THE NEW VOICE OF SYNTH POP
FORMED IN 2007, THE DUO, CONSISTING OF JOSH CARTER AND SARAH BARTHEL, KNOWN AS PHANTOGRAM HAVE TAKEN A COMPELLING MIX OF ORGANIC AND SYNTH INSTRUMENTS TO CREATE TWO FULL-LENGTH ALBUMS AND FOUR EPs. IN ADDITION TO MANY SONGS FEATURED IN TV AND FILM SOUNDTRACKS, THE SINGLE, “FALL IN LOVE” (OFF THE CURRENT RELEASE, VOICES), HAS THE GROUP RECEIVING SUBSTANTIAL RADIO AIRPLAY.
The ultra-modern sound of the group wouldn’t immediately bring to mind an image of two people who write and record in a remote barn in upstate New York, but that’s exactly how it happens. Carter, guitarist and vocalist, says of the recording retreat they call Harmony Lodge, “Well, Sarah and I were from the country, so really it’s a go-to place for us where we’re comfortable. And I think being out in nature and out in the woods just really allows us to focus more on what we’re doing. There’s less distractions. And it’s inspiring just being out there, being able to … breathe fresh air and see the trees and the birds. And it’s set near a pond and it’s really beautiful.”
Barthel, keyboardist and vocalist, explains further, “Yeah, it was like our think tank. It was a place where we can get away from just everything, and kind of hide and hibernate because … at least for our first record … we wrote there and recorded it there in the wintertime and the fall time. There was just … nothing else really to do. And it was our only option. I mean, we didn’t have anywhere else to record. We couldn’t afford to live in the city at the time, and we were just kind of … we lived there for a long time. His parents cooked us dinner every night and made sure we were getting our stuff done after that. And just really, there’s something about complete silence that really breathes inspiration … for musicians … at least for us.”
Carter continues, “You’re less influenced by so many like outside distractions. It’s not like you walk down a street and you hear music coming out of different buildings or pubs or anything like that. So you’re really, like, one with nature.” Barthel adds, “You’re not seeing anything happen. You’re not like, ‘Oh, my God, I saw this person do that.’ It’s just you step outside and you see the same tree line. You see the same two dogs. You see the same three cats. And you walk into the studio just right.”
The history of Phantogram came together casually and comfortably, much like their recording process. “We grew up together, but didn’t start working on music until after I came home from college and Josh came home from living in New York City, pursuing a different band with his brother,” Barthel says. “We just kind of rekindled our friendship. And for a couple years we spent a lot of time just interested in music. Josh already had his solo work—that was kind of the blueprint for Phantogram—and he would always play it for me, and I’d always get so excited about it. It was very, like, I guess the closest comparison would be … kind of like Madlib-, Oh No-, J Dilla-inspired kind of beats. And other sad acoustic songs that he had. He asked me to sing on one of the songs—and it worked out really well, so we ended up deciding to write music together after that. And the rest is history.”
Knowing he wanted to be a musician early on, Carter started learning on his own. “I first wanted to become a musician when I was about 18 years old. I hadn’t really played music until then. I thought I was going to be, like, a pro skateboarder or something. And then I just kind of, I taught myself how to play drums and guitar and a little piano. Bought a four-track machine and tape machine, and just got obsessed with sound in general, like writing, whether it was like recording … field recordings or just my friends and I goofing off … or writing short songs and making beats and stuff like that. So I got really into it at the age of 18 and decided from there on that’s all I wanted to do.”
While she had been involved with music her whole life, it wasn’t until the collaboration with Carter that Barthel thought about seriously pursuing it. “I’ve been singing my whole life. Playing the piano, just making up stuff on my [great-grandmother’s] piano that she gave us when she passed away … never thought that I could actually do it as a career or anything. It was just kind of a side passion and visual arts was my bigger passion at the time when I was younger.” She says, “I think I realized when Josh and I met back up together … he taught me how to produce and he taught me how to write down my ideas and he taught me how to play guitar. He taught me all of these different elements … I never knew that I could compose something, a piece of art. So I think … the first time I realized [I could make music professionally] … was after playing with Josh.
Blending guitar into a wash of synths and beats can be a difficult task, but Carter stays pretty traditional with his setup. “The first guitar I got was actually a Yamaha Pacifica. And I just loved the way it sounded. I never really looked up to guitar players that played a certain guitar or anything. It was just something that I was very used to. And then … I bought a Stratocaster. We both have a Jazzmaster back in New York. There’s just something about the sound that I really like. You can dig into it and it’s not totally clean. That’s pretty much all there is to it. You can get a lot of dynamic range out of Fender guitars.” Carter goes on to speak about his amplifier, “As far as the Orange amp goes, I feel kind of the same way about that as well. It’s just you can really push it. Our sound guy suggested it. We were on tour, and one of my amps ended up breaking on me. He picked up an Orange for me and I just, like, fell in love with the way it sounded, so I haven’t gone back to a different amp since.”
Carter’s immediate influences may not be apparent, but he listened to other players as both a songwriter and guitarist. “I was really into John Frusciante, and I liked his old solo stuff that he put out on American … they were these really emotionally, real lo-fi gritty records. And I just loved the honesty behind it. And his guitar playing is amazing as well. But there was so many mistakes, and it was kind of sloppy at the same time. It just felt so real. So that was like my main inspiration with guitar. That and Sparklehorse. I really like that band as well.”
Phantogram are currently on tour in support of their latest release, Voices. Looking to the future, they see more of the same, as Barthel explains. “I think we want to be writing, touring, getting our music out to more people and hopefully they grab onto it and get something out of it.” Carter agrees, commenting on what makes it all worthwhile to him. “Music is everything to me. I think music is the most spiritual thing there is in life. It’s the most religious experience you can have without actually practicing religion. It’s universal.”