The Phantom Band
Prepare to be spooked by the magic of The Phantom Band, a band Doug Johnstone finds are unafraid to wander off the musical beaten track
The Phantom Band are a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. OK, they’re not really, they’re just six guys living in Glasgow making music, but as their ephemeral name suggests there is something shadowy and unfathomable about both the band and the extraordinary sounds they make.
Having formed a few years ago (that’s as accurate as they get about it), the band started performing experimental one-off shows wearing hoods to disguise themselves, shows which featured smoking wolf heads or, on one occasion, a Stairmaster on stage.
These shows were undertaken under a variety of different band names, including the likes of Robert Redford, Wooden Trees and Tower of Girls, the band unable to agree on a moniker that suited.
But 2009 has seen The Phantom Band emerge blinking into the limelight, and the reason is their remarkable debut album, Checkmate Savage, released last month by Chemikal Underground to universal critical acclaim.
The album takes Krautrock, folk, post-rock and blues and mashes them into an unholy whole, an atmospheric journey through a strange Scottish hinterland of bones and beasts, incantations and burials.
That it does so while also being compellingly engaging and unashamedly melodic is the key to The Phantom Band’s particular skewed genius, sounding at times like timeless pop songs dug out the ground or distilled from the haar. That organic feel is absolutely key to the songwriting process, according to the band.
‘We usually spend a bit of time before we start practising our set just jamming and making stuff up and we come up with ideas then,’ says singer Rick Anthony, a man blessed with a sumptuously deep and sonorous croon. ‘Improvising for an hour or so usually comes up with something.’
It’s not all done off the cuff, though.
‘We record a lot of our practises as well,’ says keyboard player Andy Wake, ‘so that we can then go back and pick things out that are interesting and develop them. I don’t know how many years of practises we’ve got, all on CDRs, which we can go back to.’
‘Yeah, we’ve got the next two albums ready to go,’ deadpans Anthony.
‘Steady, the vast majority of them are just stupid crap,’ laughs Wake.
The stuff that made it onto Checkmate Savage suggests a band bursting with ideas, willing to take risks and keen to have fun, and is reminiscent of the likes of The Beta Band or Super Furry Animals, while also having a deeper connection with Scotland’s traditional musical heritage.
All of which comes into its own when the band play live. Seemingly ramshackle but definitely exhilarating, the band rattle through their set with gleeful abandon, bashing on homemade instruments and hollering along like there’s no tomorrow. They’re not about to rest on their laurels, though.
‘I don’t think we’re quite the finished article live yet,’ says Wake. ‘There are nights when it really works, but I always think we should be doing more, both visually and musically.’
‘We used to look a lot more crazy when we played, a lot more all over the place,’ says Anthony. ‘Musically we’ve put a lot of effort into honing down the tracks and getting them into a complete state, but I think we should maybe get some of the craziness back.’
‘It’ll get better,’ says Wake. ‘I promise.’
The Phantom Band, King Tut’s, Glasgow, Thu 26 Feb; Tollbooth, Stirling, Sun 28 Feb.