Z Berg and Alex Greenwald used to do karaoke every single night. She belonged to The Like and he to Phantom Planet, but whenever they were free, they’d frequent Karaoke Bleu on Sawtelle Boulevard. Sometimes they’d go with longtime friends who also belonged to other projects—Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley), James Valentine (Maroon 5), and Michael Runion. (Casual.)
“I used to think that was the right way to practice,” says Greenwald, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Phantom Planet. “If we didn’t have band rehearsal, the right way to practice is to supplement it with karaoke.”
Berg laughs but supports the idea, saying she learned so much from singing other people’s songs. Eventually, they realized the five of them were going to hang out anyway—why spend money to sing other people’s songs when they could go home and start a band of their own?
They wrote a song, uploaded it to MySpace, and loved the process so much they’d jump in the studio whenever their respective bands were all home from tour. Under the name JJAMZ (an acronym for their first names pronounced “juh-jams”), they released Suicide Pact in 2012.
“And then, [most of] our bands broke up around the same time,” Berg says. JJAMZ toured for a bit in the interim. “We didn’t actually know what we were going to do; this was a side project. It wasn’t a ‘real’ band with a strong foundation or a real understanding of what we wanted to say or what our musical direction was.”
All of them had hit a tumultuous time, particularly Berg. After her house was burglarized and her car was stolen, she planned to leave L.A. and start anew. At the same time, JJAMZ had started working on new tracks, and Berg noticed there was something different about them.
“We found exactly what we wanted to say and the music we wanted to be making,” Berg says, and she knew leaving was off the table. “At the end of the day, music is all I’ve ever done. It’s all I know how to do, and it’s all I love. When music tells you to stay, you stay.”
The new tracks earned them a deal with Warner Bros. Records. Unable to be on two major labels at once, Valentine returned to Maroon 5 full-time, and the now-four-piece band turned their attention to a full-time endeavor of their own: this new band called Phases, which just released an irresistible electropop debut, For Life, with a high-energy show at The Lyric Theatre. We plopped down on the couch with Z Berg after the show and got to know Phases before they embark on a string of shows with Lights and Maroon 5.
How did you make the transition from JJAMZ to Phases?
We worked on [those new tracks] and that was the pact we made: We’ll finish them and see what happens. In my head, I was like, “Universe, if you want me to stay in L.A. and do this, give me a really good reason.” Jason had a weird dream: We’d play six songs for [producer] Mike Elizondo, he’d sign us to Warner Bros., we’d finish the record, and we’d go from there.
We finished the songs and I called up Mike—we’ve known each other for a long time—I went in and played him six songs and he said, “I want to sign you to Warner Bros. and make a record.” I was like, “Jason, you’re a fucking psychic! OK, universe, I’m going to stay.” It’s that Amy Schumer sketch—white girls talking about the universe. It was so undeniable. That’s when we realized this was a real thing. We weren’t totally crazy and making music that only we would like. Maybe other people would like this, too.
After those rough patches and the uncertainty, it seems things truly did pan out—you have a song called “I’m in Love with My Life.” Was that a motto or a revelation while recording this album?
It was a total accident! At the end of the record, we had this one song we couldn’t figure out. We’d written about seven different versions and never gotten it right. We were at Alex’s house—we recorded half the album in his living room—and Jason was in the kitchen and yelled something. Alex jumped up and said, “Did you just say, ‘I’m in love with my life?’” Jason said, “No, I said ‘I love these olives.’” I [sang], “I’m in love with my life!” Then he sang it over every single thing we worked on for the next week until he sang it over that and we were like, “Fuck, it’s so good.”
You could’ve had a hit song about olives.
We may yet.
You’ll play two shows with Maroon 5 later this year. Will there be a JJAMZ reunion with James Valentine?
We’ll have to plan something fun for you guys because, first of all, it’s on New Year’s. Second, it’s a rare occasion where we can share the stage with James again. I imagine something interesting will happen; they’re like our best friends.
What do you want new listeners to know about Phases?
The biggest thing about this band is that these are my best friends in the entire world. These are the people that, for better or for worse, know me better than anyone. I met Alex when I was 13. I went to see Phantom Planet with my dad when I was 13. We know each other so well, and we’ve been through everything you can go through in any kind of relationship. I’ve played music with a lot of people and I’ve been in a few bands, and it’s rare you find this kind of truly indestructible friendship that deep and that intense. Sometimes I’m like, “I wish these people didn’t fucking know me and I could get away with any of my bullshit.” But they know me better than anyone, and that comes through in the music at the end of the day. It’s built on friendship.