A chat with Phantom

Canadian/British duo Phantom are on the verge on unleashing their majestic electronic/pop/ambient debut album Smoke & Mirrors upon an unsuspecting public, so we here at TMF thought it would be a good idea to have a sit down with the pair (Elsie Martins and Jonny Martin) for the lowdown on their past, present and future.

First of all, tell us a bit about your upcoming album, Smoke & Mirrors.

Smoke & Mirrors is our debut album, recorded, produced and mixed by the two of us. It's more than just a bunch of songs recorded in a traditional way, as we'll go into later. We hope listeners will be drawn into its atmosphere. It's a means of being transported to a place where even other sounds you hear whilst listening to it become part of it... We're expecting to get some criticism for being pretentious too, but we don't care – we're pretty thick-skinned!

Why did you divide the album into just two tracks?

The idea originated from our live gigs and wanting to represent, on record, a Phantom live show, where the music, the atmosphere, the sounds, the echoes, the samples and the instruments don't stop between songs. In fact they morph into the next song. Our live gigs are a continuous 30-45 minute musical piece and its part of creating that atmosphere that lends itself so well to Phantom's music. It's an utter indulgence on our part, we really wanted to avoid the song 1, song 2, skip, song 3, scenario – but it's also a part of Phantom that the fans really enjoy, so it was important that the record represents that element of the show. The two sides are a nod to the side A, side B of vinyl records. In fact the album might be graced with a limited edition vinyl release, so it'll be a perfect fit.

Can you enlighten us as to some of the driving forces and influences behind the music?

Elsie: Phantom is about discovering what I can do, experimenting and discovering my voice. I never played up until three years ago, never touched an instrument, never wrote a song in my life! So my driving force is realising I can do something seemingly impossible to me a few years ago. It's about ignoring people telling you you're not good enough, that you're not a "real" musician. It's about throwing the rule book out the window, or even burning it if that feels better! My influences come from everywhere, music, film, books, people, art...

Jonny: From a creative point of view, my background as an art student has fed directly into Phantom, from the general unfettered approach to the music, to the use of visuals in the live performance and the strategies used in the mixing – like rolling dice to make decisions... It's also very liberating to be a bass player but not have to play bass in a standard way the whole time. There are bass players like Mick Karn and Michael Manring who've influenced my playing, but it's their uncompromising attitude that's inspired me, maybe more than their style. Same with late Talk Talk albums, which I listen to constantly. I also had films running whilst I was mixing, which definitely had an influence on what I was doing: Blade Runner, Pi, Dead Man, to name a few. Elsie and I are getting into experimental music and film, so that'll have an effect on the music too.

What are the themes you wanted to explore on Smoke & Mirrors?

I’m not sure that there are lyrical themes necessarily on the record, but we certainly wanted to explore the nature of sounds and their musical quality. The album in itself was created as a means of exploring the nature of rhythms as sounds and textures. I used recordings of places, objects and sounds found organically around me: an antique typewriter thump, the flap of a letter dropping through a letter box, heels clicking on concrete, the Mars Space Rover rumbling across the surface of the red planet. Each sound has been carefully treated and morphed into a rhythm to support compositions. I find sound art/artists endlessly fascinating and have created a music project which I hope will bring experimental music to a wider audience by amalgamating some of the sound art influences into a more song-based musical project. I like to think that the two worlds blend perfectly and as a result I'm aiming to introduce elements of sound art and experimental music to a wider audience.

What was it like working with producer James Aparicio [Mogwai, Nick Cave]?

We worked with James on the Great Pretender single last September and it was a great experience. We had met with him a few times before to chat about what we were after in terms of feel and mix for the track, we did a few pre-production demos ahead of the studio time which really helped with knowing exactly how many tracks we'd need to record for each part etc... We recorded the track in less than a day, which is very quick.

There are a lot of both treated and untreated samples throughout the album. Do you go searching for them, or do you incorporate them upon hearing?

