Phobophobes congealed in the swamps of Brixton. Infectious fuzz drenched, head swirling organs n strings n things.
With March 2018’s release of Miniature World it has been a far more positive time for Phobophobes than recent previous years. Support across the UK, Europe and the U.S has grown significantly over the last eight months since the release, as well as the band itself. Now a seven piece, their sound is tumultuous, big and beautiful.
Phobophobes currently consists of frontman Jamie Bardolph Taylor, keyboardist Chris Olivares Chandler, drummer Nathan Ridley, guitarist Christo McCracken, guitarist Jack Fussey, bassist Bede Trillo and lap-steel maestro Elliot Nash, their previous bassist.
Having just come off tour with Killing Joke, and playing their final date at London’s Roundhouse, Phobophobes are running at full speed. With a new album nearly complete, 2019 is set be as exciting for them as for their fans.
Their influences are widespread – and atypical – with the music closer to the spirit of apocalyptic garage rock than it is to consumer pop. Think Wall of Voodoo, Joe Meek and Leonard Cohen via Monty Python and Rhubarb and Custard.
Jamie and Chris, both south Londoners, founded the band in 2013. The intervening years have played out anything but smoothly: they’ve been through three managers, four producers, five studios and eleven band members.
And two years ago brought with it tragedy. George Bedford Russell, who played guitar, died of a heroin overdose. “He was a beautiful person, and a close friend,” says Jamie. “He suffered from severe depression and used to self-medicate. His prescription drugs alone didn’t provide any kind of long-term solution.”
For Elliot Nash, the band’s previous bassist and one of George’s closest friends, staying in Phobophobes proved too difficult and he left soon after. Having had some time off, however, the rest of the band decided to go on.
“We spoke about it a lot and think it’s what George would have wanted,” says Jamie. “His mother told us he had some of his happiest times playing in the band. Being told that kept us together.”
George’s spirit is ingrained in every song on their debut album – the first lines of the dark, gritty opening track included. On “Where Is My Owner?”, Jamie sings lines from one of George’s poems: “I do not sink, I do not fall / The ground is a friend to all”. Even their new album has George’s playing embedded within it.
“George lived in fiction. He was always reading books and poetry,” Jamie remembers. “He had huge admiration for Will Self, both for his writing and for the way he dealt with his addictions.”
The band asked Will Self if they could record him reading one of George’s poems. Happily, he agreed. Steve Lamacq played the corresponding single “Human Baby” on BBC 6 Music every day for a week, along with further support across 6 Music for all subsequent releases from the album, including Miniature World being featured as 6Music Album of the Day.
“George played a big part in the making of this album and it was important to the band that that was reflected in what we put out,” says Jamie. “You can hear his guitar on every track.”
For this to happen, the band collected recordings of George playing guitar taken on phones and low-budget equipment initially intended for demo purposes only. “Some of his guitar that you hear was recorded for referencing purposes only, so we had to work around this technical problem. It was difficult to pull off – musically and emotionally – but having George on the album gives it added meaning, immediacy and depth.”
So does the book of his poetry, illustrated by Elliot Nash, which is published alongside the album.
Jamie continues: “We almost called the album ‘The final collaboration’ – a phrase Elliott came up with in reference to George – but in the end we thought it was too morbid, even for a band like us.”
Phobophobes are now as settled as a band as they have ever been and “Miniature World” served notice that a new era had begun. From this they gained more and more attention. Lauren Laverne has regularly played the band’s tracks on BBC 6 Music, while the album was mixed by Youth, of Killing Joke. Since then they have gone on to record their second album with Youth and have wholely welcomed the return of previous bassman Elliot Nash, this time on lap-steel and baritone guitar.
“We oscillate between extremes,” admits Chris, “but we’ve come through a really harsh period and we’re enjoying making music and playing together again. That doesn’t mean the element of chance and chaos that you get with us will go away.”
Phobophobes are a reminder that rock’n’roll can, even as the last embers fade, continue to mean something beyond an Instagram post and the search for five minutes of fame. They are at their best when performing live. With beautiful keyboard, soaring vocals and stunning guitars and rhythms, they appear committed to the intensity of whatever moment they find themselves in.
Against excessive consumerism and everything that has become sanitised, an apocalyptic theme runs throughout the record. “We want the listener to feel that,” says Jamie. “Not all of the music is very pleasant. It swims in and out of a kind of abrasiveness. In places, the album can feel quite rough.”
Studio space is often made by hand. Rising rents forced Jamie to build studio space wherever he has found himself, from living in Paris and later while recording in Peckham and Brixton. In Pittsburgh and Iowa, where he lived for short spells while installing and building sculptures for a prominent British artist, he would set up makeshift studios in hotel rooms to work on new tracks.
Even when invited to record at Abbey Road – with the British engineer and producer Ken Scott (The Beatles and Pink Floyd among others) – the band brought along their DIY ethos. Bacteria from the older microphone at the legendary studio, along with swabs taken from past and present band members, was taken and cultivated in petri dishes. The results have been photographed for the debut album artwork.
Often the vocals are buried within the mix so the listener has to pay attention, as if trying to listen in on something uncomfortable. Still, while the lyrics offer an excursion into the darker side of rock, they are shot through with levity:
“Fairtrade cocaine in your system” (Human Baby)
“Will you marry me in a borrowed suit / With a borrowed attitude” (Free the Naked Rambler)
“Drag me on a holiday / A package holiday / Seventy-two virgins on a long haul flight to paradise” (The Fun)
For Chris, “Our music is a response to our environment and surroundings. That’s absolute. All the weird people of south London have given us so much. Rough lives are beautiful.”
“No matter how shit it is,” Jamie adds, “it’s probably worse somewhere else.”