With a groove as deep as a summer’s afternoon nap and vocals that soar high like the noontime sun, Phantom Planet’s “Through The Trees” proves that the band is back and better than ever. Taken from their recently released Devastator album, the video – premiering here on HollywoodLife – is, in short, a psychedelic affair. Singer Alex Greenwald stands in the center of a spiraling cosmos that bends and folds into itself. It’s a Hall of Mirrors sideshow, a kaleidoscope of images that amplifies the song’s vibe instead of detracting from it. When Alex sings how “a blanket of black / tucks the sun in for sleep,” it’s hard not to close your eyes and gaze into infinity as the rest of this magnificent song sweeps you away.
“I suppose sometimes the best recipe for a bad break-up,” Alex tells HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY, “is a witchy fermentation of fairy fables and forest folklore. Here’s our new cauldron bubbling concoction.”
Released in June, Devastator marked the end of a twelve-year drought for Phantom Planet fans. The album was the first since 2008’s Raise The Dead, and the first since the band went on hiatus that very same year. Though the group – Alex, Sam Farrar, Darren Robinson, and Jeff Conrad – reunited once in 2012, the comeback was made official in 2019. In May 2020, they released their first song in 11 years, “Balisong,” and Devastator followed a month later.
It’s not too farfetched to say that, for a specific subset of Xennials and millennials, no band had a more significant impact than Phantom Planet. With their song, “California,” the group provided the soundtrack to the early 2000s, capturing the zeitgeist with just a handful of notes on a piano. A lot has changed since then – the lineup has shifted, certain bandmembers have had high-profile relationships, the aforementioned hiatus, etc. The band’s Alex Greenwald and Daren Robinson spoke with HollywoodLife over email about the unique “truth” captured on this album, what was their favorite moment when recording Devastator, and what they think about “California,” seventeen years later.
HollywoodLife: Devastator is your first album since 2008’s Raise The Dead. If you could go back in time to the moment you finished Raise The Dead, what would be the one thing (be it advice or a warning) that you’d tell your 2008 self?
Alex Greenwald: I think it’s possible [that] time doesn’t move linearly. With that in mind, it’s fully possible this could have actually happened. There were pieces of songs from 2008 which have made it – finally fully realized – onto Devastator. My 2008 self would have loved to have put these songs on our last album, Raise the Dead, but something told me at the time that I should wait to accrue more life experience in order to finish these fledgling songs the right way. What is the voice in our heads, anyway?
HL: There are always challenges in making an album – getting the right guitar tone, making sure the acoustics are right, coming back from a 12-year hiatus, etc. Were there any specific challenges in Devastator?
Daren Robinson: First thing that comes to mind was the fact that there wasn’t much preproduction. Normally, we will take a few weeks to rehearse songs and parts, and try to hone in on making the songs easier to record. But this time, there was only a little of that, and truthfully, I almost enjoyed the experience more this way. It made being creative feel more natural in a sense.
And in terms of guitar tones, it was actually quite fun as well. While I’d be recording a part, Alex would often sit with me in the control room and mess with my effects as I played to get the desired sounds. It felt like we were tackling songs as a team, which kept spirits up and energy positive.
HL: The single from the album, “Time Moves On,” was inspired by a specific moment. Yet, its universal message is something that everyone can relate to. When was the last time you needed to remind yourself, “this too will pass.”
Alex: The psychological toll this pandemic will take on all of us has yet to be fully understood. There will never be a return to the “old world” and what that means to us. However, in regards to our current situation, reminding ourselves that “this too shall pass” couldn’t hurt. In fact, understanding change is an inevitable part of life could only help.
HL: What’s your favorite moment on Devastator? It doesn’t have to be a part you played.
Alex: My favorite part on the album is extremely selfish. The song “Gold Body Spray” (which is about a clueless person who wears too much Axe) is one I recorded live, just me and the piano. I’ve never recorded a song this way, and could not have been more pleased with the results. It captures this kind of truthful moment, the likes of which I’ve never captured on a recording before.
Darren: There’s something about it that just feels timeless. Either that or when the bridge of “Leave a Little Light On” kicks in.
HL: You can’t judge a book by its cover, but Devastator’s album artwork is pretty incredible. What do you think about the album’s art, and – bonus question – what is the record that first comes to mind when someone says “iconic album art?”
Alex: When I first saw the photograph, I knew without question that it HAD to be the cover of Devastator. What’s going on in the photograph filled in all of the blanks which the music and lyrics had not. This is my favorite Phantom Planet album cover so far.
HL: Phantom Planet has been a band since 1994. In that time, the band has written numerous songs – what’s one ‘underappreciated’ track you’d love to play on the next tour?
Darren: Great question. For me, it’s “From This Day On,” which was featured briefly at the end of our “Big Brat” video that we did with Spike Jonze many years back. I never thought that song got enough attention. It’s a timeless song and, in my opinion, deserves much more attention, even now.
Finally, what’s your personal relationship with “California”? Are you friends with it? Never want to hear it again? Glad it paid for your mortgage? Or is there a newfound love for it given the state of things with the pandemic and California not being the ‘California’ that was?
Darren: I think it’s a great song, but given that I’ve heard it so many times, as well as have played it hundreds of times, it gets a little old after a while. But then again, when we play it live, all of that goes away when I see people sing along.
Phantom Planet’s Devastator is out now.