August 05, 2015 News » Cover Story

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Phases frontwoman Z Berg resolves her musical pasts

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As frontwoman of the fast-rising dance-pop band Phases, Z Berg is very much in love with her life right now. But that wasn't the case just two years ago, when her life in L.A. felt so hopeless that she'd begun making plans to move to Nashville and try her luck as a guitar-strumming folk singer.

The daughter of a major-label exec who produced albums by Aimee Mann and Peter Gabriel, Berg was fronting all-female band The Like by the age of 15. Success had seemed inevitable: New York Times critic Jon Pareles described their Mark Ronson-produced sophomore album as "irresistible" garage-rock in the "tough girl-group" tradition of Blondie and The Donnas. London's Sunday Times praised Berg's "Björk meets Harriet Wheeler" voice.

But The Like imploded in 2011, and Berg's subsequent band, JJAMZ, reached the same stage a year later, after releasing their sole album on the Silverlake-based Dangerbird Records.

Maybe, on some subliminal level, that was all preordained. The Like's final album, after all, was titled Release Me, while JJAMZ's swan song was Suicide Pact. It also didn't help that the latter band had a two-syllable name (juh-JAMZ) that was universally mispronounced.

Following the departure of guitarist James Valentine, JJAMZ fell by the wayside, and Berg took to playing solo sets at L.A. clubs like Room 5 and the Echoplex. After a few further setbacks, she finally reached the point where escaping to Nashville and pursuing a singer-songwriting career began to feel like the only way out.

But the singer was saved from that fate when she and band members Michael Runion, Alex Greenwald and Jason Boesel — whose collective résumé included stints with Rilo Kiley, Conor Oberst and Phantom Planet — decided to reunite in Greenwald's Laurel Canyon living room, just for the fun of it.

Relieved of the pressure to be a "real" band, the musicians soon stumbled upon a combination of New Wave, rock and EDM that would once again change everything. They ditched their old name, got signed to Warner Brothers, and have begun drawing attention with their frothy dance-pop confection "I'm In Love With My Life."

The single has now spawned a number of remixes, the best being a new downtempo version by Joywave (who will themselves be appearing at Rawkus on Aug. 21). There's also a tongue-in-cheek accompanying video, complete with cars exploding in reverse and Berg flaunting some flashy gymnastics in a fairly revealing outfit.

click to enlarge TERRENCE JONES
  • Terrence Jones

In September, Warner Brothers will release Phases' debut album, For Life. Meanwhile, after three months rehearsing in the basement of the label's Burbank headquarters, the band is heading out on the road for a tour that includes a Sunday, Aug. 9 show at the Black Sheep.

Last week, Berg took some time out to talk about straddling her split musical personalities, dealing with "interpersonal turbulence," and opening for her own band.

Indy: It's hard to imagine the same person doing all the gymnastics in the "I'm In Love With My Life" video, just sitting on a stool in some dark Nashville cafe, singing dour folk songs to a drunken audience. How close did you really get to doing that?

Z Berg: I had a move date, and I was truly one foot out the door. I already had a whole record of acoustic music, and still do live shows with just my guitar — finger-picking morose, cerebral, sad folk songs. [Laughs.] We were really at the point where I just didn't feel welcome in Los Angeles, we didn't know what we were really doing, and there was no kind of direction in the music.

And also, my car had been stolen, my house had been broken into. It was like, "I gotta go." And then we started working on this music for fun. "Let's not do it because of where it goes, or who hears it, or what happens." And then, amazingly, there was this kind of kismet, where everything just started working.

Meanwhile, there are videos online of you still performing solo, like the one from earlier this year at the Hyperion Tavern, where you were performing solo in front of what looks like some B-movie footage of people getting undressed and hanging around motorcycles.

As one does.

Were those scenes from some Warhol film? Did you ever turn around to look?

I don't know what those videos were. I literally never turned around.

So do you think that people who are only familiar with your new band's music and image would be surprised to see you doing something that's so much less polished? I mean, frankly, at first glance, I wouldn't necessarily have known you had it in you.

I've played so many different kinds of music and, you know, I've been writing songs since I was 13, and I've been playing music since I was 5. All the members of the band, we like so much different stuff, and we've all played so many different kinds of music.

That's the beauty of this band to me, that our music really incorporates everything all of us has done and are capable of. But it's music that we would never have made alone.

We just played a show the other day, and our opening band dropped out. And so I opened for us as the "folk me." It's very funny to do that back-to-back. To, you know, screw on my two different heads.

So when you started bringing together all of your musical directions, were you basically looking for the highest common denominator?

I think so. I really feel like we're at the height of our powers together. And, you know, when we're all kind of separate, we're like splintered and fractured people, as artists often are. But I feel like, whenever we come together, we're like Übermensch.

If only for that short period of time.

Yeah, exactly. Get us all into Phases, and we're one functional human.

Your old band, The Like, did some work with Mark Ronson.

Yes, we did.

What did that involve?

Well, he produced the last Like record, which was called Release Me.

I'm guessing he didn't find you guys to be as dysfunctional as Amy Winehouse.

