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Escape Velocity

Phantom: Melancholy And Murder Mysteries
Ben Hewitt , October 1st, 2009 08:40

Canadian TV presenter turned pop star Elsie Martins tells Ben Hewitt how much fun wallowing in misery can be.

Many bands profess to make genuinely intoxicating melancholy music; very few actually deliver the goods. The Quietus has lost count of the number of times it's been told it's about to hear the most beautifully downbeat band since The Smiths only to be confronted with the same whiny and maudlin missives from various identikit groups: the same tired, mournful strings and offensively bland lyrics about lost love, dashed dreams and other such drippy nonsense. In a world where Snow Patrol are considered to be masters of the tear-jerking ballad, it’s easy to give up hope altogether.

Be thankful, then, for Phantom. The brainchild of singer and guitarist Elsie Martins — who hosted a music television programme in her native Montreal before relocating in London and hooking up with bassist Jonny Martin and drummer/organ player Lyndsay Evans — they make proper melancholic music, with gorgeously gothic sonic backdrops and lush, husky vocals confiding dark and dirty secrets. With their debut single ‘Great Pretender’ out now, we caught up with Elsie to talk Agatha Christie, felines, and the perfect way to enjoy depressing evening in on your own. . . .

Hi Elsie. How are you today?

Elsie: I’m good, feeling creative. I’ve recently got my hands on some very exciting new music equipment so I’ve been locking myself away in the studio writing some new stuff.

For readers of The Quietus not familiar with Phantom, could you give us a brief history of the band?

E: Phantom came together completely by accident. I never had plans of forming a band, I was a music journalist working for a Music TV network in Canada. One day I packed my bags and came to London. Phantom was born because someone threw a guitar in my hands and I realised how much I wanted to play but never had. It came at a time when things weren’t going as planned for me, I was struggling to find work, I felt frustrated and it felt good to let go and make some noise. Phantom is about discovering what you can do, not limiting yourself to what you think you should do, what others expect of you or what you have planned for yourself. Phantom is about a girl going against all odds, it’s liberating.

Why did you make that decision to leave and start a career in music?

E: I always knew that Canada wasn’t the place where I would settle and from a very young age I dreamt of being in London. For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with British music, the romanticism of it all. Ultimately that’s why I left, because I needed to satisfy my curiosity and try and understand why I was drawn to this place so much and what was here for me. The MTV job was great fun but I needed to follow my gut instinct and make the big leap — I never regretted it. I really enjoyed presenting programmes and chatting to bands, and yes, I could do a damn good job on any Music TV show over here!

Working as a Music TV presenter I was always surrounded by musicians; I was making TV programs about bands, documenting them in the studio, on the road etc. When I stopped working in music it just felt like something was missing for me. I realised that it wasn’t the work that I missed but it was being close to the music. Life has a funny way of throwing a spanner in the works and the table turns sometimes. I ended up with a guitar in my hands and loved every second of it. I’ve never been in bands before, I have no music-making history, and this is a first for me.

Why London?

Ask anyone who grew up with me and they’ll tell you that I’ve been banging on about moving to London for ever. As I’ve said, I’m a huge fan of British music, so the musical heritage was a definite pull to start off with. It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that I am a fan of London music because frankly so many amazing bands have come from other parts of the UK, but I wanted to live in the capital of the country that sparked so many musical heroes of mine. London is a romantic and beautiful city. History lurks behind every corner, in every old pub, public park, crescent, news; I imagine thousands of little tales hidden in the architecture. I come from the land of cowboys and Indians, so the idea of romantic Victorian London is charming, intoxicating even. Phantom’s songs are born out come my imagination and my fascination with nostalgia.

There are so many different influences at work in Phantom, ranging from shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine to the darker, gothic strains of PJ Harvey. What kind of bands did you grow up loving, and who are your biggest influences?

E: Someone once referred to Phantom as “Gloomgaze” and I think it’s pretty fitting.

I’m a big fan of English post-punk bands. I grew up obsessing over The Chameleons and Joy Division mainly. Those were my two first loves. For me, Script of the Bridge has some of the best-penned tracks and guitar sounds out there. I love the Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie, Echo & The Bunnymen, Jesus & Mary Chain. I’m also partial to a bit of proper old Goth (early Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil, Xmal Deutschland) and I really love Slowdive, the Tindersticks and Stuart Staples’s solo stuff, as well as instrumental bands like Mogwai and Explosions in The Sky. To cheer me up, strangely, I listen to The Smiths and I love classic, and slightly off-beat, storytellers like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Nick Cave ranks very high in my record collection and, to me, is the ultimate storyteller of my generation.

