“We write moody-vibed music.” Considering Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of Phantogram have nearly three albums worth of lyrical gloom framed by their unique brand of brash, fuzzed, electro psych-pop, I’m inclined to take his word for it. The amicable duo readily admit to focusing on the darker side of love and death, but, if they’re soundtracking a funeral it’s more Hunter S. Thompson than “Candle In The Wind.” I’ll admit they’ve had me on the hook since “Mouthful of Diamonds” at DC9 four years ago. Barthel’s airy vocals warned against “getting high on your own supply” (Crack Commandment # 4 anyone?) while a sparse set of samplers, keyboards and guitars rumbled like a tank through the small club. 2011’s Nightlife EP saw the duo continue to deftly craft pop collages like “Turning Into Stone.” On paper, flipping an Otis Redding sample into a pulsing dream pop version of Quad City DJs while preaching about loneliness may sound suspect but in practice it’s an absolute banger. Phantogram are dealing in smart, hooky jams that ring out like DJ Premiere mixing MBV.
Phantogram play NYC’s Terminal 5 tonight and DC’s 9:30 Club tomorrow – hope you got tickets early because both are SOLD OUT.
First time I saw you guys was in 2009 with the Pomegranates and then we spoke in early 2010 – sure you remember it well.
Sarah: Oh… (laughs)
Kidding. That night 2010 was third night of your first headliner tour, Eyelid Movies had just been released in the US, and you said at that time you might not go back and live in NY. You’d just tour nonstop for the foreseeable future. If you could compartmentalize the last three and a half years, is that representative of how it’s gone down?
Sarah: Yea! We toured for a very long time on our two records, pretty much full time, and our last headlining tour we had some interest from other labels that all kinda wanted to sign us. So, we were like ‘alright cool,’ we’ll finish this tour up and get back and figure out what we wanted to do and we just decided to start writing for the next record. We wanted some new music for everybody and finally we finished that up in June and now we’re just waiting to release it for the next chapter of Phantogram.
You were posting a bunch of cryptic messages and photos about that. Weren’t you mixing out at El Dorado in LA? Are you living there now, and did you record there instead of upstate NY this time?
Josh: Well, we started making the record in upstate NY at the barn, recorded the bulk of the record there actually. Then we brought it over to John Hill at Sonora Recorders who helped us finish it out and we re-did some parts, finished up some of the lyric writing, added stuff. Songs that had all synths on it we replaced with some analog synthesizers and we changed the sounds a bit. Then we got the record mastered in Burbank at El Dorado. Sarah and I lived in Los Angeles for about three months during the recording process and lived in LA for a couple other months to write some more of the record in early 2013.
Do you think the aesthetic of LA, being so different from a barn in upstate NY – did that info your writing at all or is it all exclusively culled from your life experiences and relationships?
Josh: Luckily for us, the real bulk of the record was already finished on the east coast so when we were finishing up the record and working on the record we would just channel that east coast state of mind. The west coast didn’t have much impact on the sound or lyrical concepts.
Lyrically, you get into some dark emotional places in terms of loving, leaving, being left. That seems to resonate with people as much as the release from the huge sound of the music – people can get their catharsis one way or the other. What’s inspired you over the course of the last couple EPs and the new record?
Sarah: We’ve kept the same kind of inspiration throughout all of our songwriting. We always tend to grab onto visual aesthetics and ideas and that’s where we always start – when it comes to the core of the idea of the song, I guess. We picture these scenarios in our minds, dreams or situations – movies, obviously Eyelid Movies is a perfect way of explaining it. We always gravitate towards that when we write a song and we add personal experiences of course and luckily Josh and I – it’s a wonderful thing because we can work on these songs and add our own parts to them but it’s always about the same kind of experience because we’re so close. We go through the same experiences together because we’re pretty much like Siamese twins.
I was watching a couple clips of the recent live show and it seems every iteration of your tours has seen a significant jump, in terms of not just a larger band but in the visuals and lights aspect. Do you have someone traveling full time for that now?
Josh: For our tours it changes from tour to tour in terms of lighting design. Our Nightlife tour, our friend Jim did the lights and also tour managed us. This past US tour we worked with a designer who helped. Actually Sarah has a huge hand in the lighting. In fact, most of the visual representation of our live show is done by Sarah. She’s got a great eye for that stuff.
Were you working in any sort of design prior to your music?
Sarah: I’ve just always been fascinated by visual art and it’s been important to our sound, even since day one. Our first show we had these little, shitty lights that would change color to the beat (laughs.) Really fucking shitty, they were like a hundred bucks but we invested in them because we knew it’d be important for us to have that visual element to our live show. Ever since the start of Phantogram it’s just been something we wanted to make important.
Josh: I’d been in bands before and this is Sarah’s first band and I was like, well, if we’re gonna be a serious band we need some kind of look for the stage. We can’t just play in front of shitty bright lights. Just to add to what Sarah was saying, it’s always been important to have some kind of mood because we write moody-vibed music. It’s not like we’re playing in an AC/DC cover band where it can just be like rock lights on us (laughs.)
I spoke with Big Boi last month, he’s obviously a huge fan of yours and vice versa he said he meets cool bands and just “invite them back to Stankonia.” Is that the long and short of how you came to work with him?
Sarah: He actually found us online, “Mouthful of Diamonds,” and was a huuuuge fan of it. We found out about it because we obviously follow him on Twitter and are massive fans of Outkast. We kind of shit our pants, we’re like ‘holy fuck are you kidding me? My idol is tweeting about us?’- that kind of thing. We got in touch as soon as possible, said alright we have to meet up, and he wanted to meet us too. We met, talked about collaborating, then we saw him in Atlanta and he invited us to Stankonia studios and we met the whole crew. Then he flew us down for a week and we wrote some music with him.
That’s a very cool story, fucking awesome.
Sarah: (laughing) Yea, fucking crazy!
Are you collaborating with anyone on your album or is it back to strictly you two working alone?
Sarah: Pretty much just us but we have some special guests, we have D’Arby CeCe from The Antlers playing some trumpet and Steven Droz from The Flaming Lips plays some synthesizers too.
I thought of your visuals when I looked at some of the Yeezus tour, seemed like something you’d be into. Pretty dark, stark stuff like the record.
Sarah: Yea, I really wanna see that!
Josh: I saw the stuff he did on SNL and I really liked the black and white visuals, the wolves and stuff. If it’s an extension of that kind of stuff it will be killer. I think he and Kendrick are playing tomorrow – Sarah, we should go!