Not quite. Although that was like, a seriously tumultuous time in our band, too. Our original bass player, she quit the week before we went in to make that record. She was just like, "I'm out," after years and years of us being in a band together. And so Alex Greenwald, who is in Phases now, he came in and took her place. He also sings and co-writes songs on Mark Ronson's solo records, and played in his band for a while.

But yeah, we were all kind of out of our minds at that point. So that was a wild album to make — and interesting, because that record was kind of the polar opposite of this record. That one was all live to half-inch tape, the band in a room, all '60s gear, one-take vocals, no click-tracks. I don't know; it was kind of the culmination of the way I felt for so long, in that I'd been lamenting the fact that I don't live in the '60s. And that's kind of all the music I listened to, growing up.

And now, this record is the first time that I've been so excited to live now. The way we recorded it, the way we made it, could only be made now. It's incredibly modern, despite its plethora and vast array of previous influences. And so, you know, it's a very different feeling to just be like, "Goddammit, I'm so happy that we live in 2015, however fucked-up a time it is, and that we get to make this music now."

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  • Vincent Perini

A lot of Ronson's solo work is really '80s-influenced, which also seems to be the case with Phases. Who's the most '80s person in the band? I'm guessing keyboardist?

Well, it's interesting. We all probably like a different aspect. You know, Mike Runion is a huge Smiths fan. And Jason Boesel is a huge Madonna and Chaka Khan fan. I think we all have really different parts of the '80s that we love.

You've already released a fair number of remixes. That's something most pop-inclined bands haven't done much of since the 1980s, which really was the big era for remixes of bands that didn't do dance music.

Well, you know, I feel like that's making a comeback really, having remixes. Because dance music has become so popular. Plus, it's pretty exciting to hear your song through the lens of somebody else's vision.

But I think we really do straddle the line, between dance and electronica and more traditional rock and pop music. And that really lends itself to getting a little more of a dance and EDM edge to it. So it's been fun to hear what other people will do with our songs.

Why did you ditch the name JJAMZ? Did some rapper in Cleveland send you a cease-and-desist order?

Well, our biggest problem was that no one could fucking pronounce it. And also, it was an acronym for our names: We had another "J" in our band — a James — that we lost for this record, because he's in another band. Plus, it felt the music was so different than what we had worked on before. So because of the music and, you know, the fact that we had lost one of our "Js," it really felt like we needed a different name.

It seems like most bands politely attribute those kind of things to "musical differences." But your bio cites "creative confusion and interpersonal turbulence," which sounds a lot more interesting. What exactly happened?

[Laughs.] Well, you know, when you have known each other for as long as we've known each other, I just think we were all kind of at this weird crossroads in our lives, and we were all so kind of lost. Particularly because we had made this [JJAMZ] record, and toured it, and then just didn't really know what we were gonna do.

Also, when you've been friends as long as we have, it's amazing that we're all still friends. We've been through everything.

What's the worst thing you've been through? And then maybe we can get to the best thing.

You know, certain members of us have been in love and then not been in love, and thought we would never talk to each other again. And here we are, still in a band. So if you can go through that shit, you can pretty much go through anything.

The name "Phases" suggests some transitional kind of thing. Are you all really in this for the long haul?

I think that's part of the reason why we called the record For Life, because life is supposed to be about constant transition. You should constantly be changing and constantly evolving and constantly going through different phases. I love the idea of life's phases. You know, like when you're a teenager and whatever phase you're going through, you think it's going to last forever, until you get on to the next one.

And I think I'm sort of like that. I'm kind of like, you know, any person I'm dating, or any clothes I'm wearing, or any makeup styles, or whatever I'm listening to — I'm like, "Oh, this is it! This is everything!" As if it's always gonna be like this. But then we find something new.

But I think the throughline is that we've been best friends for what, 15 years? I've known these people for my entire adult life, and it seems that, no matter what we do, we just can't fucking get rid of each other. So we will go through a lot of phases, but we'll go through them together.

You earlier mentioned writing morose and cerebral songs. Could your really morose and cerebral songs translate to the new band?

Um, you know, I can kind of reserve those — the most depressing ones — for my solo finger-picking.

So everyone else in the band isn't begging for them.

Well, you know, what's great is that my favorite music in general — and particularly with my favorite pop dance music — there's this feeling of the bittersweet. "I'm In Love With My Life" is really kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it's definitely a more extreme example of this fucking pure expression of joy, of happiness and excitement.

It's almost sickening in that way.

Yeah [laughs], but in that kind of great way of, you know, it's fun. And it expresses a certain kind of levity and sincerity that would previously be thought unimaginable for all of us, given where we come from.

But there's also a definite amount of darkness — and heartbreak, and resentment and regret and all sorts of stuff on this record — that comes through in the guise of this kind of sparkly pop music. Which I think creates a really wonderful disconnect that I always love.

It just, I don't know, has that kind of crazy feeling of songs that kind of get you forever. Like, "It sounds sweet, but [stage whispers] it isn't that sweet, is it?" Just like me.


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