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Phantom Planet Go Dark

Heavier sounds replace sunny pop on new set

December 3, 2003 12:00 AM ET

During the eighteen-month tour to support their second album, The Guest, Phantom Planet adopted an inspirational motto to keep them focused: "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." Nicked from a Daft Punk song title, the motto also helped shape the radically different sound on the band's upcoming self-titled third album, due January 6th, which dispenses with the sunny vibes of The Guest in favor of a darker sound.

"For The Guest, we needed to make a happy, fun album that was universal in its concept and lyric," says singer Alex Greenwald. "We then decided that if we were not harder, better, faster and stronger with each show, we were not living up to our potential as a band. Out of that idea came these songs, which are literally harder, better and more concise."

The opening track, "The Happy Ending," is a feedback-drenched slice of desperation that sets up the new album's bleaker outlook. "Badd Business" blends ska rhythms and shouted choruses with a lyric about an unnamed ex-friend who Greenwald says swindled bass player Sam Farrar. "I vividly recall being in Norway on tour when we first played it at sound check and realizing it was a turning point in where our sound was going," Greenwald says. "It was more selfish and personal than the songs on the previous album. After that person ripped Sam off, we decided that this band is its own kingdom with a castle and a moat that is impervious to outside attacks. That song is the winding up of the drawbridge that was opened during The Guest."

Several other tracks were inspired by real-life heartbreak of varying degrees. The droning, My Bloody Valentine-like rocker "You're Not Welcome Here" is Greenwald's kiss-off to a former girlfriend. He wrote the gloomy pop tune "After Hours" just minutes after he was denied entry into a New York nightclub because of his outfit.

Greenwald had the dancehall bounce of Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light" blasted through the scuzzy downtown rock of A.R.E. Weapons in mind when he wrote the album's first single, "Big Brat." For the accompanying video -- with the help of Tony Gardner, the makeup whiz behind Michael Jackson's Thriller video -- Phantom Planet filmed their own horror clip with sixteen-millimeter cameras. The band also recruited director Spike Jonze, who shot additional footage that was edited into a "making of" segment.

The new album is Phantom Planet's first without drummer Jason Schwartzman, who announced midway through the sessions that he was leaving to pursue acting full time. "He finally made the adult decision between the two sides of him," Greenwald says of his friend, with whom he co-founded the group at age thirteen. "It was a little strange at first, but there's no bad blood. We're still best friends." Schwartzman, the star of the film Rushmore and the upcoming sitcom Cracking Up, can be heard on half the album's tracks, while the rest feature new drummer Jeff Conrad.

Phantom Planet are already on the road in support of their new material, and they don't have a end to their tour plans in sight yet. "I'm really proud of this record," Greenwald says. "And I'll spend however much time it takes to make sure everyone hears it, whether they like it or not."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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