Phone Tag is the musical project of multi-instrumentalist Gryphon Graham, formerly of Austin, Texas. Along with Bodhi Landa, and Eliza Walton the band makes soft electronic pop with unabashedly attractive melodies and harmonies. I first saw them during CMJ last year, playing a show at my old loft. The first thought that crossed my mind was that they were too damn good to be playing there. Since then, I’ve seen them play at Cameo and watched their name pop up with ever increasing frequency on bills and blogs around town. I caught up with them at Market Hotel in Bushwick where they live. Accompanied by periodic house-shaking interruptions from subway trains rumbling past on the J line, we discussed the band, the songwriting process, and a number of totally unexpected side topics before I realized it was time for me to head home.
So what’s going on with Phone Tag?
Gryphon: We’re putting out a full-length with Dutty Artz. It’s self-titled. I figured we could do that for the first time. It comes out on September 18th.
Are you guys psyched about it coming out? Are you going to do a lot of promotion?
G: Yeah, we hope it makes a splash.
Bodhi: Our label works with some PR people, and I feel pretty confident that they’ll get us out there as much as they can and get us as much attention as we deserve. Otherwise, Gryphon’s pretty well-connected in the Brooklyn music world, so when it comes time to meet press, I think we can draw on that to get what we want.
Gryphon, do you write all of the songs?
G: Well I basically write all of the material myself but I seek input at every stage of it.
How do you guys deal with disagreements?
G: I think I ultimately have some kind of veto power.
B: Well it’s Gryphon’s project as he does all the work in songwriting, production, and singing. We’re all involved in giving feedback in general creative ways – we’re all just “Team Phone Tag”.
Alright, so Gryphon, how do you approach the writing part of songwriting? Are the lyrics just there to carry the melody? And how do the lyrics interface with the whole? Are there particular themes that you’re trying to draw out?
B: I would love to know the answer to this. Yeah, Gryphon, what is your practice as a lyricist?
G: Lyrics are tough! Yeah, I start with a motif and I develop it, but it has to work with the melody, so there’s a very limited number of choices I think. I don’t feel like I have much of a choice. And actually I can’t stand when people make explicit allusions in songs, because I think it kind of demystifies what you’re doing, and relates it to the real world in a way that I think is totally unnecessary.
Do you think demystification can cut both ways, ie. it will demystify the process for the writer as well as the listener?
G: Yeah, and I get that there can be a lot of depth, but like, I don’t want a song to date itself. Like, I’m not a fan of Bob Dylan, and I mean, I love Elliot Smith, but those are two very different things for me.
B: My experience of your lyrics Gryphon, is that they are less of a narrative device and more of a phonetic exercise. I think there’s also an engagement with conventional pop song writing devices because . . . we want our music to sound like music!
G: I think there’s a case to be made that if you invoke the pop vernacular, you should be a good steward. There’s a sense that you’re carrying this very fragile vessel, that’s so susceptible to failure, or being damaged. That being said, I think actually it’s more resilient and will reinvent itself.
So what’s being portrayed in “Only With You”? What’s happening in that one?
B: That is a love song (Laughs).
G: Yeah, it’s a love/hate song though. It’s a double-edged sword thing. Like, the enthusiasm comes from a little bit of bitterness. It would be saccharine to me, but it’s a more complicated relationship . . .
I don’t think I picked that up, but now that you say it, it makes perfect sense.
G: Pretty much my favorite state for a song is a little bit of melancholy. Otherwise it would be saccharine.
“Promised You” is the only song from the EP that made it onto the LP and the interesting thing about that one is that I didn’t feel like the instrumentals were doing the song justice, so I stripped it down to just the vocals. At first it was a cappella, and then I added layers to it. If I could describe that song in an image I would say it’s definitely happening in space-
B: And you notice that on the LP; it’s evocative of outer space.
G: There is no reverb in space, so you’ve got the sound in your helmet and that’s it. It’s a smaller sounding song, but I think it’s much more potent.
B: I think with the LP version you get the sense that it’s about outer space, but that the mix is also spacious itself. There’s less sonic clutter.
G: It’s like a deep space exploration thing. I’ve always had an attraction to Greek myths ever since I was a little kid. D’Aulaire’s illustrated book of Greek myths was the first book I saw. The song is about Icarus.
Right. This one isn’t a love song, it’s like a mental journey . . .
G: Exactly, it’s really about testing your limits, whatever they may be. I mean, it could be a relationship, but whatever it is, it’s something massive.
When you’re departing lyrically from a classic pop song mold, and veering out into talking about an abstract symbolic idea, I guess poetry would be the most obvious inspiration . . .
G: I don’t think you could make sense of my lyrics without the music.
You don’t think so?
G: You could try. I don’t think the music is necessary to the poetry, but I don’t think the two can be separated. My song writing is in a different category from what I read. I’m actually a total news junkie. I had a weird formative experience in Austin where I had zero direction in my life and I was blogging about the financial crisis for real estate companies. And they would say, “This will get us mad hits, so keep blogging about the Federal Reserve.” So I obsessively read about the European debt crisis, and the Spanish bailouts and I’m like, terrified that the world is on the brink of disaster and that the KLF were right.
Oh, what’s the KLF?
G: They were an acid house band from the 80’s and 90’s that –
Oh yeah, they burned a million pounds –
G: They also wrote a manual of how to write a number one hit, and I read it when I was like sixteen. It’s a great piece of reading material if you want to understand how seriously I take the idea that you can reduce music to rules that you can play with. It’s really funny.
So what do they have to do with the financial crisis?
G: Well, if you feel like you might be staring at the apocalypse, then why wouldn’t you want to burn a million quid? There’s something so punk fucking rock about that. If you just subvert this whole massive system that’s clearly going to run itself into the ground anyway, and point to the absurdity of it, there’s something powerful about that.
So how do you split these two parts of your brain? The part that’s intensely critical, and the part that wants to make people happy?
G: That’s the part I struggle with the most. I think that if I don’t feed my critical brain then I’m not growing. But if I’m not writing songs there’s another part of me that’s not being fed. They invariably influence each other. I try to be an optimist even if I wonder what kind of world I’ll be living in pretty soon.
So how do you rationalize the choice to be a musician in an economic climate that’s not ideal?
G: Yeah, I don’t know. There’s no way for me to do anything else, because it’s kind of what I came here to do. It’s ultimately a process of growth. More and more things stick, over time. I enjoy being persistent about this one thing. I grew up in a musical family so I was raised to think it was totally okay to pursue your artistic dream.
How do you define success if music is de-commodified by online streaming and thus harder to sell?
G: There’s some theory going around about how there’s going to be commodification of people’s social capital, that will be assigned to them like a “Twitter grade” or your Klout score, which will weight the scale and determine where you fit in the scheme of things. And the more desirable you are, that will translate into-
G: Yeah, or maybe just opportunity. A lower opportunity cost to do a wider variety of things.
Have you ever read that social theorist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone? He said social capital could be described as how many people you can get to do things for you at any given time.
G: That is exactly it. You don’t even need to use money for it. I’ve been on the wrong side of that, too. I think that as technology becomes more location-based and interactive, and accepting a variety of inputs to translate into data, it will feed our information back in a more real-time fashion, which will entail a social capital that’s more accurately weighted.
Making music now is a wonderful and complicated thing, mostly because of its relationship to money.
Phone Tag’s self-titled LP will be out September 18th on Dutty Artz Records.