As a 13-year-old rocker-in-waiting, future Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald so adored ”Beverly Hills, 90210” that he learned to play its dire faux-rock theme music. Now 24, Greenwald is less devoted to ”90210”’s teen-soap successor ”The O.C.,” but mastering the show’s theme isn’t an issue: It’s his own band’s gorgeous power ballad ”Califonia,” which he cowrote with departed drummer (and Rushmore star) Jason Schwartzman.
The old tune’s Fox-fueled ubiquity — a recent rerelease of the band’s 2002 CD ”The Guest” is emblazoned with a sticker that cheers, ”featuring the theme from The ‘O.C.”’ — might seem like perfect promotion for Phantom Planet’s new, self-titled album, due Jan. 6. But there’s one problem: ”We’re a different band now than we were then,” says Greenwald. And he’s serious.
On ”Phantom Planet,” the quintet ditches ”California” for New York, rendering themselves nearly unrecognizable. As the grimy, raucous first single, ”Big Brat,” demonstrates, gone are the sunshiny harmonies and bouncy keyboards; in their place, the album ripples with the frantic post-punk rhythms, fractured melodies, and deadpan vocals of current Gotham vogue.
The only outward difference in Phantom Planet’s orbit is the absence of Schwartzman, who quietly left in August. Says Greenwald, a part-time thespian himself, ”He thought we could be a better band without him, and he could be a better actor without us.” (Schwartzman declined to comment.) But more than half of the album had been recorded before Schwartzman quit.
What truly transformed the band (which now includes new drummer Jeff Conrad) was 18 months on the road, including opening stints with Incubus and American Hi-Fi. There, they learned that snagging audiences’ attention meant championing power over pop.
At the same time, in a scenario that screams ”Apple commercial,” each group member got an iPod; setting the devices to random helped introduce them to music radically different from their well-worn Beatles CDs: Fugazi, My Bloody Valentine, Wire, even electroclash act A.R.E. Weapons. For fans of ”The Guest,” these influences could make ”Phantom Planet” jarring, admits bassist Sam Farrar. ”It feels like there’s a record in between we should have put out that would have filled in the gap,” he says.
Epic, the band’s label — which has high hopes for the photogenic group — might have preferred a more gradual progression too. ”A corporate label wants things to stay the same,” says Greenwald.
In the end, the suits were open to ”Phantom Planet,” says the album’s producer, Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips): ”They were a bit surprised at where we ended up, but definitely very enthusiastic.” The band hopes the ”O.C.” kids who’ve started popping up at their shows feel the same way — or at least feel something. ”If people get shocked or whatever, that’s great,” Greenwald says. ”We wanted to shock people.” Done.