Phosphene (photo: Robert Alleyne)
Kevin, Matt and Rachel, collectively known as Phosphene, come across as a very patient band. Shortly after they arrive to shoot some portraits, lead vocalist Rachel puts on Lambchop's album FLOTUS. It’s calm, sprawling music with intricate instrumentation and subtle vocals. The music fits perfectly into the background, yet when I listen back to the album a few weeks later, it opens up to reveal its complexity. In many ways, Phosphene is like this.
The band released their second record, Breaker, during 2016 and it is music which grows with each listen. The sparsity of the songwriting and the extended guitar breaks melodically whirl around each other and make it feel like each song is planting roots. The band speak with a fond casualness of the record, calling it a “slow burner.” Breaker was not an opportunity for them to say they have arrived, it was more of an opportunity for them to mature as a group.
Phosphene has an optimistic outlook, albeit in a very humble way, and while not everything went their way around the release, they see it as a time to reset. “You shoot for the moon, and then you see where you land and you recalibrate,” offers Rachel. I ask about success, and Matt speaks first, "success is being able to write music you are genuinely excited about,” he says. "If you’re excited, and it doesn’t bore you, then that is success.” Rachel continues, “The other marker of success is whether it impacts other people in positive ways even if it is more through catharsis; if other people can find an outlet through something we have created I think that’s incredibly powerful.”
All three members have full-time jobs, so there is no need for additional stress in their lives, Matt tells me. They all agree. “It’s almost counterintuitive to the typical narrative of an artist,” muses Rachel. “They’re just, like, going out and shooting for the moon, and we know that is kind of ridiculous; so we reel ourselves in for our own sanity just to make sure nothing is consuming too much of each of our lives.”
The band describe themselves as being on the “under-underground.” It feels like a space the Bay Area fosters nicely. “People think there is a scene, or what’s the scene right now? Really we’ve discovered that's not really the case; it's so varied and there are so many different cuts of cloth or music,” says Matt. “When people invite us on the bills I find it really invigorating and really inspiring to know that it's not going to be the same type of music most of the time,” he continues.
The love they have developed for the “under-underground” shows in the way they speak caringly about the way it has changed around them. They are acutely aware the problems and their place within the scene. “We’ve seen venues close, musician being evicted. [The] cost of living is just ridiculous here,” says Matt, sharing the starkly familiar story from cities all over the world. There is a short pause while they ponder the impact of this before Rachel jumps in with a chilling reminder: “Pretty soon they’re not going to have a reason to come.” The statement lingers.
Indeed, as we talk about the 12 months ahead, it is only partially filled with tales of touring ("a vacation where you go and play music"), writing new music and recording around 10 songs at Different Fur. The bigger conversation is about making changes to a music scene which evolves and molds depending on the venue. “Some venues are age-old institutions, like Bottom of the Hill, people are there, even if they’re drinking, they’re there because you know music is happening. I feel like there’s a code written into the venue you’re at. It’s both ways too. If [we] go play somewhere where the bar is central, like Amnesia on Valencia, no way am I just gonna raise a brow that a lot of people are in there just to get drunk,” offers Matt. They think distractions are becoming more common in venues, and jokes abound at the thought of patrons playing games while a band is competing for attention.
When the jokes settle, Phosphene's resolve perks up once again and they talk about the work still to do. “You have to advocate in more ways than signing an online petition,” Matt responds when I ask about what they can do to defend the arts. Rachel picks up by offering up a clear and seemingly simple solution: “You gotta show up!” she says. “It’s easy to duck your head under the covers right now.”
Matt picks up the baton speaking to advocacy, contacting politicians and being the voice that swings support for non-profits in the Oakland and San Francisco. “Especially San Francisco,” he thoughtfully adds after a small pause in which you can see the memories of days gone by churning in his mind.
This topic fires the band up — you can see how much they care. The shy, quiet, and patient group are aware they need to act, even if it is in a subtle way, for anything to change. “The worst thing you can be is ignorant of the situation,” offers Kevin, bassist and newest member of the band. Everyone ponders to think about this, and then Rachel offers a concise point of clarity, as she seems to do often, to collate everyone’s thoughts about the need to act, “When you say it's the city’s fault, you’re talking about the people, not the place.”