Embrace the Strange: The Phantom Band return
Three years in the making, Rick Redbeard and Duncan Marquiss talk up the compelling new Phantom Band record, and take the opportunity to renounce sorcery
“Rick can be quite hard to get a hold of,” is the apologetic response from the Phantom Band’s record label as The Skinny struggles to pin down singer Rick Anthony (aka Rick Redbeard) and guitarist Duncan Marquiss. The band is preparing to release its third long-player, Strange Friend, an album that’s been more than three years in the works. Most of the band hold down ‘proper’ jobs and pursue a dazzling array of side projects. He needn’t apologise: these are busy guys.
We eventually track Rick down to Inverness, where he’s preparing to kick off a mini-tour of the Highlands and Islands with Adam Stafford and Yusuf Azak, for Edinburgh imprint Gerry Loves Records. Things have gotten off to an inauspicious start. “We had fairly catastrophic car trouble,” he says with a nervous laugh, while ordering some fish and chips. “About 30 miles from Inverness, going 60 miles an hour, the fucking front wheel burst, we skidded along the road. If that had gone the whole wheel would’ve come off. Fucking pretty hairy.”
He’s on a brief hiatus from Strange Friend-related affairs to play tracks from last year’s fantastic solo debut No Selfish Heart and admits that it’ll be slightly peculiar to be on his own again. “We’ve been so geared up for the Phantoms stuff, rehearsing and talking about what we’re doing for the Strange Friend record. Suddenly I’m back on my own with my guitar again, trying to relearn my songs. I’m always doing my own stuff in the background, writing and playing. It might be weird... yeah it seems like a slightly strange diversion to take at this point. But the opportunity to come up to Shetland and play some tunes was a pretty good one.”
Drummer Iain Stewart is originally from Orkney, but as we talk, Anthony is about to pop his Scottish island cherry. Later in the year, he’ll take his troupe back to the Hebridian Isle of Eigg for Lost Map Records’ Howlin’ Fling festival, and he’s anticipating a different sort of response than your average Edinburgh, Glasgow or London show. The first Phantom Band show in Inverness was, he recalls, “fantastic, wild” and “pretty tasty”. One over zealous fan joined the band on stage to sing (or more accurately scream) along to Crocodile. “Everyone was just kind of going along with it,” he says. “In the bigger cities, you get people waiting to see if it’s okay to enjoy themselves. Often people that aren’t in the big cities don’t really give a shit.” Crocodile, incidentally, is an instrumental track.
"What can we use to spice up the Phantom Band? Let’s pretend they’re all wizards… they’re all druids and rehearse in a fucking stone circle!" – Rick Anthony
When we get through to Marquiss he’s also keen to discuss live shows. Both men are excited to see how the excellent Strange Friend evolves on the stage. “We kind of improvise when we’re recording,” he says. “The way it works out, there might be a sound on the record which doesn’t ever get repeated in the live show. In some ways it’s a shame if it’s really good, but it also makes it more interesting.”
Second album The Wants was wonderfully terrifying, moody and uncompromising. By comparison, Strange Friend is much less dark (it would be wrong to call it ‘light’); more airy. Some of the krautish elements have been waylaid, replaced with more straightforward melodies and lyrics with less opacity. “Perhaps it is less dark,” offers Marquiss. “I think the songs on the new album are parts of tracks we’ve been working on for a long period, that’s what the band do. On The Wants, a lot of the material was a bit more aggressive. The Wants was written in a studio as we were recording it. It was a collage work. There’s a bit of that with Strange Friend, but it’s also the product of us playing together. We were playing live together a lot, so playing while we were writing. Maybe that’s given it a bit more life, made it more organic.”
While nobody marched into the studio announcing they wanted to make a pop record, there was a feeling that having toured The Wants extensively, the band wanted to do something different. Anthony says: “The second record we came away after playing live and realised a lot of the tracks had a darker feel, which is only one aspect of what we do. We never thought of ourselves as a gloomy band. I think subconsciously when we were writing this stuff there were tracks that we previously wouldn’t have pursued, because they were too light. We decided to tackle those and I think this one is my favourite record. There’s a lot more going on in terms of mood and atmosphere. The first record had a lot of tracks that are slightly lighter, slightly more upbeat. It’s okay to write music that’s fun and we were trying to do that a bit more on this record, but everything we do is subconscious.”
