Phantom Band frontman Rick Redbeard unveils solo debut

While The Phantom Band cook their third LP, frontman Rick Anthony prepares his stirring songbook of dark Americana for release this month

Feature by Dave Kerr | 09 Jan 2013
  • Rick Redbeard

An ominous text message arrives half an hour before The Skinny’s appointment with Rick Anthony: “Ate too many chips… feel a bit sick.” Certainly a trooper, possibly a madman, we salute the Aberdonian singer-songwriter for overdosing on the starchy stuff for the cover of our scran special when the call connects. Once the pros and cons of fritter rolls are dispensed with, the more nourishing subject of his impending solo debut arises; a rich offering of stirring acoustic ballads from the heart, it’s been some eight years in the making.

That soulful burr might be unmistakable, but Rick’s work in isolation under the piratical nom de guerre Rick Redbeard is a world away from the cosmic voodoo he preaches at the helm of The Phantom Band. “I’m the same guy but they’re two different characters,” he remarks. "Going into the Phantom Band is largely a different style of music; my head’s in a different place and I’m interacting with what’s in front of me. Musically they’re two pretty different distinct things, but both enjoyable in different ways.”

As Rick’s solo gigs have become less frequent since the release of the Phantoms’ 2009 debut, even those paying attention might have presumed that his solo guise was dealt a death blow by the Glasgow sextet’s steady ascent, yet the plan has always been to emerge when the time was right, with an album as part of the design. “Stewart [Henderson, Chemikal Underground co-gaffer] had mentioned the idea to me years ago,” he starts. “Between Checkmate Savage and before we’d even started writing The Wants – I think we’d just come off our first European tour. So from then on I had that in my head, like ‘OK, at some point I’ll probably put an album out.’"

"Finally, around the end of 2011, me and Stewart sat down again and he said ‘look this is probably a good time for you to get something out, if you can get it to us as soon as possible.’ I think in his head he was reckoning I had loads of old recordings of things that I just hadn’t given to him. The next day I was going back over stuff and thought ‘nah, I don’t want to just give him these things I’ve recorded over the years – I want to record some new stuff and maybe re-record some really old songs to try and bring it up to date and make it more aesthetically tied together.’ So aye, gradually Stewart was phoning asking ‘how are you getting on with that? I thought you were just going to give me an album?’ I said ‘yeah, just started recording it – might be a bit longer!’”

The result – a remarkably cohesive home recording stitched together between Rick’s parents’ house in rural Aberdeenshire and his Glasgow flat – was a solo work in every sense. Even Paul Savage, Chemikal’s resident production maestro, and steady guiding hand across much of the label’s output, didn’t get a look in. “Yeah, he didn’t get his fuckin’ grubby mits all over it!” jokes Rick. “No, I think that, for the band, we couldn’t have recorded those albums without Paul – he was really an instrumental part of that. For my own album, though, I always kind of thought I’d probably be more comfortable on my own playing the songs, a lot of them straight up, and just trying to capture the intimacy of that. For better or worse, it’s got my fingerprints on it and it’s very much my album, and people can come to it on those terms. There’s no flashy production or autotune, it’s just a guy, a mic, and a few bits and bobs.”

With the DIY charm of fleeting whispers and background creaks at No Selfish Heart’s core, chasing studio perfectionism was never an issue, though he admits that surrendering some of his older songs to a definitive rendition was difficult at times. “It’s a really tricky thing to get over,” he concedes, “but it’s something you’ve got to get over. I suppose being in the band has helped me deal with it to a certain degree. With the band we’d not often have a definitive version of a track – it would be pretty fluid right up to the point where it was recorded. I’ve lived with these particular songs for a long time and played a lot of them for a few years. They were the hardest to record; I mean you’re putting it down and you’re like ‘this is the first encounter with this song that a lot of people are going to have,’ and you’re trying to recapture the things about the song that made you interested in it in the first place. It could be a pause, a turn of phrase, you become fixated on capturing that in the recording, and it’s almost like chasing shadows sometimes. It’s difficult, man. But I imagine it’s like painting – about knowing when to finish and let it go.”

The first fruits of No Selfish Heart emerged last spring when local DIY label Gerry Loves approached Rick with the idea of releasing an early track as one side of a split 7” release alongside another distinct Scottish soloist, former Y’all Is Fantasy Island frontman Adam Stafford. “When that offer came along I was just finishing off things and tying up loose ends,” says Rick of the coincidence. “It was a nice one to put out, and they really liked it, but then when it came to sequencing the album I didn’t think I was going to put that on, until I realised it needed a little bit of lightness in there. That was my one concession from the old recordings.”

