There are plenty of artists toiling away within Glasgow’s music scene, but none of them work harder than The Phantom Band. Not that these Scots spend much time on home turf: since the release of their sophomore album, “The Wants,” late last year, they’ve been touring incessantly. The Wants turned out to be an impressive listen, full of musical ideas, and the result of focused alchemy in the studio. With the northern festival season about to begin and a rough plan for a new album sometime towards the end of 2011, the chances of The Phantom Band getting down to Australia any time soon are next to nil. Still, that didn’t stop me from getting on the phone for Junior Magazine , and talking to keyboardist Andy Wake about life within one of Scotland’s most impressive new groups. The full transcript is presented below. –Matt Shea
You’re still based in Glasgow, yes?
Ah, mostly yeah. Although Duncan (Marquiss, the group’s guitarist) lives in London and I dart between here and Dundee, which is only about and hour and a half away from here. We meet up in Glasgow to rehearse and write and all that kind of stuff. We just got ourselves a studio of our own here, so we’re getting moved into that now.
Would you say the Glasgow music scene is thriving at the moment?
I think it’s definitely thriving. There’s loads going on. I’m never too sure what to make of the idea of a scene – a music scene. We’ve never really felt as if we were part of a music scene in Glasgow, or anywhere – I dunno, just because we’ve never thought about it. Obviously there are great bands in Glasgow and great bands that we’ve played with before and got to know, but I guess a scene is only ever something you’re aware of retrospectively. But, yeah, in terms of a city, it’s an amazing place for things going on and gigs – there are gigs every night, and if you’re a band kinda starting out and trying new things it’s a place where it’s very easy to get involved and get a gig – there are lots of gig venues in a whole range of sizes, so you can kinda get on a bill pretty easily, if you just ask (laughs). If you’re any good, people will come and see you. So it’s a great place for discovering new music and that kind of thing.
The Wants: You’ve had some serious time to sit on the record now and you’ve been touring it like troopers – with that in mind are you guys still happy when you listen back to it?
We don’t listen back to it (laughs). Yeah, we’ve learned how to play it, which is a massive achievement in itself. It took a while – in fact, there’s still a couple of tracks we need to work on, I think, that we haven’t really been playing live. Basically, we’ve been touring it since the day it came out, other than a week or two at Christmas. We were straight out in America the day it came out for over a month. Then after Christmas we did Ireland, and then straight into Europe, and we’ve just really got back a couple of days ago. So yeah, we’ve been hearing these songs every night, but they probably aren’t anything like the versions of them that are on the album, because we haven’t been listening to it – we’ve just developed a set for touring and it changes from night to night, but generally we’re playing a mix of the two albums, and now, yeah, it sounds good to me (laughs). Obviously, as with any band, there are going to be tracks on there that you prefer and feel like they’re standing the test of time more than others, but I think as an album we’re all pretty happy with it as a complete piece, which is what we set out to do. It was definitely about writing an album and it being a complete unit, rather than it being a series of individual tracks, and I think we haven’t quite nailed everything live just yet, but give it time (laughs).
Checkmate Savage was a sprawling listen – and The Wants is too to a certain extent – but The Wants just sounds a bit more focussed and a bit more like you knew what you wanted to achieve. Is that a fair comment, do you think?
Um, it’s kinda strangely the opposite. What we did want to achieve was a concise album, as I was saying, that felt like a complete album that was meant to be in the order it was meant to be in, and it starts and ends the way we wanted it. That’s all correct, but the actual music: we went into the studio – partly deliberately – with no real idea. We didn’t want it to be too formed before we went in, and also we weren’t able to because there wasn’t that much time – we were still touring the last album until a week or two before we went in. So we had some vague ideas and we had some stuff that we’d talked about, and we had a couple of really rough demos, of not whole tracks but little sections that we kinda wanted to go into the studio and piece together and use the studio almost as an instrument – because it’s something that you don’t have during rehearsal – in the studio you have access to all these rooms with instruments and channels and air compressors and amazing microphones and great stuff that you would never otherwise get, so we are a band that really like to go to town with that and exploit it, rather than trying to make a live album, which we’re never going to do and don’t see any point in pretending that we haven’t done overdubs and we haven’t used the studio to its full advantage.
