PHOSPHENES: PURVEYORS OF THE TEMPE SOUND
By Vanessa Joy
The early ’90s ushered in what we now know as the “Tempe Sound”. Any musician and fan alike was proud to be a part of the scene that major labels began to hail as “the new Seattle”. An intangible groove flowed down Mill Avenue where the college set, local scenesters and an array of other colorful characters congregated at the rock clubs that anchored the city’s musical mile. It was places like Edsel’s Attic, Gibson’s, Hayden Square and Balboa Cafe, among others ,that provided a home away from home to the live music crowd of the time. But, it was the closing of storied venue Long Wongs in April of 2004 that indicated the end of an era. These venues gave a ripe audience to bands such as the Gin Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop, The Refreshments, The Meat Puppets, and Phosphenes. Like flannels and Doc Martens, Phosphenes are back to rock a whole new generation of Tempeans.
“Are you calling us seasoned?!” David Lawitz jokes indignantly. He’s the lead guitarist, backing vocalist and resident funnyman of the band. The quick-witted David, with even quicker fingers manipulating over frets, is truly mesmerizing to behold when he’s making his guitar bleed. The classically-trained Arizona State University alum is a rhythmic fireball of energy, and live music fans would be doing themselves a disservice not to catch this boisterous force in action on stage. David, along with older brother Bernie Lawitz–the band’s drummer–,founded the group in ’91, and soon after found a kindred spirit in lead singer/guitarist Jim Wiskerchen. After numerous changes in the band’s personnel over the years, Phosphenes are now the tight foursome we know today with the addition of steadfast, talented bassist Bill Harrison last year (whom the others lovingly refer to as “the glue”). In ’93, the band released their buzzworthy full-length album Peace and Open Minds. With this, their magnum opus,they drenched local stages with a sound that was more Tempe than underage drinking and Sparky. Says David, “Everytime we play [these songs] it’s kinda like the first time we’re playing it. It’s gotta have that type of emotion,” he adds. “David and I were the primary writers from the get-go…a lot of our influences–musically–was what was driving us,” says Wiskerchen. “[’90s] bands like R.E.M were a big influence on me and my writing.” Adds David, “[Jim was] able to really pick up on the sound of the times. That was always his gift.” Wiskerchen, the youngest of the group, showcases the uncanny ability to project any sound, and excite any emotion into Phosphenes’ tracks. There are points in their live performances where you can almost swear you’re watching a different band, yet they remain effortlessly cohesive. Wiskerchen grew-up in a musical family (his mother was an opera singer), and one of the benefits of fostering his vocal talents at such a tender age is that he hasn’t even begun to peak. “[My voice] has actually gotten better over the years,” he notes. Wiskerchen’s rich vocal cadence is a major stand-out amongst his scene counterparts, but his first love? “I’m still addicted to writing.”
The Lawitz brothers,while originally from Hauppauge,New York, are your quintessential Valley boys. “I grew up in Scottsdale, hungout in Tempe, now live in Tempe,” says Bernie. “Mill Avenue was amazing in the ’90s. The music scene was much better for rock bands. You go down [Mill Avenue] now and you have DJs going and house music. It’s just completely different. Going down [Mill Avenue] back then, every bar had a live band. You could see 10 bands in one night. You had Edsel’s Attic, you had Chuy’s, you had all these other clubs. It was great. It was just like Austin is now. It’s terrible what’s happened,” he expresses. “Mill Avenue will never be the same…” Wiskerchen adds, “corporate America took over.”
With an ever-changing music scene in the Valley, Phosphenes have remained a constant. “I’ve always loved the Phosphenes,” says Rob Tasso the former owner of Edsel’s Attic. “They’re one of my favorite bands.” Tasso, who currently owns and operates the popular Tempe Tavern, has kept the band as a fixture on his stages since he was a 21-year-old kid running Edsel’s. He’s not one to mince words, so the compliment is a bonafide endorsement. However, one change that has become apparent is the band’s sound evolution. While inherently not abandoning the magic that helped them define the “Tempe Sound”, they are able to deftly oscillate between influences from Pink Floyd to twenty-one pilots. This band is definitely not “set in their ways” so to speak. To keep a firm grip on such staying power, Phosphenes have had to overcome many hurdles to remain relevant. The hardest of all: “life,” Bernie emphatically states. “Marriage, kids, divorce, but we’re all good friends…” It’s that bond between this band, a meeting of the minds, that has kept them resilient in the face of inevitable adversities that all too many bands have succumbed to. Bernie, in addition to being a powerhouse percussionist, has also taken over the Lawitz family business of Beads Galore located at Priest Drive and Southern Avenue in Tempe. The store is a Mecca for jewelry makers, craftspeople and bead enthusiasts. “We started in my parents’ garage with $126 worth of beads to a store with over 6,000-square-feet full of beads,” Bernie exclaims. Even with the pressures of their daily grinds, Phosphenes is the bandmates’ common infatuation. “We do this because we love it,” states Bernie. The best advice he can give to up-and-coming bands following on the path that they have paved? “Compromise…for each individual person…as the whole band.”
In their own right, Phosphenes is still an up-and-coming band simply because, unlike a lot of bands from their era, they have not stagnated. their musical ebb and flow is undeniably thrilling for any fan of live music. Change is the only constant, and this band is perpetually evolving with the times. We at Azmusic.org were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at some of their upcoming material; Tempe hasn’t heard the last from this timeless band. You can catch them Friday April 8 at Tempe Tavern, and at our next event Country’s Crazy Passover Party also at Tempe Tavern April 22.