The Phantom Band: What's In A Name?
With cloth face masks at the ready, some juvenile pseudonyms dreamt up and a debut album that embraces tinges of doo-wop to full-blown folk, The Phantom Band have definitely landed. However, while other fledgling bands may argue about suitable parameters of hair height and trouser tightness to compliment their image, this Glaswegian sextet almost didn’t pass the first hurdle of band formation: agreeing on a name. For five years they have laboured under a slew of ever-changing monikers. NRA, Los Crayzee Boyz, Tower of Girls, Wooden Trees and Robert Louis Stevenson are just a few of them.
Admirably taking an early-morning Sunday call, singer Rick Anthony, who also answers to ‘Richard The Turd’ (I did warn you), dispenses any myths that may surround his band’s elusive past. “You know, if we couldn’t think of a name we’d just tell the bar staff to write up whatever they wanted on the blackboard,” he reveals, lounging on an “old man’s comfy chair”. Fortunately they eventually settled on The Phantom Band, purely because – after a couple of weeks playing under the name – none of the band had fallen out over it.
Early gigs have seen the enigmatic troupe perform in costumes, with scarecrow masks completely obscuring their faces. Anthony audibly shrugs when trying to piece together any kind of timeline that would help explain their elusive nature. “It’s like the chicken and the egg,” he fudges. An early demo recorded at Chem 19 with Paul Savage caught Chemikal Underground’s collective ear enough for them to release debut album Checkmate Savage last month. “You know that they’re putting stuff out because they really like it,” enthuses Anthony. “They’re not just trying to get the next big Scottish band.”
It seems fair to say that Chemikal Underground have struggled to break a band to the extent of their holy triumvirate of The Delgados, Mogwai and Arab Strap. With any luck, and some justice, The Phantom Band could see themselves enter this pantheon. Thankfully, Anthony is undaunted by such hype-mongering. “It doesn’t even register, man,” he claims. “Don’t get me wrong, if we can make a go of it and succeed, we’d be laughing... but it’s not like we’ve put all our eggs in one basket. It’s not like ‘we’ve got to make it!’ I don’t think that’s particularly healthy for creating interesting music.”
Making uninteresting music is not something likely to be ascribed to The Phantoms. Checkmate Savage is a smorgasbord of ideas, styles and reference points. Anthony himself is indebted to the likes of Tom Waits and Bill Callahan, though his lyrics are certainly idiosyncratic. “A lot of it comes from just singing at the time [of rehearsing],” he reveals. “Building things around little phrases, random stuff you hear and gradually piecing it together. Even if the meaning isn’t a specific story, it’s an atmosphere. A lot of our songs are about creating an atmosphere or creating a feel that complements the music. When you hear the whole song back it makes more sense than when you’re staring at it on a page.”
Musical reference points take in anyone from Stereolab’s metronomic Krautrock to fellow Scottish oddballs The Beta Band, as well as the broader strokes of skewed-country and even traditional folk on the beautiful song Island. It’s experimental for sure, but sounds more akin to childlike exploration than, say, some kind of rigid science project. In fact, Anthony admits their songs are in a perpetual state of flux. “With any song, it’s weird to think 'this is the version that’s going to be on the album,'” he says. “We’ve played each song in so many different ways and then you record it and suddenly it’s like ‘that’s going to be the definitive version, is it?’”
If naming the band proved problematic, it seems recording these ‘definitive’ versions also caused a few headaches. “The general, practical procedure of recording the album was basically geared towards generating arguments,” laughs Anthony. “We’re all passionate about the band and we all have strong views about how we think it should be. We act like a dysfunctional family – that’s about the closest analogy I can imagine.”
That being the case, The Phantom Band are a family we’d happily be part of.