Phantoms are a classic hometown success story, although that story looks a bit different in the entertainment capital of the world.
Both L.A. natives, the pair — Vinnie Pergola and Kyle Kaplan — grew up in the television industry as child actors. Pergola did guest spots on That’s So Raven and The Bernie Mac show, while Kaplan appeared in episodes of shows like CSI: Miami and Hannah Montana.
“We were like, the working class of child actors, not the stars,” Kaplan says on a hot Thursday afternoon, where the guys are posted up on a rooftop patio in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. Pergola and Kaplan were 15 when they met at an acting event at an acting event, hit it off and started a rock band, which they worked on from their parents’ garages in Encino and Simi Valley. Then, they discovered Justice and the world shifted on its axis.
“We went to their show at The Fonda [in 2007], and everything changed for us,” says Kaplan. “We had to figure out how to make electronic music.”
After that packed, sweaty show — an apex moment of the L.A. bloghouse era — the guys, then 17, borrowed the name of a Justice song and started making dance music as Phantom. Over time, because there were two of them, they just became Phantoms. They weren’t old enough to drink legally, but they got deep into the L.A. scene nonetheless, hitting Cinespace Tuesdays and Banana Split Sundays — both hip kid party meccas in that era — sneaking into shows with fake IDs and once opening for DJ AM.
“I look back at that time and feel so lucky that we got to be a part of it,” says Pergola. Then the EDM boom happened and, Kaplan says, “that was sort of the end of it.” Phantoms went on hiatus, Pergola started school at Santa Monica College and Kaplan continued acting.
“It wasn’t going well, and I was just kind of miserable there,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘[Vinnie], I don’t want to like act anymore. I just want to make music. Let’s go for it and figure this out.'”
By the mid-2010s Phantoms were resurrected, with the guys recruiting pals from their acting days as collaborators. Kaplan’s friend and former roommate Nicolas Braun, with whom Kaplan appeared on the series 10 Things I Hate About You and who now plays Cousin Greg in Succession, did vocals on Phantoms’ 2015 single “Broken Halo.” Pal Hayley Kiyoko guested on a track from their 2017 self-titled debut LP and Vanessa Hudgens sang on 2018 single “Lay With Me.”
But while the guys had momentum — touring steadily since 2015 and notching 105.2 million on-demand official U.S. streams, according to Luminate — over time felt out of sync with what their former label, Casablanca Records, was asking from them.
“We felt a little stifled,” says Kaplan. “We were sort of told we need to make bops… something that’s just selling a lot and streaming really well.”
They fell into a creative rut that was eventually exacerbated by the pandemic, and while a 2020 trip to London just before the pandemic yielded results in a pair of stellar singles with U.K. vocalist Jem Cooke (Camelphat), ultimately, the creative differences lead to them parting ways (in a mutually friendly way, they say) with Casablanca.
“I think they could tell we were going in a direction where we weren’t chasing, like, dance radio hits,” says Kaplan. “We had a lot of pressure to do that in the past, and at that time we were fine with it — but as we grew up and evolved, we wanted to take our music more seriously and say what we wanted to say in our voice and not care so much about getting to number one on dance radio, which seemed to be their only concern.”
Luckily, the home for the type of mature, experimental, emotionally honest style of music they were envisioning was already in their network. “We’ve always been sort of the the weird stepchildren of Foreign Family,” Kaplan says of ODESZA‘s longstanding label. “We knew all those guys really well. We have the same agent, so we met them early on in our career, in like, a real friendship kind of way, but we never worked together.”
That changed when Phantoms signed with Foreign Family Collective last year, with the move facilitating the creative freedom and support they’d been after.(Phantoms continues to be managed by Little Empire Music.) “We get real feedback from [Foreign Family] that’s not just like, ‘this doesn’t feel like a hit,'” says Kaplan.
Logic thus follows that the partnership has yielded Phantoms’ best work to date, their sophomore album This Can’t Be Everything. Out today (August 12), the 11-track LP is has style and attitude and a tough sort of sex appeal, with the complex, largely IDM-oriented productions encompassing sophistication, originality and a balance of outright danceability and a bit of the world-wariness that often comes with age.
While one can imagine two teenagers blasting this album in the car when drive over the hill from the Valley into Los Angeles for a night out, Pergola notes that “they’re not songs for necessary like, turning the stereo up and going out on a Friday night. They’re kind of melancholic, and I think they grow on a listener over time.”
“These songs,” Kaplan says, “are the opposite of bops.”
While This Can’t Be Everything marks a genuine elevation moment for Phantoms, they’re expectations for the album are realistic. The guys are clearheaded about how the algorithm can make music difficult to find and realize their output has never really yielded immediate streaming surges.
“I like to think in my own head that it’s because people need to sit on it for a bit to sort of understand it,” Kaplan says. “[For me success for this album] is just people knowing the songs.”
Fans will have the chance to fully experience the tracks on a soon-to-be announced Phantoms headlining tour, for which they’ll sing and play live in performances made of entirely of their own music. And with this, they’ve also got another goal in mind: The tour includes a set at The Fonda in Hollywood, which will put the guys back in the spot where they first had the idea to make electronic music.
They say selling it out would be huge — but agree that either way, the teenage versions of themselves sweating in that crowd 15 years ago would simply be impressed to see their name on the marquee as headliners.