“We stick out like a sore thumb, for people who like sore thumbs,” says Josh Cannon, one-half of the electronic rock group Dancing with Ghosts. Along with Stephanie Conner, Cannon has worked hard to stick that thumb out as far as possible in the Jacksonville music scene.
The group itself is relatively new, but both Cannon and Conner have been performing locally for many years. Cannon founded Dancing with Ghosts as a solo project after being fed up with other musical ventures.
“It started out of frustration, really,” he tells Folio Weekly as photographer Alex Harris preps a shot. (Cannon and Conner have joined us at one of our weekly #FindYourFolio Happy Hours. We’re at Southside’s Wicked Barley Brewing Company, and neighboring Goodbys Creek suggested itself as an appropriately foreboding backdrop for a photo shoot. The duo is, naturally, in full costume and makeup.) “[I was] spending all of my twenties bouncing around from band to band. We would always get to that certain point of success, and then someone would quit.”
Instead of starting the process all over again, Cannon decided to take his musical career into his own hands. After speaking with a friend and mentor—shout out to the talented Tom Bennett—he was inspired to start his own group. Bennett even gave Cannon the name, Dancing with Ghosts, a reference to the toxic people and habits that we negotiate throughout our lives. Cannon got to work quickly, recording and releasing the album Koyaanisqatsi on his own in June 2017.
Dancing became a duo shortly thereafter, in the eye of the storm. The storm in question was Hurricane Irma.
“We had become friends that summer, and were hanging out,” Conner recalls. “I was a huge fan of [Cannon’s] first album. I knew it frontwards, backwards and sideways. His power was out, and he was playing some of the songs acoustically. I was able to sing the harmonies for everything. I always wanted to be in a duo like this, but I had never had the option. I wasn’t going to ask. I had gotten a piano, and I was already trying to transpose some of his songs.”
Cannon was still smarting from his last band break-up, but here was the ideal Dancing partner. “I had a whole mentality that I didn’t want anyone else in the band again,” Cannon explains. “I didn’t want anyone to take my band away from me by losing an integral member. But she was adding so much to my sound. She already knew all the harmonies in my songs, and her voice was so good. I would be stupid to not include her. So I took a risk and said, ‘You should join.’ I think she’s just as insane as I am. She’s really put her money where her mouth is as far as sticking around and contributing.”
At this point in the interview, still loitering by the water’s edge, we’re greeted by a baby possum. Cannon and Conner take a moment to lower their makeup-covered visages to fawn over the ball of fluff. They take the creature’s appearance just then as a harbinger of good fortune.
Once established as a duo, Dancing with Ghosts were gigging live within three months. Sonically, the band pushed further into the hard-edged synthesized pop pioneered by Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. Visually, they are indebted to the likes of theatrical Canadian goth-rock outfit The Birthday Massacre. Take all these influences with a grain of salt, however, because Cannon and Conner have an aesthetic that’s all their own.
Dancing with Ghosts clearly spends a lot of time considering the visual aspects of their venture. Naturally, they find inspiration from the cinematic world. Cannon points to the works of music video director Chris Cunningham, who may be most famous for Aphex Twin’s unbelievably jarring “Come to Daddy” video. Stanley Kubrick’s strong visual statements have also influenced the band’s presentation, as have the spooky but slapstick worlds crafted by Beetlejuice director Tim Burton.
The addition of wearing makeup during performances was something that always appealed to both members of the group. They began wearing their now-signature face paint at a 2018 Halloween gig.
“It felt right. It felt like this is how it should be for every show,” says Cannon.
Dancing with Ghosts ramped up the theatrics in its music videos, creating costumed characters which band members continue to inhabit on stage. Cannon’s impish alter ego is Kallus, a nefarious presence, perhaps a distant relative of Howling Jimmy Jefferson. Conner performs the faun-like role of Alaric, a scantily clad and over-caffeinated woodland sprite.
“The visuals are one reason why people will stick around,” Conner explains. “They may be confused at first, but they are interested. They want to watch and know what it is.”
The duo released Hex earlier this year. A collection of new tunes and re-recorded material from previous releases, the album is an excellent example of what the band has been doing on stage. The name of the record has a special meaning to the band and to Cannon in particular. It’s been the watchword of everything the guitarist has done musically since launching this new project.
“When you listen to the album, I want it to feel like it’s some kind of incantation being cast on you,” he explains. Like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Dancing with Ghosts want to put a spell on you.