When they first came on the scene, Southern California quintet Phantom Planet were best, if incorrectly, known as the side project of Jonathan Schwartzman, the teen actor who played smug genius Max Fischer in 1998’s “Rushmore.” But Schwartzman formed Phantom Planet with his buddies in 1994, four years before the group released their debut, Phantom Planet Is Missing. So chronologically, Schwartzman has really been moonlighting as an actor for the past several years.
Still, because of the band’s movie star drummer and the debut album’s penchant for juvenile lovelorn anthems, Phantom Planet were often given the same knee-jerk dismissal bestowed upon Hollywood side projects like Keanu Reeves’ Dogstar and Kevin Bacon’s Bacon Brothers. However, as their second album, The Guest (February 26), aims to prove, the guys in Phantom Planet aren’t taking their musical pursuits lightly.
Singer/guitarist Alex Greenwald, himself a model/actor who appeared in Gap ads and last year’s “Donnie Darko,” has grown up stylistically, now unafraid to unearth the sentiment that was muddied with irony and clichÃ© on the debut. His bandmates honed their crafts in kind, amounting to a sophomore album they hope will shake people’s past misconceptions.
“When we were younger, we didn’t have a lot of life experience,” guitarist Jacques Brautbar said. “We just formed this band and played a lot of songs. And then we went through a lot as a band these last four years, and through that we found what it was that we wanted to be and not what we thought we wanted to be…. We found ourselves, instead of trying to be something else, we are ourselves.”
The Guest’s first single, “California,” a delicate, homesick road song that swells magnificently in spurts, laments for fond Golden State memories, like cruising down the 101 on the way to a show. With the West Coast muse spawning such classics as “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas and Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” – not to mention countless surf tunes by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and others – it’s inevitable that Phantom Planet’s contribution to the Cali canon would be compared to the rest, and that doesn’t panic the band a bit.
“Without a doubt, we thought it would be included with, or at least compared to, those other songs with ‘California’ in the title,” Greenwald said. “As far as pop music or rock music even, it’s the [songwriters’] impression or take on that subject, and it’s interesting that we did our own idea of what California means to us. That’s what’s interesting about it – it’s not so much the subject matter, because that’s been sung about before, but it’s the sentiment or idea behind it.”
In the four years since the release of Phantom Planet Is Missing, the members have spent time with their respective nonmusical endeavors while also whittling away at songs for The Guest. Far from a rush job, the LP contains some cuts written as far back as 1998. They also used the time between albums to go out and live a little, invaluable experience to any band’s growth, especially one still maturing, both musically and physically.
“We did a lot of growing and deconstruction and reconstruction and soul searching, kind of like going through puberty as a band,” Brautbar explained. “We had an awkward phase. And now that we’ve made our record it’s a culmination of all that stuff.”
Having already performed a brief tour in support of the record, Phantom Planet are lining up small strings of dates in the spring. Greenwald sees the group’s travels together as only extending their current trajectory.
“Even in the last couple of months we’ve been on tour, we’ve grown as musicians,” he said. “And I feel like we’re a little more competent. We’ve been exposed to so many bands, and just being around new people, touring and being exposed to new music, we’ve grown. So the evolution from the first record to the second record is probably going to be a similar evolution to our third from our second. We’re even changing now, as a result of this interview.”