Whether or not Strange Friend becomes the band’s ‘breakthrough record’ remains to be seen, but the ingredients required to trouble the mainstream consciousness are all there. Writing this in spring, it is no great leap to envisage the album popping up in end of year lists by the time we complete this lap of the sun, as was the case with the two that preceded it. The media coverage the band currently receive paints them in an interesting light. Words like ‘alchemy’, ‘druids’ and ‘sorcery’ are often used to describe their genre-bending style and sound. Anyone would think a Phantoms recording session plays out like an episode of the Masked Magician, with added acid.
“If only that were true,” laughs Anthony. “It’s weird, people find things they can write about us. None of us have a serious drug habit, we’re possibly not the most interesting around so they think: ‘What can we use to spice up the Phantom Band? Let’s pretend they’re all wizards… they’re all druids and rehearse in a fucking stone circle.' At the start a lot of people were obsessed that we were this genre-meshing beat act, putting everything in a big cauldron and conjuring up this big sound. Maybe our writing was like that but we’d never thought about it like that at all. We’d always played music that was natural to us and people were like 'wow this is really interesting, so different.' We thought: ‘Is it really?’ We don’t think it is. We don’t really get where that all comes from. And we’re definitely not druids.”
Perhaps the band’s dynamism is simply a result of having a range of very different personalities on board, each with their own tastes and ideas on how things should sound. Anthony and Marquiss are markedly different. Both are genial, but conversation is more forthcoming from the frontman. You get the impression that everything Marquiss says is carefully considered and reasoned, Anthony slightly more spontaneous.
Both have individual pursuits away from the band, but seem to view their relationship between the Phantoms and their own work very differently. Atacama, perhaps the standout track on the new album, is the one which closest reflects Anthony’s solo work. Despite this, he’s adamant that the two pursuits are inherently different entities: “I don’t put the two things together at all, I keep them very separate. Something like Atacama, the body was written by me and Duncan and we played it and everyone joined in with their parts. The actual decision to do the track wasn’t me saying: ‘Let’s do an acoustic track.’ We all have our say on what we thinks works in terms of the material we have. That was a late one. It wasn’t a unanimous thing to put on the record. It was one I liked and thought it worked on the record. I think it’s something different sonically, it’s important to have different moods, atmospheres and stuff going on. That track gives you a bit of space. When you’ve got a lot of quite dense material it’s good to have a bit of space.”
Marquiss, conversely, is more open to exploring the links between his work as a visual artist and the music he helps create with the Phantom Band. The Scottish Arts Council website carries this quote about ‘Hello’ - an image sketched by Marquiss in colouring pencil and graphite: “ There is a threatening but seductive quality to Hello, a classic trope of horror, sci-fi and fairytale narratives.” It’s a line that could easily have been penned about the Phantom Band’s last record. “It’s interesting,” he broods. “I suppose it’s inevitable that there’ll be some sort of crossover, but I would imagine it’s all unintentional, all subconscious.”
His work with the band requires some level of diplomacy: each member has equal say on how things end up sounding. With his art, closure is much easier to attain. It’s just him. “If we didn’t have deadlines, I think the band could end up recording forever,” he says.
But where The Wants was thrashed out in a studio and carries that sense of urgency and pugnaciousness with it, Strange Friend has a more natural arc and plenty of room to breathe. The time away appears to have done the Phantom Band good. But, as anyone who has heard the new record will no doubt agree, it’s fantastic to have them back.
As The Skinny was going to press, the clean-up operation after the blaze that ripped through Glasgow School of Art – destroying the work of innumerable students and much of the Mackintosh library archive – was well underway. Rick works as assistant at the library and has been heavily involved in the salvage mission. The GSA has a unique place in the Phantom Band’s history, with many of the band having studied and met there and been shaped creatively by the experience. In the aftermath to the fire, the band’s official account tweeted:
“Terrible situation with the Glasgow art school fire. Phantoms work and studied there. Heart goes out to the final year students. So sad.”
The Skinny seconds the band’s sympathy for all those involved in the GSA – especially those students who lost work in the fire. It’s fitting, however, that the first show on the band’s Strange Friend tour takes place in the GSA, which is scheduled to reopen just in time to host the gig, on 3 Jun.