The history books are going to have to be rewritten as The Phantom Cowboys resurface with a new EP.
When conducting research into Norwich based The Phantom Cowboys, the generic search engine on the worldwide web consistently returned results directly relating to the (classic) western movie of the same name (without the plural of course), in addition to everyone’s favourite Mystery Incorporated consisting of the loveable yet bumbling duo of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo who happened to have an episode of the same name as the very band at the centre of this article. It wasn’t until the genres of rockabilly, psychobilly and/or punk rock were added to the search that the answers became more specific in relation to The Phantom Cowboys (i.e. THE BAND).
Once the details relating to this four-piece started to unravel, it was a surprise to read that they had disbanded back in the 90s after one full-length album, only to regroup after finding fresh vigour eighteen years later with new recordings that has resulted in the brand new EP ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’.
Fresh from those recording sessions, three-quarters of The Phantom Cowboys jumped back on the saddle to give their versions of events for not only the band reforming and current recorded work, but also to provide an overview of their past in order to remind those familiar with the band of their current whereabouts, but also those less familiar that there’s a four-piece combo with a darker rockin’ sound that is worth getting acquainted with.
“We met in school in the early nineties,” begins bass player Rob regarding the band’s history. “It felt at the time that nobody our age was interested in any music pre-1987, so we four naturally banded together because we were the only ones prepared to seek out anything musically different. Although initially we all had different tastes, we all shared a love of the darker and weirder side of music and culture generally.”
With so many bands in the UK having to relocate to The Smoke (i.e. London) in an attempt to make a name for themselves during the 80s and 90s, which still applies to this day to be fair, The Phantom Cowboys offer a fresh perspective on this as the band remained in Norwich, which is not exactly renowned for producing a long lineage of famous bands, yet proved a source of inspiration of sorts for the band as they explain:
“Norwich provided us with a few things – it’s a medieval city and quite a treasure trove of odd shops and alternative culture, if you look hard enough. We spent a lot of time searching through second hand shops for old Hammer Horror films on VHS!” continues Rob on those early years and sources of inspiration regarding The Phantom Cowboys.
“When it came to our lyrics,” chips in Serpent, who is the band’s drummer, “I’m not sure Norwich has inspired traditionally wistful lyrics, but it does have a quality selection of grandly faded graveyards and cemeteries. It’s beyond doubt that these provided all manner of imagery, inspiration, mood and grisly escapism that’s with us to this day.”
Before discussing the subject of The Phantom Cowboys current EP ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’, it’s worth establishing the reason(s) for their demise back in the 90s and recent regrouping, which Rob, Megz (guitar) and Serpent are all keen to address.
“By 1999, we’d all, in one way or another, been treading water since we left school in ‘95,” begins Rob. “After the excitement of releasing our first album, there was a moment of anti-climax. I think we each realised that we’d been neglecting other areas of our lives to hang out with the same three people since we were 15! As much for everyone’s sanity as anything we went our separate ways, although we all stayed in touch.”
“We took a long time getting back together for several reasons,” adds Megz. “We had frequently discussed it over the previous few years, but the time never seemed quite right. Then suddenly there seems to have been an enormous resurgence in the scene, tempting us out of retirement.”
“The re-forming process was long and slow,” Serpent explains. “I hadn’t touched a drum stick in anger since 2001.”
“Progress was initially slow mainly because a lot of our old equipment was either lethal or unusable,” Megz agrees before continuing. “So we gradually amassed our current armada (That’s one way of explaining it! FLW) of guitars and amps that follow us around. Musically, we got back up to speed with ‘Club Cruella’ (The Phantom Cowboys’ album) very quickly, but we felt a bit like a Phantom Cowboys cover band early on, so it took some time to generate some new material.”
With an array of descriptions regarding your sound ranging from psychobilly to gothabilly for example, how exactly would The Phantom Cowboys describe their sound?
“People have described us as gothabilly, that’s cool,” Megz answers. “We tend to refer to the noise as Voodoo Jive!”
