Mike Rosenberg doesn’t look like a man with a dark side. When we meet, he is drinking Earl Grey tea and tucking a thick tome by a Booker Prize nominee in to his bag. Yet the 23 year old founder of Brighton-based Passenger pens unsettling songs about stalking, wasted lives and, er, the despair of abandoned dogs with an alarming eye for detail. Is there something he’s hiding? “That I have a disturbed mind, you mean?” laughs Rosenberg. “No, not at all. Even my darkest songs have a sense of humour. The worst crime you can commit in pop is taking yourself too seriously. Passenger has its down tempo moments and some our songs are quite sensitive, but they all share a certain quirkiness. In the end, it’s about storytelling – creating characters and sending them off on a journey.”
The seeds of Passenger were sown when Uni drop-out turned troubadour Rosenberg bumped in to Bafta award-winning film and TV soundtrack composer Andrew Phillips at a Free Burma event in London, featuring the likes of Faithless, Travis and Horace Andy. Rosenberg had blagged a one-song solo slot and Phillips was performing with the band Slovo. “Andrew and I met backstage, starting chatting about music and football and hit it off straight away,” recalls Rosenberg. “He had just moved to Brighton and set up his own studio, so a few months later, we met up to try writing together.”
Some lengthy sessions in Phillips’ loft studio – with seagulls soaring overhead, but sadly, no beach view – resulted in a meeting of minds neither had expected. A singer/songwriter reared on Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison, Rosenberg had intended to make a traditional, stripped-down album based on strong melodies and his modern-day fables. Inspired by the unusual cast of characters he had come up with, Phillips gave the songs a cinematic setting, adding shimmering beats, bleeps, strings and sound effects such as the spooky phone that goes dead on stalking song Walk You Home.
On Wicked Man’s Rest, the album’s opener and title track, you’ll hear a sample of Allen Ginsberg, questioning consumerism in a Californian supermarket. “Wicked Man’s Rest was the first song to really capture the Passenger sound,” recalls Rosenberg. “Its structure is quite complicated – parts don’t sit where you would expect them to. On first listen, it doesn’t sound so strange, but the more you hear it, the odder it becomes. None of our songs are what you could call straight down the line. With Night Vision Binoculars, it’s the juxtaposition of music and lyrics that throws people. First, they hear a happy, upbeat, summery pop song. Only after do they notice how creepy it is.”
Table For One is similarly misleading. What sounds like a jaunty drinking song is really Rosenberg’s take on life closing its doors of opportunity.
“It’s about middle-aged men drinking themselves in to nothingness in a pub, or the guy eating alone a restaurant when you’re out with your family,” says the singer. “There is something about men at a certain age suddenly sensing disappointment with their lives. When you’re young, anything seems possible. As you get older, options start going. As a 23 year old, of course, I have no first hand knowledge of it whatsoever. But that’s the magic of songwriting. I like to step in to other peoples shoes and get inside their heads.”
On the frantically-paced Do What You Like, Rosenberg is the blind-in-love boy let down by a girl, but even then you’re not sure she’s a real girlfriend, or just a friend he has fantasized a relationship with. On Stray Dog, a heartbreaking tale of rejection, the central character, with his ribs poking through and thin coat, could be human or canine. “I left it ambiguous on purpose,” says Rosenberg. “The song hinges on a line in the chorus – ‘I needed you, but you never came for me’. In Britain, we are so soppy about animals that the idea of a dog having those thoughts is almost worse.”
By the completion of Wicked Man’s Rest, Passenger were a five-piece and 2007 saw them take to the road in earnest. There were shows with Kate Nash, Scouting For Girls, Seth Lakeman and The Hold Steady, two month-long headline UK tours and appearances at the Latitude, Great Escape and the V Festival, where they pulled a crowd of 3000 in to their tent.
2008 began with the showing of a BBC short film,” Where Have I Been All Your Life”, a comedy starring Imelda Staunton and James Corden, that uses solely Passenger songs on its soundtrack. In March, the band launch their first US tour at the South By Southwest festival, before spending two months criss-crossing the States.
“It used to worry me that Passenger don’t sound like any other bands,” muses Rosenberg. “Now I realize what we’ve achieved. We’ve made a pop album, but it doesn’t sound like any other pop album out there.”