NEGOTIATING the pitfalls of cyberspace can be tricky for modern musicians, an issue that’s explored in the Phantom Band’s new album, Fears Trending, writes David Pollock
When a band or an artist comes up with a great name for their album, one which stands out for its humour or cleverness, it’s only fair to point it out to them. That’s certainly the case with the Phantom Band’s forthcoming fourth record Fears Trending, its title summoning up layers of contemporary resonances about the way our collective consciousness is transferring online and the way any artists putting themselves out there deal with their public through social media.
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“It touches upon a lot of the conversations we were having about the climate we were living in whilst we were writing the music,” confirms guitarist Duncan Marquiss, “and our mixed feelings about digital culture and our relationship with it.
“The implications of digital culture extend beyond being in a band,” he adds. “It’s an odd time for musicians, but I don’t think we’re nostalgic for a previous period or for the artefact of the record. I don’t think it’s healthy to be nostalgic, especially about music. Its history is so mythologised and romanticised, which only serves to distort what’s going on now.”
Besides, he believes, the advent of the internet has simply thrown up new ways of asking old questions about how culture and capitalism meet and interact. “That’s probably what we’re alluding to with the title,” he says
Fears Trending is not a record which makes any overt political point about anything, but it is one which seems to sit – as all Phantom Band records do – at a singular point of retro-futurism which gives one of Scotland’s most fiercely inventive groups a magpie sound unlike any other.
Of the seven tracks on the record, the opening Tender Castle loads up on a murmuring Germanic electronic pulse which sits satisfyingly ill at ease alongside singer Rick Anthony’s organic, almost folky tone, while there’s a skewed Captain Beefheart funk to Local Zero and a swamp-blues grind to The Kingfisher.
The record has been described by Anthony as the “evil twin” of Strange Friend – the 2014 album it was recorded alongside – but Marquiss’ words seem to suggest that overplays how much of a companion piece it is to the previous record.
The pair are bound up in one another, of course, given their synchronised recording (with producer Paul Savage at Blantyre’s esteemed Chem19 studio), and there’s no set boundary line between them both in terms of theme or style. That said, Fears Trending stands on its own terms.
“We wrote too many songs when we made Strange Friend,” says Marquiss simply, “and when we hit upon the sequence of songs for that album they had a kind of sympathy to one another and a coherence. Even then there was an intention to find a home for the remainders, but when we finally got them together we were surprised to find there was a record there as well.”
When he considers the album now, he’s able to identify factors which make it unique amongst their catalogue.
“There are moments on it where I feel we’ve really caught the band playing without thinking together. We write by improvising and when things are sounding good we turn on the recording, but that means the best moments are really off the cuff, happy accidents that are hard to reproduce. I think quite a few times on Fears Trending that happened, a balance was hit between accident and intention, and it’s not something we often manage to get on record. I feel in a lot of ways we’re yet to record the Phantom Band, certainly the way we experience it.”
He recalls Denise Hopper and Tender Castle as being songs which particularly captured this moment, but then as he admits, he never listens to Phantom Band records once they’re complete. “I have a weird relationship with the music after spending a long time making it,” he laughs, “I can’t really put it on and listen to it with any objectivity, so I just let it go out into the world.”
There’s also a guest appearance by contemporary Scottish folk musician Alasdair Roberts on Tender Castle. “We like his music and he’s a pretty singular artist,” says Marquiss. “That one felt like it was completed in stages, it was built up like a collage with various elements added on.
“We didn’t write it with the intention of having Ali sing on it but it seemed to work, there’s something about the vocal melody which had a gothic, folky element which suited him. It’s not a straight duet, so the confusion between his voice and Rick’s voice is also nice.”
Despite the similar gap between their first two records (Checkmate Savage was released in 2009 and The Wants in 2010), each Phantom Band album has stemmed from a different set of circumstances: the first drawn from a stockpile of material they were keen to get out; the second made quickly using half-finished remainders from the previous session; and the third and fourth created over four years while all six members worked on what Marquiss calls their “portfolio careers”. It all adds up to a sense, which he confirms, that they don’t know when their next record will arrive and under what set of circumstances.
“I can’t speak for anyone else in the band,” says Marquiss. “That’s how we are, there are six of us and everyone’s got their own account. But like I’ve said, I don’t feel we’ve actually made a Phantom Band record.
“It’s a constant learning process, though, and I feel like there’s lots of potential to keep getting closer to what we think the band is. It’s this weird process of being analytical but not being self-conscious.”
He speaks of the next record in terms of possibly adopting a “strategy” over its recording. “That could be deciding to record it in a really limited time period, or maybe working with a producer who might take a lot of the decisions out of our hands. But we have a lot going on in our lives and not a lot of time, so the pressures are even more significant than they ever were before. It’s difficult to predict what can happen in a band these days.”
The group’s label, Chemikal Underground, apparently describe them as an “expensive date”, he says, which boils down to how many people there are in the group, how much equipment they need and how tricky it is to coordinate so that a collective decision can be made. But that’s okay – the label are supportive, and they realise the dynamic which makes up the Phantom Band and enables their music, as unwieldy as that may be sometimes.
Can he describe what that album they haven’t made yet might sound like? “No,” he laughs, “but it will come through what I was talking about, that tension between structure and intention, then leaving room for spontaneity.
“It’s this emergent aspect that I find most interesting. But this is just me talking – if you spoke to everyone else in the band they’d have a different answer about what we do. We’re like that.” • The Phantom Band’s Fears Trending is out on Chemikal Underground on 26 January. The band play Music/Reise at Platform, Glasgow, tonight; and Buskers, Dundee, on 8 February
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