Once equated with the sunny California sound, the band's mood has turned duskier.
By BRIAN ORLOFF
Published March 21, 2004
From left, Sam Farrar, Darren Robinson, Alex Greenwald, Jacques Brautbar and Jeff Conrad bring Phantom Planets evolving sound to their gig at the Masquerade in Ybor City.
Sure, it had a hit single with California, now the theme song of Fox's popular nighttime soap opera The O.C. And on its 2002 album, The Guest, indie rockers Phantom Planet epitomized the California image with sunny pop tunes and Hollywood flirtations.
The band got its start in 1994 when a group of adolescents congregated at a Los Angeles Pizza Hut and named themselves after the '60s sci-fi flick. Front man Alex Greenwald did his fair share of modeling and acting a few years back. And the original drummer was Jason Schwartzman, nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola and star of such films as Rushmore. He left the band in August to pursue acting full time - he now co-stars in another Fox show, Cracking Up - though he did record several songs on the band's latest album.
But now, Greenwald says, Phantom Planet is distancing itself from its home state, geographically and artistically, even calling itself a "homeless band."
Calling from Kalamazoo, Mich., the first date on a tour that brings the quintet to the Masquerade in Ybor City on Tuesday, Greenwald, 24, spoke about the band's mature new sound and how Phantom Planet has escaped sunny California for an upstate New York log cabin.
St. Petersburg Times: Phantom Planet (the band's latest album) is definitely a departure from the pop sound of The Guest.
Alex Greenwald: I think what happened was a natural progression. We had been on the road for a year and a half, and I think we were more accomplished musicians than we had ever been. And I wanted to showcase that as best as possible. We adopted this motto of "harder, better, faster, stronger" that I stole from a Daft Punk song.
Times: What was it like working with David Fridmann (whose producing credits include the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Mogwai)?
Greenwald: He approached us to do the record, and I took that as a huge compliment because he's one of my favorite producers of all time. The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips totally changed my life. I had totally psyched myself out because he's this man who has based his career on making these sonic landscapes, spending tons and tons of time in the studio to make these masterworks. And I expected this Phil Spector type of dude, kind of a crazy, sociological-problem, carries-a-gun freak. But in meeting him, he was totally down-to-earth.
Times: How does his wide range of influences translate to the sound of the album?
Greenwald: After we'd thrown out at each other our favorite bands, we figured out that most of those bands have a simplicity to them, either because of technology, like the Beatles or early '70s progressive bands that had only 16 tracks, or because it was just a forced, intentional minimalism. That's exactly what I wanted to do.
Times: I was reading about how you recorded this. You had sort of a Walden-like experience, holed up in a log cabin in upstate New York.
Greenwald: Dave has family up there and teaches at Fredonia (in the State University of New York system), so he can't leave. He has this studio with the Flaming Lips, which is in a log cabin that was built by Amish people not so long ago. And if you're a band that wants to work with Dave, you have to work in the studio.
It was good for us because we've always recorded in Los Angeles, and there's always something more fun to do than recording. There's always a girlfriend, or there's always a bar, or there's always alcohol around. Being isolated in a cabin really helped because all you can do is eat, sleep and play music.
Times: You mentioned recording and living in Los Angeles. Do you identify as an L.A. band?
Greenwald: I was born there, and it's my hometown. The band we are now, I feel, doesn't have a home. There's nothing California about our sound. I don't even know where we are. The band has been constantly traveling. It's a homeless band. We're homeless music. That's how I'd categorize it.
Times: This album feels darker than the last one. Does that just come with the sonic territory?
Greenwald: I've always tried to be as truthful as possible in songs and writing lyrics. It's like every song is a torn page out of a diary. There's a lot of disappointment, there's a lot of frustration, there's a lot of loneliness. I think that came first mentally, then lyrically, and (then by looking at) how do you frame that portrait with an appropriate sound?
There was a point on tour where we were gone for so long that you start missing your friends and family more desperately than you thought you could. I would relate touring to arsenic poisoning, maybe. With every day you never notice you're being poisoned and one day it's like (voice turns urgent), "I have to go home right now!"
I thought I'd be saved by going home. But what happened was just more frustration and friends disappointing me.
Times: That doesn't bode well for this year on tour.
Greenwald: In staying home, writing the record and recording it, I think I got all the toxicity out of me. All the arsenic. I'm ready for a repoisoning.
Phantom Planet, 7 p.m. Tuesday at Masquerade, 1503 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City. $13.50. (727) 898-2100 or (813) 287-8844.