“We strive to defy categorisation, but it’s inevitable to some extent,” considers Rob. “People latch onto superficial cues – We have a stand-up bass, so we must be rockabilly. We had a track on a compilation called ‘Gothabilly’ and suddenly that’s going to be on our gravestones. We used to wear dinner jackets and ties and some people said we were jazz era revivalists! One site even refused to review our EP recently by saying, ‘We don’t cover Western Swing’ – I don’t imagine the idiot who wrote that even listened to it, they just read the word ‘Cowboys’.”
It’s not surprising, however, that The Phantom Cowboys end up on the receiving end of a broad range of references regarding their overall sound considering the bands own eclectic tastes in music encompassing The Damned, Buzzcocks, ‘Clash, The Phantom Chords, Ennio Morricone , Django Reinhardt, The Stranglers, The Kinks, Stray Cats, The Meteors, Link Wray, The Earls of Suave, The Flaming Stars, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Screaming Lord Sutch, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Sisters of Mercy, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Los Tres et al.
“Anything good,” says Serpent in response to The Phantom Cowboys influences. “What I mean by this is any good idea for a song implemented decently. I’ve never believed in limiting influence by genre. A good musician is a good musician, and I find you can learn from quite disparate places.”
“Musically, you can hear a lot of old swing records in the band’s rhythm,” adds Rob to the discussion. “There are the obvious influences from rockabilly and psychobilly music, but I think the guitars probably owe more to the classic surf and garage rock sound. Tune-wise, we borrow from everywhere and anywhere.”
As mentioned earlier, The Phantom Cowboys released one album – ‘Down And Out At The Club Cruella’ (1998). When you listen to your debut album now, how does it fare in 2017? Do you think that you have changed a lot musically in terms of the first album and the new EP and, if so, in what ways?
“‘Cruella’ in 2017,” ponders Serpent for a brief moment before answering, “I’m still very proud of it. I’m happy that the world is a slightly stranger place because of us.”
“We are still immensely proud of ‘Club Cruella’,” answers Megz concerning the band’s album. “Sure, there are a few things we would have done differently, but all in all it was great fun and captured our spirit at the time. Since then, we have had to deal with the real world and the inconveniences that the world throws at you. If nothing else, this has made us more cynical and loquacious, I think you can tell this from the EP (‘Dead Men’s Clothes’)!”
“And this interview,” jests Rob.
In terms of the new EP, ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’, what can you tell FLW about this latest record?
“We recorded the tracks at Open Studios in Norwich in a couple of days in April 2016 with our friend Scott Taylor at the desk,” begins Rob on the EP ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’. “Completing the mix and overdubs was a pain because I live in London and Scott and the other Phantom Cowboys all live in Norfolk. I actually recorded Sophie Loyer playing violin on ‘Ghostwalk’ in my front room in London months later, and we finished the production and mastering together online.”
Why the decision to record an EP and not go straight for album number two?
“We realised quite quickly after reforming that as far as concert bookers and promoters were concerned, the fact we’d done an album in 1998 was irrelevant,” Rob continues. “The idea behind the EP was to get something credible out to demonstrate what the band sounded like now. That’s why we did an EP, it takes us a terribly long time to write new material because we don’t want to have any songs that sound too alike – and the larger our back catalogue gets, the harder that becomes. An album’s worth of material would have meant waiting another year or more!”
Considering the record is still relatively fresh and perhaps a little too early to comment right now, but do you have a favourite track from the EP ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’?
“Personally, ‘Ghostwalk’ has really grown on me since Jon (LORD EMSWORTH – Vocals and Guitar) first introduced the idea to us,” answers Rob. “It’s a deliberately oblique and weird song. Despite the tone of the lyrics, if you can decode them they’re actually hilarious (Thom Yorke is the most likely candidate to succeed here then, FLW).”
Seeing as how we’re on the subject of songs, care to shed more light on the rather compelling duo of ‘Hermit’ and title track ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’?
