With their new album, Phantom Planet haven’t just shifted orbit; they’ve moved to a whole new galaxy. Until recently, the L.A. quartet was best known for its movie-star drummer, ”Rushmore”’s Jason Schwartzman, and for ”California,” a sunny track from their 2002 album ”The Guest” that resurfaced as the ”The O.C.”’s theme song. But Schwartzman bolted this summer, and their new self-titled album ditches the frothy catchiness of ”California” for jagged, noisy post-punk. The group’s other heartthrob, frontman Alex Greenwald (whose own side projects include modeling for Gap ads and playing a knife-wielding bully in ”Donnie Darko”), tells EW.com why Schwartzman’s departure was really all for the best.
Does Jason’s departure have any connection with your new sound?
It probably doesn’t have much to do with it. Most of the songs were written and arranged while Jason was on the road with us, or immediately after [he left]. This new sound — if it really is a new sound — we all achieved together. He left halfway through recording.
He thought we could be a better band without him, and he could be a better actor without us. Does that sound weird? There’s no bad blood between us. We formed this band when we were 13 years old; it was almost a prepubescent decision. And he wanted to be an actor. He made an adult decision, and we said God bless him and sent him on his merry way. And it’s good for him — it’s making him happy, so we’re happy for him.
One of your bandmates suggested you needed a better drummer?
I wouldn’t say Jason is any less of a drummer [than new drummer Jeff Conrad]. I think he is very musical and he’s very creative. Drumming wasn’t enough for him. And he showed it, being unhappy on the road, not getting all that crazy energy in him out. Now we’ve got a drummer who’s got crazy energy but applies it only to the drums, not to any other area of his life.
And you’ve given up acting now, right?
I took the band thing, and he took the acting thing. Music is what I want to do. This is my life’s blood — this is the only thing that matters to me in the whole entire world.
One song on the new album, ”By the Bed,” sounds a lot like the Strokes. Does it bug you to hear those comparisons?
No, not all. But that song was actually more influenced by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It’s a rip-off of ”No Action” from ”This Year’s Model.” There are few bands these days that put melody and lyrics to good use, and the Strokes are one of them. I don’t mind being compared to anyone I respect. But we didn’t try to jump on any kind of bandwagon.
Didn’t you worry that you’d alienate your old fans?
We keep a very close relationship with the people who listen to our music. I hate using the words ”fans,” because that’s short for ”fanatic,” and that makes me sick. Being in a band and having an audience is like a relationship, and if you have a bad relationship, you’re not going to last. There’s got to be communication, and there’s got to be growth, or else people get bored of one another in a relationship. I’m just hoping that people who like the old stuff will like the new stuff because they’ve grown up, too, as much as we have. We’re big Radiohead fans and they’ve changed constantly through their career.
How do you feel about the fact that ”California” is all over the place because of ”The O.C.”?
One of the things that I asked for when we agreed to put ”California” on the show is that we not get credited, because I really do feel like we’re a different band now then we were then. If people like the music they can find out through whatever ways they wanted to who did the song. I like ”California”; I’m proud of that song. It represents us in a place in time nearly five years ago. Why shouldn’t people get a chance to hear it?
But you don’t want to be the Rembrandts [who performed the ”Friends” theme song]?
[Laughs] I know that we’re not, and never will be. I’d like to keep things as non-Rembrandt as possible.
Meanwhile, Elle Girl, that noted music ‘zine, named you its ”hottest rocker.” How’d that feel?
My ex-girlfriend left a message on my machine, ”What the f—? Number one? You’re not that hot.” It’s funny. It wasn’t a readers poll or anything, they just decided to pick me. It means absolutely nothing to me, except that I get a kick out of it. I have a couple friends who are [also on the list], and I can maybe, as a joke, pull rank over them.