There’s imagination, then there’s GHOSTSHRIMP, which very well could be imagination’s human equivalent, if he is, in fact, human. GHOSTSHRIMP aka Dan James aka Daniel Bandit heads up Ghostshrimp Global, an illustration company with a mysterious presence, and an even cooler quest.
“Our mission is two fold,” the website reads. “The first is to spend our time doing the coolest things we can imagine. The second is to inspire others to do the coolest things they can imagine.”
Mathematical, right? Perhaps most known for his work as background designer on Adventure Time (yep, the Land of Ooo came from his brain), GHOSTSHRIMP has worked with clients including Walt Disney Studios, The New York Times, Subpop Records and The New Yorker, as well as has quite a few album covers under his probably superpowered tool belt. As he put it in our extensive email conversation, “Digging trenches and lifting logs is the same thing as making illustrations, you are creating a world with your hands.”
And, in addition to Ghostshrimp Global, he has created an alternate world. Once a year, he hosts Ghostscout Training Camp, where he invites eight aspiring illustrators to Ghostshrimp National Forest to simply create. Well, and to dig, build, dream and investigate alien abductions.
So whatever lies behind the cocktail sauce-tinted curtain, GHOSTSHRIMP knows illustration. In our second installment of Behind the Design, we talked with him about everything from GHOSTSHRIMP to Ghostscouts, Arnold Schwarzenegger to salted lettuce and brook water diets and the Land of Ooo to simply doing what you love.
And while we’re still pretty baffled—having both Muhammed Ali and Shaquille O’Neal as cousins is a pretty big deal—we’ll let you sniff around for yourself. After all, he has a point here: “Imagination is every human beings superpower, but you have to use it or you lose it.”
Paste: You’ve kept a very mysterious presence. Will you tell us a little about why you’ve decided to keep your identity more or less unknown?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Great opening question. Right to the heart of it, up the river and into the darkness.
My cousin Muhammed Ali said it best, “...People desire to understand that which they cannot understand, get that? Count Dracula meets the Wolfman on Horror Mountain… Mystified… Or a shark named Jaws eaten people up, or Star Wars monsters flying rocket ships. People like to be puzzled, so I puzzle ‘em…”
In other words, it’s no secret that life is an endless mystery, so, in our minds, creating the maximum amount of intrigue just seems to be the most natural way to brand GHOSTSHRIMP. I’m not even really sure what we are, one visionary man pretending to be many extremely fertile women, or many visionary women pretending to be one extremely fertile man, or a group of extremely fertile mixed gender visionaries from the future, from another planet, from the future of another planet that is a time delayed alternate dimension that perfectly overlaps with our present moment in space and time, and can only be experienced in between waking and sleep. It’s hard to say for sure. There are a lot of strange theories out there about us and I’ve started all of them. Some people say we invented the birch tree, and I hope we did—the birch tree is a really amazing tree!
Paste: GHOSTSHRIMP is a good name. What’s the story behind it?
GHOSTSHRIMP: I honestly have absolutely no clue, but it sounds super spooky and sneaky powerful.
Paste: When did you fall in love with illustration? Have you always drawn?
GHOSTSHRIMP: That’s the daily double right there! Funny story, it was actually my cousin Shaquille O’Neal who got me into drawing. He was a little older than me, plus he was 7 feet tall, so I was always looking up to him. People only remember him for thrashing down all those basketball hoops and ripping up Kobe Bryant on the microphone, but actually he is the best illustrator I’ve ever met. His arms are so long that he would be up on the top bunk and both his arms would reach down to the floor on either side, like huge tootsie rolls, stretching down and down, and he would draw like that, all night while he slept. I would be on the bottom bunk just watching the magic happen. It was absolutely insane, his drawings were just so juicy, and all I wanted to do was drink them up. To this day I wear my Shaq jersey whenever I am drawing.
