When fans hear “hiatus,” they often assume the worst. But Phantom Planet frontman, Alex Greenwald, says it was always in the cards for the band to reunite.
“The 2008 break happened naturally,” he tells American Songwriter. Sam Farrar and Jeff Conrad got married and had babies on the way. Thus, the members decided it was the perfect time to embark upon individual journeys for a change.
“We started this when we were 14, 15 and 16. Then the band started gaining momentum and it didn’t stop until our mid to late 20’s,” Greenwald recalls. While growing up on the road was “magical,” at some point, the alt rockers realized they didn’t have “the full spectrum of what it was like to be experienced human beings.”
Throughout the years, the four-piece remained friends. And Greenwald jokes that during their get-togethers, “When are we getting Phantom Planet back up and running” was always brought up, especially when there was alcohol involved. So it was always in the cards. It was just a matter of when would the stars would align?
In 2012, the guys played several shows at LA’s Troubadour. But in 2019, it was time to do things again for real, to not only reunite to perform but to also work on their first new musical project in 12 years. The result was Phantom Planet’s fifth studio album, Devastator, which drops June 19th.
Greenwald reveals that getting back in the studio with his bandmates “felt like no time had passed” and says the only thing strange about it was the feeling of “whoa this is happening again and it feels so normal.” The band immediately fell into its routine of making records but also capitalized on the separate experiences they each had throughout the years. “Incredibly, I think this record really sounds like a bunch of people who have had lives and experiences and things that when combined, make this a multi faceted, meaningful, artistic record for me,” Greenway explains.
For his part, Greenwald did something that he’s never done before with songwriting. In addition to crafting new tunes, he went back to some old demos he hadn’t finished and polished them up for this record. Some of the songs, he says, are as much as 12 years old.
“I just didn’t finish them. I didn’t know how to,” he explains. But there was something about these tunes, he admits, that kept poking at him. “And I think based on the experiences I’ve had since then, slowly but surely, how to finish them emerged.”
Greenwald says, “in the not so subtlest of ways,” Devastaor is Phantom Planet’s first breakup album. And while none of the songs directly address a breakup, there is a definite underlying theme.
“As Time Goes by” was inspired by Greenwald and Brie Larson calling off their engagement in 2019 and is one of the more recent songs that he wrote for the record. “I didn’t feel like there was as much closure as I would have needed to heal,” he reveals. At the time, Greenwald was living at Mark Ronson’s home and had his house and piano to himself one day.
“I really wasn’t having a good understanding of where my head was at. I wasn’t eating very much. I wasn’t sleeping at all. And I just started writing this song,” he says. “Time Moves On,” to Greenwald, is a deeper part of himself trying to comfort a part of him that was stuck in fight or flight. “It just came out of like, ‘Hey, buddy who’s in so much pain, you’ll get over this. We will get through it and here’s a reminder,’” he explains.
And though his relationship ending may have inspired the tune, Greenwald says one of his goals is to always make his songs as universal as possible so that those that listen can find their own ways to relate. “I tried to not make it so personal that I’m complaining about my life. I think ambiguity is a huge tool for a songwriter in that it allows for multitudes of interpretation,” he adds. And it brings him great joy as an artist to create music that others can find solace in.
He describes “Dear Dead End” on the album as a goodbye letter to an unproductive path. “It’s a path you took and it’s not taking you anywhere. So it’s time to turn around and take another route,” he says.
And “Only One,” was a track that Greenwald started writing in 2016 and another example of one that went previously unfinished. He had the bones of a melody and a baseline that repeats throughout but was waiting for the inspiration to finish up the chorus, which came during the most recent Phantom Planet writing sessions. “Without getting into too many specifics, that song was about a feeling that you’ve found the best thing in your life – and it could be a girl, a car, whatever. But wondering through the narrative of the song whether it is the only one for you,” he says. At the time that he finished it, Greenwald was reading a lot of Rumi and searching for a deeper meaning in some of his more recent life happenings. And this sparked the creativity he needed to bring the tune home.
The band recently released a video to accompany the track, which Greenwald shot on his iPhone while quarantined in his Los Angeles home. “I learned how to use a rudimentary green screen and to edit,” he reveals. And though he jokes it was a “really low budget first time director/editorship,” he enjoyed the experience and plans to create more videos for the album this way.
It’s obviously a strange time to release new music but Phantom Planet is making the best of it. Greenwald and his bandmates are Zoom brainstorming and idea transferring via Dropbox. They’ve also been entertaining fans with quarantine videos recorded from their own homes and edited together. And on his end, Greenwald is teaching himself to make pizza from scratch and yes, he admits, he’s jumped on the bandwagon – “I just started learning how to bake bread.”