Barely a minute into the conversation and Gerry Hart from The Phantom Band has already invited himself to kip over in State’s house next time he and his band of five merry men are coming through town. Sure, it’s a little forward but it’s the kind of upfront attitude we like here.
The Scottish six-piece, who released their follow-up album The Wants in October of last year, are due to hit Irish shores this week for a mini-tour around the country, and bassist Gerry tells us that the group have been looking forward to their adventure. “We’ve only played Whelans once before, and I was pretty drunk if I remember right. To be honest, I’ve wanted to it (an Irish tour) for ages, but we only do things when people ask us. We’ve not got any grand plan,” he admits.
And there’s no grand plan for when they’re on the road either. They play a show and then let the accommodation take care of itself. “We try not to book anywhere, and kip in people’s houses if they are so kind to let us – anything to keep costs down because generally, we can’t afford to do anything other! To be honest, everywhere people are friendly and more than welcoming. In quite a few places there was more than one person offering. You meet some nice people, some interesting characters and get a bit of the local knowledge,” Gerry says.
This sense of unpredictability doesn’t just run through The Phantom Band’s touring plans, it’s a thread that is entwined with how they make music. When The Wants was released, it was lauded – and rightly so – for its myriad influences lacing into an intricately crafted, oft-whimsical, oft-epic, folk, and if the description sounds long-winded then it is, for there is nothing concise about the album. It works very much as a whole, winding its way through its mystical soundscape. The creation of such music, Gerry tells us, is very much unplanned. “We just go in and mess about and see what comes out. Sometimes it can be pretty jarring, and sounds a little off kilter – just playing different styles on top of each other. It can be a little bit off-putting, but you keep playing and then a rhythm will come in, or something will jump out and we’ll realise that’s the one to go for,” he explains.
He adds: “I always remember Public Enemy would go into the studio and they would play loads and loads of samples on top of one another. Nothing would be fitting but they’d take a tiny little bit that would jump out at them. It’s kind of like that with us. You don’t get confused.” Somehow it works, even if the band themselves aren’t quite sure how. He disagrees with our suggestion that the group have an instinctive understanding of each other after having played together for about five years. “I can never tell what some people are going to do. It’s not so much a case of knowing what another person is going to do. I certainly don’t. I’ve not the foresight to even figure out what I’m going to be doing next,” he laughs.
This jamming style of creation carries over from the Phantom Band’s early work. Although now much more likely to play a standard set, the sextet originally started out as an improvised group, performing under a variety of different names which Gerry says allowed them to experiment, to grow as a band, and to simply just have fun.
“Our early gigs, a lot of the times they were long jams, improvised. It was just a case of not putting any big emphasis on it thinking: ‘we’ll just go out, enjoy ourselves and make good interesting music’. So I suppose it’s all a progression, gives you confidence, makes the band into who you are. But there’s no disowning those old bands, those old names. Sometimes, I feel like I want to go out and do some of those gigs again, under old pseudonyms, or new ones,” he says.
But there’s no hiding for the Phantom Band anymore whether it be behind pseudonyms or as they used to perform, with bags over their heads. The forthcoming Irish tour will be straight-up musical performance. “We always constructed stuff to do on our faces. We were so ugly at the start. We thought we can’t show our faces, but now we’re just mildly ugly so there’s no harm in showing our faces,” Gerry says, tongue firmly in cheek.
“We’ve been known to wear capes, robes and things like that but no theatrics this time, just four to floor. I don’t think it’s important but if something’s well done, it can impact the gig for the better. Some of my favourite gigs have been absolutely nothing, but then again you go see so many gigs, it’s always good to have one that stands out.” As he points out, gigs don’t always need bells and whistles to stand out: “There’s that Neil Young DVD. It’s like a theatre production. All these roadies are like little ewoks or something, and the books on stage are huge. He (Neil Young) looks really small. But then I went to see him last year or year before in Aberdeen with no theatrics, and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been at.”
By the time we say goodbye, we’ve discussed swine flu and super human resistance, record shop nostalgia and State’s even tried to do the hard sell on Irish music – and we’re sure had we the time, young Gerry would have been willing to chat about a million things more. If the band’s live performance exudes even half the warmth of their album, or half the charm of their persona then this month’s tour is one not to be missed.
The Phantom Band play Cork (18 Jan), Dublin (19 Jan), Limerick (20 Jan), Galway (21 Jan) and Belfast (22 Jan).