Phantom Tails: We're fascinated by violence
Courtesy of the Artist
Phantom Tails | Triple Rock Social Club | Friday, August 22 "Rides Battalion has a few different meanings," explains singer and guitarist Orion Treon. He and the other members of deep-space doom-funk quartet Phantom Tails are kicking back around midnight on the porch of Thug Mansion, the rambling south Minneapolis property that each of them has at some point called home, and that currently hides their practice space in its catacombs of a basement. Each cradles a beer in their palm. We are discussing their upcoming full-length release, Rides Battalion.
"The main thing is that the songs come at you one after another," he continues. "It's an army of songs connected that keep coming at you. All of the songs have pretty elaborate changes that really come into one flowing piece. That's the battalion part." There is a militaristic theme to the album as well, and references to violent incidents. "We're fascinated by violence, but who isn't?"
Keyboardist Sergio Hernandez cuts in. "What do you mean we?" He grins jokingly, laughing. Treon and Hernandez are still friends from when they met years ago, back when both lived in Texas. Treon claims to have played music with Hernandez for the past 20 years. Their close friendship is easily noticeable. Hernandez sits on the couch beside Treon and holds a cigarette with one arm draped casually over the back of the couch by his shoulder, almost as if moving to embrace his skinny frame. All four of the men have been a tight-knit group for many years, and their bond shines through in the sounds on Rides Battalion.
Treon goes on to explain a specific incident that inspired the creation of one of its tracks, "Sonar Tambalam," which appears last on the album. "We were on the first day of our tour," he says. "We had a very violent highway accident outside of Madison." A small Toyota sports car went out of control before them, as they drove in between a semi and a cement wall down 94 outside of Madison in broad daylight. Multi-instrumentalist Logan Kerkhof was driving the tour van.
"The semi swerves into our lane, about three feet," Kerkhof recalls. "I'm right in his blind spot. I back off a little bit, hit the brakes. Right after that, this little Toyota sports car comes peeling off the front of the semi, perpendicular to us. So I'm boxed in, and everything goes into slow motion. I hit the brakes: I'm going like, 70 miles per hour. I make eye contact with the dude whose car I'm about to crush. Luckily I hit right behind him. I spun his car around a whole bunch, and totaled the van. The semi just drove away -- didn't even slow down."
The front of their van went straight into the sports car, so all of its tires and the engine were damaged. Luckily, Kerkhof is from Madison, and still has family who reside there. They had the van towed, and went to his mother's house to borrow her car. From there they drove to Milwaukee, crammed into the small car holding their equipment in their laps, and played the first show of their tour that same night.
"No one was injured," Kerkhof says. "The dude didn't have insurance. The police weren't helpful." Because the other driver didn't have insurance, they didn't pursue a court date. "You can do whatever you want in Wisconsin," he concludes.
The crash happened on Good Friday. From Milwaukee, they took themselves and as much gear as physically possible in Kerkhof's mother's Toyota Matrix to Chicago, and then eventually back to Madison on Easter Sunday. They needed to make it to a date in South Carolina, so they bought a van on Craigslist on Easter Sunday (referring to the day as "the resurrection of the tour") and continued to play the rest of the dates without missing a single show -- except in Pittsburgh, "with some unknown punk band that I found on MySpace," says bassist Dave Dorman, who proudly claims to have purchased his own Toyota Matrix as a result of the experience.
They go back to the themes of Rides Battalion. "I more or less agree with the violence aspect," replies Hernandez, "but more to see how it affects us as people." He speaks from beneath the shadow of his top hat, from which emerge long flowing locks of dark hair. Necklaces hang low on his chest, above his T-shirt.
He continues. "I kind of feel like, for me anyway, the highway collision and the crazy Good Friday crash to Easter Sunday resurrection of the tour put me in a strange place. Maybe it put everybody in a strange place, where we were all kind of looking at ghosts of whom we were before this impact and then seeing who we were right in that moment and what we would become. I feel like from time to time the universe tends to kind of smack us a little bit, and then we just shoulder through it together, and then it rewards us for it."
Whatever the case, the band has since moved forward with ease, recording the new album and preparing to release it on vinyl and CD at the Triple Rock here at home, followed by touring. They begin with a regional Midwest tour, and then look forward to a potential West Coast tour, bringing big changes for a band who has not released a full-length since 2012's Only Your Eyes, just putting out two singles since.
Courtesy of the Artist
Rides Battalion is a new direction for Phantom Tails. "We decided we wanted to record it pretty straightforwardly as a band, just all at once," Treon says. "This is the first time we've booked a studio -- Signaturetone Studios, with Adam Tucker. " The sound is crisp, clean. Treon's vocals are scratchy, and sometimes sound as if he is singing inside of a giant metal tube. His voice echoes grainily through the rust. The songs are sprawling yet danceable, like the driving keyboard part in "All Your Cities." Kerkhof's manipulation of machinery adds a psychedelic electronic element, glittering around Dorman's bass playing and the steady drum machine beats. There is a complex range of emotions. The refrain of "Pour It Out" is pleading, rife with angst. Its guitar part is dark and compelling, dragging slightly behind the beat.
Later on, we go down into the basement of Thug Mountain so the band can play a couple songs from the new album for us in their practice space. A big black dog named Raven follows us around eagerly. We walk in single file down a winding series of hallways with tall white walls, through the kitchen and toward the very back of the house where we walk down a staircase into the basement area. Guitar cases and other instruments line the walls, belonging to other bands that also use the space, like Fort Wilson Riot. At the end of still another hall is a small room, lit by Christmas lights and filled with equipment. It is here in this tiny room that Phantom Tails practice, and write.
They play through a few songs, beginning with "Dozer Journal," a song written from the perspective of a dozer. It was initially called "Diary of a Bulldozer." According to Treon, the dozer is "dozing through cities and forests and it's really a little bit weary, and a little bit, like, skeptical of what it's dozing sometimes, but yeah. It's dozing through sleet and through snow," he says. "You know, it's working hard, but it doesn't know exactly why it's plowing what it's plowing." They all laugh.
"The songwriting process can come about in a number of ways," says Kerkhof. "Sometimes these songs are fully formed. Sometimes they're spontaneous; some are written beforehand. Obviously I'm not writing lyrics on my drum machine, but it's very democratic." Everything the band does is a collective decision.
The band says that for this album, they have truly honed their sound to the signature Phantom Tails sound that they've been working on. "We wanted to record this as a band and capture the live sound a little bit more than we have in previous recordings where we overdubbed track by track," Treon says. "I feel like that really came through in this recording. We sound like a band playing together in a room, and that's what's intended."
"This is the first time that we've recorded all of us playing live at the same time," says Kerkhof. "It was natural. We practiced our asses off and we recorded the whole album in two days."
This Friday at the Triple Rock, Phantom Tails will debut the songs from Rides Battalion to their loyal fans. "It's not a great departure," Kerkhof says. "It's a refinement," Dorman says. Listening to the album, it is easy to see why they are so pleased. They've made an impressive body of work that tells itself like a story from beginning to end, full of nuance and movement. Definitely worth giving a listen.
Phantom Tails release Rides Battalion this Friday at the Triple Rock with UMAMI and Bollywood. 9 PM, $5, 18+
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