So we kinda went in a little bit blank, not really knowing exactly what we wanted to do with it but knowing that one of the factors was having an album that worked as a complete album and was a bit more to the point. Checkmate Savage, being a debut, was a collection of tracks that we’d been doing for years and years live, and we knew very well, and written by a different band to the one that went into the studio to record, and obviously there were other ones that were newer that we did specifically for the album. A second album’s always going to sound more together, because it’s written in one go (laughs), whereas the first one was written over the course of a good few years, and a couple of the tracks even predated The Phantom Band in being these tracks that we did when we had a different formation, different line-ups and were perhaps performing under different names. A track like “Crocodile” is one of those tracks that’s older than The Phantom Band. I think that for me The Wants is a good mixture of the two: sounding like we thought about it and being quite concise, but also having an element of chance, which we deliberately left in the process.
Writing the album pretty much when you were in the studio. Is that something you’d be happy to do again?
Um, yes and no. One the one hand it’s exciting to do that, and it involves an awful lot of trust. Being a band, we weren’t all able to be there all the time, so we had to trust each other to use our judgment and we’d be all right. And obviously that gives way to an awful lot of arguments, and obviously there are time restrictions, knowing that you’ve got to have it done in the time you have and having to make quite quick decisions and be quite ruthless with what you leave out, it can make it quite a stressful experience, and I would speak for all of us in saying that it was a pretty stressful experience making this album, not because there were ever any shortage of ideas, but we had a shortage of time, and we had to allow people to take these things that none of us had any great chance to verbalise exactly what we wanted to do.
There were maybe some tracks that I would say I had more input on in the initial writing process and I was more possessive of, and then there were ones that Rick (Anthony – vocalist and guitarist) or Duncan or any of the others had more of a hand in, and if you’re having for instance people who could be in the studio most days – such as myself or Duncan – the rest of the band were having to trust our judgment on where things are going, and sometimes that can be a worrying thing to do, but that’s what being in a band is, I suppose – it’s all about give and take and trust and stuff like that. So, it is something that I’d like to do again, but maybe go further and do a live or improvised album or something like that. I think with the next one it would be nice to use our new studio and just go at it over a longer period of time and just think about what we’re doing and try and hone down specific elements of tracks that we like, and maybe really experiment before going in and seeing how it goes. I don’t know – I’m not sure how it will pan out – it depends o how much time everyone’s got in the next few months, because the rest of this year I suppose we’ll have to start thinking about it.
A lot of people really seemed to struggle to define the album – was that amusing to you guys or satisfying that you’d thrown them a bit of a curve ball?
Maybe. Again, it’s not really something that we thought about when we were coming up with it. I suppose it’s because we’ve never really thought about defining ourselves and maybe that’s a good thing for us, maybe; down to the way we formed, it was never like some bands where someone sits down and says, ‘Hey, I want to be in a band that sounds like this,’ and then recruit other people to be in it and the whole thing is done very much to design. Whereas, we’re a band that formed as a social gathering and it was more about having fun playing and we weren’t really considering anyone else hearing it or we weren’t really concerned with what genre of music that we’d fit into and so it’s kind of stayed that way. We don’t know any different, so when we’re recording, it is what it is, and it always seemed surprising to me that people struggle with that or that anyone would say that makes it mad, or overtly experimental.
Because I don’t think it is – we all do other music individually and I think there are other projects that are a lot more experimental and completely improvised and so on, so when we read people saying that The Phantom Band sounds mad that kinda makes me laugh because I don’t think of it in that way at all. Of all the music that I do and all of the music that Duncan or Greg (Sinclair – guitarist) does, The Phantom Band is definitely the most ordered and structured. I find it amusing that people feel the need to define us – I guess if you’re writing a review you can only do it comparatively, which is a very difficult thing to write without referring to other bands and referring to genres, musical and historical things. So I suppose it’s something that these people have to do. We never chose to do that – we’re not trying to be clever or annoy a reviewer (laughs) or frustrate anyone or anything like that. I guess it’s a good thing to not fit into any categories, but I don’t know whether that means we don’t get filed at all or get filed in the bargain bins of record shops because no-one can think of one section to put us in or something, I don’t know (laughs). That whole thing of categorization doesn’t bother me and it’s always interesting to read what people say. There were a couple of reviews: one said that we were obviously big fans of this band that I can’t even remember the name of and none of us had even heard. They were sort of accusing us of being directly influenced by them and we were like, ‘Wha?!’ (laughs) I can’t remember their name, this band – they were nominated for the Mercury Prize…
Not Wild Beasts?
Yeah, Wild Beasts! A lot of people said that and we’d never heard them before in our lives. So we Googled them and had a listen, and yeah they’re all right but I wouldn’t have said that we sounded like them. But it’s kind of interesting what people come up with.
