Phantogram

THE NEW VOICE OF SYNTH POP

GROWING UP FRIENDS IN THE UPSTATE NEW YORK TOWN OF SARATOGA SPRINGS, JOSH CARTER AND SARAH BARTHEL OF PHANTOGRAM HUNG OUT, HAD FUN, AND ENDED UP HEADED MORE OR LESS IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS. UNTIL, THAT IS, JOSH CAME HOME FROM A STINT, TRYING TO GET A BAND STARTED IN NEW YORK CITY WITH HIS BROTHER, AND PLAYED SOME OF THE SONGS HE’D BEEN WORKING ON FOR SARAH, WHO’D BEEN SINGING FOR HER OWN ENJOYMENT SINCE SHE WAS A KID. JOSH ASKED HER TO PERFORM ONE OF THE TUNES AND THE REST, AS IS SO OFTEN SAID, IS HISTORY.

Drawing on influences as diverse as hip-hop artists like Outkast and Madlib, rock and alt-rock artists like Sparklehorse and John Frusciante’s solo recordings and ‘60s French pop music, the electro-pop duo Phantogram have release, Voices, and riveting live shows that continue to grow their audience.

A late bloomer, Carter didn’t feel the pull towards playing music until his late teens. “I first wanted to become a musician when I was about 18 years old,” he says. “I hadn’t really played music until then. I thought I was going to be like a pro skateboarder or something like that. And then I just kind of 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, whether it was [making] field recordings or just my friends and I goofing off—writing short songs and making beats and stuff like that. [I] decided from there on that’s all I wanted to do.”

Barthel, though she had been singing all her life, had never approached it seriously before Carter returned from his stay in New York City. “It was just kind of a side passion,” she says, “and visual arts was my bigger passion at the time when I was younger. I think I realized when Josh and I met back up together and he taught me how to produce, how to write down my ideas, and how to play guitar—he taught me all of these different elements that I never knew. [He taught me] that I could compose something—a piece of art.”

It was at that point that the duo dove fully into the creative life, developing a working dynamic based more on sonic experimentation than a specific formula. “Our songwriting process is different every time for every song,” Carter explains. “Sometimes it starts with me making a beat, maybe a hip-hop-oriented beat or something like that, or just being experimental. I’ll take samples—I’ll find like a weird record and chop up some samples, maybe start writing something in the same key of that sample.”

Barthel picks up the thread. “Yes,” she says, “I think a lot of our songs on Voices started with a little 30 second, or maybe even a 10 second beat— just the simplest rhythm that Josh made while we were on tour. [He] had this folder of all these really cool chopped up samples from vinyl, just really precise attention-to-detail kick and snares. Like the way that Madlib and J Dilla do, the attention to detail is very inspiring to us. Most of the songs started that way and we would write around the beat, and use the samples as specific parts.”

“What’s really great about our work dynamic,” interjects Carter, “is Sarah. I mean, I describe her—us—as psychic twins really. Like we always kind of have a very similar vision, so it’s easy to work together. For example, the song ‘Fall in Love,’ which is our newest single off Voices, was a beat that I made about five or six years ago, originally intended for somebody to rap over. And it was just kind of sitting around with many other beats that I made. Sarah was looking for some ideas, and she’s like, ‘What about this? I love it.’ And she really breathed new life into that track and wrote the vocal hook and melody, and it became a song. That’s a really good example of us working together.”

For both partners, music has become a true calling. “Music is everything to me,” says Carter. “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.”

“You hit the nail on the head,” Barthel adds. “It’s something that’s always been the most important thing in my life. It’s made me grow into the person that I am today. And I have no idea how, where I’m going to be in 15, 10 years with music being so involved in my life. I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Having recently added a drummer and second keyboard player to their live shows, enabling a heavier sound, a more fluid stage presentation as well as the ability to concentrate more on performance nuances instead of having to remember when to trigger which sample, has opened up a new performance dynamic. “It makes our sound a lot more fun because you’re looking at more people on stage,” says Carter, “and just [feeding] off of their energy. It allows our songs to be as dynamic as we need them and want them to be for an audience.” Or, as Barthel puts it, “It’s so much fun, and we’re able to move around more. We’re not stuck at our stations because there [are] only four hands.”

Barthel, who handles the bulk of the keyboard playing live, is overjoyed at having been able to work with Moog instruments, especially the Moog Voyager. “It’s just this warmth and gritty thickness that you can find with Moog,” she says. “We’ve always wanted to use them. I think it’s a huge element in our sound. I mean, I’m a super bass head. I’m always like, ‘Yeah, more bass. Let’s feel it.’ I just love it so much. And Moog is ‘it.’”

Despite the intensity and lyrical darkness of much of their material, offstage they are self-described as “kind of goofy.” As Barthel says, “We just like to mess around and have fun and laugh a lot.” The seriousness pops out, though, when they start to talk or think about their music. “Whenever we switch over to music, [even] if we’re just talking about [it], we switch completely over, to the point were people are [asking], ‘Are you guys clinically depressed or something?’ It’s so interesting, because we don’t even notice it—like we don’t even realize that it’s happening.”

That sharpening of focus enables them to bring the intensity and connection to the audience in their stage shows. Carter explains, “When I’m on stage, I channel a lot of emotion and it’s very cathartic. I don’t turn into a different person or anything, but it’s almost like playing a sport or skateboarding or something—like you’re just in a totally different zone. It’s very freeing for me. I don’t feel shy. Sometimes I can get kind of nervous talking in front of a group of 12 people or something like that, but when we’re playing in front of 5,000 people, I don’t feel nervous at all. I feel really comfortable in my own skin and just in the zone.”

Both Barthel and Carter see a bright future for music and young musicians, especially musicians with the passion to create, rather than those merely seeking fame and fortune. “If you’re doing something and expecting instant gratification,” says Carter, “then you’re not really doing it for the right reasons. I didn’t start making music so I could make a ton of money and get girls. I started making music because I love to do it, and that’s why we started making music together. We just really like to do it. And we’re very fortunate to be at the level where we are now, but we never would have stopped. We just do it because we have that passion.”

“There’s just so much now,” Barthel adds. “It’s insane. Everybody can produce, everybody can make their own stuff. They don’t need a studio and to pay for a special producer. They can just do it themselves, which is inspiring.”

Taking that inspiration forward, is what Phantogram are looking to do. Barthel, looking to the new few years, says, “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. [We want to be] well-respected in the art world and [have] people inspired by us.” Carter, this time, sums it up, “Yeah, I just want to play music. Boom.”

Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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