As Phosphene releases its second full-length LP, Lotus Eaters, Big Sonic Heaven contributor Rick Bourgoise catches up with band members Matt Hemmerich and Rachel Frankel from their home in Portland, Oregon.
Matt and Rachel met in 2008 during college in San Francisco and started making music together. When Kevin Kaw joined in 2013, they became Phosphene and released a self-titled debut LP in 2014. In our conversation, Matt and Rachel discuss the new album, their inspirations and the process of making music and songwriting.
NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Big Sonic Heaven (BSH): For those who are new to Phosphene, you have kind of a sonic dream pop sound. How would you describe it to new listeners?
Rachel Frankel: I think the name dream pop gets thrown around a little bit, and I do think there are bits of that, but as we’ve continued to develop our sound, it’s more of a post rock, vaguely shoegaze sound. We really have so many different influences from so many different genres that it makes it tricky.
Matt Hemmerich: Yeah, I’d say, we definitely have some dream pop in there. There’s shoegaze. I think one thing that has popped up a little bit on the new record, and occasionally in our other releases, is a little bit of post-punk, which I know for some people is hard to imagine because Rachel has such a sweet voice. But, there are some songs like “Incandescent Plumes,” and I’m thinking parts of “Incinerate” and some other tracks, where we’re trying to incorporate some of those influences because we definitely have bands that influence us like that. Interpol, Joy Division.
BSH: I thought “Incinerate” reminded me a little of Sonic Youth.
Rachel: Definitely, that kind of inspired the title, as well as a little Easter egg.
Matt: This is a quick aside, but with that song, I’m responsible for just titling the demos and at times we’ll be “what does it sound like?” and Rachel had been on a Sonic Youth binge. And, we also really liked the song “Incinerate” from them, which is a completely different track. So, I’m glad that Easter egg connected.
BSH: Let’s talk about your new album Lotus Eaters. When is that coming out?
Rachel: July 7.
BSH: It’s your second full-length album, 10 new songs. It really came about as a reaction to a lot of the things you were feeling in the world. Take us through the process of writing and how the songs came together.
Matt: It was a turbulent time, obviously, for everyone. I think 2016 was a cold plunge you didn’t ask for. So, just the shock, I think of that election and a lot of general extremism that was pervasive the next four years, kind of washed over us a little bit. It was really difficult, initially, to get into our practice space and feel motivated to do something. We’re experiencing this right now too with Black Lives Matter. (Making music is) so important to us, but at the moment, there are things in a larger picture that we’re drawn to. When we get in and start playing, it feels like we’re just peeling all of that weight off, and we get into a nice rhythm.
Rachel: I think for songwriters in general, I would imagine a lot of them find catharsis in the process of songwriting and just playing, whatever sound of music it is, whether it’s post-punk or something a little more quiet. We’ve been lucky in the sense that we’ve never really been hurting for material to work on. Matt has always been really devoted to the practice of archiving everything, and we’ve got tons and tons of demos to call upon at any given point. Some of the songs on the record just developed in that time, and then there were some we pulled from the archives. It was nice to have that mix of material, and I think it kind of shaped the record and made it pretty diverse.
Matt: 2016 and those next few years really influenced where we would navigate both lyrically and sonically. And we already mentioned it, but “Incinerate” was another one we wrote during that time. I felt like that was the one of the most refreshing sessions we had. When we wrote that song, we were just full of a little bit of dread, and we just kept most of the way that song unfurled from the jam. That’s one of the beauties with bands. There’s this unspoken chemistry there, and I think that day we were all just really needing an outlet.
BSH: All of those thematic feelings are pulled through on the title of the album, it’s called Lotus Eaters. You say it’s taken from Greek mythology, and you actually use the title in the song “Spiral,” which I thought was great. Tell me how Lotus Eaters, Greek mythology and your themes tie the whole album together.
