Sean Guthrie

TUESDAY night in an old-school tavern off the sorry fiasco that is Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and Rick Anthony is greeting his old friend Gerry Hart with a warm hug. On the televisions that surround the central bar updates on missing footballer Emiliano Sala play out, interspersed with mundane sports news. The punters pay little heed, supping away the January blues instead.

Pints in hand, the singer and bass player of The Phantom Band sit down at a table by the door and are soon joined by Duncan Marquiss, one of the group’s two guitarists. Their ease in each other’s company is palpable.

Things weren’t always so chilled. In October 2015 the group were on tour in Europe when all their equipment – more than £13,000 worth – was stolen from their van after a concert in the northern French city of Lille, effectively calling a halt to the group’s activities.

Three years on we are gathered on a dark midwinter evening to discuss happier times, specifically their mind-bending debut album, Checkmate Savage, which has just been afforded a double-vinyl reissue by Chemikal Underground to mark its 10th anniversary, the initial pressing having sold out long ago and original copies being touted for silly money online.

On its release, Checkmate Savage was hailed in a four-star review by Mojo magazine as “a record as auspicious and accomplished as it is unforeseen”, while the NME – prior to its reputational collapse – gave the “thrilling tunefest” an 8/10 rating.

The record excited not only critics but fellow musicians too. “There’s not a second you want to skip,” says Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines. “It's like a Celtic folk rock band stole Martyn Ware from his early Human League days and then jammed along to their favourite Krautrock records before adding Highland gothic lyrics to the mix.”

“I had heard rumours about difficult studio sessions,” recalls Barry Burns of Mogwai. “You can hear the broad range of influences that might have caused disagreements but it also sounds like they had a united front. Checkmate Savage is a belter of a debut.”

With Paul Savage, the album’s producer and the inspiration for its playful title, yet to make his scheduled appearance, we begin at the end. Is there any likelihood of the band – who also include drummer Iain Stewart, guitarist Greg Sinclair and keyboard player Andy Wake – adding to their four albums?

“Some people are keener than others,” says Hart, “but who’s keener depends what day of the week it is.”

“At that point in Lille we were thinking it would be good to have a break anyway,” says Anthony, who has released two solo albums under the alias of Rick Redbeard. “It was kind of cosmic. It was hard practising a couple of times a week and we were all working too.”

“When the band started it seemed to propel itself through whatever momentum was created by everyone getting together,” adds Marquiss, who also performs solo under his own name. “I think it’s good to allow it to tail off. The other challenge is it’s increasingly difficult to be able to afford to do it.”

“It would take a lot of energy to build it back up again,” concludes Anthony. “It’s nice to imagine we might release something ourselves but I don’t know if that’s likely.”

“That’s never going to happen,” Hart retorts quickly, smiling.

Having dealt with the murky future of The Phantom Band, we turn – mostly willingly – to the group’s lambent past.

Just before the unfolding of what could be described as a must-read primer for bands planning their maiden journey into the mysterious, maddening and, yes, miraculous world of the recording studio, Paul Savage arrives after a day at the console in Chem19, the facility he runs in Blantyre where the bulk of Checkmate Savage was recorded. Hands are shaken – Anthony gets a fist bump – and more beers are purchased before he settles at the table and the talk turns to the complicated birth of the group’s debut.

Recording began in 2007, but the inital aim of having it wrapped within a fortnight rapidly unravelled. “In the first few days you were good at keeping cool,” says Anthony to Savage, “but you were like: ‘I don’t think we’re going to get this in two weeks.’”

Had they pinned down the song structures?

“We thought we did, but we didn’t,” admits Anthony.

“Probably 90 per cent of debut albums are the same,” says Hart.

“People are learning to use the studio as an instrument,” explains Savage. “You start to go ‘we could do this’ or ‘we could try this’.”

“Equally, we’d be sitting around and Paul would say: ‘Have you looked at this instrument?’ or bring out the Space Echo,” recalls Hart.

As for the myriad flourishes which adorn Checkmate Savage like spots on a leopard – for dizzying proof, listen to it on headphones – Savage credits the presence of the three musicians with the least fealty to the album’s rhythmic pulse. “The great thing was having Duncan, Greg and Andy. It was total chaos,” he says approvingly. “Andy probably took up two weeks of the recording. There was an immense amount of ‘there’s just a trill here’ and ‘a little keyboard here’.”

Did such meticulousness cause any ego meltdowns?

“If there was any ego it was probably wiped out in the first few days,” says Anthony, “when all the stuff we were recording sounded s***, or not s***, but Paul was like: ‘We need to rethink how we’re going to record this.’”

