Of bats and beats
Phantasmagoria mixes digital and organic sounds for a dreamy racket
Published: March 2, 2011
The band Phantasmagoria is pretty weird. Not Christopher Jarvis and Lianna Vanicelli, themselves — they're cute kids who are happy to answer questions over coffee about their music and their promising debut, Spirit, recently released as a download on the website Bandcamp (bandcamp.com). But the weirdness at the core of the band bubbles up occasionally, as when they are asked about "Bats!" — a song off their record that also turns out to be named after one of its ... well, unlikelier vocal contributors.
"I started making that song with eight samples of actual bat frequencies," Jarvis says. "I was looking for all kinds of different animal samples and I found those."
So, why bats? Jarvis answers matter-of-factly: "It sounded cool."
Well, what's it about? "'Bats!'... is about a lot of things," Vanicelli replies. "It's a lot about frustration, like, frustration with people. And also the beginning of our relationship. And buildings ..."
The band, with its idiosyncratic answers and genre-defying songs, proves to be hard to pin down. Jarvis coolly describes Phantasmagoria's music simply as "electronic pop," and with Vanicelli's beautiful vocal delivery and the duo's penchant for synth-driven music, it's a fair description. But the songs' arty tendencies can't be ignored, most of which are lush arrangements that pass the five-minute mark and tout any combination of clean, meticulously layered electronic beats, primitive, tribal-sounding live percussion, or samples of animal noises — oftentimes all in one song.
"We both like techno," Jarvis explains, "but we wanted to do something that was not so cold and computerized, with kind of a warmer feel to it." The album-opener, "Indian Burial Ground," demonstrates the collision of digital and organic sounds in Phantasmagoria's music, starting off with a programmed beat that makes way for a world where campfire chanting and drum-banging co-exist with hypnotic, glitchy voice samples.
Or perhaps "Oscoda" is a better summation of the Phantasmagoria ethos: Over squeaky-clean synth riffs, Jarvis admits, "But it felt good/ The animal in me coming out." Other songs incorporate a variety of man-made and natural sounds — chirping crickets, birds, bubbling water and fireworks.
The band's moniker, then, is quite fitting — it means a dream-like sequence of images (Jarvis stumbled on it while reading Into the Wild). Jarvis cites such experimental bands as Radiohead, Boards of Canada and Dan Deacon as personal influences, while Vanicelli mentions, among others, Broken Social Scene and Shiny Toy Guns, with the duo professing to a shared love of the Beatles. Jarvis also admits to adoring Ann Arbor-based electronic music label Ghostly International, but is quick to squash any delusions of grandeur: "Too bad they already have Phantogram on their label," he jokes.
Phantasmagoria has been the focus for Jarvis and Vanicelli for about a year-and-a-half, during which time they've played about 10 shows. "We were in another band before this, like an actual rock band," Vanicelli explains. "This kind of evolved from the last band. We've always been more into electronic music, so we started making songs together."
"When we first started we didn't really have any idea at all that it would become this. It was just us making songs for fun," Jarvis says, who started the project with some sonic experiments on his computer. After he showed them to Vanicelli for her to add lyrics, the songs took on a new life. This method — Jarvis as a lone mad scientist, Vanicelli breathing life into his creations — is how the two have come to create all of their songs. "I'll pretty much make a whole song, like an instrumental cut, before she even hears it, and then she'll write a vocal melody for it. And then I'll re-create it based on her vocal melody."
Jarvis is usually surprised at the directions the songs wind up going once Vanicelli adds the human element of her voice.
Though they both consider themselves fans of electronic music, Vanicelli doesn't consider herself an electronic musician, per se. "I'm primarily a vocalist, and I play percussion on the live aspect and on some of the records," she says. Neither started in electronic music. Vanicelli was in the drum line in high school, and Jarvis started on guitar.
"I'm not musically trained at all. I don't know anything about music, to be honest," Jarvis claims. "We're more overall just into melodies and creating pop songs, I guess. You don't really need technical instrumentation all the time."
Spirit was made in a makeshift studio — Jarvis' bedroom to be specific — over the course of a year. The trick was finding a way to play the songs, which only ever existed as files on Jarvis's computer, live with just two people. "One minute I'm playing a drum, one minute I'm playing a keyboard, one minute I'm turning knobs," Jarvis explains of the band's live setup, with a hint of mock-exhaustion. "You have to get used to the sequence of everything." The live setup is a mix of high- and low-tech — computer software for DJing samples, a pair of keyboards, a tom, a cymbal and a maraca.
They admit it's a strange setup, but they've suppressed the impulse to add band members. "We've thought about it. We've gotten offers to," says Jarvis. "But right now I think it's easier with just the two of us. We're both into it equally."
The band got attention early, playing a house show organized by friend and fan Randy Chabot (better known as local electro-pop fave Deastro) at last year's inaugural Woodbridge Oktoberfest. "There was a stage right outside the Woodbridge Pub, and we played down the street on a porch," Vanicelli says. "We started playing, and all these people came down the street. It was like a big block party."
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