PHANTOM PLANET
Singer/guitarist Alex Greenwald
speaks from the spirit world
BY CHRISTINE ANN LONG

In 1998, Phantom Planet released their debut record, Phantom Planet is Missing, and then promptly disappeared.

Four years later, Phantom Planet has made a triumphant return with The Guest. An incredible blend of pop, rock, and electronic elements laced with samples of jazz and classic loops, it has been hailed as one of the best albums of early 2002.

A five-piece band consisting of native Angelenos Alex Greenwald (lead vocals, guitar), Jason Schwartzman (drums), Jacques Brautbar (guitar), Sam Farrar (bass) and Darren Robinson (guitar), Phantom Planet has turned into a rock ‘n roll machine in recent months. Their infectious single "California" has been warmly welcomed into MTV2’s daily rotation, as well as at modern rock stations across the U.S. The lyrics for "California" speak of homesickness and the desire to return home after a long journey. But for Phantom Planet, their adventure is just about to begin.

Who came up with the name Phantom Planet?

Alex Greenwald: I brought the name to the band and asked if it was cool if we used it. I still keep a really messy room and I’ll find the most random things on the floor or under my bed that people leave over and forget, I guess because my room is so messy. I found a laser pen that year. Anyway, I found this CD, it was Neil Norman’s Science Fiction’s Greatest Hits, and it was these disco versions of all these sci-fi songs. The one song that I really liked and the band really liked was called "Phantom Planet," but the funny part about that is that there were no numbers on the back of the album and I counted wrong. So the song we actually liked was called "Godzilla." We thought the name represented us at the time, [because] we all did the band pretty much full time, skipped out on school and lost friends ‘cause of it and were being like ghosts.

Obviously you’ve done a lot of growing since your debut album Phantom Planet is Missing, how do you think you’ve matured musically?

AG: I kind of feel like–it’s like the same way you date a girl in high school and [are in] love with her, compared to the way you date someone in college and be in love with that person. Different experiences set each one up so you’re ready for the next. The first record sort of influenced the second record, in that we knew what not to do, same as in a relationship–what things to continue or what things to make better; and even in terms of band dynamic, how not to fight and how to be good people to each other.

Why such a long delay between albums?

AG: It’s weird, [because] the first record, Phantom Planet is Missing, we recorded most of it in 1996 actually, recorded more in ’97 and released it in ’98. We did a bunch of label switching in ’99 through 2000, and then we looked for a good producer once we were on Epic. So, little things add up to big things. It was really quick making this new record. It took a month all together including mixing, which is pretty short. We did three weeks of recording, eight-hour days, which was really healthy. It kept the band the band going together.

What was the inspiration behind The Guest?

AG: Entitling the record, we could not think of a good name. We tried Phantom Planet Was Here, but we decided after seeing that Willa Ford’s album was called Willa Was Here that we didn’t want to do it. But we wanted to continue along the lines of having a mysterious title like Phantom Planet is Missing or Was Here because we’re not ever there, because we’re "ghosts." I brought in this song that didn’t make the record called "The Guest." For some reason we all clicked one day and said ‘why not call the album The Guest?’ We liked the way the title looked and we liked the concept and it just looked like a classy record.

There seems to be a lot more electronic influence on this album? What do you attribute that to?

AG: There was a lot of experimenting musically with a lot of different genres throughout our time as a band between records. I think that this record is indicative of the long gap between the two records. We tried to cram [in] all that we could. It’s like a smorgasbord of different ideas. I think it works out well. I think it’s experimenting and trying to put on the best aspect of us experimenting throughout the years on there.

The song "Turn Smile Shift Repeat" is a far departure from your regular poppy rock ’n roll. Tell me about that song.

AG: I’ve had this sampler that I bought from a friend of mine about three years now and I’ve been trying to get better and better at using it. In terms of "Turn Smile Shift Repeat" I had this string loop from a Vivaldi song from The Four Seasons. The first half of the string loop we use on the song "Anthem," and the second half of the loop we use on "Turn Smile Shift Repeat," and I thought that it would be kind of funny to put those two in together on the album.

What is your songwriting process?

AG: It’s different every time. Sometimes a melody will send a little light bulb spark off. On "California," Jason [Schwartzman] and I split the songwriting duty on that one. In that song, we’re trying to convey the feeling of trying to get back home. I guess it doesn’t have to be California too, but it can hopefully translate to other people not in California.

What are three essentials on the road?

AG: Almonds, a pillow and a clear conscience.