A Brief History of Phases: An Interview with Z Berg

Vortex Music Magazine

On the cusp of kicking off their tour with Fitz and the Tantrums, Phases’ Z Berg talks to Vortex about the band's beginnings, transformation, debut album and creating their live shows. See them on August 19 at the Oregon Zoo and in October with Maroon 5.

Photo by Vincent PeriniPhoto by Vincent PeriniAt the very start of our conversation, Phases' Z Berg spills her band’s secret plan.

“We have an evil plot to take over Portland,” she says. “To schedule all our tours around it.”

The plan might seem obvious, what with the band’s multiple previous trips to the Rose City (including a stop at the Crystal Ballroom, a show Z Berg cites as her favorite gig to date) as well as future visits, with gigs supporting Fitz and the Tantrums on Saturday, August 19 at the Oregon Zoo and Maroon 5 in October at the Moda Center.

But don’t worry—the plot stems from the band's love of the city, and is in no way malevolent.

“Portland is definitely one of my top three cities in America,” Z Berg confesses. “The fact we somehow just keep getting to go back and play there over all of these tours is very exciting.”

The band is lucky to keep coming back, and Portland is lucky to have them. Every time Phases is on the bill, it’s not a show to be missed.

Phases started out in 2009 under a different name. Back then, the collective of Z Berg, Alex Greenwald, Jason Boesel, Michael Runion and James Valentine were known as JJAMZ.

“We were just five friends who’d get together whenever we could... just to get drunk in the living room and write songs,” Z Berg says of the band’s previous life.

Under JJAMZ, they released the album Suicide Pact in 2012. However, the band members eventually grew tired of their indie rock and JJAMZ began to drift apart.

“We’d been making music together for so many years and we never thought about the sound,” Z Berg says. “I think we all felt so desperately in need and just craving something new and something different, something that excited us.”

On the verge of breaking up, Alex Greenwald found the inspiration the band needed in Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

“It was like when everything turns to technicolor in The Wizard of Oz,” Z Berg recalls. The sound of the record—an upbeat, electronic fusion of dance, rock and pop—struck a chord with the band, and new life was brought to the collective.

After James Valentine’s split from the group, the now-quartet found home in a new name and a new sound. Thus, JJAMZ became Phases.

Photo by Jen RosensteinPhoto by Jen Rosenstein“You never know when you change your sound really drastically how people are gonna react,” Z Berg says. “But the response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Trading their indie rock for a dance-pop sound, Phases released their debut record, For Life, in 2015.

“Making that record was crazy,” Z Berg recalls. “We made half of it just spending months in Alex’s living room, writing and recording this stuff.”

The record was finished under the hand of producer Mike Elizondo, who has worked with hip-hop greats such as Dr. Dre and Eminem in the past, recording in the studio that was once home to the famed Death Row headquarters.

The album was a triumph for the band, an effortless transformation in sound, something many other bands struggle with. But bringing the record to the live stage was another task in itself.

“It was an interesting thing,” Z Berg says. “Because when we made the record, we hadn’t played any of it live. We wrote it and recorded it all on keyboards and computers. And none of us had been in a band that had two computers and a singer.”

So the band went to work, translating every note of the record to a playable, live setting. With a background in live instrumentation, Phases wanted to really play the music. What was born of this was a hybrid of electronic sound with the presence and energy of a live band.

“We took that energy and turned it into a more electronically oriented dance funk show,” Z Berg says. “It’s a fucking dance party. It’s nonstop. It’s my favorite part of the day.”

The record is a fucking dance party, and coupled with the energy the group brings to the live stage, there’s no way you could see Phases and not let loose. And in just a week, Phases will be bringing this energy to the Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre, supporting another band famed for their high energy: Fitz and the Tantrums.

“We’re really excited for this tour,” Z Berg says. “I think that’s going to be a really, really fun bill. It’ll be balls to the wall all evening.”

Catch Phases and Fitz and the Tantrums at the Oregon Zoo on Friday, August 19, plus the band will also be supporting Maroon 5 and Tove Lo at the Moda Center on October 13.

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