The Guest List: Phenomenal Handclap Band mark their illustrious journey in 10 tracks
Daniel, Juliet and Monika detail the band's organic journey through their discography
Bridging a plethora of club-friendly music styles that amass into what can be simplified as leftfield disco, New York’s Phenomenal Handclap Band have impressed over the years with their quirky, unabashed and imperfectly-perfect amalgamation of sound.
The band first came together in New York's East Village at the calling of former DJ and producer Daniel Collás. An eponymous debut album ensued, quickly captivating refined ears across the globe. Multiple singles including remixes of their works have come through the likes of Balearic maestro Ray Mang, Munk, Superpitcher, Glimmers and Clock Opera, to name a few.
The band encapsulates the incredibly diverse sound of New York, from nostalgic soul, punk and disco to the latin roots that make up the multicultural metropolis. Just last year, they appeared for the first time on Brooklyn-based imprint Razor-N-Tape by way of a collaboration with label honcho JKriv. Phenomenal Handclap Band make a return to the label with their own offering, titled ‘Burning Bridges EP’, which comes with a signature extended cosmic house journey courtesy of Prins Thomas. Check out the EP here.
Mixmag Asia invites the illustrious Phenomenal Handclap Band to The Guest List series to journey us through ten formidable tracks that mark their journey. Dive in, starting with an introduction from founding band member, Daniel Collás.
Daniel Collás: The first album came out in 2009. Around that time, I was really just looking for an excuse to make a record with friends and acquaintances I knew through my travels in nightlife, people I would see out a lot and talk about music with, but never had time or a real reason to work with. Once that record was finished, we didn’t really think there was going to be much in the way of performing or touring. We just thought we’d be able to play a few shows on the coasts because it sounded like a logistical nightmare. Little did we know.
'15 to 20'
Daniel: This one kind of put us on the map. Zane Lowe played it on his BBC Radio 1 show and Paul McCartney happened to hear it and was so charmed that he sent us an actual handwritten note. The vocals are by the one and only Tigra, who many people know as one half of L’Trimm.
Daniel: Aside from all the prog rock and cosmic disco on the first record, I wanted to do at least one heavy soul ballad, a sort of homage to Baby Huey or The Undisputed Truth. The excellent vocals on this track were provided by Jeremiah Abiah, who I happened to see singing with Burnt Sugar, and Micah Gaugh, who was an East Village fixture at the time. The flutes were played by one of my favourite people to work with, Rodrigo Ursaia. One nice memory of this song was from a show in Dublin. We usually wouldn’t play ‘Baby’ since it was slower than the rest of the set, and that night the audience wasn’t particularly receptive, so we left it out. When we finished, we just kind of walked backstage. It didn’t seem like we deserved an encore. But then a few minutes later we heard the audience singing — almost chanting— the chorus: “Baby! I could rule the world…” I think most of them had come just to hear that one song, so of course we had to come back out and play it. A couple of years later, Clock Opera’s remix was featured in Solomun’s Boiler Room set, so ‘Baby’ got a bit of a resurgence.
Daniel: This was our first release after a few years off. Juliet and I had written most of PHB together, with the exception of ‘Do What You Like’, and ‘Riot’, which were written with Monika and Anders Hansson, and this one, which was written with Michael Rafalowich, who played a lot of the guitar and some bass on the album. Initially, Daptone wanted to put it out, but in the end, it made more sense to have them distribute it instead.
'It Was The Summer'
Juliet & Monika: We wanted to step away from our dance tracks and create a kind of muggy midtempo mood piece that combined ‘80s drum-machine-based pop ballads and atmospheric guitar. It was exciting for us to do this and go way out with the lyrics, a theme on the Burning Bridges EP.
Juliet & Monika: We took a really open approach to the verse lyrics here - rhyming or melodic matching took a backseat, and we want to do more of this in the future. This is an example of Monika’s sense of melody and ability to sustain long-form complexity in the lead vocal, drawing you in. Instead of trying to pull ideas for lines to repeat as might be a typical approach, we went with a freestyle-inspired use of melodies.
'Let Out On the Loose'
Juliet: This was one of the first 3-4 tracks that Daniel and I worked out as a foundation for what would become the PHB album. I wrote most of this before meeting Daniel, coming out with a churning, ringing guitar-heavy sound over a false freedom narrative. The synth and guitar layering, as well as the makossa and all the percussive elements, came together to make the final track and help propel us toward a defined overall sound alongside “The Healer”, another early track. We’re honoured that Danny Krivit chose this one to edit.
Juliet: Another of the first few songs by Daniel and me that would become the album PHB, this one started out with Daniel’s Chaz Jankel-inspired piano chord progression intro backed by an almost Mick Fleetwood-style beat. The roaring backward piano effect at changes is a signature sound on this one. It initially felt really British in style until we slowed it down and added some distinctly American vocals and lyrics. The Ray Mang and Superpitcher remixes are great, the Superpitcher one being pared down to provide a bare acapella feel at moments. As reflected in this song, many of the lyrics on this album have hidden or not-so-hidden meanings or double meanings commenting on sexism and racism.
Daniel: When I was writing this, I was thinking about the Rotary Connection and Roy Ayers, and then I got the phrase ‘Judge Not’ stuck in my head, specifically the concept of giving people the benefit of the doubt. From there it kind of became more and more of a gospel number, and since I grew up with Catholicism, that meant plenty of acoustic guitar. Victor Axelrod played all the great piano on this one, and our good buddy Angela Jones provided the fiery lead vocals.
'Do What You Like'
Juliet & Monika: Daniel expanded on his own production and composition work by partnering with Anders Hansson in their Stockholm sessions to lay the foundations for this track. The band continued to compose it back here in Brooklyn, without Monika or I having ever met Anders in person until much later. The seemingly sunny lyrics in the chorus belie the subject matter of the verses, which is about the mysterious gradual disappearance of the population of a coastal town.
This was a tricky single to release during lockdown with the fairly ‘carefree’ message of our lyrics obviously written well before it. As luck would have it, this came out during a time when no one on Earth could take it easy or do what they wanted. Another way of looking at it is that most people were, for a time, taking it as easy as they ever had, and doing mostly what they liked all day. A lot of the scenes in the song describe walking around an empty town, and observing at your own pace, too, so it kinda turned out to be a perfect lockdown song.
Horse Meat Disco featuring PHB 'Sanctuary'
Juliet & Monika: ‘Sanctuary’ brought us the opportunity to work with Horse Meat Disco and Luke Solomon, and we’re very happy with the result and remix versions. The beat and instrumental track gave us an image of walking or stepping downstairs. We were drawn to singing about going underground into a dance club and feeling anonymous and unavailable dancing in a tight dark club - status through secrecy. There’s also a message of women sticking together to keep each other safe, looking out for one another whether you know the person or not. It’s positive, unifying - us against them but with a playful tone. The ‘Sanctuary’ lyrical concept came to us early on, and with that idea comes a shift from setting the location and all of the aforementioned, to a romantic or community support partnering meaning - You’re my sanctuary. The title itself is a specific reference to the NYC proto-disco era club, where one of our heroes, DJ Francis Grasso, was the resident.