Passenger's 22-year-old Brighton-based frontman Mike Rosenberg is a rare thing... a young man, with all the enthusiasm and innocence of any other, who is capable, through his lyrics, of telling stories from the perspective of the ageing, world-weary soul, lost, rootless and full of regret. His songwriting partner in this noble endeavor is Andrew Phillips, guitarist, arranger and soundtrack composer. These two are the creative core of the excellent Passenger, and the ten songs that make up 'Wicked Man's Rest', due to be released in June on the ChalkMark label, are an extraordinary mixture of acoustic folk in the storytelling tradition, and an epic-yet-intimate, electronica-influenced modernity, suffused with pain, sadness and precocious wisdom, yet completely free of defeatist miserablism. There is an alchemy at work here, which becomes immediately apparent at a Passenger live show, where grown-up fans of acoustic balladry join with gaggles of starry-eyed girls in hushed appreciation of the quintet's lushness, charm and intensity.
Mike and Andrew formed Passenger in May 2003, roughly a year after they met at what turned out to be a life-changing night for both of them. The event in question was a Free Burma Campaign benefit gig at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2002, organised by Jamie Catto of 1 Giant Leap and Faithless. Mike was playing a couple of songs solo, Andrew was playing in a band called Slovo. They met backstage and discovered that they both lived in Brighton.
'That day was really insane,' Mike remembers. 'It was the first proper gig that I'd done. I was only 17, and there was a crowd of 600 people and Horace Andy smoking a bong in the corner. Me and Andrew just talked about our mutual love of hip hop and the folk-country tradition. It was nice to meet someone who was on the same wavelength.'
Not only did the two-song showcase bring Andrew on board, but management company IE Music were sufficiently impressed to snap Mike up and commit to him long-term. 'That Royal Court show was a life-changer,' says Mike. 'It was terrifying at the time. I really felt out of my depth, getting up there. It's crazy to think that, if I'd got a cold that night, none of this would've happened.'
But another year went by before Andrew and Mike finally grasped the nettle and began collaborating. At first, the idea was that Andrew took time off from his successful career as a composer for film and TV and simply produced Mike's songs. 'But we started writing together and got really excited about what we were doing', explains Andrew.
Enter the three other talented and disparate individuals who make up Passenger. Brighton-born bassist Marcus O' Dair is loveable and strange. He's a freelance journalist and radio DJ, as well as a funky and charismatic bass-player and harmony vocalist. He does yoga. And kick-boxing. And anything else that keeps the wheels of his inner perpetual motion machine nicely oiled. He brings enthusiasm, dynamism and a rock 'n' roll cartoon quality to the band. Mike and Marcus have known each other since they were children.
Drummer Alon Cohen is from Israel and has been based in England for the last seven years. He and Andrew met while they were both in other bands. They hit it off, and Andrew knew he'd found a future beat purveyor and another harmony singer. Onstage, his massive grin and flailing arms gives Passenger their energy, and brings the crowd into the performance. Keyboard player Richard Brincklow joined through working with Andrew on soundtracks. He and Marcus were in a DJ Shadow covers band. No, really. He's the band's newest boy, having joined a year ago, and has raised the musical bar for Passenger, by being talented enough to help replicate their complex, textured studio sound onstage, taking them away from the more acoustic sound they were previously purveying. He also provides withering sarcasm as a sideline.
The next thorny problem was the band name. It's taken almost two years for the quintet to settle with Passenger, "we'd written a song called 'Passenger' - we've already written most of the second album - and it's about being disengaged; an observer; slightly outside of a situation. And that really resonates throughout everything we do. It sets an aesthetic tone for us.'
Passenger have spent 2006 releasing two low-key singles - 'Stray Dog' and 'Philadelphia' - and touring the UK incessantly, picking up plaudits and fans seduced by the band's mix of rousing melody and provocative melancholy.
'We did a lot of busking and street gigs while we were touring,' adds Andrew, 'which was daunting. But we learned loads in those few weeks. With no frills - not even a stage - we found out which songs worked, and what it is we do that is unique and does matter to people.'
The songs that form 'Wicked Man's Rest' have been written over the last two and a half years. The vast majority of lyrics are Mike's, but Andrew chips in the odd line and 'Four Horses' is a Phillips original.
One of the singles recently released (which shares the same title as the album 'Wicked Man's Rest'), features a sample of Allen Ginsberg despairing about consumerism. It turns out that this is not a narky slag-off of nouveau post-punk, but a barbed comment about the wider political world.
Mike: 'On one level it's about a character who's tired of the hopelessness of his situation. But on a bigger scale, the 'tired of the new wave' lyric relates to the current global situation, about wrestling with and finding a way to deal with modern life and society as a whole. We're old-fashioned in our tastes as well, in music, film and thinking. I have the brain of a 62-year-old. Ha!'
But it's that rejection of the first person - 21st century pop's increasingly boring me fixation - that makes Passenger stand out. They're a generous, selfless proposition, more fascinated by the lives and losses of their fellow humans than the usual promotion of self.
Mike: It is about the characters we try and illuminate through these songs. The "Stray Dog" and the middle-aged drinkers in "Table For One"... all of these low characters are suddenly put up on this pedestal and their story's being told.'
So, that's Passenger... at least, thus far. What do Mike and Andrew wish for in their not-too-distant future?
Andrew: 'I just hope people get it. The passion of it. And I hope these songs about being jaded and disenfranchised... that people feel it.'
Mike: 'And I hope we can reach a wide audience. Play shows. Go places.'
That Passenger are going places is pretty much a given.
Mike Rosenberg - vocals, guitar
Andrew Phillips - guitar, vocals
Marcus O'Dair - bass
Alon Cohen - drums
Richard Brincklow - keyboards