San Francisco, 2008. The Great Recession was in full swing. Or rather, there was a lack of. But amidst the slow economic activity in a vibrant city, Rachel Frankel (vocals, guitar, bass) and Matt Hemmerich (drums, vocals) met, and began collaborations. Then in 2013, they met Kevin Kaw (bass, guitar, vocals) at a songwriter event featuring nationally-acclaimed indie rock bands. Their diverse interests influence an ever-evolving, and self described, “amalgam of rock, dream pop, and shoegaze” with Frankel’s signature vocals tying Phosphene all together.
The opener on Breaker, “Be Mine”, starts off on a quick foot, announcing “oh you won’t be mine, to pull apart.” It has a grunge pop feel, with a fantastic guitar solo farther in, hinting at prior decades. It’s a tune you could imagine an indie movie montage to: great drive and energy, yet a semi-somber focus. Phosphene makes a strong mark with this opener, establishing themselves solidly as a rock band first, all other genres second.
Hemmerich explains that “Initially, Rachel wrote ‘Be Mine’ on an acoustic guitar that had more of a Beatles-tinged folk sound.” But “once the three of us got into the practice space and jammed on it,” it became a full rock song. The amazing solo towards the end was improvised by Kaw, so they (rightly) kept that in. Despite its somewhat upbeat tempo, “Be Mine” is a tune of mourning, or as Hemmerich puts it: “about letting go of the bad seeds in your life.”
“Silver” switches focus and tone, becoming more moody and introspective. Frankel’s vocals echo over repeated guitar hooks and droning singular notes, reminding me of the Minneapolis band Murder Shoes. There is something particulary successful about the switch from verse to chorus, the theme changing but the essence not. The straightforward angle on this tune is genuine, not simple, and its refined complexity comes through as compositionally sound.
The next two tracks, “Hear Me Out” and “Rogue,” continue the melancholy, but lovely, pattern of laid-back guitar and drums gently driving the beat, and Frankel floating in and out in between. The bass could be more heavily emphasized, as it carries a strong, almost groovy, feel throughout. But to do so would upset the guitar and vocal-heavy set-up that gives Phosphene their dreamy air.
“Channeling some Beach House and Interpol vibes,” is how Hemmerich describes the birth of “Ride” during a rehearsal. They “sought to reinforce the blissful sound with euphoric lyrics,” as Frankel writes the vocal melodies, and Hemmerich the lyrics. Referencing the Breaker‘s other tunes, he took a different direction for “Ride”: “I typically go for more somber imagery, but that was impossible with this track, so I wrote about the optimism of love.”
This change in tone is evident in both “Ride” and the closer, “Wild Decay,” as they bring the feel back up to level ground. The summery vibes in “Wild Decay” leave the ear pleased, and me itching to go drive around town with the windows down.
Like the season in which it’s been released, Phosphene’s Breaker is an album that transitions from the melancholy of darker days into the promise of a lighter spring.
Phosphene’s debut EP, Breaker, is comprised of six compositions that highlight their muses, and prove both originality and consistency. A low-key vibe pervades Breaker, smoothing over the whole, while allowing energetic moments to shine through. Yet while it may be a somewhat chill album, Phosphene knows how to build up a wall of sound, using dynamics over tempo to make a musical moment. Honest, yet poetic lyrics compliment the straightforward melodies and harmonies crafted by all band members. Breaker does what it has come to do – break through – but leaves room for Phosphene to grow as a band, follow various sonic inspirations, and explore new territory. Wherever they head next, I’ll be listening.
There has never been a better time to be in love with indie music and the musicians who create it. I write about and share what I discover because I find it difficult not to.