It was a good thing the power pop career of Phantom
Planet didn't break a decade earlier.
As the band behind the sunny 2002 pop tune California
-- an orchestral, piano-driven confection adopted as the theme song
to Fox TV's soap The O.C. -- the Los Angeles band suddenly found
itself in the living rooms of unsuspecting households around the
country. Even today, fans of the show likely have a bigger connection
to the song than to the band behind it.
"If this were the early '90s, anything like
this which was considered 'selling out' would have meant death to
a band's credibility," said Phantom Planet singer-frontman-guitarist
Alexander Greenwald. "That kind of thinking doesn't exist so
much now. Radio is so messed up, and MTV doesn't even play videos
anymore. So a band has to find whatever way it can to make sure
people hear their music.
"For us, California
was a song we wrote about six years ago that we liked. But
not many people heard it before it reached this really broad
audience. It's a song that got its chance."
Though California was not the band's first
TV tie-in tune (its 1998 pop-rocker So I Fall Again was on
the soundtrack to Sabrina the Teenage Witch), it catapulted
a career already on the rise through incessant touring. Phantom's
recent self-titled album, in fact, was cut quickly after 18
months of nearly non-stop roadwork.
But the stylistic difference between Phantom Planet and its more
pop-based predecessors is huge. The newer record toughens the
band's sound as well as Greenwald's singing to the point where
comparisons to the post-punk pop of the Strokes and the murkier
musings of the Cure come into play.
"I love rock 'n' roll music," Greenwald
said. "I especially loved bands, like the Beatles, that changed
with every single record they made. That's been our plan from the
get-go. We want our records to be like experiments. We want to have
fun with the music. People can hear when you're not having fun.
They discover you're bored and you're boring."
The only bump in designing the album's crankier
sound was a personnel shift. Drummer Jason Schwartzman, star of
the 1998 film Rushmore, left the band during recording sessions
to work full-time on an acting career. Longtime Phantom pal Jeff
Conrad was then recruited to finish the album.
"All of us were
a little worried," Greenwald said about changing drummers before
the record's completion. "Adding a new element to a chemical
equation like a band could throw the whole thing off and totally
change the music. But we've known Jeff for years and he knows what
we've been about for an even longer time. We played him what we
had already recorded and asked 'Do you like this?' and 'Are you
up for the job?' He responded yes to both questions, so the change
was pretty easy."
though, the album's more immediate stride reflects a passion for
music Greenwald has grown up with: "Music has just always been
part of my life. My mom is a guitar teacher and an abstract painter
-- an all-around artist and a wonderful woman. I would listen to
records with her and take guitar lessons from her.
been an appendage almost. It speaks my language."