Phosphene Interview – “We’re Happy Humans”

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The Bay Area’s Phosphene are on the verge of releasing Breaker, a mini-album to follow up their self-titled debut album from 2014. It’s a record that a lot of hard work has gone into, mostly down to it being crowdfunded through Pledge but the result makes it all worth while. Breaker takes the same formula as the debut album but moves everything up a notch, songs are sharper and ideas more fully realised than before. Across six songs there’s plenty of despair and melancholy in the air but there’s also shafts of light, like the sun piercing through a thick San Franciscan fog and warming your chilled bones. The music is shoegazy in places without ever gazing too hard, dream pop in others and there’s the hint of a band that are ready to rock in there but who restrain, keeping a lid on the guitar squalls, maintaining a discipline that allows the music to creep up on you and wrap you in a comfortable warm blanket of contended sadness

Overblown caught up with Rachel Frankel and Matt Hemmerich, two thirds of this three-piece in a quest to learn more about the new songs and all other things Phosphene. In particular we were keen to learn about the use of Pledge to enable this record’s existence. How was the whole crowdfunding experience? Rachel picks up, “Well, our main goal was to avoid being as irritating as an NPR Pledge drive…I’m not sure whether we succeeded in that?” Matt adds, “That last crowdfund was an intense affair, to be honest. On the bright side. we received so much love and support from our friends and family. The best surprise was discovering that people from Italy, the UK, and Canada contributed. The reason we chose the crowdfund route was pretty clear; we didn’t have any more funds! We’re not wealthy by any means, so we took a chance with this path. Overall, it’s hard to gripe considering that we got funded and that is the reason why we have this record finished and ready to launch. Truth be told, the stress and anxiety associated with crowdfunds is no joke, especially when all members in your band are introverts. I don’t think we’ll pursue that route again, which means our next record is slated for a 2030 release.”

Phosphene - Kevin, Rachel & Matt
Phosphene – Kevin, Rachel & Matt

We move onto the music itself, the aforementioned melancholic feel of the record is entirely pleasant. Is this something that the band intends when putting the songs together? Rachel doesn’t necessarily agree with my outlook on the record, “I actually feel like this is a relatively happy, celebratory record. I think it could get interpreted as melancholic due to the instrumentation and the occasional wealth of reverb. We don’t really set out with the intent of creating a sad or happy song–it’s more accidental than that. Matt and I are often so focused on finding the right combination of sounds and lyrics that the mood of the song just sort of happens on the side.” Keen to stop me in my tracks from painting Phosphene as Les Miserables (they’re not) Matt stresses “I want to preface that we’re happy humans. On occasion blissful material ends up on our records (e.g. Metric, Ride). I believe music is a vehicle for emotion, like any other art, and we often find this band a cathartic place to express ourselves. We’re aware of our melancholic tendencies, and that our major influences share this trait. Personally, I find more solace in art that reminds us that life isn’t all roses.” Well said, I concur.

A standout track from the record is ‘Rogue’ which takes a slightly different direction due to shared vocal duties, something I’ve not heard much of on previous Phosphene recordings. “Rogue was certainly a departure from our typical songwriting process. I wrote the first verse alone at home on a wine buzz. I was scared to share it with the band but Rachel and Kevin were so kind and receptive about it. During practice, Kevin sang along with me, which gave it a more dynamic feel. That song is special to us because of it’s spontaneity. Kevin and I come out singing a verse together, and then Rachel jumps in with a completely different melody. We had a blast creating that build near the end. If people hate my voice in “Rogue” then I will moonwalk away from ever assuming vocal duties again.” Nobody will hate hearing Matt’s voice but if the thought of seeing him moonwalk amuses you then feel free to take him up on this.

Moving away from my own opinion I ask what their own particular favourites are from the record, hopeful that i’m not asking them to choose a preferred child. Matt explains his choices, “Our favorite tracks rotate, but if I had to pick, I’d say ‘Ride’ and ‘Wild Decay’. Those two share a specific sonic identity we sought for this record. They were written in our rehearsal space, which informs the spontaneity of each song. Although we channel dreamier sounds, these songs wound up propulsive after several sessions. We let those tracks develop and evolve from the primordial soup they came from, and didn’t tamper with their moods.” Rachel, on the other hand, is back in agreement with me, “Rogue is definitely a favorite of mine. There were a lot of happy accidents on that recording that marked a turning point in our songwriting, which I think is also reflective in ‘Wild Decay’ (written after ‘Rogue’). I was also pleasantly surprised that Matt wanted to contribute a vocal melody! Kevin often assists on backup vocals, but this was definitely the first time the two of them have sang lead on a recording.”

As well as playing with Phosphene, I’m aware Rachel is an illustrator and has designed a beautiful poster to go with the record (see the headline image on this article) that was only available to certain pledgers, such is the business of crowdfunding. It’s fascinating to consider how these different creative outlets combine, does music inspire artwork or vice-versa? Is there a close relationship between what she does as an illustrator and a musician? “This poster in particular was definitely inspired by our album name and concept, but in most cases my art brain and music brain have more of a symbiotic relationship.” explains Rachel ” I do constantly listen to music while I’m making art, though, and obviously visual art has a huge presence within the music world through album art, gig posters, music videos, etc. I also think there are very similar struggles between my goals as an illustrator/designer and as a musician. The creative process is different in that when I’m making visual art, all the decisions are basically up to me (barring the art director, if any). In a typical band, you’re always collaborating and compromising, and you’re creating songs and making decisions as a group.”

I move things on to the ridiculous, although with the presidential election looming and the rest of the world looking on in bemusement / horror perhaps it’s not quite as ridiculous as it sounds. What if Califormia banned all music? No record shops (someone save Amoeba!), no music radio, no gigs. Where would you relocate Phosphene too? “Well, if Trump or Cruz become President, then we’re bound to flee the States. We’ve gotten so much love and support from the UK and Canada that either place would be a welcome change. Anywhere that has an exuberant arts community.” Well Matt, you’d certainly be made welcome in Glasgow.

We end on a congratulatory note, Rachel and Matt recently announced their engagement and the world will soon have a new rock n’ roll married couple. We kindly offer to DJ their wedding. “Thanks so much! I’ll save the mush for the ceremony, but it goes without saying that we’re elated. It’s rare to have your best friend be your creative collaborator and life partner! Overblown will be our official DJ squad.” Awww, cheers Matt, we’ve booked the flights and we’ll send you the invoice which will be nothing compared to the cost of having a Scotsman and Irishman hit the bar. A happy ending, no melancholy required, just the way Phsophene would like it. Go check ’em out.

Breaker by Phosphene is released on 29th April 2016 – get it right here 

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