When someone says an album is “a recounting of several strange and inexplicable happenings around the time” of their formation, you have to ask what exactly they mean by that.
That’s what Lebanon County native Connor Smith, singer and guitarist of the band Phase Materia, has said about the basis of their debut album “Between the Folds,” and he elaborated on it in a phone interview.
“Three of the founding members, Austin (his brother, who plays drums) and Kody (Brown, the bassist), and I, had a long band practice when we were first writing some of these songs, and decided to go for a hike afterwards,” Connor said.
“There was a huge blood moon overhead. We were looking out over this lake and we glanced behind us and there was this amber light coming toward us from over the hill. At first we didn’t really acknowledge it, but it kept getting closer and closer,” he said.
That’s when the “inexplicable” part comes in.
“The next thing we know, we all glanced up and there was this completely silent, equilateral black triangle flying over top of us,” Connor said. “And we stared at it for a while and sort of had this sense of what I describe as rudimentary, animalistic telepathy – it almost felt like we were standing in each other’s minds.
“This craft just hovered above us for a while and I had this uncanny sense of timelessness. We (then) just watched it fly off silently over the hill again,” he said.
This wasn’t the only such experience the band had.
“There were a few more things that happened, not as physically as that viewing, but other instances of a shared consciousness and dreams and telepathy,” Connor added.
The album’s title, “Between the Folds,” and the title track, are rooted in a similar sort of mysticism.
“(That) song made the most sense to name the record after because at that point in the narrative, it’s the entrance into this world that we’re going to elaborate on,” Connor said. “The ‘folds’ are a tertiary viewing practice based on harmonic synchronicities, which is more or less meaning to say that it’s this overlapping of senses to reveal something from a third dimension or perspective.
“It’s moving into that space and here’s the psychic realizations to get there,” he added.
Connor may be young, but it’s pretty clear he’s an old soul, thoughtful and arcane. He and Austin formed the band; Owen Shartie also plays guitar.
Phase Materia is based in Lancaster, but they’re all from Lebanon County originally and half the members still live there. They grew up playing while attending Eastern Lebanon County High School. Connor, Owen, and Kody graduated in 2011; Austin graduated four years later. They’ve been a band for the past year and a half.
The name Phase Materia is “a concept that Austin and I have been working on for several years,” Connor said.
And suitable to the band’s mystic ways of thinking, it calls the music “psychic rock.” Other bands that have shaped them are Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and Iceland’s Sigur Ros – “really cinematic-sounding stuff,” as Connor called it. A primary influence too is the neo-psych band Vinyl Williams; that band’s leader, Lionel Williams, created the cover art of “Between the Folds.”
“I guess I would define that (term) as just more or less being an offshoot of psych rock in general – the distinction I made was just that we wanted to create narrative experiences for people in terms of what concepts we’re presenting,” Connor said.
“We wanted them to become these actual stories and conceptual songs because they do kind of tie in together. It’s meant to be an ongoing narrative and this first record is the first chapter in this long story that we’re hoping to create,” he added.
As much as their music is rock, it’s also very much pop too, in the tradition of ‘60s artists like Donovan, the Beatles, and T. Rex. It almost has no genre except that it’s very ‘60s and evocative of that time period.
“We’re not scared to call it pop – pop just means a lot of people enjoy it, hopefully,” he said. “It’s nice to break out from genres.”
In fact, the first Beatles compilation album was a pivotal purchase in Connor’s musical upbringing.
“I remember going to F.Y.E. and I could pick out one CD and I almost went to pick out Eminem, the first record, and (my mom) said no, you can’t get that, so I settled on the Beatles I instead,” he said.
The band used many ‘60s recording techniques and equipment on the album, most importantly a drum-miking technique used extensively by English recording engineer Glyn Johns, who recorded legends like the Rolling Stones, The Who, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.
