There is a dark side to pop. It can be heard in the Beatles' "Helter Skelter," the Rolling Stones' "Midnight Rambler," Elvis Costello's "Accidents Will Happen." For songwriters, bad news can be an inspiration. Alex Greenwald, the singer-guitarist of L.A.-based Phantom Planet, certainly went to dark places for his band's latest album, "Raise the Dead," which explores the grim phenomenon of cults. His new songs dig into some of the darkest American tales and tragedies of the 20th century, feeding on the legacies of Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones and others.
The process, he says, was fascinating and grueling, amusing and heartbreaking, as he wrote and recorded demos, sometimes alone, in a small Hollywood studio. "It all started with my fascination with cults and cult music, which started in 2004, when I started writing this record," Greenwald said, calling from Chicago between tour dates. "I became fascinated with how a cult will start with a charismatic leader whose heart possibly could have been in the right place within their distortion of reality. Somehow this clicked with me as unifying the songs."
"Music in any instance is an extremely quick way of conveying an emotion or an influence," Greenwald added. "Cults are based on mind control, effectively inserting your point, and music can do that almost immediately."
The songs on "Raise the Dead" are often bright and tuneful, with a layer of Bowie-esque glam, including the tracks "Do the Panic," "Dropped" and "Leave Yourself for Somebody Else." "Quarantine" rides spaced, Radiohead-like drift, with a vocal that could be classic Ray Davies. It's another stylistic shift for Phantom Planet, a band that first reached the pop masses through the song " California" (spread weekly nationwide under the opening credits on Fox's teen drama "The O.C."). They've existed as a group for 14 years, ever since Greenwald and some friends in the ninth grade began playing together in West Los Angeles.
Among those friends was drummer Jason Schwartzman, who remained with the band for several years even as his acting career took off after the 1998 film "Rushmore," but then finally left during the recording of "Phantom Planet."
Although the band's self-titled 2004 album leaned heavily toward garage rock, the new direction is unsurprising to Greenwald. "We had a four-year break," he said. "I'm a different person from what I was four years ago. I hear that every seven years all your cells regenerate. I don't know it that's true, but I like thinking that way because as people we change, we shed skins. Each record for me is as honest as I can be about what I'm going through. I don't live in a box. I experience as any things as I possible can, and if possible, write about them."
In researching the tragedies that informed the new songs, Greenwald listened to a tape from the Library of Congress from Nov. 18, 1978, as the Rev. Jim Jones orders his congregation to drink poisoned Kool-Aid in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. But just as disturbing was a gospel record he came across by Jones, and the otherwise uplifting first song, "Welcome." "There are kids singing, and there is something about that that really saddened me," Greenwald says. "But feeling strongly about something is important when you're writing a song."
During the band's four years between albums, Phantom Planet did a few weeks on the road with the reunited Zombies, whose works had influenced Greenwald. And seeing the veteran rockers on tour so many years later left an impression. "To see that it can be a joyful experience to play for as long as you want it to be. Seeing that for us gave us a lot of hope for the future and strength."
Phantom Planet will perform Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim with Panic at the Disco, Motion City Soundtrack and The Hush Sound as part of the Honda Civic Tour.