Making Sweet Metaphors
for Boyd Street Magazine
Alex Greenwald loves a good metaphor. And a bad one. Indeed, Phantom Planet’s new album, Raise the Dead, is conceptual, an exploration of the metaphorical cult of band fandom. Single “Leader” portrays a cult experience (“He explained so easily/We are all the missing pieces/Maybe you’ll fit right in, too”), with Greenwald first joining and then recruiting to the Phantom Planet family.
Creepy, yes, but in reality Raise the Dead finds Greenwald (guitar/vox), Darren Robinson (guitar), Sam Farrar (bass) and Jeff Conrad (drums) settling into a medium, melding their early surf-pop with the garage rock of Phantom Planet’s eponymous third record — an album that, at its release, left diehards and neophytes alike scratching their heads. Despite the shift, Greenwald speculates about the loyalty of the Phantom Planet…ahem…cult.
“Changing stylistically is wearing our experiences and influences from the time it takes to [make] a record. If the style of the record is like your fashion, you’re still the same person underneath your clothes. We’ve made really close friends that stick with us, even though now we might be dressed like…derobed…um…circus clowns.”
Robinson offered a simpler explanation. “We’re very personable. We always go out and mingle with fans.”
This forging of relationships is of greater importance lately, as the band finds itself in a number of unlikely pairings, supporting Panic at the Disco, The Rocket Summer and Paramore this year alone. Greenwald has — you guessed it — a couple of metaphors to explain.
“Headlining shows are like dessert. I could almost rot my teeth on how sweet it is,” Greenwald said, “but I do like playing for new people. It’s like going on a first date: cold sweats, nervousness and, if it works, extreme elation.”
That elation is a long time coming, as Phantom Planet rounds out its 14 th year. Overcoming an unfavorable Hollywood stigma — Greenwald is a former Gap model and actor (see: Donnie Darko) and actor Jason Schwartzman is the original drummer — and leaving Epic Records in favor of the much-smaller Fueled By Ramen, Phantom Planet has abandoned anonymity for success. Greenwald analogized (of course) the band’s turbulent climb out of the L.A. pop scene.
“By no means did I grow up wealthy, but I wasn’t poor. When I couldn’t afford a toy, like a Jabba the Hutt, my mom made it. It’s the same thing as Jabba, you know. (At this point, the rest of Phantom Planet looked quizzically at each other, snickering.) Wait, guys, this analogy is going to work. I played with it and [eventually] loved it even more. You kind of hate where you come from, but you still love it. We started early, so everything felt like the way it was supposed to be. It was hard work but not crazy. I was 15 when we signed to Geffen. We kind of disliked the experience of being on a major label, but that was what was supposed to happen, and now we’re adults, and we want to move forward.”
Phantom Planet has few regrets, even concerning the elephant in the room. “California” from 2002’s The Guest found smash success as the theme to Fox’s The O.C. and led countless drunks to shout the request at every performance.
“I had the fear before that I’d regret the choice to put ‘California’ on the show,” Greenwald said. “The potential negative is people might judge you before hearing other songs, but if anything, it’s done the opposite and given our band the opportunity to reach a lot of people. From Radiohead to NOFX, there’s always someone in the audience yelling. At least it’s not, ‘You guys suck!’ That’s something.”