“We like writing songs with the dissonance of an upbeat tune and lyrical content which is quite dark,” explains Rob. “‘The Hermit’ is a classic example. It’s got quite a macho, country-rockabilly riff, but the lyrics deal with rejection of the modern world and just wanting to be left alone. It’s a theme picked up again in ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’ – when we were younger we’d wear suits we got cheap from a charity shop because the original owner had died. When the whole ‘vintage’ fashion thing became fashionable more recently, we thought it was ironic we’d been such outsiders for doing the same thing more than a decade previously! The words are an affectionate dig at anyone who has ever felt closer to dead musicians and writers than to those living around them.”
Who was responsible for the artwork and ideas for the front cover of the EP?
“His Lordship [Jon] took personal control of the artwork for the cover,” Rob replies. “It’s all his idea and work. Megz laid out the artwork and the rest of the cover for production.”
FLW gets the impression that the current EP is viewed as a resounding success by The Phantom Cowboys. Is this an accurate assumption?
“I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” says Rob enthusiastically. “We’re musically much stronger than we were 15 years ago, and we have the confidence not to rock everything out at 100 miles an hour. Our use of studio time has improved too, it’s interesting to see how much more self-critical everyone has become of their own performances.”
After reuniting the band, how does the current music scene compare in terms of what The Phantom Cowboys experienced during the late nineties?
“To a degree we have seen mainstream bands come and go and not made enough money to survive on,” Megz explains. “The big record labels are only really interested in the X-Factor pin-up pop malaise that is taking over our airwaves. The music scene is broken, but to a degree rockabilly, psychobilly, etc. is now more accessible than ever before.”
“I’m heartened that people continue to want things other than whatever cheap, repeatable formula is currently in fashion,” adds Serpent. “Some aspects of producing and recording material are almost comically easy compared to the ‘90s and there’s no longer the depressing feeling that all the tapes you’ve blunder bussed out are being ignored and at best relying on chance. Now both a better quality and quantity of people can see and hear your work on their terms rather than having it thrown at them. I think that’s a better situation for all concerned.”
What do you feel that you’re trying to say or communicate as a band now that you have reformed?
“Nothing too deep,” considers Megz. “I think we have matured a little bit and that will come into the music too. We are still disturbed, verbose corpse-loving creeps from darkest Norfolk(ish) and have many more tales to tell!”
“People nowadays require more from music than a song about ’57 Chevys or ‘Dancing at The Hop’,” reflects Rob. “These kinds of topics just aren’t a reality of most people’s lives. However, everyone has woken up at some point in the middle of the night, full of shadowy fears and unable to go back to sleep. There aren’t nearly enough songs about this sort of thing, so we’re back to do something about it!”
What’s next for the Phantom Cowboys?
“Curry, I hope,” quips Serpent yet with stomach definitely rumbling.
“Lots more new music this year, with hopefully a new album in the near future if we stop eating doughnuts and drinking tea!” confesses Megz on a couple of the band’s vices.
“And hopefully some European and even US dates in the coming twelve months (attention promoters!),” yells Rob.
You heard it here first, The Phantom Cowboys are ready, willing and able to not only raise a holler and bring their dark tales of rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly or whatever label one chooses to call it to the masses, but essentially this is a tale of a band who have reclaimed their initial spirit and reignited their creative powers via latest, and currently greatest offering ‘Dead Men’s Clothes’, which is definitely to their credit. Long may this journey continue for The Phantom Cowboys.
(Photography courtesy of The Phantom Cowboys)
We like writing songs with the dissonance of an upbeat tune and lyrical content which is quite dark."
Rob, The Phantom Cowboys
FLW - From the Tapes
Bass player Rob from The Phantom Cowboys recalls one tale from their distant past involving a photoshoot that didn’t quite go to plan.
“I recall a photo shoot from the early days which we’d arranged on a lonely beach in Norfolk, all clad in our Victorian suits. When the session had finished, we walked back to our transport – The Serpent’s car – only to discover he’d locked his keys in it! The beach was miles from anywhere and this was long before mobile phones were common and certainly none of us had one. It was now well into the afternoon and a lot of families started arriving to take a walk on the beach. You can imagine the looks we got as they entered the car park and were confronted with the sight of four Victorian gentlemen trying to break in to a Rover! Ultimately, we did get in without breaking any windows, but I’m not allowed to tell you how it was done!”