• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The Phantom Band return to their old haunts

I love power ballads," says Rick Anthony.

"It's almost brutally cynical - 'this song's going to make you feel sad' - and when it works you think: 'I'm sad' in a nice way. You have them on the car stereo and you're going faster and faster and you're like: 'Yeah. I feel it.'"

The Phantom Band singer, his auburn hair safely tucked under a beanie, is responding to my assertion that my favourite song on their multicoloured new album Strange Friend, the medicinal No Shoe Blues, carries a nuanced poignancy signally lacking from a genre most associated with Bonnie Tyler and Bryan Adams. "There are times when I love it," says Anthony's bandmate, guitarist Greg Sinclair, "and other times when I have an anxiety about it. It feels emotionally driven rather than abstract."

Therein lies both the creative strength and commercial weakness of the Glasgow-based sextet - a preference for allusion over revelation, an abhorrence of the obvious, a reluctance to manipulate. But every now and then they puncture their bubble of impish experimentation with an arrow to the heart - the nine-minute Island from their 2009 debut long-player Checkmate Savage, for example, or No Shoe Blues, which, Sinclair says with pride, features horns played by his uncle Jim, a teacher and member of brass bands. "It's a different thing for us," he says. "It's something we struggle with a little."

We are sitting on the terrace bar at the CCA in Glasgow on a brisk May evening, little more than 100 yards from the Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh building which will, in 11 days' time, be engulfed in flames. Unsurprisingly for the frontman of a group as mercurial as The Phantom Band, Anthony has worked part-time as a librarian at the school for a number of years and, though the campus is out of bounds while the clear-up operation takes place, his position remains safe.

The purpose of our rendezvous is to talk about Strange Friend, the group's third album on the Glasgow independent label Chemikal Underground and their first since 2011's The Wants. Throughout, Anthony is a voluble presence, rarely speaking without establishing eye contact first, whereas Sinclair is more hesitant, often staring far into the sky in search of the words with which to form a meaningful response to the questions put to him.

Strange Friend comes wrapped in a fantastical, psychedelic sleeve that parallels its contents - songs with titles such as Women Of Ghent, Doom Patrol and Galapagos. After the experimentalism of The Wants, is the tunefulness of the new record a conscious echo of Checkmate Savage?

"I can see the comparison," says Sinclair, "and it's probably fair, but it's not something we've done deliberately. Checkmate has an immediacy that's maybe missing from The Wants but I prefer The Wants as a record."

"This one is maybe a coming together of both records," says Anthony. "It's got the playfulness of Checkmate Savage but it's more interestingly textured, like The Wants."

As ever, forward thinking was critical to the success of the new record, the band first recording demos of the bulk of the material. "The amount of preparation we did paid off," says Anthony. "The basics were recorded in a couple of weeks. With The Wants it was a couple of months before we even started doing any of the interesting stuff. The amount of money you're spending, it's like … Jesus."

"I prefer to think of it as pretend money," says Sinclair. "If you start to worry about how much it costs to make a record, it would add another layer of anxiety."

Strange Friend also marks the group's first record with drummer Iain Smart, who replaced Damien Tonner shortly after The Wants was released. Marrying technical immaculacy with an instinctive grasp of feel, Smart takes The Phantom Band into dimensions they'd previously thought closed off. "That's a big part of the record, the drumming," says Anthony. "It's so much more musical than on the previous ones. There are lots of melodies and hooks in the drums that are really satisfying to listen to. I've heard lots of horror stories about drummers but we got lucky - he's a good person to have in the band."

Are they all fairly mellow people? "I think so," replies Sinclair. "That's maybe part of the problem sometimes. Generally we're all keen to avoid confrontation but there are times when tempers flare. When there are six people and you have this thing you have to do and you're stuck in a room a lot, you're going to fall out. But nobody's ever punched anyone."

"We've had a lot of shouting matches," adds Anthony. But they've never trashed each other's vintage guitars? "I don't have one," says Sinclair, laughing. "My gear's s***."

"You get really angry then within five minutes you seem to love each other more," says Anthony, whose solo full-length No Selfish Heart, released under his Rick Redbeard nom de plume, was longlisted for the Scottish Album Of The Year Award 2014. "Without being too ridiculous, it is like a second family."

The origins of The Phantom Band can be traced to an insalubrious nook of Glasgow in 2002, the year Anthony drifted south from Aberdeen in pursuit of new horizons. It was there that he met up with fellow Aberdeenshire boys Sinclair and guitarist Duncan Marquiss, friends from the age of 13 who had recently started jamming with Tonner and bass player Gerry Hart, a Glaswegian.

"We had mutual friends and there was a tape of their first rehearsal," recalls Anthony. "My friend was like: 'It's going to be hard to sing over that.' It was the stuff you were playing" - he looks at Sinclair - "jams, instrumental noise." But Anthony fitted in. "It was our standard way of doing things - there was never a cohesive plan for what we were going to be doing."

A pattern emerged whereby the group would rehearse in a studio near the Briggait every Friday night, oiled by a few beers. "Then at 12.30 in the morning you'd be trying to find your way home, carrying your guitars, a bit pissed, people going: 'Hey mate, play a f****** song will ye?'" Soon Andy Wake joined on keyboards and the band began to garner attention from London-based record labels, in spite or because of their chaotic early shows. "You would probably think they were s***e now," says Sinclair, "but they were honest and shambolic."

Says Anthony: "There's a video online of us playing in Edinburgh and Andy's wearing a bird hat, Duncan's wearing a wolf head and I'm striding about, and it looks ramshackle, but it's quite something. But to anyone with business acumen from Columbia, they'd be like, 'OK …' Whereas Chemikal, in their infinite wisdom and generosity, were like, 'Hey …'"

The founding principles of The Phantom Band might be best summed up thus: a collective distaste for strategy; an insatiable appetite for music-making as a social activity; an aversion to transparency and fidelity to democracy ("We've never had a leader. If we did they'd be assassinated," says Anthony). Such a philosophy remains incorruptible more than 10 years on from the band's inception.

"It's more interesting if you get defined by your music and shows and records rather than trying to define yourself," says Anthony. "It's like giving yourself a nickname - it's absurd, like bands who come up with an outfit before they come up with a tune." What about Devo? "That's true," he says. "It can work but we've never been that band."

"Trying to get everyone to agree on what to wear would add another layer of stuff to fall out about," says Sinclair. "It would take two years."

Whether they succeed or fail, it seems, is irrelevant. "You have to enjoy making a racket," says Sinclair. "The idea that there's another side to it, a lifestyle …" "The p***ing contest aspect," says Anthony. "Who your friends are, how many records you've sold … If you're already insecure or not necessarily nice there's a danger of success turning you into a monster."

There's a pause. Then Sinclair, with undisguised incredulity, asks: "Are we turning the interview into why we're glad we're not successful? 'I met a guy who's a successful musician and I'm glad I'm not him.' That's not what we're saying, is it?"

To which Anthony replies: "We're just trying to say how awesome we are." Message received, loud and clear.

Strange Friend is released on Monday. The Phantom Band play Glasgow School of Art on Tuesday and The Tunnels, Aberdeen on Friday.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

237240