June 01, 2004

Phantom Planet


Alex Greenwald

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 said.

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 at all.

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 years.

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 much?

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 to you?

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.