Their Aim Is True

The members of Phantom Planet have problems. It might not sound like it, but they do. Listen: The band's second album, The Guest, has drawn kudos from critics, garnered national press attention and spawned one legit hit, "California." Consequently, their label, Epic Records, is 100 percent behind them, as befits the most hyped act amid the burgeoning L.A. rock scene. Not to mention the fact they are, like, totally cute--and have the groupies to show for it. Even celebs show up for their gigs. And much like The Strokes, they come with pedigree, what with bassist Sam Farrar's dad being in the biz, and drummer Jason Schwartzman a full-fledged member of the Coppola clan. Schwartzman and front man Alex Greenwald have successful second careers as actors as well; Schwartzman, notably, played Max Fischer in the iconic Rushmore, and Greenwald appeared in cult phenom Donnie Darko. Plus, Greenwald's a model, too, and dating Spider-Man über-starlet Kirsten Dunst. As if all that weren't enough, Phantom Planet is opening a series of shows for their idol, none other than Elvis Costello.

Gotta figure, every striving garage band in the country that's still hauling their busted amps to gigs that pay in beer is gunning hard for Phantom Planet right now. Band on the run, indeed.

"Man, yeah, if I was in another band, I'd want to punch the shit out of me," Farrar acknowledges genially. Seated downstairs at New York City's Irving Plaza, savoring a few minutes of leisure before soundcheck starts and another crazy night unfurls, Farrar is, in fact, consistently genial: One senses that he's found this the best way to deal with all the people who speculate that Phantom Planet must have struck a deal with the devil, such is the band's fund of luck.

"We're just freaking out," Farrar continues. "I mean, the Elvis thing alone--that guy's a living legend to us, and to be able to sit in soundcheck, with nobody else in the theater, and watch him just kind of figure stuff out--it's unbelievable. When we were cutting the album, we had Steve [Nieve] and Pete Thomas come down and check out the recording and kind of executive produce, like, which track they thought was the best one--that alone was enough. But now, to actually get to play with them..."

He's not doing himself any favors with this little speech. And--as if on cue--OK Go front man Damian Kulash strides up purposefully, guitar in hand, violence in his heart.

"Hey, Sam!"

Farrar whips his head around. A broad grin breaks across his face.

"Yo, Damian, what's up."

"Check this out--oh, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. Uh, have a good soundcheck." Kulash ambles off, waving. In retrospect, maybe he wasn't looking so much violent as, um, hungover. Farrar proceeds to speak the praises of OK Go, who are opening Phantom Planet's headliner tonight, unzipping his hoodie to reveal the OK Go T-shirt he'll be sporting onstage.

"You know, we've been on the road for a solid year now," Farrar continues, unprompted. "And one of the most important things we've learned--all of us--was from opening for Incubus. They're, like, huge right now--and we were completely expecting them to be dickheads. Frankly. But they just could not have been cooler. Treated us with respect, hung out, gave us advice--it's really nice, now, to have the opportunity to share some of that vibe with the bands who are opening for us--maybe mentor them a little bit the way we were mentored and just have a good time with them."

Oh, yeah. Phantom Planet is a nice band, too. Really nice. No spoiled pretty boy attitude whatsoever. And the noblesse oblige extends to Farrar's friends in up-and-coming L.A. bands like Rilo Kiley (with whom Greenwald and Robinson have collaborated) and Rooney (fronted by Schwartzman's younger brother), as he expresses profound gratitude merely for the opportunity to be part of an exciting young scene. Have I mentioned that half of Phantom Planet is vegan? That's right. They're even nice to meat.

For all the naysayers who haven't found a way to knock the band's music--a punchy triangulation of Weezer, OK Computer-era Radiohead and the "Radiation Vibe"-summeriness of Fountains of Wayne, launched with a three-guitar attack and topped by Greenwald's soaring vocals--the obvious Achilles' heel has been Schwartzman. Everyone loves to pick on a band for having an actor in it--never mind that Phantom Planet is far from a vanity project. (Are you listening, Jared Leto? Russell Crowe?)

Farrar sighs before tackling this issue and allows himself one ever-so-brief gripe.

"What gets me is this idea that one person can't be really good at two things. Look: Jason is an amazing drummer. And together with Alex--who he's known since, like, kindergarten--he's a tight songwriter, too. That's the bottom line. I mean, why is that so ridiculous to people? Why does it mean we might be..." he trails off, thinking.

A sham?

"Yeah." Farrar gets back on track with the charitable explanation, natch. "I think people don't realize that we've been in this band for--years. I mean, since waaay before Jason was doing the acting thing. He and Darren [Robinson] started playing together when they were 14, and Alex joined the band just a little bit later. No different from any other bunch of teen-agers who just want to rock, y'know?"

Guitarist Jacques Brautbar and Farrar connected with the then-trio in the time-honored method: over a conversation at a record store. After much persuasion, they went along to a rehearsal, and the rest has been Phantom Planet history since the personnel were in their midteens.

"This is what we're all about," Farrar continues. "I mean, the whole acting thing happened at a time when the band was in limbo because our old label got swallowed up in a merger, and all the people we'd worked with left. But they were still productive years for us as a band, because we were getting into different kinds of music, like Jacques started studying classical music, and Jason and Alex were getting into bands like Radiohead and Flaming Lips, and we all started listening--I mean, really listening, to the Beatles--and when things started coming together again, we were bringing so much more into our sound. And, like, we were growing up, too," he concludes with a laugh.

The new and improved Phantom Planet sound soon scored the band a deal with Epic and landed them in the studio with megawatt producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. The session was quick--two weeks--essentially just polishing poptastic ditties like "Anthem" and "Lonely Day" into high-gloss hit material.

"I think the record is actually a lot poppier than how we sound now that we've taken these songs on the road," Farrar asserts. "We've become harder-sounding on the road--more of a real rock-and-roll band, and that's definitely the direction we're continuing to go in. Like 'Nobody's Fault' and 'All Over Again'--we're just killing those live, it's just fun, really high-energy, with Jason and Alex going totally crazy. I think people at our shows have been a little surprised."

And judging from the Irving Plaza crowd's response, however, pleasantly surprised. Concluding their set with an epic treatment of "All Over Again," Greenwald body surfs and belts the final chorus hanging upside down from the mixing deck on the balcony (as his girlfriend looks on from the VIP, vaguely concerned), Schwartzman banging his drum kit with an intensity worthy of, well, Max Fischer. Everyone goes wild--and not just the girls, but everyone in the capacity audience of NYU students. The encore, with the men of OK Go in tow, is even more raucous and rousing.

As Farrar says, the band's "just loving playing live right now," and it shows. In fact, the only hesitation he notes about that night's show is that, because it's an NYU-sponsored gig, there's no alcohol being served.

"Man, I just can't believe they wouldn't even let us have beer in our rider!"

Told you they had problems.

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Maya Singer