The whole process of creating the rhythm/atmosphere elements for the songs – we call it the SoundField – took us about 6 months, but it seemed like forever! It took that long because the sounds were recorded and treated individually to fit not only each track, but each segment of each track and the transitions between them. But first we had to record all the instrument parts (vocals, keys, organ, guitar, bass, E-Bow etc...), pre-mix them and leave them plain to see what moods they had on their own and what rhythms and sounds could sit with them. We recorded various things around us for months with a pocket digital recorder, a tape dictaphone or sometimes just a phone, and mixed them in with random samples of nature, urban noise etc... Sometimes it's a sample of bird’s wings flapping because we wanted something gentle, sweeping and naturally diminishing in volume – the thump of a drum or an electronic beat would never have that fragile quality. There's also a lump of earth falling to the ground, which creates an initial thumping noise, but it's followed by a trail of pebbles falling on top - they almost sound like the sea hitting the shore. We also used an old 20's typewriter on 'Great Pretender', almost throughout, I loved the mechanical sound it made (a real old clank!) and the subtlety between each hit sounding a little different. There's beauty in imperfections, and we wanted to capture the uniqueness of each sound.

The challenge for us was to find the right sounds and treat them only just enough so that they didn't lose the original quality we liked. Listening to a track now, you'll hear, say three different beats, but it took 10 or 15 layered elements to create that – it's no wonder it took us so long to do it! The whole world around you has a percussive and musical quality to it, you just have to pay attention and you'll hear it.

How did the Death In Plains remix of ‘We Float’ come about?

I heard about Death In Plains through a friend of mine. I think he's got a great sound and a real ear for textures. I simply asked him if he would be up for a remix, and he said yes – it was all very straightforward. We sent him a few tracks to see which ones resonated with him and he liked ‘We Float’. Actually, I remember saying to Jonny that ‘We Float’ would be the most interesting one to remix because it lacks any traditional verse / chorus / bridge breakdown... it's a very funny structure. I think he did a great job with it. I told him that I really liked the sounds he uses in Death In Plains and that I didn't want him to try and do another Phantom track, but that he should indulge in Death In Plains' soundscapes, and really go for it. There was no guidance from us other than that and we really liked the end result.

How did the recent Italian tour go?

It was brilliant! We had an amazing response from Italian gig goers. We've been all over the place: Lecce, Recanati, Sorrento, Genoa... we played the most amazing locations: afterhour rock n' roll beach clubs and outdoor city festival stages shaded by giant palm trees. One of the stages – The Calaluna club in Porto Cesareo – was set on an isolated island on the middle of the sea you could only get to by a bridge connecting it to the coast. And in Recanati we met a very interesting group of experimental artists and photographers – there seems to be a vibrant arts scene in Recanati, which is right up our street. We can't wait to go back!

What ultimately sparked the decision to move to London?

I wanted to live in London for as long as I can remember. What sparked a move...? Absolute conviction that I had to be there. I didn't want to be one of those people who complain about the place they live and just daydream about giving it all up and start again... I actually did it. And it feels great. No regrets.

How did the band come into being?

I started to play guitar a few years ago and really got excited about writing songs, experimenting, discovering my voice. I was looking for other people to help me bring the compositions to life. Phantom’s been through so many different incarnations – there were five of us in the band at one point! But Jonny joined from the very beginning and we've both seen a long list of people come in and out. Last year we decided that was enough, two is the magic number!

Why did you drop your drummer for Smoke & Mirrors?

It would have been impossible for a drummer / percussionist to give us the sounds we where after. There are sounds on the album that are "drum-like", but we're pretty sure a drummer wouldn't want to play them! Anyway, you can't get the sound of rain or an engine from a regular drum kit, so the instrument itself for us wasn't needed. We just wanted something else, something freer and less "stuck" in standard drum patterns and standard thinking.

So what’s next for Phantom?

More touring in Europe later on in the year, I'm also starting to write new material now, and I'd love to release an EP next year. We're also looking at Japan and releasing the album on vinyl for a collector's market. And I've been talking to various filmmakers and art galleries / councils about composing music for film which is my next big project. So I'm not short of new and exciting things on the horizon...

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