But unlike most pennies cast into wishing pools by starry-eyed kids, this particular vision came through loud and clear, specific and fully formed, to the minds of people who were looking for a sign. Call it serendipitous, written in the stars or what you will, but the four longtime friends, collaborators, and members of PHASES know: when the universe speaks, it’s in your best interest to listen.
After over a decade of intertwined pasts making music, the Los Angeles-based quartet of friends Z Berg, Alex Greenwald, Jason Boesel, and Michael Runion were able to check off a major bucket-list box when they formed a band together in 2009. Releasing an album as JJAMZ in 2012, they returned to LA in 2013 after touring to an uncertain future. Creatively confused and encountering some interpersonal turbulence, the fate of JJAMZ seemed doomed. Feeling like it was a hopeless case, Berg announced that she was moving to Nashville to pursue a folk music career and change of scenery.
“In my mind, we were not going to make another record and I just had to get out of LA,” says Berg. “I felt truly displaced for the first time in a city I’ve always been in love with. So I said to the universe, ‘If you want me to stay, give me a reason.’” The trio of gentlemen carried on in an attempt to reanimate what had felt like a creative dead end, and began writing material with both a fresh, lightened tone and a new, unassuming intention that they found reinvigorating, and perhaps subconsciously hoped the changes would convince their singer to stay.
“We weren’t sure what it would yield,” says Runion of the free-flowing, highly creative sessions. “We thought, ‘Let’s just keep doing this until the dust settles.’”
Adds Boesel: “‘Tread water, I hope there’s a ship that’s gonna grab us!’”
The new upbeat sounds, heavily influenced by Greenwald’s recent experimental solo recordings made in his Laurel Canyon home on an outdated version of GarageBand, made their way to Berg, who was still looking for a sign. “I hadn’t been able to write for this band after the first record,” she says. “When they played me this new thing they were working on, it sounded like the opposite of my fucking folk music, and like something I wanted to do. It sounded like weird, future spaceship music, from a very old spaceship. I thought, ‘Alright, whatever happens, let’s at least work on this and make songs for fun, without thinking where they go or who they’re for.” (Who could have known that the ship Boesel was waiting for was from space?)
Around this time, Boesel was sitting in his kitchen when he was struck by the aforementioned thunderbolt. The daydream was vivid and simple: The quartet, including Berg, would make six demo songs, play them for the esteemed A&R man and producer Mike Elizondo, he would sign the band to Warner Bros. Records, and together they would release a new album. “That was it,” says Boesel. “At the very least that would be a goal to make us finish the songs, since we were taking a while to bring it all together. And Elizondo came into my mind as the individual who should hear this music and advance it somehow; he was the only person I even considered.”
And so the reunited band set out to do just that. Greenwald was nominated to produce, navigating a wholly unique path through his computer’s long un-updated apps and plug-ins. They wrote and jammed in his home, taking full advantage of the three-story ceilings to make big and weird sounding constructions, trading instruments and using unfamiliar equipment like the OP-1 portable synthesizer. Visually compelling movies were soundlessly projected on the walls and much “MarioKart” was played. The fun had returned.
“We did a lot of hanging out,” says Greenwald. “The sessions were very conducive to putting something on the projector and talking about sounds. We got a big kick out of watching a lot of Tron and Total Recall.”
“For us to work involves another six hours of us not working,” says Berg.
Once the resulting half-dozen songs were finished, they made their way to the intended target. And just as the dream had promised, Elizondo was instantly sold, signing the band to Warner and even booking them in his studio to record an album and co-produce. The universe had answered.
“I played Elizondo these songs and right on the spot he said, ‘I would like to sign you and produce this record,’ says Berg. “That was the hilarious joke, the universe’s sign. It was exactly how Jason had described it, in an amusingly prophetic way.”
“It was like in Finding Nemo when the fish are struggling and then suddenly they get into the jet stream,” laughs Boesel.
Fully energized by the plentiful positive thinking and collaborative spirit, they went into the studio immediately to write more songs. Elizondo’s wildly eclectic resume and ability to marry disparate musical elements cohesively gave the band exactly what they needed in terms of a sounding board. Together, they identified this new outfit’s optimal vibe as “if Blondie made Thriller,” creating a weird, delicate world unique to itself, blending decades and influences from each member in equal part.
“This band has always been totally collaborative,” says Berg. “Alex and I came from bands where we wrote everything ourselves. Now we write everything together. Any new experience is very exciting for me, and we wanted to take advantage of group creativity. The songs sound fun because it was fun. I had never written songs about anything fun before in my life. ‘I’m in a great mood, let’s write a song about it!’”
“We wanted the songs to be fun, danceable, and engaging,” says Greenwald. “That’s how the tracks started, and then in the studio the things we added had to maintain that level of excitement.”
“We set a certain standard for what we wanted to hear and then went wild,” says Runion.
And go wild they did. Songs like “Betty Blue,” “Silhouette,” “I’m In Love With My Life,” and “Cooler” sparkle with heat and light, each infused with elements from each member’s bag of tricks, propelled and popping with life. It’s a seamless blend of sunshine and sugar, but it also hums with darker electricity from the boogie nightclubs of bygone eras, all the while sounding completely and urgently modern.
In fact, the band’s name even came to them in another moment of serendipitous synchronicity, as their manager, upon hearing the completed songs for the first time, excitedly relayed how she was instantly whisked away to her teenage years spent dancing in an ’80s club in The Valley called Phases. It was the universe tapping them on the shoulder yet again; the name was a perfect fit, as it also worked to signify their transition into the next mode of their career.
PHASES is the result of four friends listening to the universe and working tirelessly to make their dream a reality. For all the serendipity and magic involved, the real through line was a year of the hardest work and most prolific collaboration any of the group had ever experienced. The result is a party album culled from all the best moments of its players’ favorite decades, a cosmic validation of shared creativity, and turning past struggle and strife into excitement and pure joy. Without the trust in their own abilities together and apart, without each domino falling into its right place, without simply believing in the power of a daydream, who knows what the universe would have had up its sleeve?
“I’m just trying not to question it,” says Berg.
“For me, it comes back to, ‘Let’s just get out of the way,” says Runion.
“But it’s also like, we are the way,’ says Boesel. “We are the thing that’s moving, let’s not jump off this moving vehicle.”