Portland duo Phosphene often gets pegged as shoegaze, that amorphous genre whose precise definition is as fuzzy as its distortion-drenched sound. But drummer and guitarist Matt Hemmerich is keen to stress a crucial distinction: “You can always hear what the hell Rachel’s saying.”
Hemmerich and guitarist-vocalist Rachel Frankel have been playing under the name Phosphene since 2008, when they met at San Francisco State University. Transmute, which they’re self-releasing Sept. 15, is their third full-length album and their most sonically expansive despite containing only eight tracks.
The arrangements sound bigger and fuller than ever, and it’s hard to tell what’s a guitar, a keyboard, a string section, or all at once. Meanwhile, Frankel’s vocals are crystal clear, reflecting her past as what she describes as a more conventional singer-songwriter performing at open mics. “I feel at this point distant from those early days,” she says, “but those roots are still a part of me.”
To record Transmute, the duo returned to the Bay Area to work with producer Greg Francis at Brothers Chinese Recording in Oakland. “He’s someone who happens to be a great friend, and when you have a great dynamic with a friend, you can have that really nice, sometimes-blunt-if-necessary honesty,” Frankel says. “There’s some stress to it, but the good kind.”
“We’re not in the business of having someone come and just fluff our slippers and let us know that this is an incredible record,” Hemmerich says. “I’d rather someone just say, ‘Oh, I love the bones of it—let’s maybe tweak something.’”
Though Phosphene’s sound could easily be described as a “wall of sound,” the music on Transmute specifically suggests the Wall of Sound production technique associated with ‘60s girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes and designed to sound good on cheap car stereos and boomboxes. Part of this effect comes from the presence of digital string arrangements by Ryan Huff.
“I love the Ronettes and some of the sweeping string moments,” Frankel says. “Strings immediately evoke a sense of emotion, and I think we wanted to lean into that, see where we could go. As we kind of kept sharpening it, I just kind of started thinking of it in relation to some of the Wall of Sound-type music.”
“I think sonically we wanted to make it a little more eclectic,” Hemmerich adds. “We just wanted to buck the notion that something like ‘Black Sheep’ or ‘Borough’ can’t live on an album that has ‘Everyone Is Gone’ or ‘Wandering.’”
The sound of Transmute comes from a long history of collaboration and influence-sharing between the two musicians. After meeting, the two turned each other on to their respective inspirations: singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Damien Rice for Frankel, heavier guitar bands like Nirvana and Metallica for Hemmerich, with some common ground such as NYC post-punk band Interpol.
The two developed a collaborative songwriting practice that, with the occasional variation, has remained consistent across the band’s three full-lengths thus far.
“Rachel’s always gonna be the person who writes the vocal melody,” Hemmerich says. “When she has a melody done, she gets to huck it at me and I get to listen to it over and over again and then write lyrics. She throws me a great melody, and I get to sink my teeth in and write, and then she’ll edit from there.”
The band hasn’t booked any gigs yet to celebrate the release of their new record, but they’ll be hosting a listening party for Transmute at the Decibel Sound & Drink in Milwaukie on Sept. 13 from 7 to 9 pm, with merch for sale.
“It feels like we’re only scratching the surface,” Frankel says of the new record. “I’m kind of curious to see where we’ll go from here. I think now that we’re not so bound to the shoegaze label anymore, I think the options are pretty endless.”
HEAR IT: The Transmute listening party is at Decibel Sound & Drink, 11380 SE 21st Ave., Milwaukie, 503-342-6764, decibel-pdx.com. 7-9 pm Wednesday, Sept. 13. Free.