Phantom Planet

Silent Uproar: After hearing the far rougher sound of your new material, in some ways this upcoming album could be considered your Pinkerton. What drove the process when you sat down to write the new material and in the studio with Dave Fridmann?

Sam: Well, first of all, it's funny that you said Pinkerton. I've gotten that a couple times already, which is great because it's my favorite album.

SU: It's probably the David Fridmann association…

Sam: I don't necessarily know that it was Dave, though he definitely helped us achieve what we wanted to do…

SU: I just mean his association with Pinkerton

Sam: Oh, I see what you're saying…

I gave this analogy a while back… it's sort of like when you go on tour for the first time, you've never done it before. We hadn't toured before we did The Guest and we all packed way too much stuff. However, this last tour I was barely carrying anything - a pair of jeans, a bunch of underwear and that was about it. I think that it sort of happened the same way with the music [on this album]. We just stripped down to the real, basic necessities of what we think good songs are. Maybe the difference is in what we've been listening to or whatever, but for some reason it seems better to just have three guitars, vocals, bass and drums, and see what you can do with that.

SU: Well, Dave Fridmann is known for the sound he brings to each album he produces. What did he contribute to the songs to take them from your ideas to what we'll hear on the album?

Sam: His biggest thing is getting the songs to sound amazing. He's an amazing engineer. He's an amazing producer too - I'm not saying anything against that. But the sounds he gets are just unbelievable and very much become the production of the song.

The thing I would say he added was there were certain songs we where we didn't know what was wrong. In those cases, he was very much like, "this doesn't work, try something else." He never tried to play what he wanted us to play, but he was very vocal in what didn't work. He is very much a listener more than a producer. Basically, he's just trying to make something that he likes.

SU: Some the new stuff I've heard, like "Big Brat", definitely has this big beat or ska groove running through it. I would assume Alex brought these sounds to the table?

Sam: Alex went through an English big beat phase - Madness and stuff like that. He still is into that music, but when he was really into it he wrote that great, opening guitar riff - the big E7 with the minor 3rd, which is a very Jimi Hendrix part. He also had that really crazy chord progression. We were all like, "what in the hell are you going to sing over it?" And then he just sang us his idea and right of the bat we were like, "great, awesome, perfect!" So, it just sort of came together. We never even thought twice about it being completely different than any other style we'd been playing up until that point.

I think we were in Sweden when we played "Big Brat" live for the first time, and it was definitely the turning point for us getting a little bit faster and harder… and better and stronger, as we like to say (laughs).

SU: I know I was bummed to hear about Jason Schwartzman's departure from the band. How far were you through the recording process when he announced his leave?

Sam: Time wise, we were about halfway through, but we'd recorded maybe twelve, thirteen songs with him…

SU: But you still got the album done in about six weeks, right? So I guess he'd laid down a bunch of drum tracks already…

Sam: Yeah, he had done a bunch.

We did the record in four two-week segments, and he did the first two. After that point, we got back and realized we didn't have all the songs we thought we had. As well, we didn't have as many [songs] as we needed. So we went back and did "Big Brat" and "Know It All". I played drums during that session, which was fun. Jacques played bass, Alex played bass, I played some guitar, and everyone was just sort of switching around, which was quite fun. Then, on the fourth and final time we were there, Jeff came with us and we did three more with him.

Somehow we got through and it all made sense…

SU: I was sad to see Jason Schwarzmann's wild Keith Moon style go, but Jeff Conrad is definitely a tight drummer…

Sam: It's definitely a different Phantom Planet now. I think a lot of people were kind of scared at first, but we've had a great reaction so far. And Jeff is amazing…

SU: I assume Jeff has had to go through some sort of hazing process?

Sam: (laughs) No, we're actually a nice band. We don't haze our new members. Although we've only ever had one new member, and that's Jeff, so maybe we've still got some hazing left to go.

SU: We'll you're not like Metallica…

Sam: Yeah, exactly (laughs)…

SU: I've read a bit here and there about the recording process and I don't know how much you guys embellish stories, but the time when you weren't recording seemed kind of off the wall. Like, I read about the time you almost killed the piano tuner?

Sam: Someone else has just asked me about just recently too (laughs)… That all came about after we'd been up all night drinking and having a great time, because we were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing else to do. Then, at about 8 in the morning, this guy came in to tune the piano. And I don't know if you've ever heard a piano being tuned, but it's probably the worst thing you've ever heard. There are 88 keys and he had to do each key. He hit each key maybe fifteen times, would tune it a little bit, and move on to the next key. In between keys, he would play "Imagine" by John Lennon or some cheesy version of any great song. Then, he would go back to tuning the keys. It was the most miserable experience of my entire life…

It was just a crazy time. Literally, we couldn't go outside because it was too cold, the wild dogs would chase us, or the hunters would shoot us if we weren't wearing our orange vests. It was, literally, stuff we were dealing with when we were out there recording.

SU: Did I just fall prey to some Internet hearsay or was the new album titled Forever at one point?

