It’s hard not to be amazed by the combination of persistence and passion that went into the self-titled album from Phonograph. Without knowing if it would ever be released, the band produced and engineered the album themselves in bassist John Davis’ apartment.
That was over a year ago. Now, already a little more than halfway through their second album, they’re happily shocked to find themselves embraced by the press, preparing to play South by Southwest and changing the definition of alt-country.
“We’re kind of taking alt-country to a new experimental level,” says frontman Matt Welsh. “Our goal is to break all boundaries of people being able to describe what we are.”
Part of what makes the band so interesting is that the members come from very different backgrounds. “My guitar and bass player [Davis and Abe Seiferth] come from a drum n bass and experimental jazz background,” Welsh explains. “My pedal steel player and keyboard player, [Phillip Sterk] comes from more of like an indie rock background, but also is full-up country. And I just come from like a standard crooner, singer-songwriter background.”
Add drummer Dave Burnett and a whole lot of strange instruments that the band has dug up in pawn shops and the result is something that just doesn’t fit the standard alt-country label.
“On [the song] ‘Nu Americana,’ I have a ’50s child’s accordion that I had to duct tape together,” says Welsh. “On the new record I found a music box that we could actually write the music and put it through. It’s kind of finding old things and mixing them with new things in terms of instruments — the same thing we do with our songwriting. We try to take the old and the new and mash it up together to make the ultimate ugly duckling.”
Welsh describes the sound as being based on “’50s-inspired folk and country,” but it almost sounds like something you might have heard (if were you alive) in the mid-’70s, in the days before we knew about UV rays and people slathered their bodies with coconut oil. Though the CD was released in February, one listen will have you feeling like summer is on the way.
Phonograph often gets compared to Wilco, which makes for a strange situation, since the bands are friends. “I respect those guys a lot,” says Welsh. “We’ve been super fortunate to be able go on the road with them and do some shows. Do I want to be to be the next Wilco? No, I don’t. I want to be Phonograph. We’re really fortunate to be compared to them, but at the same time I think it’s kind of [deceptive] to say that we sound like Wilco.”
In fact, Wilco’s John Sirratt was one of Phonograph’s early champions. He tried to get the band’s album released on his own Broadmoor Records, before financial problems forced Phonograph to look elsewhere. Austin-based Arclight Records has been good to the band, and the town contains one of Phonograph’s major fanbases.
“We’re starting to realize that there [are] pockets of the United States that kind of get what we’re doing,” says Welsh, citing Chicago as another big supporter.
The band feeds off the audience, sometimes playing two-hour sets if the audience seems into it. Some songs can last eight to 10 minutes. “If you come to a live show, you’re going to hear quite a bit of experimentation,” says Welsh. “Half the set is just us creating stuff in the moment. Not in the sense of a jam band, but the way Grateful Dead and other bands from the ’60s would kind of just create. We’ll basically all make up songs right on the spot.”
The band’s inventiveness also comes from the addition of their newest member Sterk, who didn’t participate in the making of the first album, but now has a chance to help the band reinterpret the songs on the road. “I feel like we’re actually introducing the record more truly with Phil on board, because he’s so versatile,” says Welsh. “We’ve found new ways to play old songs.”
Of course, life on the road isn’t that glamorous when you’re a band on the rise, especially if you’re not 18 anymore. “None of us would give up what we’re doing,” says Welsh. “But it is a little straining: Finding the cheapest meals that are healthy; and trying to meet as many people as possible on the road to stay at their house. But it’s kind of fun. To be an adult and live a boy’s life is a good time. At the same time we don’t bounce back as fast in the morning when we’ve been drinking until 6 a.m.”
The band’s primary goal is to give the best live show they can. Even if they encounter an audience that isn’t quite as into their stuff, they still give it their all. “We played the Bug Jar in Rochester and we gave them a hell of a show,” says Welsh. “And I’m looking out at the audience and people are kind not doing anything; they’re just staring at me. Nobody came up to us afterward. It was very strange. And then the next day I wake up and go on MySpace and I’m flooded with things from people that went to the show, saying that they were blown away. So, you never know. Even if there’s two people at the bar, we give it our all, because you never know.”
In New York, the band often encounters crowds that watch them warily with arms folded in front of their chests. “It’s like playing an old folks home, they could love you, [or they could be] thinking about ice cream.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to Phonograph, because they are going to keep playing and making records. “We write a lot of songs,” says Welsh. “And we want everybody to hear them.”
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