When Chicago power-rock outfit Tight Phantomz technically disbanded in 2006, lead singer-guitarist Mike Lust wasn’t ready to call it quits. After touring behind 2005’s Crazy When Wet, Lust started on a songwriting streak, recording a tune whenever he found the time; by late 2006, the rest of his band had called it quits for various reasons, leaving Lust alone with his new music. That didn’t deter him: Lust decided to keep the name Tight Phantomz and forge ahead with what would become Silk Prison, a double album that trades the group’s former hair-metal-inspired licks for melodies that alternately soar and brood—a beautiful arrangement of unconventional rock that, much like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, dares listeners to peg it to the band’s previous work.
The album is done, recorded at Lust’s Humboldt Park studio Phantom Manor, but because the band’s former label Southern is no longer in the picture (they amicably split in late 2006 before Southern folded in 2008), Silk Prison has an uncertain future. In the meantime, Lust continues to focus on running the studio, where he’s recorded bands like the Sweep The Leg Johnny and Mannequin Men. A few weeks before Tight Phantomz’s gig Friday at the Hideout (with a new lineup), The A.V. Club visited Lust at Phantom Manor—a vintage, cedar-lined former corporate boardroom, situated above a printing press—to talk about the his studio, his love of the album format, and his DIY spirit.
Listen to an exclusive stream of Silk Prison:
The A.V. Club: A few months ago, you started pressing copies of Silk Prison and handing them out yourself. Was that an attempt to circumvent the label and get it out yourself?
Mike Lust: I didn’t ever want to do that. I wanted to expedite—I figured it was a record where you couldn’t send a label just a couple MP3s. I thought it would be a selling point for some label to see the record the way we wanted to present it, and understand it that way before they put it out. Then it started leaking, and now a lot of people we know have copies of it, and we’re fine with that. We figured that’s the way people are going to start talking about it, and that’s the way we can eventually, maybe, wind up on a label we’d like to be with. Just sort of generating the buzz about it, you know?
AVC: What have been potential labels’ reactions to the fact that Silk Prison is a double album?
ML: For the labels that I’ve talked to that have wanted to put it out, it hasn’t seemed to be a problem. But we shot big, sending it to a lot of the bigger labels, and I haven’t done much of a follow-up with them. It’s hard for me to call somebody and talk about my own record and say, “Hey, you gonna put it out?” It’s almost like you want to come up with a fake name, like, “Hi, I’m calling representing Tight Phantomz.” So it doesn’t seem like anyone has had a problem with it, but at the same time, maybe no one has the balls to tell me that. Perhaps, because here we are, and it’s getting crunch time, and if we’re going to have something out properly in March or April, something has to give soon.
AVC: Has the process of finding a label changed since you guys left Southern?
ML: Maybe we’re not going to be as choosy, because we can’t be. Every couple weeks that your expectations get torn down a little bit, you get a little less picky. Then you get to a point where you’re like, “I just want this fucking thing to come out. You want to put it out? Let’s do it.”
AVC: How did you arrive at the different sound for Silk Prison? It's a real departure from earlier Tight Phantomz material.
ML: Led Zeppelin started out as just a blues band, and by the third album, they’ve got a horn section, a 75-piece string section, and a basketball coach. And it turns out that what was a classic band sounds relevant today. I see myself as a lifer. I’m doing this, even if it’s not a lucrative career. I’ll go get a job doing anything just to keep doing this. So I thought we could add to the longevity of this band if we don’t pigeonhole ourselves into making the same kind of album every time. [In 2005,] I’d seen where music was going, where people were making a single and throwing it in the atmosphere right away. I saw the album format start to slip away, you know? Everything was just files and MP3s, and CDs were disappearing. And so I just thought, man, I don’t want this to go away. I want to make an album. And I want it to be something, if not spectacular, sort of grandiose. Suddenly I found myself in late 2006 without a band, and it fueled the fire even more for making a more bizarre record. [Since then,] there’s long periods where there wasn’t as much touring as I would have liked. Maybe it hurt, because I haven’t been outside of Chicago. There aren’t many great Chicago labels anymore, since Touch And Go and Southern have folded, and now Flameshovel [is on hiatus]. I should have probably said that earlier, but that’s the crux of a lot of my frustration: having to rely on national labels now.
AVC: Has the local scene suffered without those local labels you mentioned?
ML: Yeah, it’s been harder for a lot of really great bands’ records to surface. I mean, there’s so, so many bands in this city, you know? It’s the greatest city to start a band. People want to come to Chicago and make music the way New York is great for art or LA is great for film. And it’s hard with so many bands, so many clubs, so little labels, for a lot of great music to surface, really. A lot of it’s—I didn’t want to use the word “lost,” but a lot of it just goes under the radar because there’s oversaturation, you know? People are tired of going to shows every night. They get tired of going to street fairs every weekend.
Tight Phantomz play Do Division in 2008: