The Phantom Band - from mayhem to motorik

EVOLVING FROM a loose collection of friends who met regularly for jam sessions and wild, mayhem filled gigs, The Phantom Band have transformed themselves into one of the most exciting acts to emerge in recent years from Scotland’s rich independent music scene.

It has been an extraordinary two years for The Phantom Band, who make their Galway debut at the Róisín Dubh on Friday January 21 at 9pm. Their debut album Checkmate Savage came out in early 2009 and immediately caught the attention of the indie/alternative crowd and met with critical acclaim, as did the follow up, The Wants, released last October.

Aberdonians

The Phantom Band are often described as a ‘Glasgow group’, although it is more accurate to describe them as a Glasgow based band as each of the six members - Duncan Marquiss (guitar ), Gerry Hart (bass ), Andy Wake (keyboards ), Rick Anthony (vocals ), Damien Tonner (drums ) and Greg Sinclair (guitars ) - hail mostly from Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland.

“Greg and Duncan are childhood friends and went to school together,” Andy tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Rick is from Aberdeenshire as well. I knew of him and knew he could sing and play guitar. I went to art school with Duncan in Dundee and Gerry, I didn’t know at the time, was mates with Damien, and we all gravitated towards Glasgow.”

Why did the future Phantoms base themselves in Glasgow and not in the nation’s capital of Edinburgh?

“Duncan and I graduated from Dundee, but there’s nothing much going on there if you want to do art or music,” says Andy. “Glasgow is the hub for both, it’s where you go for the creative industries if you can’t go to London or Berlin, so Glasgow will have to do, but it’s really good for music and all kinds gravitate here.”

Not only did Andy and his friends gravitate to Glasgow, but towards each other, meeting regularly on Friday evenings for jam sessions. Andy describes the gatherings as “more a social club” than any real attempt to form a band.

“We didn’t know that many people in the city at the time,” he says. “I was living with Duncan and he asked me if I wanted to come along. We weren’t The Phantom Band yet and there was a lot of other people there but eventually it narrowed down to the six members. It was more of a collective then than a band.”

The band went under a number of different names - NRA, Los Crayzee Boyz, Tower of Girls, Wooden Trees, Robert Redford, and Robert Louis Stevenson - before settling on The Phantom Band.

The Phantoms’ music displays a wide range of influences. There is a strong strain of Scottish folk (‘Islands’ and ‘Come Away In The Dark’ ), a touch of New Wave/New Romantic (‘O’ ), but the over-riding influence is undoubtedly Krautrock and there is no doubting the Kraftwerkian pulse of ‘The Howling’ or the NEU! motorik of ‘Crocodile’ and ‘Throwing Bones’.

The German touch

Krautrock was the (initially derisive ) term, coined by British journalists to describe a genre of experimental German rock produced in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Driven by a passion for avant-garde classical music, the innovations of The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, and a desire to create a form of rock music that owed nothing to the dominance of the US and Britain, German bands like Kraftwerk, Can, NEU!, Faust, Amon Düül II, and Cluster pushed rock into places no one (before or since ) dared go and created some of the most startling, uncompromising, and challenging music ever made.

Andy acknowledges that Krautrock is an influence but argues it is not the sole influence on The Phantom Band.

“I really like Kraftwerk and NEU! but I don’t know if everyone did before they joined the band,” he says. “It’s more like we have the same collection of influences as people like Michael Rother, Holger Czukay, and Florian Schneider, and the huge range of music they listened to, which is why we can sound like them.

“I would say the rhythmical element of Can and Faust is probably a big influence,” says Andy. “We’re quite a percussive band. We build songs around rhythms. A drum beat is played or I play something on the synths and we start playing around that, and that makes it very percussive and songs grow out of that.”

In this methodology, The Phantom Band take a strikingly similar approach to the creation of music as did Can, who would spend hours jamming in their studio. The jams would be recorded and bassist Holger Czukay would edit the tapes into individual songs.

As this interview is taking place the Phantoms have just recorded a four hour jam session and it seems Andy will have a job similar to Czukay’s later on today.

“It’s very rare we have a constructed idea for a song when we start,” says Andy. “We don’t play music by design. We come into the studio, and liked Can used to, record hours and hours of music, and have tracks that are 20 minutes and see if there is anything worth keeping and chop it down to the more interesting parts.

“We’ve just documented that four hour session and Duncan or me will have to listen to that. Most of it will be shite but there may be some little bits that we make eight minutes from.”

However none of the Phantoms’ musical influences is treated by the band as a hook to hang a career on, or a style to slavishly emulate. A listen to the magnificent Checkmate Savage and least year’s impressive The Wants, show the Scots have learned well from their inspirations and they are within touching distance of that important goal - sounding like nobody but themselves.

On-stage mayhem

Andy describes the Phantoms as people who take their music very seriously, but do not take themselves too seriously and they enjoy letting loose their humorous, mischievous, side at their stage shows. One, now infamous, example is when they dragged a Stairmaster fitness machine on stage at a gig and urged the audience to come up for workouts.

“Ah yes, that is a true story,” laughs Andy. “That was one of the first gigs we played as The Phantom Band and we wanted to outdo the band we were sharing the bill with. Duncan and I were living in a flat and there was a Stairmaster at end of the stairs left there by the previous tenants. The landlord thought we owned it and asked us to take it out and was sending us nasty letters about it. So we thought let’s take it and dump it.

“We were unloading our equipment for the gig, we didn’t even talk about it, it was just in the back of the van, and we though let’s bring it on stage. Rick said to the audience ‘Don’t ask what this is for’ and some guy with a muscle vest came up out of the audience and started working out on it, so he was there sweating away while we were playing!”

The Phantoms have also enjoyed some Spinal Tap type mayhem, as Andy fondly recalls. “We used to have these bat like costumes that if you pull a chord the wings spread out, but there wasn’t enough room on stage so we have to take the wings off,” he says.

“There was also this machine we had that was like a head. It had red shining eyes and smoke came out of its mouth. At one gig it fell off the speakers and on top of me and my gear. I fell over, the band kept going, but the drummer walked out in frustration! That was another of our infamous stage props.”

These days, with critical acclaim and a rising fan base, the live shows are no longer quite as chaotic, but the Phantoms still enjoy making them a fun event for themselves and the audience.

“We’ve tightened up a lot since then,” Andy says. “We will have a lot of banter with the audience though. We might wear costumes, and we may show video projections before the show to make people excited, baffled, or laughing!”

Showing videos is not so surprising as outside The Phantom Band, Andy and Duncan are visual artists, who have exhibited across Scotland, and who occasionally collaborate on artistic projects.

“The work I do is mostly video, drawing, collage, performance, and sculptural installation,” says Andy. “Duncan has the same range, but not so much sculpture. We have collaborated in the past on videos and we also have an off-shoot of The Phantom Band called Omnivore Demon, which is a more experimental band that performs in galleries.”

Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.

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