“Cancer with an Aries moon and Leo rising,” says Z Berg, detailing her astrological chart as we sit down at an all-but-hidden sushi dive on Hollywood Boulevard. “It’s a mess of contradictions, which is my whole vibe. I’m just bouncing from extreme to extreme.” The front woman of indie-pop band PHASES, and our middle child of Vagabond vixens, is as adorable as she is fiery–so yeah, I can see what she means. She flashes a kinetic red grin from her corner seat, tucked beside a rosewood Shoji screen, but every once in a while that smile slips into a smirk, as if she’s in on the joke no one else gets. And maybe that’s what I love about her the most–it’s not that she’s a weirdo in her own world, as she later intimates; it’s that her world is the shit, and you can either get with the party, or get the hell out of the way.
I’m down for the party, if nowhere else but in my head.”Ooh, I just got a vision of Quincy Jones,” I tell her, swooning over her first impressions of the Warner Bros. recording studio, where PHASES has recently wrapped up recording their debut album.
(Glamorous Wonderwall Pussy Bow Dress)
“That is truly the vibe. It’s quintessentially ’70s… all beautiful wood and glass. The air is different as soon as you get in there. When we first signed, they gave us a tour of the grounds, and we went into the basement; there was all this empty space, so we were like, ‘Can we rehearse there? Can we have it?’ They were like, ‘No one’s ever asked us that… yeah.'”
The crew of four–Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley/Bright Eyes), Alex Greenwald (Phantom Planet), Michael Runion, and of course, Z, formerly of The Like–rehearsed there for months, prepping for a series of tours around the U.S. that are just about to get underway. With such a star-studded line-up and powerhouse label, you might be imagining glitz and glamor–and you wouldn’t be too far off. “The first day we rehearsed there, Mike–my guitar player–and I went upstairs to look for food, and they were just having a party for Duran Duran. So we raved with Duran Duran for a while, and then just went back to rehearsing. It was so surreal. Every day was kind of like that there: you never knew who you were going to run into.”
My life has been bizarre since day one…I grew up with X and Johnny Rotten in the backyard.
Z is no stranger to the surrealism of L.A.’s star scene though. “My life has been bizarre since day one. My dad was a music producer, so I grew up with X and Johnny Rotten in the backyard. I started playing piano when I was five and guitar when I was 13, and I started my first band when I was 15,” she says, referring to The Like, a teen-dream girl-group whose sound evolved from neo-grunge to a fusion of ’60s pop and rock–think The Angels meet The Kinks. “We were so young, and we kind of became relatively successful when I was still in high school. I’ve only ever played music for a job–I literally don’t know how to do anything else.”
(Nasty Gal Ladyland Suede Dress)
When I ask if all that time in the public eye was hard to manage at such a young age, I get a glimpse into part of what makes Berg so multidimensional. “Actually, everyone hated me in high school because I was weird. I was a book nerd, and I didn’t have the greatest social skills of all time. When I started a band, I was like, ‘Alright, freaks doin’ freak stuff.’ Plus all my friends were a lot older–when I was supposed to be doing high school things, I was going to Star Shoes [the now defunct Hollywood dance club]. I just made more sense in a band.”
The origin story of The Like is as reminiscent of a passage from any teenage girl’s diary as it is a peek behind the rarefied backdrop of L.A. celebrity. “We came together because our parents were all friends, and it just came up at a party,” she says, referring to Tennessee Thomas, whose father was the drummer for Elvis Costello, and Charlotte Froom, whose dad is also a music producer. “From there, the girls emailed me, and we started a chat room, which was pretty cute. [Laughs] The first day we got together, I had just been at the mall with my mom, and I showed up with a shopping bag full of underwear. They were like, ‘Who is this??’ Then we had a sleepover and baked a bundt cake and listened to Niko all night. The dawn of a girl-band. So classic.”
I like to infuse a literary perspective into dance music, and fun music, and electronic music, and fuse something together that has meaning but still creates a party vibe.
PHASES, Berg’s new outfit, has a birth story that echoes The Like’s in its capricious nature, but this time it’s all grown up (sub alcohol for bundt cake). “I met Alex when I was 13–which is so crazy because I used to have Phantom Planet posters on my wall growing up. He was over at my house all the time because he’d made a record with my dad, and we just started going to karaoke every night, like two lead singers. Such assholes,” she laughs. “One night all of us were out at what used to be called Guy’s Bar in West Hollywood–I don’t think it exists anymore. It was karaoke night, and it was super crowded; only I could get on the list to sing. We were all a little tipsy, so we were like, ‘What are we doing? Let’s go home and make our own music.’ We went home, wrote a song, recorded it, put it on MySpace, and called ourselves JJAMZ.