“It’s basically three microphones; it’s the most streamlined way to get a three-dimensional picture for your drums,” he said. “I also picked up a couple of old Reslo broadcasting microphones, which are the same type of microphone that the Beatles used in the Cavern Club back in the day.
“I was trying to get a very vintage frequency response for the sonics of it,” he said. “Another thing we did was just a lot of mellotron sounds, like that ‘Strawberry Fields’ flute sound.”
They recorded the album at their home studio, House of Light Records (located in their dad’s barn in eastern Lebanon County), over a three-year period.
“Some of the songs on this record I wrote about three years ago and had been perfecting the ideas behind them,” he said. “It (was) just us demoing it out and recording and re-recording – the final iteration of it only took about a year from start to finish, but the overall writing and production methods took even longer than that.”
Those songs are complex and convoluted, their meaning not always apparent. While the first single, “Golden Teacher,” makes several references to Greek mythology (mentioning “riddles of Persephone,” for instance), that’s only part of it.
“The references to Greek mythology and some Roman things is always something I’ve been fascinated (with) – I enjoy the elemental nature of that mythology,” Connor said.
“(Other lines) were part of the several other strange experiences that we had after that (first) encounter. I don’t want to say I came in contact with those entities directly, but the experiences that followed after were framed in a very classical Greek way, as far as I can interpret it. So I decided to just touch on that,” he added.
It seems like the band’s lyrics, and Connor’s low-key, muted vocals, serve as part of the overall musical soundscape in general – like it’s the sound of everything almost more than the meaning. Connor agreed.
“A lot of the time I don’t start writing lyrics, I’ll just start singing and then fit words into the sounds,” he said. “I trust my subconsciousness a lot more than my conscious brain to make creative things. I normally just sing and whatever my mouth and brain want to say is what I get.”
Many of the lyrical references are “realizations of duality and how you can move past those concepts to find a tertiary experience or idea,” Connor said.
“It’s never really the black side of the yin and yang or the white side, it’s the interface of them, where they connect,” he said.
Despite the music’s complexity, the band displays a good deal of self-restraint and a lack of self-indulgence – the songs are well-crafted and don’t meander, managing to be expansive and controlled at the same time.
“I’ve come from more of a jam band background,” Connor said. “(But) I have an appreciation for pop music and I do really like concise structure and composition – I almost consider it the most important element of songwriting.
“I do actively try to scale it back because I could certainly go off in any direction for any number of minutes. But it’s sometimes more effective to scale back and distill things into their essences,” he added.
Phase Materia may have been born in Lebanon and migrated to Lancaster, but Connor saw no particular musical distinction between the two cities.
“I’m not really familiar with a lot of bands that consider themselves Lebanon bands per se,” he said. “I think a lot of people align themselves with Lancaster just because it’s where a lot of us play so often. And when you start getting out into other states, it just makes sense to pick a more well-toured city just for name recognition.”
The midstate area as a whole is finding itself musically, Connor said.
“I feel like people are really settling into their own unique ideas about what they want to create,” he said. “I think we’re getting more away from hyped-up genres. Lancaster was really popular for metalcore for a while, then some pop-punk was around for a while, and then it did this gypsy-punk-folk stuff, and that’s still alive and well.
“But it does definitely seem to me that the most recent iterations of a lot of local artists are pushing for things that are a lot more feeling-based rather than genre-based. People are trying to do things that evoke very discrete and unique feelings and they’re trying to create more experiences for people than just catchy songs – they’re doing both, luckily,” he added.
He also said that the development of the Lancaster area into the hip, artsy community it’s become over the past few years has helped drive that musical evolution.
“People are allowed to be themselves and to create whatever sort of life and aesthetic they like, and that definitely translates into the music,” he said. “As long as I’ve been living in Lancaster, I’ve definitely seen people become a little bit more comfortable with their unique identities and that is translating into music and the color of the city.”
Want to see Phase Materia in concert? Catch them at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster on January 3 and at Zoetropolis on February 21.
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