Alex Greenwald of Phantom Planet
Alex Greenwald, the lead singer and songwriter
for California-based band Phantom Planet, was
only a young toddler when his mother built her
own harpsichord from a kit. It was his first memorable
interaction with a musical instrument, and Greenwald
was wholly fascinated.
"Why is my mom spending so much time away
from me and building a musical instrument? It's
probably something extremely special," Greenwald
As he grew older, Greenwald began to fiddle around
with the piano by himself. "I was probably
4 or 5. Before I even really was interested in
playing the keys, I noticed that the mute pedal
and the sustain pedal on our piano would make
noises, reverberating around inside of the wood
of the piano if you stepped on it," he said.
"I would stop those pedals to make a 'choo-choo'
sound inside the piano -- that was probably my
first musical composition."
Greenwald's mother then taught him to play guitar
around age 10. He learned to play "California
Girls" and became a huge Beach Boys fan.
A year later he started writing songs. "I
tried to write something similar, something about
how summer was ending -- a song complaining about
having to go back to school."
"There was definitely a time in eighth or
ninth grade when I decided that instead of skateboarding
with my friends, I should go home and play guitar."
And so by age 13, Phantom Planet was born, rocking
on now for a decade. The group grew critical acclaim
with their 1998 debut, Phantom Planet Is Missing
. They continued their success with 2002's
The Guest with the hit single, "California,"
which is now the theme song to the hit Fox TV
show, "The OC." Their 2004 self-titled
release expands on Phantom Planet's musical scope,
veering away from the richer, poppier and more
produced tracks of their old albums and favoring
a grittier, garage rock sound more akin to New
York bands like The Strokes.
Lead singer and songwriter Alex Greenwald sat down
with Playback and told us about his evolution
as a songwriter.
Phantom Planet has been around for a decade!
How do you think the band has grown over the years?
Besides physically, hormonally and mentally?
During the last 10 years, we've sort of become
family to one another. We started the band just
for the fun of it and to play with other musicians
of the same age and of the same musical taste.
From the four-year point to the even the eight
or nine-year point, we sort of lost the idea
of having fun. And I think we're just getting
back into having fun again.
Why did Jason Schwartzman decide to leave
the group after so long?
Touring wasn't the most fun thing for Jason
to do. He would always tell me that he missed
home, or he missed his girlfriend, or he wanted
to read a script.
He wanted to be creative in other ways than
just music, which was fine. When we got back
home, and it was time to rehearse and finish
this record, me being the fascist lead singer-songwriter
person, demanded that he put his full effort
into it. I think he started to realize what
he really wanted to do, especially since he
wasn't writing as much on this record, if really
How do you think it affected the band?
There was definitely a couple of months where
we knew he was leaving, and were like, "What
are we going to do?" We'd been playing
together as musicians and friends for 10 years.
Introducing a new person into the equation might
mess it up. But luckily, our friend and one
of my favorite drummers, Jeff Conrad joined
the band. We've known him for about six or seven
There seems to be a lot of buzz over
your first single, "Big Brat." Many
people are saying that your sound has changed
drastically. Do you think that it's changed that
It has. I think you know, we've always been
a band that likes to be experimental and try
new things. You can tell just even from
our very first record, Phantom Planet Is
Missing , when we were 16 to The Guest
-- there's a huge sound change there.
This new record just came about from a year
and a half of touring and being extremely confident
with the instruments that we had been playing
for that long, every day and in front of people.
We wanted to make a record that was proof
that we had been on the road -- that we knew
how to have fun and translate it onto a recording.
Also, it takes two or three years for each
record to come out. If we were a band to put
something out every month, it would be much
easier to see the evolution.
What's your songwriting process?
It's different for me every time, which is
a blessing and a curse all at once because I
can never figure out what's the best way to
start it. Usually I just have to be inspired
to pick up an instrument or there's a good lyric
in my head or I want to talk about something
really badly. But the curse side of it is that
if someone asked me to write a song on the spot,
even if you put a gun to my head, I wouldn't
be able to.
"By the Bed" and "Jabber Jaw"
for some reason took a long time to write, where
you have a piece here and there. It's an ever-changing
puzzle piece that you're trying to fit together.
Then there are songs like "Big Brat"
or "First Things First" that just
sort of strangely fall into place.
With "Big Brat," I had a bass line
and a drumbeat. On the final plane ride from
Los Angeles to Fredonia where we recorded the
record, I was thinking about the bass line and
of things to sing over it. By the time the plane
landed, I had a song pretty much written with
the words, save a few. By the time we
got to the studio, it was even more fleshed
out. And then I sort of showed it to the rest
of the band. We played it, and then in half
an hour we were ready to record it. We did,
and we took the first take.
Can you tell me what some of the songs
are about, starting with "Big Brat?"
If I kept a diary, all the songs on the record
would be pages from it. They are just the experiences
of wanting to leave Los Angeles, wanting to
come back, bad relationships with people because
of money issues like with "Bad Business"
or even "Big Brat" has to do with
the same idea, but a different person. There's
a couple songs about cheaters, breaking up,
relationships with girls, first dates and bad
experiences out at bars.
Which song on the album is the most personal
I think they're all little children of mine.
I wouldn't want to pick one over the other.
They might get mad at me. But I definitely have
strong memories attached to every single one
of them. Certain ones are happy. Certain ones
are sad. The sadder ones are "By
the Bed," "The Loneliness," "Know
It All" or "After Hours."
I left the lyrics in "By the Bed"
open. It could be about breaking up with a girl
or about losing someone in general.
Also your song, "California,"
from the previous album is now the theme song
for hit Fox TV show, "The OC." How did
that come about?
The writer and creator is really into the L.A.
music scene and loves our record. He basically
thought that tune would be perfect. I wasn't
too sure about it. They sent us a pilot. The
pilot looked cool, so I said, OK.
Do you get a lot more recognition now
that your song has been featured so prominently
on a TV show?
No. I asked for us not to be credited on the
titles. I just think "California"
is an old version of Phantom Planet. So it's
sort of not really our song anymore. I was just
sort of giving an old pair of pants away to
a friend that needed them.