“After that for the next few years, whenever we were all in town from touring, we would get together and make music. Later, all our bands broke up, so we put up the JJAMZ record, and suddenly we were like… ‘Do we want to do this?’ We made that record over the course of a year, but it was always just a side project, and then all of a sudden it became real. So, PHASES kind of rose out of that. It’s funny because there was a point when I thought I was going to move to Nashville and become a folk singer and leave L.A.–my house had been robbed, my car had been stolen–but then we started working on this music, and I just had to stay. So here I am.”
(Nasty Gal Love Her Madly Embroidered Dress)
When we were in the studio, we decided that this album is like, if Blondie made Thriller.
Though The Like and PHASES share whimsical beginnings, that’s pretty much the end of the overlap. “This [PHASES] record is really different from anything I’ve ever made,” Z tells me, sipping on a mini carafe of cold sake, “because I’ve never really made dance music. When we were in the studio, we decided that this album is like, if Blondie made Thriller. We were listening to so much from the ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s, and now when we were making it. But we would say, ‘What’s the weird shit we can take from this? Oh, that horrible slap bass? How can we make that cool? ‘Cause no one else is doing that.’ We mined a lot of weird stuff that no one else was taking from.
“It’s also the first time I’ve made music that could only be made now. Everything is based on technology, recording sounds in a way you can only do now. I’m such a ’60s child; that’s all I listened to forever. Growing up, I knew every Stones record, every Beach Boys record, every Dylan record, every Leonard Cohen record–that’s how I learned what songs are. This is the first time I’ve ever been so excited about what you can do now with recording and playing music live. Our live show is pretty crazy because we’ve sampled from every single sound on the record; it’s a combination of electronic sounds and a real band playing live–it’s really interesting, and it wouldn’t have been possible to do before now. At the same time, I think it’s important for us to continue writing songs and not just creating sounds through electronic music. I like to infuse a literary perspective into dance music, and fun music, and electronic music, and fuse something together that has meaning but still creates a party vibe.”
As a self-proclaimed woman of extremes, it should come as no surprise that Z went from fronting an all-girl band, to an otherwise all-dude one, but I can’t help but wonder how it feels to jump directly from one to the other. “It is really different,” she explains. “There are good things and bad things about both of them. I spent ten years with The Like walking on stage and watching a crowd of people go… ‘Yeah right. Prove it.’ There is such sexism; it’s fucking nuts. Plus, we were three teenage girls, so that was hard, too. But now with PHASES, you walk on stage and people are like, ‘Oh cool, what’s this?’ That said, there’s also something really powerful about being an all-girl band and having that girl gang with you. At the end of the day, it just depends on who you’re with–I loved and still love all the girls from The Like, and now, with PHASES, my bandmates have been my best friends for my whole adult life. We’ve been through so much together that I feel like we can do anything, which is saying a lot–a band is like a combination of every relationship, you guys are like lovers, business partners, friends, roommates, everything–all rolled into one. So when it’s great, it’s the best; and when it’s bad, it’s so fucked.”
That feeling is why you can play the same song every single night–that moment where everyone is feeling the same thing at the same time.
With a U.S. tour right around the corner (they head out in November), I ask Z where she’s excited to perform, but it turns out that’s not how it works. “Nowhere. Your favorite thing to do is play for people who like it, but where you are doesn’t fucking matter at all. If you’re playing for people who are loving it and getting it, and you’re all on the same page–that’s the best. That feeling is why you can play the same song every single night–that moment where everyone is feeling the same thing at the same time… it’s like crack. And I’m a connection addict– like, just in general. I smile at every single person I walk past on the street because if I share a smile with a stranger, it’s like I’m high. It’s the same when you play music to a group of people, and they’re all connected. That’s the thing for me, that’s what I want–that’s the goal in any good relationship, too, to see the same thing at the same time. Just to get to that moment–even for a second–where you’re seeing the same thing. When it’s all said and done, love is really just seeing the same thing at the same time.”
Photos by Vincent Perini