With their second album, The Wants, gaining our coveted TLOBF Recommended tag, and their debut album blowing away most of the British pop dirge in front of it, The Phantom Band are on a roll. I got the chance to fire some questions at Andy Wake, their keyboardist, about the difficult second album and all that revolves around making music.
Welcome back! I feel as though The Wants is a continuation of your sound, a definite progression from Checkmate Savage. How did your approach writing the “difficult” second album?
It wasn’t difficult in terms of coming up with ideas for it. What was quite tricky was having limited time to write it – trying to get the best out of the ideas we had. We did it pretty much in situ at Chem19 in Blantyre- we went into the studio with very little in terms of songs and structures, using the capabilities of the studio and the recording process as a means of writing the music. Ideas between us all were bounced off the studio and it became a process of elimination rather than a linear writing process.
The Wants feels a little more sparse than your debut, the influence of pop music not as prevalent. Was this a conscious decision? Did you want to explore other musical avenues?
We didn’t give any consideration to what avenues we were exploring but I suppose, given the way we were writing the album, we were conscious of not recording anything that didn’t contribute significantly to the feel or structure of the music. That said, we continued to work in a way that allowed tracks to change in feel and direction by parts individuals came up with on the spot- we liked how that worked on Checkmate Savage. But if Checkmate Savage sounds more influenced by pop, then that is coincidental- perhaps rooted in what we happened to be listening to at the time- but I don’t think we were listening to any less pop music than we were in 2009. I think the musical avenues explored are entirely circumstantial, depending on who was able to be in the studio on the day, and how they happened to be feeling when making aesthetic judgments. The album could have just as easily turned out entirely different. I think that, perhaps, what we decided not to keep could be just as interesting, if not more so, than what made it on to the finished tracks. We’d probably have a full album of techno, bluegrass or drone metal in there somewhere.
What do you feel are your major sources of inspiration? Is it purely music? Do you find it in books, movies etc?
I think, as with any creative endeavour, one finds inspiration in whatever is around them, regardless of medium. I suppose the main thing is that, on the whole, we aren’t proactively looking for them so it’s virtually impossible to pin down what comes from where- it’s not as direct or simple as that. We all read a lot and watch a lot of films, and I’m sure this all influences the music and lyrics in some way or other.
Was there a specific theme flowing through the album or is it just a collection of songs?
There is a theme- I’ve always described it as a concept album where we haven’t quite figured out what the concept is – so it’s glasgow/blantyre/chem19, spring 2010 themed. This seems a bit of a sound-bite, but I think the feeling of a theme will always occur when you set about writing music as a complete album rather than a linear series of tracks. I think there is a distinct feel that runs through the tracks as we were approaching them all with the same agenda and aspirations. If you can work out what that theme is then, congratulations, you’ve won a boat.
Where did the album title come from?
It’s a phrase that we’ve always used light-heartedly in reference to sexual desire, but we started to apply it to an increasing range of situations, usually pertaining to unfulfilled aspiration- the things that drive you to explore a creative or philosophical avenue. Longings that, like those sexy wants, could never be entirely satisfied – if they could then what would be the point? The first outings of greg’s guitar parts gave me the wants. Much of the album carries a loose idea of someone being driven towards something by some otherly or unknown force – something beyond control or understanding. Have a listen with that in mind and you might just garner an understanding as to why we called it The Wants. Either that or consider that some of it is a wee bit creepy.
Are all the songs new and specifically written for the new album, or did you reuse some from your earlier days and incarnations?
All the tracks were written specifically for this album or, in a way, by this album. We’re not ruling out the idea of revisiting ideas we had a long time ago though- maybe on our next album you might hear something that wasn’t quite finished in time for Checkmate Savage. We have a huge library of rehearsal recordings to consult if/when we run out of ideas!
There seems to be a rise in quality weird pop from Britain at the moment with the likes of yourselves and Wild Beasts. Do you feel part of any movement, who do you see as your contemporaries or do you think you’re unique?
We feel neither part of a movement nor unique. Movements are determined retrospectively and the first rule of being part of such a thing is not knowing that such a thing exists. I’ve never heard Wild Beasts – not sure if any of the others have. If anything we do is unique, then I’m sure it’s because of all the influences we don’t agree on, rather than the ones we do, because the physical format of what we do (guitars, synths, sequenced drums/samples alongside live drums etc) is not new by any means. Bands have been pursuing this format for decades, but perhaps the fact that, within The Phantom Band we don’t try to argue each other out of the tastes that we disagree on, but allow each member to use their own aesthetic judgments during the writing process, means that we can add something entirely personal to the format we follow. Last week I had an interesting conversation with Scott Hutchison on the Frightened Rabbit tour bus where we established that the way we each approach song-writing couldn’t be more different; we are absolutely poles apart and neither of us could imagine working in the way that the other does – but there we were on a US tour together, with most of their audience apparently enjoying our band too. I could write a list of our contemporaries- bands at a similar level to us who we enjoy live and on record, particularly bands in glasgow, but I don’t think we are like any of them. This isn’t because I think we are better or more original but, given that as a band we don’t go to gigs together, we’ve never made a decision to be more like this band or that band, I can’t speak for the whole band with regards which bands we should associate ourselves with.
Can we expect to see you tour the length and breadth of the UK soon? Want can we expect from your live show?
We are doing a very limited UK tour later this month- starting at Manchester Deaf Institute on 17 November and ending at glasgow Oran Mor on the 21st, (via London Queen of Hoxton on the 18th, Leeds Brudenelle on the 19th and Durham Live on the 20th). We’re going to hold off a bit in the run up to Christmas and do a much more extensive UK and Europe tour early next year, hopefully with some festivals and another US trip later in the year. You can expect to leave the show with the wants for something or other, or someone or other, or combinations thereof.
Did you know you had a celebrity fan? Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime-writer tweeted last weekend that he was impressed with the reviews The Wants was getting and was going to pick it up on Monday! Do you feel a pride when you hear about something like that or does it not matter?
I did not know that! Of course it’s great when I hear that anyone has tuned into what we are doing, whether they are a top crime writer or someone who works at Morrisons in Partick. Things like Twitter are good for making it just as easy to hear the latter as the former. That said, it’s always amazing when someone you respect creatively is enjoying what you do, so this is nice news. For me as an avid and lifelong record buyer, the best of such cases came not with a rock star or the like endorsing our music, but with my favourite record shop (Piccadilly Records in Manchester) naming us as their Album of 2009 – for me this is the ultimate accolade. However, I can’t wait to tell my Mum about Ian Rankin…
And finally, what are your future plans? Do you have songs ready for the third album?
We have songs ready for our fourth and fifth albums, but not much for the third! We have tons of ideas, and tons of stuff we didn’t quite find time to get finished for The Wants, so we are excited about what we can achieve next time around. We don’t have a master plan for our future; we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves and things seem to get steadily better for us, so we just want to carry on without taking things for granted – things like tours and opportunities to see our music in a packaged album are still new and exciting to us- getting to go to America etc- all make us feel like right lucky bastards, so if we can continue as we are we’ll be over the moon.
Catch the band live this month at the following venues:
17 Nov The Deaf Institute // Manchester
18 Nov Queen of Hoxton // London
19 Nov Brudenell Social Club // Leeds
20 Nov Durham Live // Durham
21 Nov Oran Mor // Glasgow