Band on the Rise: Brooklyn’s Steel Phantoms

Every band begins somewhere, and for Steel Phantoms, like so many bands before them, those beginnings took shape in the network of venues that form the bedrock of Brooklyn’s music scene. Founded in 2009 by childhood friends from Pittsburgh Aaron Harris (former drummer for Islands) and Yosef Munro, the band cycled through guitarists before discovering the virtuoso talents of Jesse Newkirk IV. Today marks the release of the Forer EP, a tight collection of heady, delicately composed toe-tappers.

(Download it for free here.) We recently caught up with Aaron and Yos to ask them about being a band in Brooklyn (a good thing!), when we can expect a full-length (next year!), and just what exactly is a Forer (read on for that one).

How did the three of you start playing together, and where did you all meet? YM: Aaron and I have been playing music together for 12 years. We grew up together in Pittsburgh, went to the same college, and moved to New York at the same time to start Steel Phantoms. Our first show as a band was in August 2009. AH: Our first guitarist was our friend Chris, who used to be in AIDS Wolf and killed it on the guitar. He recorded some demos with us, but it didn’t end up working out. He moved to Amsterdam, and then we found Jesse through one of my coworkers. Jesse is a guitar god.

What are the best and worst things about being a Brooklyn-based band? AH: The environment here fosters creativity. The sheer volume of bands forces you to stay on your toes and that’s a good thing. YM: There are occasional frustrations, like venues dicking you over and people in the industry flaking on you, but really as long as we’re keeping at it, it’s all sunshine.

What can we expect from the Forer EP? AH: It’s our first project as a trio, and the music is a lot more confident than our first EP, the ideas are a lot clearer and more cohesive. We went through a lot of bass players over the past twelve months, and none of them really worked out, even though they were all super talented. I think that’s because we just always gelled better as a trio. YM: Yeah, and our tendencies as writers have always been more conducive to a sparser texture. I think of the first EP—where we sort of added Rhodes onto everything, and doubled the guitar parts just because—more as a collection of the first songs we wrote together as a new band, than as an actual EP. I still like it and we still play a couple of those songs, but the new EP is very different, and much more sonically cohesive.

Why did you name your EP after the psychologist Bertram Forer? YM: We’ve been wanting to use that name for a while. Aaron is all about horoscopes, and I was trying to convince him that they’re nothing but pseudoscience. In my search to prove myself right, I learned that Bertram Forer came up with the principle that people are willing to believe positive things about themselves but not negative ones. AH: And we thought it would be perfect for this EP, because my songs at least, tend to be about a lack of confidence or addressing my fears, and so it was interesting to read about this professor who addressed the psychosomatic aspect of what makes one confident or afraid. I still read my monthly horoscope, though.

Who or what were some of the biggest influences that went into constructing your sound? YM: We love XTC and Elvis Costello and the DBs, The Bangles and Richard Hell, and I think there’s influence from all that. We really like Pat Jordache, a great band out of Montreal, and have taken some pointers from their sound. I like the 80s and taking from new wave and no wave, while bringing a more current pop sound, as well as our own flair to it.

When can we expect a Steel Phantoms full-length? AH: That’s what we’re working towards. I think for right now we’re going to push this EP as much as possible, hopefully gain some new fans, and by this time next year have a full-length. Yos and I are constantly writing, so it’s not for lack of material that we don’t have an LP yet. What would be the ideal level of success for you guys as a band? AH: Ultimately, I think we want what every band wants: to be able to make a living playing our music to thousands of adoring fans. In the short-term though, I think I would feel successful if the result of releasing this EP was that we became a lot more well known locally.

Do you look at this band, or music in general, as a career? Or is it something you do when you’re young while you don’t have any real responsibilities? AH: This is totally a career for us. I’ve been studying and playing music my entire life. I’ve never thought of it as a hobby or something that I’d do temporarily before “growing up.” One of the best things about Steel Phantoms is that we’re three guys who couldn’t be happy doing anything else besides performing and playing music.

Aaron, you used to be a member of Islands. Has that helped you get your foot in the door, at all? AH: Definitely. When we first started playing shows, we had to throw out the Islands name in order for any venue or promoter to give us the time of day, especially since at the time we weren’t really friends with any other Brooklyn bands, because we were new to the city, so it wasn’t like we could just hop on our friends’ shows. I also think a lot of music bloggers who normally wouldn’t even open an email from a random band, took a chance on us because of the Islands name. It’s not something that we have to do much anymore because we’re a bit more established now, and I want SP to stand on its own two feet, but I’m thankful that I could use the Islands connection in the beginning.

What is a Steel Phantoms live show like? AH: We set up in the front of the stage, all in a row and just fucking go for it. Our songs can be pretty different stylistically from one to the next, so I like to think that we try to play every song with the same level of energy and intensity which brings a sort of continuity to our see. Of course the fact that we dress up as Neo Goth Rabbis makes us an interesting band to see live, but we’re still working on our stage banter. YM: How’s this one: “My mom wanted to come to this show, until she found out my band was playing!” Zing! AH: Nice.

What are some of your favorite venues to play? YM: We really like a good house party if they have a half-decent sound system. It’s more about the people and the energy than anything else, but we’ve had fun playing Brooklyn Bowl, Secret Project Robot, St. Vitus, Union Pool, Glasslands, MHoW, and Union Hall. All places that care about putting on a good show and are respectful towards the performers.

Have you embraced technology it all when making music, or do you prefer to make music the old school way? YM: I don’t like a laptop in a rock band, personally, unless it really, really works. I think there’s something to be said for being able to play an instrument well and writing collaboratively. But I love drum machines and synths, I love what MNDR does, and I know it’s on the other side of the coin, but I love what Girl Talk does. I love rehearsing with real instruments, and being able to communicate an idea clearly to the guys and just try it out, and then be like, Oh, actually what if that was a D-minor instead of major, and then it kind of happens, and we design synth patches and come up with drum patterns together. I think with digital music, there’s always a risk of getting lazy by copying and pasting, and that’s definitely not always bad, but it becomes easy to not think creatively. You aren’t forced to consider every moment of the song as it’s being written. Very meticulous writers still do, but with digital music, the focus is inherently on a broader scale in terms of structure. Sorry if that makes no sense at all.

Do you guys aim to make your music catchy? Do you think that’s important? YM: We like catchy music, when it’s good. It’s definitely important. People’s brains latch on to patterns for a reason. We definitely aim for a bit of repetition when it’s called for. And when one of us comes up with a great hook, it’s cause for celebration.

Do you ever get overwhelmed, being a band in such a band-saturated place like Brooklyn? How do you rise above? YM: You find a network of support after being here a certain amount of time, I think. Good musicians who are on the right track, who have their “fingers on the pulse,” or whatever, of the scene here. Bands who like each other who play shows together, tour, and shoot the shit. We’ve been able to play great shows with incredible bands like ARMS, Violent Bullshit, Wild Yaks, Shark?, EULA and Spacecamp, and a bunch more, and it’s all from hanging out and meeting good people and camaraderie between bands.