Phonoroyale Brings The Sounds Of The Past Into The Future
By Shelly McDonald
YOU POP THE olive from your Stoli martini into your mouth and watch the swank quintet making their way to the stage through the smoky bar. The men are decked out in sharkskin pants, suspenders, and felt hats, and they're joined by a beautiful woman who's just stepped out of a 1940s pin-up. This is Phonoroyale.
With a look and sound that manages to be simultaneously original and retro, Phonoroyale brings a refreshing change to the world of "alternative" music. If it's angst you're looking for, avert your eyes. This talented five-piece pours a sweet and sultry mix of original torch melodies with a twist of crisp and snappy swing sounds.
Don't be mistaken--Phonoroyale is not your grandparents' rock and roll. The band's music brings a fresh slant to the traditional swing-jazz sounds of the post-WWII era, shaken with a touch of modern flair.
Chanteuse Mary Katherine's throaty whispers and sexy snarls bring life to guitarist Jack Randall's moody lyrics about loves and fortunes lost.
"I'm just frightened of becoming like the people I sing about," jokes Katherine. "When I sing, I think about the people in the audience and wonder what their lives are like. I don't want to know my future. I want it to be a surprise."
When Katherine isn't singing, you'll often hear Randall on his "Phono-Phone," which looks sorta like a cross between a watering can and a tin pitcher. Randall built the instrument in an attempt to re-create the muted horn sounds on the albums of the past. The effect is a new twist from an old idea, like the band itself.
Drummer Scott Hay says he was influenced by his father, Milton G. Hay, who performed vaudeville routines long ago.
"It was great when I brought my dad to one of our gigs," recalls Hay. "He really enjoyed the show and approved of what we're trying to achieve. Between my father and my mother, who was a dancer, I was constantly exposed to good music."
Upright bassist Kevin Pate also acknowledges his paternal influences. He recalls his father, a jazz sax player, chided him in his punk-youth about his musical proclivities.
"My father would hear me playing and he'd come in and say, 'Why don't you play any real music?' He'd be proud of me," says Pate.
The band members, including newcomer guitarist Ben Edmonds, share equally diverse backgrounds, coming from the rock, jazz, experimental, funk and alternative rock scenes. They admit the initial difficulty introducing their sound to the mainstream masses.
"We find that if we can just get them in, and let them honestly listen, they stop and say, 'Hey, this it really great,' " says Hay.
"We strike a nostalgic chord with people," Randall adds. "After a show, people will come up to us and say, 'You know, I have these old records of my grandfather's and he played this kind of stuff.' It's great to make that kind of connection with an audience."
Without the rock distortion of loud, screaming guitars and deafening drums, the music and lyrics are both recognizable and distinct.
Pate's bass, rumored to be a handmade, 200-year-old job from Mexico, is missing a G-string. The result is a husky bass sound that massages the melodies with a slightly minimalist feel, allowing the music to stand alone.
The timeless sound lends to Phonoroyale's appeal. The band often finds a radio-ravaged fan after a show who expresses surprise and delight in the retro sound.
Although the band lives in Phoenix, the members say they feel more welcome in Tucson.
"We try to come down to Tucson as much as we can because of the audiences here," says Hay. "We're not trying to dis Phoenix, but gigs there are hard to come by, and it's a very rock-and-roll scene up there."
Although the sound is retro, the band performs only original tunes.
"That's how Mary Katherine and I ended up back in Phoenix," says Randall. "We were performing on the east coast, in bars or whatever, and we couldn't play a gig without someone asking us to play a Jimmie Buffet cover."
The quartet is all-too-aware of the trap bands often fall into when they begin copying an influence, rather than growing from it.
"None of us are anal to the point of being purists," stresses Hay. "It's not so much whether something is authentic, but if it sounds right."
"This guy asked us once to play an Elvis tune," Randall adds. "Instead of doing that, I'd rather write something in the same vein. This is our lives--we have to write some songs and make some records. We don't want to be a bar band."
Their musical integrity has a sparkling effect on the songs they play. The sound is fresh rather than dated.
"We waited for the right people to come along." Hay says. "We are a lunch-pail band--this is our lives. We don't have time for this and day jobs. If you don't absolutely love what you're doing, it's not going to work."
The band has gotten small nibbles from record companies and is seeing more opportunities for travel.
"We all have bands that we love, and now we have our own," says Randall. "Hopefully we'll be able to inspire someone else in the same way."
Phonoroyale performs Friday, June 27, at the Cottonwood Club, 60 N. Alvernon Way (326-6000), and Saturday, June 28, at Café Magritte, 254 E. Congress St. (884-8004).
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