Sam: That was sort of just a makeshift title that seemed appropriate for a bit. The more we thought about it, the more it felt better just to have it self-titled. Everyone didn't agree with the "Forever" idea.

SU: I know it was just a joke, but the "We Win Again, Motherfuckers" title would've been nice as well…

Sam: Yeah, that's the other alternate title (laughs)…

SU: The "Big Brat" video looked really fun to make. I read how Alex wanted to make a zombie movie, but how did you entice Spike Jonze to direct it?

Sam: We've known him for a long time and he's a really good friend of our manager. We have always wanted to work with him, but he's just a busy guy. Thought, it just sort of worked out perfectly. He didn't have anything to do and we all had two days with nothing as well. Tony Gardner, the makeup guy, was available, the house was available, and all of our friends were around. We never really got a chance to be excited about it, which was great. We found out two days beforehand that he was going to do it. It was just very easy and very casual. Then, after we finished, we were like "holy shit, we just made video with Spike Jonze!"

SU: And how did Spike snag Tony Gardner ("Thriller") for this video?

Sam: Spike worked with him on [the movie] Three Kings. Actually, we ended up using some of the make up from Three Kings - like some of the rib cages and stuff. If you look at Darren's rib cage, that's actually a Three Kings ribcage (laughs). And the head that I reach into and pull the brains out of… that's actually Spike's head mold from the movie with a wig on it.

SU: I recently looked through a copy of the The Guest reissue and the artwork was very nice. It seems like you got the same people to work on the new album's artwork...

Sam: Well, we do all of the artwork. Alex and I did most of The Guest artwork with our friend Mike. We just really wanted to do the yearbook idea. So, we all brought our old yearbooks and sort of threw it together.

We definitely like to be as hands on with as possible, because, like you just said, it's very important. Album artwork definitely reflects the attitude of the band.

SU: With that said, it's evident the band has a firm grasp on its visual presentation. Are there any non-musical artists influencing you at the moment? Or are there any you would like to work with in the future?

Sam: Spike was a big one. I would love to work with Michel Gondry. There are others, but I'm really not good with names.

Though, the one that pissed me off the most was the new Coldplay album. You know the one with the wire frame head? Alex and I found that in a magazine three years ago! We were determined to use it somehow and we tried to contact those guys, but never got a hold of them. Then the Coldplay record came out and I was pretty pissed off. So, they stole it from us (laughs). That really was the last major thing I saw that really caught my eye…

SU: The Polaroid b-sides album is a great compilation. Are there any plans for other unreleased material or b-sides to surface in the future?

Sam: Oh yeah. We're going to have two out next year. We're going to hopefully put one out in January, which will be all the songs that didn't make The Guest and afterwards. Then, we'll do another one, because there were probably 60 or 70 songs between The Guest and this new album, which also has about 6 b-sides. A lot of them aren't on the new record, because we felt we could do them better. So, if they surface they surface.

SU: So you just finished producing Roger Alan Wade's Dreamworks debut? How did that come about?

Sam: Again, our manager, Dan, is a good friend of Johnny Knoxville. He called me one day and asked if I had any interest in producing a country record. I was like, "yeah, totally." I've been trying to get into producing quite heavily. Dan played me some of the stuff and it was just so funny that I had to do it. So, Roger flew out, we bought a whole bunch of alcohol, rented a Pro Tools, setup in Johnny's house and recorded for three days.

SU: Awesome. Sounds like a fun time…

Sam: It was great. It was a really fun learning experience for me…

SU: The band has become pretty infamous for its live shows. Has all the touring this past year influenced the band's sound at all?

Sam: Oh yeah, for sure. That's why [the new album] sounds like it does. For the first time, this record was done with drums in the center of the room. The rest of us, literally, we're like 4 feet away from the drums. I don't know how familiar you are with recording, but that usually doesn't happen. Usually, everyone is in their own little area and the singer is in a booth.

SU: Right. So none of the sounds bleed on the other tracks…

Sam: Exactly. But in this case, we had all of the amps separated, but we were still able to next to each other when we were recording. I think you can hear that on the record; it feels very close and very tight.

SU: Was it the band or Epic that decided to release the live, bootleg CD?

Sam: It was pretty much both of us at the same time. We were just like, "why don't we release some live shows? Most people think that is our best feature, so why not promote it?" Epic was conveniently ready to go with that great DVD team that did the Troubadour show DVD. And Bill, who assisted with Dave Fridmann on the album, decided to come in and do the live recording. Actually, I think we're going to do a lot more of it. In fact, every show this tour we've brought in Pro Tools rig every night and recorded every show. So, I think we're going to pick some of the best ones and release them.

SU: So you finish this current year of touring up on the December 11th. Where do you go for 2004?

Sam: I don't know yet, actually. They're just going to send us all over the place. I hope that they will, at least.

SU: To conclude, what do you have to say to the handful of journalists and critics that will still blow this band off as a bunch of actors and models?

Sam: Fuck off and open your ears. We've been a band for 10 years. Let the actor thing go. Yes, we happen to live in Hollywood. If you want to give us shit for where we live, then that's fine. We don't act very well, we just play music well.

Dec 9 2003