With their fresh, underage faces gracing the sun-splashed cover of MT's 2011 Blowout issue, Phantasmagoria seemed to signal a new freshman class in Detroit's music school. They set out to make "electro" sound "earthier," teasing warmer ambience with their synthesizers and tapping bongos and timbales across motherboards and oscillators. Their computers have "hearts of gold," proven enough by their penchant for covering Neil Young (or even Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box)."
"I just enjoy the peace that being secluded in nature brings," says singer Lianna Vanicelli of her and Christopher Jarvis' reverence for camping and traveling — and how it informs their music. "The sky at night, fresh air, forest scents, swimming in Lake Michigan, hiking the dunes and the constant beautiful sights." These techno-minded outdoorsy types, unveil their second album, Currents, this week.
Vanicelli's actually a natural and Jarvis used to be a hardcore punk rocker. Vanicelli's radiant, sometimes wintry voice is as crucial to their sound as Jarvis' shimmering synths and fuzz-burst beats. Dynamic as her vocals are, she wasn't a choirgirl, and actually only took a couple singing lessons before dropping it and joining her first rock band at age 15. Teenage Jarvis, meanwhile, wasn't a computer nerd; he started music on the guitar and shredded in punk bands, then indie-rock bands, eventually joining one that featured Vanicelli as a singer. He was so struck by Vanicelli's crooning that he started writing laptop-demos via the GarageBand program, designed personally for her.
They didn't really "intend to make an album," the first time around. Last year's Spirit "was just random, really," Jarvis admits. The songs came together pretty fast, built around random loops spun by Jarvis, then supplemented and sweetened by Vanicelli's words and melodies. Currents, in contrast, was written as a whole, Jarvis says, with more attention to detail (though he admits he was already "meticulous" enough with mixing, re-mixing, re-editing, etc). This, Vanicelli says, is their "actual 'first' album."
You can pre-program shades of the human touch. Jarvis occasionally "makes drums off-time on purpose" inside Phantasmagoria songs. He wasn't sure why, he confided to Steve Kendzorski, bassist-drummer of local duo Illy Mack, while the two bands spent an evening together discussing their respective recordings. Kendzorski, who, with Illy guitarist-singer Jen David covered a Phantasmagoria song at Blowout last March, suspects Jarvis does this on his computer-based songs "because it just feels good. Because it's not on mechanically."
The band has covered the rock-raucous soul-pop of Illy Mack and space-rock gods like Radiohead, but they also dabble in remixes. They recently remixed a song by Passalacqua (a local hip-hop duo that's part of the roundup of Kresge Artist Fellows elsewhere in this issue). They also covered Illy Mack's quirky, rough-hewn rock style at last year's Blowout. The covers-swap brought both bands to find common ground between their digital and analog poles.
So the next class is ready to graduate. And the lesson learned, Vanicelli says, is there are pros and cons to perfectionism in a studio. "We spent a lot more time perfecting minor details, tweaking the song order and the overall vibes they produced," she says. That prolonged the process, but only because, Jarvis says, they wanted to make the "absolute best and truest" album. But in the end, he concludes: "All you can do is make an album that you like."
The Currents release party is at 9 p.m. Friday, July 13, at the Loving Touch, 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; with Shigeto and Charles Trees.