There was hardly a year and a half between the albums. Was it always your intention to have such a tight turnaround?
I certainly hoped that we would. I’d like us to be quite prolific. I quite like bands that, rather than trying to go for like some kind of superstardom overnight or something like that – instead of doing that with some kind of front page of the NME kind of thing – be a band that just releases albums and just continues to gradually build up a following and that kind of thing. That’s what I always aspired The Phantom Band to be, and have some longevity through that. Because we just enjoy making music so it would be good to do it quite regularly.
It’s one of these things that’s dictated a lot by practicality. If you release an album you have to, generally, tour it and if you’re in the UK you have to tour it around the UK quite extensively. Then there’s a the rest of Europe and we did America just before Christmas and we’ve still not made it out to Australia, or anywhere in Asia, so it’s kinda like if we were doing that it would be even more difficult because then you’re just doing that (touring) all year round and everyone’s like, “Hey. Have you got another album for us?” and we’re like, “When are we have supposed to have done it?” (laughs) We just have to magic it out of thin air. You have to use your time pretty wisely, so we’re lucky to have been able to get it done so quickly, but I can’t imagine how this year: it’s going to be festivals for a lot of from now until September and then another round of touring, and then its Christmas, and you can’t do anything over that time, and then it’s January and someone else will be asking us if we’ve got any new music to put out (laughs). We’re thinking about doing some sort of EP or something of new stuff this year, so yeah, we’ll have to get our skates on, but I don’t know how we could be any more prolific than we already are. But I’m glad we’re not any less, because I’d get sick of the songs anyway. It’d be nice to be able to build up so we have a lot of choice when we play in our live set.
You guys seem to be constantly busy with live shows – or maybe you’re just a bit better at Facebooking about them – do you now think of yourselves as a studio band or a live band? Is that distinction important to you?
I think that another thing that we’ve always wanted the band to have from the first time we recorded anything, which I think was 2007 or 2008 – we planned to be a live band that had a live experience that was completely different from the recorded experience, and both would have equal but different merits. Like what I was saying about really using the studio: If you’re gonna go into a studio and use a digital environment – use ProTools and all the rest – you might as well really use it and use 120 channels, because you’re never going to be able to do that live. There are bands that I like from history, like Led Zeppilin, that did that, and they kinda almost had a separate bunch of fans for the live show to the ones that had bought the records, and I kinda like that idea, that we can be… like…
Yeah, but not two bands, because we’re still playing the tracks and we don’t want people to come to the live show and be disappointed. Just for people to come to the shows and really get something different, because there’s no point in doing a live show and exactly replicate an album of music or two albums of music, because you might as well play the CD if you’re going to do that, you know? So if you’re gonna be a live band you might as well go for it. So I think live we’re a lot louder and a bit more energetic, a bit more urgent. Obviously, we can’t have things like homemade stringed instruments and mic-ed up desk lamps and all the rest of that stuff we like to cram on an album onstage. We could if we had lots of money and lots of roadies and heaps of time to set up every gig and massive stages that we can all move around on, but generally we’re playing on pretty cramped conditions, because there’s six of us and we have a lot anyway, so we have to compensate the number of layers for maybe volume and… balls (laughs). A lot of people come to the live gig and see that it’s much louder and more awesome than they thought it would be (laughs). That’s okay with me, and I think I can speak for everybody when I say that. So I would say, to answer your question, split down the middle, almost schizophrenic (laughs).
We’ve already talked about this a little bit, but tell me what the plans are for the rest of the year?
Rest of the year, like you said we’re going to do a few festivals and move into our new studio and start writing some new music as soon as we can. An EP of stuff that won’t be on any album is really what we’re thinking of. We’re gonna release a single, which might be ‘O’, and we’re asking different people to do some remixes, and we’re gonna do that. Back out on tour, we’ve got visas for America that last for a year, so we’d quite like to get back lout there before they run out, because they cost quite a lot of money (laughs). Ahhhh, yeah another European tour and then hopefully heading towards writing some stuff for a new album by the end of the year. Australia, that would be great we just need somebody to ask (laughs) – maybe an agent over there to book us, and we’ll look into the finances and see, because it’s the other side of the world, it’s an expensive place to get to form here with a whole load of equipment. So that would be amazing, but I haven’t heard any rumblings just yet. Hopefully next year – I doubt it would be this year. Hopefully at some stage next year we’ll get out to Australia.