Paste: What do you consider to be the most significant influences on your artwork?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Arnold Schwarzenegger probably. Me and Shaq used to always draw at Venice beach, ‘cause the lighting is always perfect there. They have an insane gym set up outdoors, pretty much right on the beach, and Arnold would be there every day working out every single muscle in his body. It was the first time I really realized how hard you have to work to become the absolute best at something. Just even watching him I would start dripping sweat and all my muscles would feel like chewed bubble gum. It was like his entire body was a huge muscle, and he would start laughing, and the deeper he got into his workout, the harder and louder he laughed, and his eyes would be bugging out of his head like the Mars scene from Total Recall. The local cops thought he was some criminal mastermind running an anabolic pyramid scheme on the beach, but, as soon as they started questioning witnesses, it became really obvious that they weren’t even cops and that they didn’t understand what a pyramid scheme was, or how they worked. Pretty much every illustration I’ve never done wasn’t based on the time we spent watching muscles grow at the beach.
Paste: You’ve worked on a lot of album covers, most recently NehruvianDOOM. Do you listen to anything while you work? What’s on your playlist right now?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Right now I am listening to “Entroducing” by DJ Shadow while I work on this interview. After I’m done I will jump on “Yessir, Whatever” by Quasimoto, and then some “Quality Control” by Jurassic 5. I became a teenager in the early ‘90s , when the second generation of rap music was really starting to capture the mainstream imagination, and I was swept away by it. I was facing my greatest mental struggles at that time, like any lost teenager, and when I heard these kids that weren’t much older than me, using rap music as a tool to solve their problems, something just clicked. They were basically saying, you can either fall in line with the herd, or you can discover your superpowers and use them to make something special for yourself. Before that, when I looked into my future there was nothing there, I didn’t understand how I was supposed to fit into all the lame boxes out there. Rap music gave me a vision. I realized that my life is a story, and it’s up to me decide what sort of character I’m going to be. Now, with all the album covers I’ve done over the last decade, I’m part of that culture, more proof that your own personal field of dreams is just hidden underneath all those genetically modified corn stalks.
Paste: You seem to be quite the adventurer, so let’s talk about Adventure Time. What inspired the Land of Ooo? Is it all from your imagination?
GHOSTSHRIMP: The Land of Ooo is the dream world that exists in my head. It’s my entire childhood, combined with my recurring dreams, filtered through my experiences as a teenager and edited by my adult mind. Creating the world for Adventure Time is a once in a lifetime job for an illustrator, so I gave it everything I had. Luckily, I am always living multiple lifetimes in parallel, so I can give a sweet project like that everything I have, then murder off that version of myself, and quantum leap into the new me. Imagination is the drawing board for reality. I mean, think about it, humans are the only creature on this planet that can think about hypothetical realities and make them come to life. A deer doesn’t see a bird flying around and then gather up his deer friends to build an airplane. Imagination is every human beings superpower, but you have to use it or you lose it. Anyone that isn’t using their imagination to guide their life is not taking advantage of the greatest tool our species has been given to work with.
Paste: What is your creative process in general? Do you have any rituals before you start on a project?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Oh, big time. I go on a salted lettuce and brook water diet. This gives me all the electrolytes and minerals I need for maximum creativity, without having to be interrupted by bowel movements. It slows my whole metabolism down to a near hibernative state, so all my actions become extremely slow and deliberate. It’s kind of scary to see if you don’t know what’s happening to me, ‘cause it looks like I’m not moving at all. I’ve had neighbors pop in for a visit and give me CPR, I’ve been rushed to the hospital on several occasions and, once at Cartoon Network, I was actually defibrillated by Kent Osborne, the head writer of Adventure Time. When I’m down that deep it takes me several days to get my metabolism back up to normal speed, so I’m basically helpless while I work. It’s like taking an elevator to my bottom floor, all the way down, to where time stops and I can see everything that has happened in my life. Down there is where all the best work comes from. I call it my primordial swamp.
Paste: Having created the worlds that make up the Land of Ooo, where would you most want to live there?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Oh, man, I was hoping nobody would never ask me that, ‘cause I have no idea. I grew up in a tree house, so that’s crossed off the list. If I lived in a kingdom of candy I would have diabetes and a thousand root canals, so that’s definitely out. Winter is my favorite season, but I wouldn’t want to live in the snow all year round, so that rules out the Ice Kingdom. Lumpy Space would be super annoying. Tree Trunks’ house would be pretty nice, in that nice quiet apple orchard, I might be able to get into that.
