Phantom Sensation songwriter Brandon Burnett said that if the idea of a Southern Gothic folk band has you cringing for fear of shouted “Hey” choruses, you can rest easy. For one thing, his main songwriting influences are movies.
“My original idea was this album is a concept I came up with, kind of like Phantom of the Opera but on a train…,” he said. “I’m a horror nerd. I collect VHS, and when all the mom and pop video stores started shutting down, I bought up all the good stuff.”
Besides a yen for material like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and The Stuff, his band’s sound also has a punk edge.
“I really got into bands like Dead Kennedys when I was a kid,” he said. Brandon, who co-fronts Phantom Sensation with his wife Jessica, refers to their version of American roots music as “blackgrass” because the subject matter is “pretty dark.”
Brandon says his music has a “campfire feel” because that’s literally how much of it comes to be.
“We actually sat down around the campfire in our backyard and worked out the chords and stuff. And not just the band –– our friends were involved, too, shouting out the lines to each other. It’s a campfire feel but with some guitar shredding courtesy of Caleb Dixon. He’s a singer-songwriter who’s at a lot of open-mics.”
Along with Dixon, the band recorded the album with Zach Zanetich on bass and Aaron Burke on drums, with Brandon on guitar and Jessica on banjo and French harp, both of them providing vocals.
The couple met in Burleson during their senior year in high school, started dating after graduation, and married a few years later. From there, they started playing at open-mics in their home town –– Brandon actually inherited an open mic night hosting duty when Siberian Traps’ frontman Seth Reeves moved to Nashville in 2009.
“We got together and started playing covers and stuff, and we had the name for a long time, and I think it’s kind of driven what we sound like for a long time,” said Brandon.
When Burleson’s acoustic music nights started to dry up, the couple packed up and headed for Fort Worth, moving into a house with their band and writing the album. They made some demos and showed them to Britt Robisheaux, who recorded the band at Cloudland Recording Studio.
While the album, called Blackgrass Express, strives for its own sound within bluegrass’ stylistic parameters, you can’t help but hear certain influences.
“My grandma is old-school Pentecostal, and I had an old-school gospel experience,” said Brandon. “Church in the woods, old hymnals … that had an influence on the way I think about songs.”
Jessica’s dabbling in choir led to other instruments. But Blackgrass Express isn’t some big-tent revivalist retread.
“Church is where I started singing,” she said. “There’s a lot of symbolism in our music, but it’s not religious at all.”
Brandon agreed. “It’s more of a concept. I wanted to make the music to tell the story.”
Jessica, who took drama classes in high school, said that Brandon originally conceived his story for the theater. “We discussed making it a play because the way the songs are written and the stories they’re telling, they could easily be played out on stage. But [logistically] it’s a lot to do.”
Ultimately, Brandon wants to make movies, naming Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as his favorite filmmakers. As such, Blackgrass Express’s narrative unfolds almost cinematically.
“It’s about a girl whose sister was murdered by a conspiracy perpetrated by a dystopian government. So she follows this guy to a train, and the train turns out to be a prison for people who have revenge in their hearts. And every person in each car has a story about why their damned to this train, because they’ve held onto their vengeance. And she has to make a choice.”
The band’s album release show this Friday at Lola’s Saloon is a kickoff for an eight-date tour through Texas. Brandon and Jessica hope to do road shows as often as possible to promote their debut record. Yet despite Black Express newness, the band is ready for the next thing.
“Honestly, I’m kinda done with these songs. I want to go to the next thing,” Brandon said, laughing. “I’ve had those ideas for a while, and getting to the point where we could be a live band and put on a good show, it’s taken a long time.
“We’ve been playing for four years, I feel like we’ve been doing it for a long time, but we’re still a young band,” he continued. “It takes a long time to get your chops down and be confident to dish it out on stage.”
[box_info]Phantom Sensation Album Release Party
Fri w/Convoy and the Cattlemen, Mean Motor Scooter, and Caliche Burnout at Lola’s Saloon, 2736 W 6th St, FW. $5.