Beyond the tasteful traces of Americana scattered throughout the album – from Old Blue’s lilting refrains, evoking Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, to We All Float’s wistful echoes of Neil Young – Cormac McCarthy is an omnipresent touchstone. All the way up from the stark black and white shot of the great outdoors on its sleeve, No Selfish Heart is somehow imbued with a similar Southern Gothic atmosphere to the celebrated author’s work. What is it that attracts Rick to McCarthy’s world? “It’s something about his prose; the atmosphere of certain things. When you read a paragraph of writing he just completely blows you away – the economy of the writing, there’s almost no punctuation; it’s just this flow of images that he manages to portray to bring you to this point. There’s a passage in Outer Dark where he describes some birds flying off a field as a guy’s riding past, and it’s just fucking incredible, the clarity of expression that he manages. And he does this time and time again.”   

With such an immersive tradition of songwriters and characters from the folk world to draw from, how did Rick find his own voice? When I first started getting into music it was with things like Faith No More, Mike Patton, Mark Lanegan – people like that from American rock, I was singing along with those when I was 12 years old,” he recalls. “And then, as you get older, you start to find your own voice. But even until I was in my early 20s there was still a lot of American twang in there. I guess there still is, but then you hear more and more different styles of music when you broaden your horizons musically – for me it was stuff like Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan, Tom Waits – people who almost speak words when they’re singing – powerful in its way, but almost as though they’re not putting a lot of effort in. Whereas a lot of the earlier singers I listened to from the rock world were really like [defaults on an impression of Sebastian Bach circa Youth Gone Wild] whoah, I’m fuckin’ singing here!  They’re really going for it. Then you’ll have a guy like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy who’ll manage to convey quite a lot of emotion through very little effort. That really appeals to me.”

Having paid his dues on the ‘acoustic hell circuit,’ Rick fully appreciates the difficulty of carving a niche in Scotland’s busy landscape of introspective singer-songwriters. “The ‘acoustic hell’ I’m referring to is all these free acoustic nights that you just do to get experience of playing in front of people,” he says. “You see other people doing things the way you absolutely don’t want to do it, and you say to yourself ‘alright, I don’t want to be like that guy.’ Then you start to realise that it’s more about the bar getting people in to buy a few drinks and you bringing a few friends along to do the same. After a while I just thought ‘I really don’t need to do this.’ 

So scoring a gig is the easy part; it’s finding a reverent crowd that poses a challenge. As the divide between those who care for the music and the drunks who attend for the patter seemingly continues to widen with the perpetual popularity of live music, Rick says that the simple ethos of events like the recent Shhh! Festival at Platform in Easterhouse are the way forward. “I’m never going to win any prizes in terms of technical guitar playing or songwriting,” he states modestly, “but I’d like to think there’s a certain feeling you get if it’s the right atmosphere. When it’s quiet you can get into it. I was at a John Grant gig in the Arches a few weeks ago, and there was this couple behind me just talking the whole way through. Everyone around them was getting more pissed off, and it was like ‘why are you here? You’ve spent fifteen quid on a ticket, and you’re just blabberin’ away and laughing when the guy’s telling stories about friends of his who’ve died! Come on man! Give the guy a break.' I think the Shhh! Festival was really nice, the whole idea is that you’re going along to get into the music, and it really works, there was a lot of stuff there that I wouldn’t have normally engaged with, but because of the nature of the environment, your focus is absolutely on it, and you can get a lot more into it.”

Likening the process of sitting down to organise and record his catalogue to “Spring cleaning,” Rick’s free to focus on the fresh possibilities of the coming year. “Maybe do a few shows, make some new friends... getting the Phantom Band record done is the main objective. I’ve also organised a little collection of the older songs I quite like that I’ll maybe do something with. It’s a good way to draw a line under everything up till now and just start writing again for myself and for Phantom Band. I think it’s important in your head, not to compartmentalise necessarily, but to have things organised so you can look forward, rather than tinkering with old things.” With that in mind, does Rick harbour any resolutions for 2013? “I don’t do them, man,” he chokes with disapproval. “You should make resolutions whenever, you don’t need a new year to change your ways!”

We can’t let the man go without asking where The Phantom Band are at with album number three. “We’ve been underway with it for about a year,” he reveals. “We’ve got the bones of it – it’s further on than we were with The Wants when we went in to record it, let’s put it that way.  We’re trying to evolve it even further; it’s important for us to go in and have as clear an idea as possible of which tracks work, and which ones don’t. To go into it that bit more prepared – just for our own peace of mind, to feel like we’ve at least tried to do it a different way. We’re making progress and it’s sounding really good so far.”

Before we leave Rick to digest the rest of his heavy lunch, The Skinny tells him that another of his bosses at Chemikal Underground, Alun Woodward, recently whispered into his cup of tea that he’d be interested to hear a solo album apiece from each of the Phantoms. Does he see that idea snowballing? “I do. I’ll get on to them!” he only half jokes. “I don’t think that’s an outlandish idea; I’d say it’s a good call. There’s a lot of untapped talent bubbling under the surface, away from the band – I think everyone’s got a solo album in them. We’ll get six of them on the go at the same time and see who wins the Grammy!”

No Selfish Heart is released via Chemikal Underground on 28 Jan http://www.chemikal.co.uk/artists/rick-redbeard/