In circumstances like these a leader often emerges and dictates the strategy for their colleagues to follow. “People would do that but it wouldn’t make any difference,” says Anthony, prompting a wave of laughter.

“Everyone had moments where you were thinking: ‘Oh God, everyone must be thinking I’m struggling,’” says Hart, “but then you’re on the other side and you see someone going through a similar situation and you’re like: ‘I’ve been through that. Take it easy.’”

As much as it was his role to ensure the best sound possible, the former Delgado was also charged with maintaining positivity. “I was trying to record them as well as possible in the best way possible,” he explains. “Without killing it, without making everyone go: ‘For f***’s sake, this is a drag.’”

Fortunately the sessions, which by now had grown from two to four weeks (“It felt like forever,” says Anthony), were anything but tiresome. “Not many people came into the studio and referenced Neu! and Can, and for me that was a breath of fresh air,” says Savage.

Unsurprisingly, given the leanings of many music journalists, much was made of the German influence on Checkmate Savage when it was first unleashed, but there were other, less explicit tributaries that led to its torrent of ideas. “Everyone in the band loves such a variety of music,” says Marquiss, “ so you would get …”

“… Slayer,” interjects Anthony.

“And Andy was into techno,” says Marquiss.

“There were lots of Captain Beefheart references,” says Savage, “and northern soul.”

“And minimalism,” adds Marquiss.

“Yeah,” says Savage. “Minimalism in certain sections and then completely the opposite in others. It was fun for me for these guys to have these kinds of visions. Imagery was used – ‘this is dark and cloudy’ and ‘this is where the sun breaks through’.”

“Early on we weren’t playing gigs but we were rehearsing nine hours a week,” remembers Hart, “and when you’ve got that time you do whatever you want.”

Inevitably for an album born of elongated jam sessions, song lengths had to be reined in, though the finished product still features four tracks that break the six-minute mark. No songs, however, outstay their welcome.

“Our experience of time is relative,” says Marquiss. “That’s one of the lessons of minimalist music.”

“You could go to a certain length and the song would be too long, and if you went longer it would shorten it a little,” says Anthony, smiling. “There was a weird logic to it.”

The group’s label masters, Savage and his fellow ex-Delgados Stewart Henderson, Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock, were as unconcerned by the duration of the songs as the musicians. “Stewart [Henderson] would come in but it was always a social visit rather than ‘where are the hits?’,” says Anthony. “Paul was there but he never said: ‘That’s not going to fly on Radio 1.’” Cue laughter. “You should see me now,” Savage jests.

Beyond the confines of the table, a number of men in their 60s have been meandering stiffly into the bar carrying guitar cases and drums. The occasional thump of a beater on a bass drum and buzz of an amplifier, combined with the age of the players, now hints depressingly at the imminent arrival of ye olde blues rock. Meanwhile a best-of-Prince compilation has replaced the dreary rambling of Sky Sports News: “Dance, music, sex, romance …”

Which seems a fitting juncture at which to shift the focus to Franz Ferdinand, whose lease of Govan Town Hall gave Checkmate Savage an unexpected fillip. Besides producing The Phantom Band’s debut Savage was engineering Franz’s third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, a job that overran and consequently saw him spend two weeks recording overdubs and mixing Checkmate Savage at the Beaux-Arts town hall that is now Film City Glasgow.

It was there that Savage revelled in the bliss of recording geekery, riding the faders of Franz frontman Alex Kapranos’s vintage Flickinger console, a desk Savage describes as “overspecced beyond belief”.

“I had no idea at the time of the quality I was using,” he purrs. “But the thing I’ve never had the chance to do since is putting two speakers on the stage and two microphones at the back of the hall. As we were mixing the record I was sending Rick’s vocal to the hall, using it as a real-time reverb. So a lot of the reverb sounds are live sends through Govan Town Hall and returning – without getting too geeky about it – without any fakery.”

“What would you do differently?” asks Hart as Prince Rogers Nelson concedes the stage to a predictably unspirited run through a 12-bar blues.

“Nothing,” responds Savage without missing a beat.

Taking the turgid musical graverobbing that’s occurring across the room as our cue, we don our coats and step out into the street, where Anthony hands a CD-R of new solo material to Savage and Marquiss offers guest list places for a forthcoming solo appearance. “Put me on it,” says Anthony immediately, warming his hands in the pockets of his winter coat.

As we say our farewells, what is striking is not just the fact a special chapter of The Phantom Band’s past has survived the cruellest blow the music business can deliver, sealed forever within the grooves of two sturdy slabs of wax, but that their friendship has too. You could say it’s a ghost story with a happy ending.

The 10th-anniversary vinyl reissue of Checkmate Savage is out now on Chemikal Underground