For a band that has achieved what many strive for — critically acclaimed albums, years of extensive touring across the world with appearances at festivals like Glastonbury, Wireless, and Latitude — even a personal note of commendation from Paul McCartney — it may seem against their best interest to bring that momentum to a stop. But for Daniel Collás, the founder of Phenomenal Handclap Band, a creative hiatus ended up being exactly what was needed to make things right.
With their first self-titled album released in 2009, and follow up Form and Control in 2012, Phenomenal Handclap Band now returns to the scene with an LP that represents their music at its core: PHB. After returning to his New York home-base and setting up a studio where he began producing for other artists, aiming to start a completely new project all together, Daniel Collás ended up discovering the elements which brought PHB back to life. Working with Juliet Swango, who as a teenager in the late ’90s-early ’00s became renowned as the front woman of her band The Rondelles, Daniel found that their combination of perspectives captured the essence of Phenomenal Handclap Band, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the PHB album. Soon they were joined by vocalist and synthesizer wizard Monika Heidemann, who had been collaborating with Juan MacLean and Holy Ghost, to complete their musical trio.
PHB captures the feel of dance music’s early origins, where a variety of styles blended together to create what would come to be called disco. From raw soul to psychedelic rock, African percussion to Latin jazz, whatever brought energy to the dance floor and the community together is what was added to the mix. PHB takes this vibe into today, making for a diverse and cohesive album that keeps the spirit alive with a fresh collaboration and revived purpose. Just before it’s release date, founder David Collás took us further into its creation.
PHB represents a return after a long hiatus. Were you intending to take a break from album production?
We had been touring a lot for a few years, and while that can be fun and productive, it can also be exhausting and creatively stifling. You’re consistently exposed to all kinds of music, but no real way to create any of your own. You can put ideas down on a laptop or whatever, and occasionally you have access to a studio to work things out, but your real focus is getting from city to city and playing the music you’re there to promote. Also, we’re based in one of the greatest cities in the world and weren’t spending much time here, so that was weird. All of those things added up to taking some time off and figuring out our next move, which ended up with us going on hiatus. I’ve always been more interested in production than performance, so it was easy to make the decision to focus on spending more time in the studio working on other projects with different artists.
What were some of the benefits you found from doing so?
I think there was a lot of perspective gained from the hiatus. Like most situations, when you’re in the middle of it, little problems seems huge, and big problems seem insurmountable. Time off helped us realize what was working and what wasn’t, and made the path forward much easier to see.
What were some of the factors that made you feel ready to take on the album process again?
On one hand it’s fun and satisfying working with other people on their music. On another, it’s really annoying and a lot of people don’t understand the difference between a producer and an engineer, much less what a producer’s job is. So the latter scenario combined with working with Juliet and her bringing in “The Healer.” I was like, “This sounds like a PHB song!” And it just sort of continued from there.
It sounds like it was a real collaborative effort brought together by a shared vision. Could you tell us some of the back story on how each artist came together for this project?
Juliet was introduced to me through some mutual friends, and we had begun working together on her album. As I mentioned, she brought in “The Healer,” and after a week or two of working on it, I was like, “This sounds like a song I would’ve written for Phenomenal Handclap Band.” And we started shifting our focus to writing PHB from that point on.
We met Monika through Nancy Whang backstage at an LCD Soundsystem show. We had so much in common musically and personally that it was hard to believe we didn’t already know each other.
Were there any challenges that you faced which were new to you, or was it all smooth sailing?
A lot of this record was written in the studio, meaning it took shape as it was being recorded, as opposed to bringing in completed songs to record like the previous albums. It was challenging, but ultimately pretty liberating, because we did most of it at our own studio without being concerned with studio costs or outsiders checking up on us.
What are the key elements that make PHB definitively “Phenomenal Handclap Band”? What makes it different than anything you have done before?
I think we have an inherent sound that comes from our musical aesthetics which influences our songwriting and production. We’re not really concerned with what other people are doing or re-inventing the wheel, musically speaking. We’re essentially making music that we’d listen to, and there’s an honesty in that process which I think comes across in the music. One thing that was different about this record is working on two songs with an outside songwriter and producer, Anders Hansson. That ended up being a great experience and added a new energy to the album.
Did you have a direction from the start of where you knew you wanted it to go?
I always felt like the second album was a little too different from the first album. I often said that it seemed more like a third album, even while we were in the midst of working on it. There was just too much forward momentum to really do anything about it.
During the hiatus I started thinking about how I would have done things differently, and would imagine what the second album could have sounded like. That ended up setting the tone for PHB.
I love the idea that your music features the “primal components of what dance music would become” and transmits the energy of disco’s early, experimental days. What do you think are the most important factors when it comes to creating modern music that has a retro feeling?
I never think of it as having a “retro feeling.” It comes down to how we hear music, how we perceive it. The fact is, about 80% of the music we listen to is old, mostly because that is what naturally has had an influence on us. Any good new music that’s happening now is good because in some way, regardless of how small, it reminds people of something old, a great idea or innovation that took place and has endured.
What do you think that the community today can learn from dance music history?
For me, the early days of dance music — the era that pre-dated even the term “disco” — is great because the genre didn’t exist yet. So these ingenious DJs like Francis Grasso or David Mancuso or Nicky Siano had to invent it, had to find records to play for these people to dance to, whether it was soul music, or psychedelic rock n roll, or African music, or Latin jazz. It didn’t matter, as long as you could dance to it. This was way before the mainstream media caught on to the fad and “disco” was a huge business.
I don’t know that there is necessarily a lesson here other than perhaps the obvious historical one, but I do think it is important to acknowledge.
What is important for you to communicate through your music? Do you have a message you’d like listeners to hear?
I’m writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the message that comes immediately to mind is “be nice to each other, but also keep your distance and wash your hands constantly.”
PHB by Phenomenal Handclap Band is out now from Toy Tonics, as is the PHB Remix EP featuring remixes from Danny Krivit, Ray Mang, Cooper Saver and David Bay.