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The Phantom Band

The Spotlight Kids

Jul 03, 2009 Winter 2009 - Anticipated Albums of 2009 Bookmark and Share

From their nebulous beginnings as cut-up pranksters, employing Felliniesque stage prop stunts like stairmasters and smoke-breathing wolf heads as well as an extemporaneous set of band names (NRA, Robert Redford, Tower of Girls), the wildly eclectic Glaswegian sextet The Phantom Band have gradually metamorphosed into a proper band and settled on the appropriately elusive moniker. Now they’ve got a great debut LP, Checkmate Savage, to show for it.

Guitarist Greg Sinclair has a chuckle about the band’s dysfunctional early days. “Yeah, we were pretty shambolic, and it was always more of a social thing. We’d get drunk and do shows where we’d improvise, and sometimes they were an absolute disaster, and some of them were quite good gigs. The one with the stairmaster went quite well, but I suppose that could be a bit subjective,” he laughs. “The wolf head I actually don’t remember. Some of those times are a bit fuzzy. It’s okay to play sort of shambolic live shows, but for a record, we really needed to focus.”

To facilitate the recording process, the band brought in a producer, Delgados drummer Paul Savage (Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Arab Strap). “It was quite difficult for him, I’d imagine,” Sinclair says. “He had to rein in quite a lot with six guys playing on the record. What he did really well was push everyone in the same direction.”

The band also espouses a decidedly egalitarian approach to songwriting, which, while providing their sound a rather idiosyncratic feel, can also lead to some bruised egos. Sinclair explains: “When three quarters of what you’ve played in a day hasn’t made the cut, it’s quite a lesson about letting your ego go and doing what’s right for the record. Nothing ever got too fraught, really, but it is hard to make it so it’s not just a mush, making sounds that are complementary when it could very well be just noise, and Paul definitely helped to guide that process along.”

He certainly got something right, as the LP has an ambitiously kaleidoscopic breadth in thrall to the immersive junk-shop ethos of Tom Waits’ Swordfish-trombones. Its fulsome sound is imbued with hypnotic rhythmic nods to Krautrock (“Crocodile,” “Throwing Bones”), grizzled swamp-guitar deconstructions (“Halfhound”), and neo-rustic Americana akin to Will Oldham (“Island”), all adroitly woven together into an engrossing tapestry.

The band’s eclecticism largely can be attributed to the wide variance of the band members’ backgrounds, according to Sinclair. “We all come from different parts of Scotland, so some of us got exposure to decent music; others didn’t,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up listening to The Incredible String Band records my mom would play when I was a kid, and the grunge stuff that was sort of universal for young folks everywhere—like Nirvana. I currently listen to a lot of American bluegrass and country. There’s stuff we all agree on, like Can and Neu! and Captain Beefheart.” He pauses, and reluctantly offers, “I really liked The Lemonheads a lot when I was in school, but I don’t know if the other guys would be happy if you put that in the article [laughs].” (


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