Paste: It seems that you currently reside in your own magical land, the Ghostshrimp National Forest. Will you reveal anything about this?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Yeah, the Ghostshrimp National Forest is the perfect example of making imagination into reality, because that’s exactly what we’re doing here. It’s 25 acres of wilderness that we bought a few miles outside of an awesome little town in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We are slowly shaping it into a huge creative park for friends, family and Ghostscouts, to gather and build and draw everything that we can think of. In the last 3 years, we’ve built a small house that my family lives in, as well as two log cabins for the Ghostscouts, and also two tipis, and an outhouse with a shower in it. We even have a VIP zone next to the brook, where we have endless cookouts. On one side of the brook is a huge stone fire pit that we sit around and on the other side is a 15 foot wide movie screen hung between two trees that we project movies on twice a week. We’ve got everything we need here to keep us happy and productive for generations to come.
Paste: This is also where your Ghostshrimp Training Camp takes place. What do the Ghostscouts mean to you?
GHOSTSHRIMP: All my best friends are Ghostscouts, so, after my family, they mean everything to me. Being a Ghostscout means that you are working every day to be as happy and productive as you can possibly be. Training camp is super fun and super hard. We do woods work all morning, draw all afternoon, then hang out around the campfire all evening. It’s like summer camp for adults. Last summer, the cadets dug a water line trench that was 4 and a half feet deep and over 200 feet long with shovels and pick axes. This land used to be a farm way back when, until the aliens took all the animals to another planet, and we were actually digging up an old lead water line that was like a 100 years old. 60 foot trees had grown up on top of it, and boulders had been frost heaved over it. It was awe inspiring. One team would work on the trench for two hours, and then they’d switch out with the log cabin team. Digging trenches and lifting logs is the same thing as making illustrations, you are creating a world with your hands. We accomplished so much, and had so much fun while we were doing it. You come to training camp as a cadet see what you’re made of, and you leave training camp as a scout ready to rule the world, with a whole gang of ghost homies who have your back. It’s really more of a training camp to succeed at life as a team sport.
Paste: How do you choose your Ghostscouts?
GHOSTSHRIMP: The application is on our website, and people apply from all over the world. We chose the eight applicants we think are most likely to succeed here. We’ve had cadets come from Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada and all over the United States.
Paste: What do you most like to do in your free time? I saw that you and the Ghostscouts like to investigate alien abductions, for example. Any luck?
GHOSTSHRIMP: Yes, there are actually a few Ghostscouts who were not born on the planet earth, including myself.
Paste: Lastly, what advice do you have for the aspiring illustrators out there?
GHOSTSHRIMP: First and foremost, make a 5 year plan. Start with one goal a year, working backwards, then expand to three goals per year, then see where it leads. Getting into the practice of directing your future will give you an advantage, even when the plan changes, you will be ready to come back like a Terminator sequel, again and again.
Second, make your work as personal as possible. Pursue sources of inspiration that are unique to you. Push into the unknown, away from what has already been established, this way you will only have to compete with yourself to get work.
Second second, never hold in your poop, it will poison your ghost. If you feel a knock on your back door, open it right away, no matter where you are. Poop is the devil’s breakfast, and his appetite knows no bounds.
Third, and this goes for everyone in life, explore your intuitions. Intuition is your way to connect with the unseen forces that will determine the outcome of your life. If you feel a tingle, let it mingle. Much like with imagination, the cousin of inspiration, if you don’t use it you will lose it, and then you will be flying blind.
Fourth, until people know who you are, and pay you a living wage for what you do, you should be at your desk 80 hours a week, no joke, just in-putting inspiration and out-putting work. Find a cheap place to live, get a part time job to pay your bills, and draw the rest of the time. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, do something else, ‘cause the kids who love it that much will be getting all your jobs.
Second fourth, if you turn out the lights, and say the name Orenthal James Simpson three times into the mirror, he will still be stuck in prison in Las Vegas, so don’t waste your time.
Fifth, if you want to have a successful illustration business, you need to create a brand to differentiate yourself in the market. Obviously this begins with having a unique product that has been developed to a professional level, but you need to take it further than that. Branding is all about creating an intangible desire for your product, beyond it’s primary function. The biggest brands in the world aren’t providing the best products, they are creating the most desire for their products through branding. THINK ABOUT IT.
But the most important thing of all is just to have fun. Every time we sit down to draw, we do it for the same reasons we did when we were sleeping over at Shaq’s house in Beverly Hills, ‘cause it’s the most fun thing in the world for us to do. If you ever lose the love, take a break and find it again, before it’s gone for good!