create complex, reverberating soundscapes that demand multiple listens for full appreciation. It’s also the task taken on by drummer Martin Rex, who makes his literary debut this week with High Turnover at the Cult of Cults [Slimbooks], a P.G. Wodehouse-inspired British detective story set in modern-day Pennsylvania.

Tucked into the text are hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) lyrical references to the Smiths and the Cult, the former one of Rex’s favorite groups and the latter a band that took Ghost Box Orchestra out on a mini-tour last year, which included a stop at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston.

With the book’s release, we caught up with the Boston writer, musician, and humorist to discuss High Turnover at the Cult of Cults and its peculiar setting of Pennsylvania, just how the lyrical words and wisdom of Steven Patrick Morrissey and Ian Astbury fit into all this, and just what’s next for Ghost Box Orchestra, who are readying a new full-length set for release sometime next year.

Michael Marotta: How’d the book come together?

Martin Rex: It came together because I resigned from my job! I had been wanting to write for years. My entire life, actually. But also pursuing music with Lockgroove, Broken River Prophet, and now Ghost Box Orchestra led to working corporate “day jobs” all these years, which left no time for writing. My last job (at a big bank) offered me the ability to save a war chest. I called it my “reinvention fund”… I wanted to get back into writing, “back to my roots” — I was a journalism major at Northeastern. I saved for about five years, then felt comfortable enough with my reinvention fund to pull the trigger a few years back. I resigned and started writing, founding my short story website Emergency Socks while writing longer pieces like my book, High Turnover at the Cult of Cults.

Is this your debut?

It is! I’m over the moon about it. It’s out from SlimBooks publishing, and available on Amazon. It’s a British detective story, but this throwback detective [piece] I created is based in modern-day Pennsylvania.

Ok, why a British detective story set in Pennsylvania?

Well, I just adore anything British — Britpop, British detective novels, the accent, the history, all of it. So when I started developing ideas for High Turnover at the Cult of Cults as a mystery, of course my main character, Ackley Davenport, had to be British. Since I made Ackley a throwback, using all that Victorian, and even jazz-age, British pomp and slang, I thought it would be really fun to contrast that against the way modern Americans speak. The juxtaposition was so much fun. Ackley’s narrative style is in many ways like Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s character from Wooster and Jeeves’ fame. I was reading a ton of Wodehouse at the time. My older brother turned me on to Wodehouse. He’s a master. But I always wanted the stories to develop into mysteries. So I developed this Bertie-esque character who is… or rather, becomes, a detective, but in modern-day America. And I’m from Pennsylvania, so, hence, Pennsylvania!

You mentioned that there are hidden references to the Smiths and Cult in the text, care to elaborate on that?

Ha. Yes! There are a few cryptic references in there to Smiths and Cult lyrics. Just shoutouts, really.

Why those two bands?

I think the Cult because Ghost Box Orchestra had done a jaunt with them and at some point in the plot a lyric made sense… and the Smiths because they are my favorite band and that’s pretty much all I listen to. I’m indoctrinating my 10-month-old son daily.

How do those messages relate to the story, if at all?

They are just shoutouts, inside references for fans who like the bands. As a writer yourself, you probably know how connections get made seemingly out of the cosmos. So as the plot developed, a character might say or do something that fits in with a lyric of a song you were listening to that day, and suddenly your mind makes a connection, and channels that to your typing fingers…

Like our headlines! Why was it important to tuck those in?

All for fun and a shoutout. There are also references to Pennsylvania-specific items like scrapple and shoo-fly pie. Google them. I am also proud to have immortalized with an official ISBN a term that only my high school used: “Ert.” And my older brother allowed me to use his genius hybrid word: Bummerstandable. It’s so good. You don’t even need to explain what bummerstandable means, it’s immediately apparent. As far as “ert”… it just means “duh, that’s stupid.” Never caught on beyond Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Which is the Home of the Blob, FYI.

What’s new for GBO in 2016?

We just put out our Sound of (Eternal Now) EP, which is something we put together quickly since our full length, High Plaine, was not ready yet. So proud of the EP, but man, I can’t wait for folks to hear High Plaine in 2016! [Ghost Box keyboardist] Nazli and I just had a son, Parker, not too long ago, but we’re still going to try to get out for a United States or European tour in support. We’re making it work, and there are no plans to stop, the band is on fire musically in my opinion, so we’re forging ahead.

For more information on High Turnover at the Cult of Cults, click here. Check out the book’s cover art below.