Jonny introduces me to more experimental music. He uses the last two Talk Talk albums as touchstones of sorts, not just the sound of them but the eccentricity and madness that was present in their making. And he grew up listening to Miles Davis, so he’s open to pretty much anything being thrown into the mix! And I know he can't wait to get his paws on Manafon, David Sylvian's new improv album, for some serious melancholia. So that’ll be my next discovery.

How about three non-musical influences?

E: 1) My cat Marvin and his two stray feline mates (I named them Poirot and Hastings). P&H come in the house through the window every night to hang out with Marvin. The three of them live in their own little feline world, have their own hierarchy and I often wonder what goes on in their little heads.

2) Agatha Christie. She’s an amazing author with such an enviable imagination. I absolutely love her novels. Someone once told me that there was a study made on the appeal of her novels and one scientific deduction was that the brain would normally respond to say four or five elements to solve any given problem, and if you give it any more it produces a certain chemical, making the problem-solving addictive. In Christie’s murder mysteries you always have, say, seven or eight characters intertwined at once, giving you plenty to work with and release those “endorphin-like” brain chemicals. Personally I love the settings of her stories.

3) Abstract Expressionism. My mother is an oil painting artist and as a little girl I used to love hanging out in her studio while she painted. The oil canvas, the colours and the smells use to fascinate me. In recent years she’s introduced me to abstract expressionism. She taught me to appreciate the genre and switched me onto the classics; Jackson Pollock, Jane Frank and Franz Kline.

We spoke earlier about Phantom’s gloominess; some of your early press has focussed on that, but do you find it strange that people find the idea of melancholy pop music so unusual? The Smiths are an obvious example of a band who released great, melancholic pure pop.

E: I think melancholy and pop go hand in hand. Isn’t melancholy the magic ingredient in the best pop music ever made? If you look back to the 50s and 60s you’ll find love songs aplenty, heartbreak and drama was all the rage back then. Perhaps the tone was slightly more upbeat but lyrically and thematically teenagers over 50 years ago loved a good cryer. 'Where Did Our Love Go' by the Supremes, 'Say a Little Prayer' by Aretha Franklin, 'Unchained Melody 'by The Platters, and how can we forget 'Heartbreak Hotel' by Elvis? All fuelled by melancholy. Travel back even earlier in time and you’ll get Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf . . . melancholy and pop music exist together perfectly. Nothing strange to me there.

What’s so magical about it?

E: The melancholy it carries is so fascinating. Melancholy is, for me, the best form of escapism. It fuels inspiration, gets me thinking; it grabs my attention. It helps me to go inward and creates a state of waiting for inspiration to strike. It helps a creative mind frame unfold. Melancholia is the muse behind major work of arts from paintings, to poetry, film and photography. It’s an undeniable creative force.

What’s your recipe for the perfect gloomy evening?

E: A bottle of red wine, chocolate, cigarettes and Billie Holliday’s 'Lady Sings the Blues'.

And if you want to cheer yourself up?

E: I’ll watch a good TV dramatisation of Poirot, or I borrow someone’s dog and go to the park.

So, you’re just about to release your debut single ‘Great Pretender’, which is a pretty perfect encapsulation of that pop-gloom fusion we were talking about. Do you have to deviate from the usual band guitars, bass and drums set up to get that eerie gothic sound?

E: Actually the band set-up is pretty standard: vocal, guitar, keys, bass and drums. I think the key is more how we create the right mood with the instruments, whether it’s the sound of an EBow, or a guitar played with a stick, or a finger ring. And I like keys to echo that church organ sound.

Phantom - 'Great Pretender' from Art.War.Entertainment on Vimeo

Lyrically it's very dark — and very confessional. “I am a thief I am a liar. Watch me steal, steal her desire . . .”

E: ‘Great Pretender’ is a confession; it would be a bit boring to confess that “I bought a pint of milk today”. Besides, everyone loves to be let in on a dark secret.

I’m telling the listener that I have a nasty and selfish streak, and like everyone else I’ve had to learn to survive and I admit that it’s not always by playing nice that I got what I wanted.

I also had some stuff to get off my chest. Try it, it feels good.

There’s a very theatrical and vivid aesthetic, or image, that Phantom have. How important is that visual element to the band — and to music in general?

E: I would be lying if I said image isn’t important, of course it is. Jonny and I both love clothes and fashion is something we really enjoy. The visual element is crucial to Phantom and there’s no shame in admitting that. Artists with a bit of flair, panache, charisma — call it whatever you want — give any art form that all-important final touch. For Diamanda Galas or Siouxsie Sioux it wasn’t only their songs and their voices but their style and flamboyance that gave them that wow factor, each element complemented the other.

What does the future hold for Phantom?

E: There’s definitely another release coming out early next year, I'm aiming for an EP with James Aparicio (who produced 'Great Pretender'). I already have some ideas for new sounds and have been playing with some very exciting new equipment which will no doubt influence my songwriting. So expect something a little different to come out next.