Interview No. 22 – The Phantom Band

I’ve loved The Phantom Band for quite some time.  They were one of the first artists to headline Trampoline back in the day when we used to run shows in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Back then they were unsigned and just starting to make small waves.  Now they have 2 critically acclaimed albums to their name and are considered to be one of the most exciting and creative acts in Scotland and possibly the wider UK.  Having just returned from the USA, where they spent time supporting Frightened Rabbit, lead singer Rick Anthony has kindly taken time out and answered some questions that I put to him about the band, his solo ventures and Scottish music in general in this the 22nd interview here on The Steinberg Principle.  ‘The Wants’, the new album from The Phantom Band was in my top 10 for 2010.  It’s a brilliant record which, in my opinion, is a step forward from their critically acclaimed debut ‘Checkmate Savage’.  Without any doubt the most exciting Scottish act out there at the moment, please check them out here.  A massive thanks to Rick for his time too.  Enjoy.

TSP: The Phantom Bands new record ‘The Wants’ was recently released on Chemikal Underground.  Given the positive reception and plaudits that your debut received did you feel an extra pressure this time around?

RA: Not really. I think we were more aware of the process this time around (having done an album before) so at least we knew what we were getting into. We didn’t feel any pressure from having had good reviews- I think it’s quite important to not let that kind of thing affect your output or your approach to making music. We put pressure on ourselves in that we wanted to make an album we thought was better than the first but the moment you start trying to second guess or worry about what you think reviewers or your audience will like you’re doomed.

TSP: I assume you are getting out and about to tour the new record?  How important is touring for a band these days both commercially and from the perspective of attracting a new audience?

RA: Yeah we played at the CMJ festival in New York and then toured for a couple of weeks with Frightened Rabbit in the USA- that was fantastic. Then we were back for a bit and we just did a wee tour of the UK that finished in Glasgow last Sunday. Touring is a really good thing to do if you can because it allows you to raise your bands profile a little, explore your music in a pretty unique environment and I suppose there is also the possibility of selling some T-shirts and other stuff. I don’t know about it being commercially importantthough. I guess once you reach a certain level you could probably make a killing out of it but we’re certainly nowhere near there yet. I think a lot of people assume that bands make money out of tours but that is, by and large, far from the case. Many bands actually lose money on tours but do it in the hope of attracting a few new fans, rewarding the old ones and for the fun of playing every night. Listen to the Gillian Welch song ‘Everything is Free Now’- that’s a pretty accurate (and slightly devastating) assessment of the musician’s existence these days.

TSP: How does the song writing work within the band as a whole?  Is there one clear songwriter or are ideas generated together and played around with?

RA: Ideas are usually generated together. We play a lot in the studio all together and each person does what they want around a central idea- whether that’s a bass line, synth melody, guitar part, vocal or whatever. We record all our practices so we have hundreds of hours of material to sift through- there might be a few minutes out of an hour that has something we think we could explore and turn into something more tangible and complex and that’s the bit we take between our teeth and try and write around and expand upon. Obviously certain people have more of a hand in certain tracks than others but it all pretty much balances out in the end.

TSP: Chemikal Underground has a great track record for working with bands that are perhaps a little more experimental in nature.  How supportive have they been and how much creative freedom do you feel you have as artists?

RA: They have been fantastic for us- very supportive and really good people. I think, certainly in terms of our creative output, that we have complete control. They may pressure us now and again to get things done within a certain timeframe but, given that they’re the ones with the chequebook, that’s probably fair enough.

TSP: Was there a conscious choice at the time to sign to a label that would allow you to retain your creative freedom?

RA: Ha! You’re assuming that we had other choices? I think, given where we were as a band at that time, the types of labels who would have wanted any kind of creative control were precisely the ones who wouldn’t have gone near us in the first place. We were involved with a small London label called Trial and Error who were nice guys and interested in us doing an album, but then Chemikal came along got us drunk and took advantage of us.

TSP: Which other Scottish artists would you recommend that people check out?

RA: Ach there’s loads… Some goodies people may not have heard of already are Alasdair Roberts, Sparrow and the Workshop, Mystery Juice, Tut Vu Vu, RM Hubbert, Gareth Dickson, Call to Mind, Last Ones Left, John Knox Sex Club, The Ballad of Mable Wong, Early Songs, so on and so on etc. etc. etc.

TSP: What’s on the stereo at the moment?

RA: Right now I am listening to that new Emeralds album Does it Look Like I’m Here? and it’s very nice.

TSP: In 2009 you won the BAMS (Bloggers and Music Writers of Scotland) award for album of the year, for debut ‘Checkmate Savage’.  How did that feel and what do you think your chances are of repeating the feat in 2010?

RA: It was great. These days’ blogs play such a huge role in how people hear about new music so it was cool to get that honour. I am just getting round to answering these questions and I now know that we are 6th this year. That’s still pretty great though so cheers to all the bams.

TSP: Remembering that the competition is open to albums by artists out with Scotland, what would your top 5 records of 2010 be?

RA: In no order…

Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me

Alasdair Roberts- Too Long in this Condition

Sparrow and the Workshop- Crystals Fall

Janelle Monae- the Archandroid

Emeralds – Does it Look Like I’m Here

TSP: What does 2011 hold in store for you both in terms of The Phantom Band and side project Rick Redbeard?

RA: Probably a fair bit of touring with The Phantom Band and I’m aiming to record a Redbeard album later in the year and try and do something with that. I’ve got hundreds of songs rattling around in my head so I really need to get some of them out of there soon if I’m going to avoid losing my fucking mind.

TSP: Talking of which, do you find that Rick Redbeard and playing guitar for Early Songs provide you with a necessary outlet away from The Phantom Band?

RA: I haven’t played with Early Songs for ages but it was fun while I did- very, very different from The Phantom Band- I could just have a couple of beers and hide in the back behind my guitar while David took the heat at the front. It would be nice to have more time to spend on the Redbeard stuff I guess but then that’s true about so many things. When I play live it’s a very different experience from the PB as it’s all on me- but then there is something kind of freeing about that as you know you’re in complete control- I don’t have to worry about anyone’s gear breaking or someone being out of tune- if something sounds off it’s definitely me! Also the difference in sound is quite interesting to me. The PB can get incredibly loud and really full on when we play but with me it’s (so far) just voice and guitar which ends up with a totally different dynamic and atmosphere.

TSP: Finally, 2011, New Years resolutions.  If you had to make one, what would it be and why?

RA: Since I was 17 it was always to learn to drive and this year I eventually got round to it so now I don’t have to make any New Years resolutions ever again. And they’re always shit any way- everyone’s forgotten what theirs was by the 3rd.