Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Phantom Band

Glasgow based sextet The Phantom Band (Duncan- Guitar and Vocals; Rick- Guitar and Vocals; Andy- Keyboards and Vocals; Greg- Guitar; Gerry- Bass and Vocals; Damien- Drums) have been receiving plenty of restrained media excitement following January’s release of their debut album, Checkmate Savage. Mojo and Clash mags have both billed them as a big band to watch in ’09. They’re pretty feckin’ exciting, but let’s not get carried away- they’re not “The new Radiohead” or anything.

Thankfully. Every time some new musical messiahs are hailed by an over zealous gun-jumper, the sorry band invariably implode in a pressure of scrutiny, expectation and reactionary opinion. It’s probably easy to become hazy and unsure of direction and integrity when you’re pressured to become something you never set out to be.

So it’s maybe a good thing these guys took the initiative and hazed their own direction by settling on a moniker that labels as ambiguous and evasive. The reviews have been positive but it seems bets are being hedged, probably precisely because the music is coming from so far out into leftfield.

They’re a difficult lot to pin down. Their name suits them- like some Scottish crag clouded by mist, they’re bold but hard to define. I found them at The Macbeth on Feb 21 before they played at the monthly Twisted Licks.

WJ: You changed your name loads of times before settling on The Phantom Band. What’s the deal?

Andy: “We didn’t want to be known as something in particular before we were well known as the thing we wanted to be.”

Rick: “We’d drop the name after a gig if it didn’t go too well.”

Duncan: “It also helped bring an element of spontaneity. We want to try and keep the unexpected. We consider those early gigs as being like practices and we didn’t want to be well known when we were just practicing. When we were happy with our songs we thought we should stick to one name for a while.”

Rick: “The name now sort of sums up what we’d been until we settled on The Phantom Band- just farts in the wind.”

WJ: The album’s brooding and ominous but also uplifting. Is the feeling of doom a reflection of deep sentiments or is it more tongue-in-cheek?

Andy: “It’s a bit of both really. We’re all really into Led Zeppelin who often deal with gloomy subjects but they clearly have fun with it.”

Gerry: “We find dark and brooding music uplifting and really jolly music kinda depressing.”

Andy: “Our lyrics are dark but the music is quite happy. I like that contrast and the friction it causes.”

Rick: “Seeing Godspeed [You Black Emperor] is such a spectacle. They are so visceral and exciting. It’s great when you can see a band that has that effect on you. There’s nothing else like it. They could be considered gloomy but seeing them really picks you up.”

Blending their nihilistic introspection and ominous anticipation with tunes often joyful and amusing has the effect of shaking and comforting, questioning and answering at the same time.

The Phantom Band don’t seem to prefer sitting alone in a curtained room over hitting town. Their MySpace pic shows the band strutting down a Scottish street, proudly flaunting their costumes of full medieval armour, resplendent with swords and shields. This surely isn’t the behaviour of individuals who while away the hours wondering what it’s like to be covered in earth, even if the lyrics to I Like My Hole include: “There is no water, there is no light, there is no food. I love my cave, I like my pit.”

Many of the lyrics delve into a kind of murky spiritual realm: “Say your prayer in the twilight, to be an open door, to rise from hands and knees and walk as dogs no more,” is the break in Halfhound, Duncan’s warm and weary voice supported by a choral 3-part harmony.

The Howling builds up to the words: “There will be ghosts on the day I die, following following dust I try to live beyond my lust and lie- it’s all I want- Carry my body on the reckoning wind- Howling! Howling!.” Set against the backdrop of an upbeat, catchy and hypnotic tune it evokes a weird scene where shadowy souls dance carefree and drunk, laughing at the fickle fruitlessness of the daily mundane. A dance of the dead and a jest at the living.

It all sounds rather serious. As does one of Duncan’s comments: “Over population, dwindling natural resources and the yawning void inside every one of us caused by society’s unnatural social contracts and mass sexual repression means one thing: It’s checkmate for the human animal.”

WJ: Is that where the name of the album comes from- saying humans are only beasts and our apparent advances are really just trappings that destroy us?”

Rick: “No! Duncan said that after we decided on the name. What happened was that our producer [Paul Savage from The Delgados] made a pass at Andy’s girlfriend. Andy found out about it, rang him up and just left the words, ‘Checkmate, Savage! We don’t really like the whole naming process. It’s difficult to label something that means so much with so few words.”

Duncan: “Yeah, I also like the way the phrase sounds. The words sound good together- loads of consonants.

WJ: Your tunes are often epic. How do you set about writing them?”

Duncan: “Usually they form through layers. Someone starts by playing a riff and then we all build on top of that.”

Gerry: “It sort of just happens. We fill in with what sounds good and try to out do each other!”

Duncan: “We’ve talked a lot about atmosphere and decided that was the thing we want to create. We want a cinematic feel. So we have a lot of jams in the studio and record them all. Someone will come up with something good and we’ll play around with that for a while.”

Rick: “The songs existed in lots of different forms for quite a long time. We kept changing them. We had to learn how to play the album when we came to record.”

Andy: “A few of the vocal lines were written just a minute before pressing play.”

WJ: Do you do anything in particular to help inspiration? Any long walks? Sitting in caves? Chanting?”

Jerry: “We get most of our inspiration from each other.”

Duncan: “Being hungover usually helps. It brings a weird medium and a focus. Except when you laugh so much you fall off your stool.”

Andy: “It’s like your brain takes a straight line. And Rick’s blindingly funny when he’s hungover.”

Gerry: “Rick’s blindingly funny when he’s blindingly drunk!”

WJ: Do you have any rituals before going on stage or superstitions you have to fulfil, like wearing two pairs of socks or turning around three times anti-clockwise?”

Andy: “Getting drunk.”

Jerry: “We used to huddle together and psych each other up, put our hands together and that sort of thing, but it isn’t needed and we just felt stupid.”

Greg: “Pee, cigarette, pee, gig”

Jerry: “Greg has a problem if he has to go 45 minutes without a pee. At one gig he looked in real pain.”

Greg: “Yeah, I’ve learnt to keep to my ritual.”

WJ: Finally, what about all the positive publicity- has it affected you in any way? Do you feel any extra pressure?”

Rick: “It’s a strange feeling and I can’t help but get the impression that the writing is about a different band.”

Duncan: “Obviously we know the album’s in the public domain and people are positive about it but it’s hard to translate that into seeing the audiences at gigs who have heard our stuff before. We record the music we want to make and wouldn’t allow the external expectations to get to us. It can make you mad thinking about it.”

Jerry: “I just think- What! How did that happen?”

The gig itself showcased a massive range of influences. Some German mag claimed they have no less, or more, than 27 (which the band wholeheartedly agree on and deny at the same time). There was techno, kraut-rock, ballad, gospel, metal and more.

They come across as a monster of contradictions, but an engaging and endearing monster. Fortunately they’ve got a sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Andy, the organist, described them as: “The most self-destructive, directionless, negative collection of argumentative individuals I know, who go out of their way to mess up anything that might be working in their favour.” When questioned on the seriousness of this comment he said: “The thing about that is it’s sometimes true but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. I said it, so it makes me that, but it’s definitely not true of the band all the time. I only actually know these five people so I guess that makes us the most happy, directionful, syncronised group too.”

Hopefully they will keep making the music they want and not get caught in a haze of expectation, even if that means they may need to change their name again in a matter of weeks. They are not the new Radiohead or any musical messiahs, so 2009 may well be a year of immense achievement for this strange and interesting band.

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