A “phoneboy” is that one person staring into their phone while the world is happening around them. Flipping this mobile mentality, Phoneboy, the self-titled debut from the New Jersey trio—made up of singer and guitarists Wyn Barnum and Ricky Dana and bassist James Fusco—is meant to get people off the phones… and doing anything else.
Opening on “Nevermind,” featuring singer Justin Magnaye, the song pays tribute to Nirvana and a more humorous homage to the band’s horror movie obsession with references to Psycho, The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th in the video, directed by M.J. Ricciardi. Phoneboy is a captivating blend of indie-pop and far-fetched tales from showering in one’s clothes and dreaming of meeting Jay-Z on “Roses,” the punk pulses of “Sweater Song” and New Wave-tilted “1987,” to the lovelorn “Acid Girl” and acoustic close of “Lately.”
Here, the trio takes American Songwriter through each Phoneboy track, its East and West Coast recording sessions, mentally transporting themselves into the ’80s, Brooklyn pizza, the origins of “Cocolalla,” and writing whilst binging on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Wyn Barnum: We recorded this song at the end of 2020. In the middle of recording, we found out someone we had seen was exposed to COVID a few days earlier. Our producer/manager Ayad had us go get rapid tests. We stood in line for like two hours. After we got our tests that were luckily negative, we stumbled upon what is now our favorite pizza place in Brooklyn.
James Fusco: If Ricky didn’t have a Nirvana poster hanging in his basement, this song would have a different name.
Ricky Dana: I wrote the main guitar riff in Berkeley [California] when Wyn was at work over the summer, and I immediately knew it was gonna fit in somewhere nice. The drunk text hook was a separate idea I had when I was waiting in the car for a COVID test in September, then we decided to mush them together and make something new. The result: a banger.
WB: We recorded “Hey, Kid!” with our friend Felix at his house in Stockton, CA. It was early July so it was really hot. All I remember from that weekend was sweating, loud drums, fireworks, and beer.
JF: Our buddy Ben Eissmann played drums on this track. He absolutely knocked it out of the park.
RD: [It’s the] most fun I have ever had recording a song—no question. It was so hot outside that the time spent between takes consisted mainly of us shirtless playing Mario Party in front of five blasting fans.
WB: I remember writing the opening guitar part with James in the Guitar Center on Van Ness St. in San Francisco— summer, going into sophomore year. We couldn’t find a place for it until two and a half years later during my senior year of college.
JF: We all sat in Ricky’s basement brainstorming and sourcing debauchery to throw into the verses of this song. Every line is referencing a true moment from one of our or one of our friend’s ridiculous lives.
RD: Less than a week before we went to Brooklyn to record “Nevermind,” our producer told us we should have another song ready to go on top of it, so we wrote “Roses” in a few days—finished the lyrics in the studio—which started off as an ode to drunken nights but turned into so much more.
WB: I accidentally typed “Cocolalla” with autocorrect one day, and I liked the word. I realized Cocolalla is a town in Northern Idaho, located in the same county as my extended family who I would visit during summers. That same day, Ricky and I were shouting “I find myself in Cocolalla.”
JF: I’m still worried people will realize I totally ripped off the bass line for “Hard To Explain” by The Strokes.
RD: This is probably my favorite song of ours in terms of structure. When we explained all the parts to our studio drummer at the time, he even got a little tripped up playing it. For some reason, that made me super happy.
WB: Adults are always like “you know there already is a sweater song [Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song”] right?” We know. That’s the reference.
JF: We had the idea to overlay a bunch of people’s voices for the transition into the second half of the song on the way back from the studio. We immediately texted every group chat we were in asking for random stories. Wyn and I were waiting at a train station in Long Branch, NJ when the voice memos started rolling in.
RD: This song originated with Wyn and I just walking around campus playing random chord progressions together. Eventually we stumbled upon a riff we really liked, and that came to be the entire second half of the song.
WB: I love playing this song live, especially when we get to the outro and everyone hops around on one leg.
JF: Ricky and I were writing the lyrics for this in his apartment. We went through about a season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
RD: There was one time we went to Wendy’s after practice on Tonnelle Avenue (North Bergen, NJ) and we were waiting for literally 30-plus minutes in the drive-through. Out of sheer boredom, someone in the car says that we should put our phones away and pretend that we’re in 1987. The rest is history. Also, the drums on this song give me an urge to commit felonies.
WB: Our visuals guy, Luis, and I went to a random shop in Chinatown to buy a mannequin that was on the original single cover for “Acid Girl.” It was $180. We named her Rosa.
JF: I recorded the demo for this track with Wyn in San Francisco, CA before I had even met Ricky. I didn’t even know I’d be in the band until months later.
RD: This song holds a special place in my heart, because it’s the first real song I’ve ever actually worked on. When we got the final product, I remember thinking “Holy shit. Maybe I don’t have to pursue finance for the rest of my life.”
WB: James and Ricky really did not like the intro to that song when I first showed it to them. I guess it grew on them.
JF: We got so lucky when we filmed the video for this one. One take, and we didn’t even get kicked out of IKEA.
RD: Who said the intro grew on us?
WB: Ricky left my apartment one night during fall semester, sophomore year. I was in bed, about to fall asleep, and all of a sudden Ricky sent me a voice memo of the chord progression to “Handheld.” I hopped out of bed, met him at my doorstep, and we went to the park nearby to write… at 1 a.m.
JF: We used to call it “Pat Song” after one of our good buddies. We didn’t have a real name for it until the week before it was released.
RD: I wrote a large part of the verses for this song in a pitch black room on my friend’s ukulele during a Rutgers [University] apartment party.
WB: I wrote this song freshman year of college before the band formed. Around two years later, the day before recording, James and Ricky helped me finish the song with the second verse.
JF: The live version of this song scratches an itch none of our other songs do.
RD: Wyn was showing our friends and I this song before Phoneboy was even a thing. I immediately knew after hearing it that he has an insane gift for writing catchy hooks.