Matt: I will say with Lotus Eaters, Rachel mentioned it being hazy. That’s a motif on the record, but there are different songs where people have their own ways to break themselves away from that kind of chain. “Incinerate,” again going back to that one, this person is trying to move on from a situation they’re in – a really unhealthy relationship – or just bad situations in general and finding a way to escape. It’s not all trying to get yourself jacked up on Lotus fruit. It’s trying to get to a next chapter or move away from something that’s keeping you in a daze
BSH: The lead single on the album is “Cocoon.” It has a happy bounce to it, but it’s really a complex song with some spoken word at the end. Tell me about that one.
Rachel: There’s a couple of those wine-fueled epiphanies on this record. “Carousel” is another one.
BSH: Did you make videos for any of the songs yet or are you planning on making videos, since you’re a video editor?
Rachel: We haven’t made any videos yet. It’s funny, we always talk about video ideas, whether it’s for our music or other songs. Just because it’s so fun to envision it. Hopefully down the road.
Matt: It’s one of those logistical nightmares where you need at least like a dozen people just to get filming done to make it look good.
Rachel: One thing that’s worked well in my work in this whole quarantine situation, since I’m an illustrator and designer – (to Matt) you’re a video editor and motion designer — we’ve at least been able to create some artwork and slight animations for the songs. That’s felt purposeful, cathartic.
BSH: You mention the quarantine, and how you’re really not starving for new ideas. How is this inspiring creativity? Do you feel like you’re doing a lot more songwriting?
Rachel: I think, for me personally, it’s been a big inflowing. We’ve written a few tunes and some are making more progress than others. Ideally, if we had all of our equipment accessible and (to Matt) you had your full drum set. I feel like you’re the amplifier in our apartment. I have an acoustic guitar, and I kind of prefer songwriting by using that more than an electric. One of our favorite bands from a long time ago, Metric, I think it was Emily Haynes who talked about the campfire test. If the song can stand on its own, acoustically, then that’s a good barometer for how it can translate.
Matt: The campfire test being that you have a strong skeleton to work with. If you strip something back from all of its effects, it’s basically full of osteoporosis. You might not have a good pop song there. It’s been creatively invigorating in the sense of, the songs that we’ve made most progress on, are the ones we wrote from scratch. Some of them are directly influenced by things actually going on in the world and just having an emotional outlet.
Matt: It was a lot of fate. We were both transferring as juniors from our respective colleges. Rachel was coming from Southern California, I was coming from the East Bay to San Francisco. For some reason, both of our English classes, our credentials from sophomore year didn’t transfer. We ended up being in the same class. We’re both kind of introverted. We had an assignment where our professor said “bring in your favorite song lyrics and we’re gonna go dissect them.”
Rachel: And, you have to partner up with someone and have a discussion.
Rachel: Phosphene is kind of the phenomenon where your eyes are either closed or you’ve wrapped your eyes and then you see these colorful shapes and visions, even though your eyes closed. And the story behind how I stumbled across the word is probably pretty lame. I’m like 75% sure I found that on Tumblr. But, it just stuck with me, and I think I found it around the same time that we had gotten access to that practice space. We were casually trying to think of a name at the time, and I was like, “how about this?”
Matt: When I saw that I thought, “yeah.” We have kind of like a dreamy, dreamesque style, so it latched on.
BSH: You’re now in Portland, and Kevin is down in the Bay Area. Where do you go from here? Obviously, we’re in a time where it’s hard to get together and hard to do things.
Rachel: I think that’s a great question. One thing I’ve enjoyed seeing in terms of other bands, whether they’re more local and underground or been around, is there’s a renewed focus on just being at home by yourself or with the family and enjoying music in the privacy of your own home. That’s how so many of us first really grabbed on to music that we liked. Of course, we miss playing live and I can’t wait until we can do that again. But, really I think we’re just so excited to finally release these songs and share them with people at a time where more people are having more time at home, and they’re able to really kind of sit with music in this way.
Matt: With this record, we want it to be a good outlet especially at this time. There’s moments of release, but it’s also something we want to make sure people can carry in their pocket. If you really do just need to take like a moment to yourself have something to just wash over.
BSH: I hope the new album is successful for you.
BSH: I wish you the best of luck and thanks for taking the time to join us.
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Written by: Rick Bourgoise