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First they were JJAMZ. Now they're back to square one with Phases

Individually, the members of Phases are veterans of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Singer Z Berg performed at the annual desert blowout with her old band the Like. Bassist Alex Greenwald was there during his days in Phantom Planet. And drummer Jason Boesel estimates he's played the festival six or seven times with the likes of Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst.

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But when this smart Los Angeles pop group appears at Coachella 2016, set to begin Friday at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, it won't be in one of the plum time slots reserved for the star attractions.

"We'll be playing before anyone's awake, I'm sure," Berg said recently with a laugh. Added guitarist Michael Runion: "I think we're on the back of a flatbed, actually, and our job is to wake up the campers."

It's a harsh reality, perhaps, but this is what happens when you start over — not once, but twice.

Though Phases is undeniably a new act — with a catchy, synthed-up debut, "For Life," that came out in September — it isn't the first semi-supergroup these experienced musicians have played in together. Four years ago, they released a record called "Suicide Pact" under the name JJAMZ, which they'd made as a kind of freewheeling side project; at the time, the band included another familiar L.A. face, James Valentine of Maroon 5, whose first initial provided the second "J" in JJAMZ.

Full of scruffy indie-rock tunes, the album wasn't bad. (It was definitely better than the band's goofy name seemed to suggest.) But JJAMZ didn't really take off, in part because no one was fully invested in it.

"It never had the foundation of a real band with a real vision," Berg said, curled in a chair at her stylishly appointed home in Mt. Washington. So, after a tour that made the musicians feel only more aimless, they drifted apart. Berg made plans to move to Nashville, while Valentine recommitted himself to Maroon 5, which by then had become a fixture on Top 40 radio.

Yet there was something about a batch of demos that Greenwald later worked up — recording in his living room with an outdated version of Apple's GarageBand software — that made him want to hear Berg's voice. The music was different: slicker and more rhythmic, with bigger melodies and far less guitar. But the singer found her way into it, as did Boesel and Runion, and they were soon all over at Greenwald's, filling out the tracks.

Phases was born.

With six songs in hand, Boesel played the music for Mike Elizondo, a producer and Warner Bros. Records executive who'd worked on the final album by Boesel's old band Rilo Kiley. Elizondo remembers being surprised.

"I was expecting something kind of artsy and reserved, but this was in your face," the producer said. "They were clearly aiming for monster hooks and choruses, and they already had a handful."

Indeed, "For Life" — which Elizondo ended up co-producing with Greenwald — hardly sounds like a debut album. As lightly propulsive as they are carefully textured, cuts like "Silhouette" and "I'm in Love With My Life" reflect the members' accumulated pop know-how. And though the music feels fresh, it also pulls cleverly from the past; that's one reason Phases stood out among higher-profile talent (including Courtney Love and Mark Ronson) at February's Fleetwood Mac Fest at the Fonda Theatre, where the band expertly reanimated the wistful funk of "Everywhere."

At a moment when even Taylor Swift is nodding to '80s influences, Phases' approach indicates a certain market savvy, of course. As Elizondo said, "You don't stumble onto these songs."

Everyone in Phases acknowledges that this is a band with ambition.

"For Life," Greenwald said, is a record "we want to reach the greatest number of people possible," especially younger listeners likely to view the group less as a traditional band than as a charismatic frontwoman surrounded by three anonymous dudes.

"It's the No Doubt thing," Boesel said, pointing happily to a successful version of that pop model. "Or Blondie," added Greenwald. "Or Garbage."

Yet with a new name — not to mention a target audience to whom the names Rilo Kiley and Phantom Planet may mean nothing — building recognition will require real work by band members: not just the dreaded wake-up slot at Coachella but also hobnobbing with radio programmers; playing up-and-comers' showcases at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which Phases did last month; and practicing the kind of social-media engagement that didn't even exist when these musicians first picked up instruments. (Supportive tweets from Greenwald's girlfriend, Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, probably haven't hurt.)

Valentine, who as part of Maroon 5 is well acquainted with the demands of modern pop stardom, said his old friends are up to the task.

"You know about the growth mind-set versus the fixed mind-set?" he asked. "They're totally in the growth mind-set. They don't think they deserve anything just because of what they did before."

Which doesn't mean returning to square one has been easy.

"It's so hard," Berg said. "But it was also necessary." Given Valentine's departure and the group's overhauled sound, "there was no other way to do it.

"And besides, I couldn't keep being in a band called JJAMZ."

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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