Black Out Days

Experimental-pop duo Phantogram have continued their incredible run of the last few years with the February release of their second album, Voicesa project incepted in the midst of a seemingly never-ending string of quality sold-out shows and festival appearances. Band members Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have a knack for melding deeply emotional undertones with euphoric melodies and hip-hop inspired rhythms resulting in a larger-than-life sound. Nowhere is this style more pronounced and evolved than on Voices, their major label debut, which serves as an organic progression that takes their music to a new level of intensity.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Josh and Sarah shortly before their performance at this year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival to learn about their journey thus far. Phantogram’s show at the Gorge’s Bigfoot Stage truly embodied their collaborative artistic growth with a perfectly synced, powerful and mesmerizing experience. Check out the conversation below and make sure to catch Phantogram on one of their upcoming tour dates–it’s definitely not a show you will want to miss.

TMN: I know that you two have known each other since middle school, growing up together in New York. Were you guys already involved in playing music at all back then? Was there any indication that you might be in a band when you were older, or was that not at all in your minds yet? 

Josh: When I was a teenager, I was just really into skateboarding a lot. I was skate or die. Music was always a huge part of my life, and when I think back at growing up, I didn’t make music or anything, but I was always kind of writing songs in my head and thinking up beats. When I wasn’t skating around with headphones on, I was always kind of making beats in my head. So I should’ve known better that maybe I would start doing it, but music came into my life later. When I was in my late teens/early twenties was when I got really into it. I learned how to play guitar, drums and piano.

Sarah: For me, it was the same kind of idea. When I was a kid, I would always sing along to songs, but I didn’t think that I was going to sing. And not even close to being in a band and writing, producing and creating music until Josh and I met up together.

TMN: Does having that friendship for such a long time play a large role in your dynamic as musicians? 

Josh: Yeah, I mean, we are like brother and sister. And kind of like psychic twins artistically and emotionally too, which has a huge role in how we make music because we’re very connected and in-tune with each other’s emotions and experiences in life. Without that, I don’t think we’d make music that is so personal and emotional. I really do think that our music has a certain emotion behind it that would be lacking if we weren’t so connected.

TMN: Talk a bit about the formation of the band because I know you both were working on some music of your own at the time you joined forces, and had a band under a different name at first. How did Phantogram come to fruition?

Josh: I was playing in a band with my brother in New York and then I decided I just wanted to work on my solo career, which was basically working on my own stuff at home. Sarah and I started hanging out a lot when I moved from NYC to upstate New York, closer to where we grew up. She had finished college and came back to our home area and I was playing her a lot of my demos and solo stuff. I just asked her if she wanted to sing on some of them and she did and I think we kind of looked at each other and were like, “this sounds awesome. let’s start a band.” And then we just did it.


TMN: You’ve accumulated a solid library of music at this point with two albums and a few EPs under your belt. I felt like Voices really tied together what you started with the Nightlife EP. How’d the album fit your catalogue, and what vibe do you think it captures?

Josh: I think Voices is a real natural progression of what we do. It was super organic and wasn’t forced—it was just like, “let’s make another Phantogram record.” Lyrically it does connect with some of the older works. There’s some references if you listen close enough to our previous material. It sounds like a Phantogram album.

Sarah: Yeah, we’ve kept the same influences and the same idea of what we want to put down for people to hear. None of that changed. We write all kinds of music so we had a huge amount of things to pick from. I think we decided to pick the songs for Voices because they were similar enough to our older songs but also they’ve evolved and gotten louder and heavier—very beat heavy. It’s all the things we’ve learned along the way from touring for years and collaborating. All of that got put into the record.

TMN: The songwriting on Voices, and in your music in general, has a really distinct melancholic feel but the instrumentals bring in a sense of euphoria. It’s a really powerful combination. Can you talk a bit about your collaboration approach in the studio and how your individual styles mesh to create that sound and feeling?

Josh: I think that mixing melancholy and more angelic or beautiful sounds really creates some of my favorite music and just the dichotomy of dark/light in general. Some of the best movies I have ever seen are the ones that are not so dark that you don’t know what the hell you just watched, or so happy that you could puke in a paper bag now or whatever. They have all those aspects of life that make everything beautiful, and that’s what we try to create with our music. What we bring to the table, at least for me, is beats. I just love making beats and rhythms. We both have that connection and Sarah’s beautiful voice really adds to it.

Sarah: Yeah, kind of how we said earlier that we’re psychic twins. We’re so close that we go through the same experiences. If some thing happens in his [Josh’s] life, it’s affecting me and likewise. We’re always together: we see the same things, we’re in the same cities, we’re in the same kitchen with nothing to do—we’re always connected. It makes it really easy because we are thinking the same way for each song. The lyrics Josh writes I connect to personally, and the lyrics I write Josh can connect to. Or melodies, guitar solos, synths, tones and all these things we’re always on the same page–whoever puts it down on the computer. I think it’s the best of both worlds because we’re not fighting about what should be done.

Josh: Definitely. And its about that juxtaposition. We want to make music that’s very rhythm-centric, but also really pretty at the same time, which is very inspired maybe by post-rock music as far as the soaring, shoegazy kind of sounds and hip-hop music as well.

TMN: I would imagine the recording process has been a bit hectic considering how much you have been touring in the last two to three years. What has that experience been like, and what is your portable studio set-up like?

Josh: For a lot of the beats and stuff when making things for Voices, I just used a Zoom H4N, which is a little recorder/interface, and sometimes we just record simple ideas through that.

Sarah: Or we’ll go to Guitar Center and Josh will find a little shitty drum machine and fuck around with it and just iPhone record it. It’s super simple now to do that kind of stuff. Especially stuff that we like. You know, not the more lo-fi the better for everything, but there’s a certain aesthetic you can get with a really shitty recording of something and you can turn it into a cool hook. For “Bad Dreams” for example, Josh recorded his voice and put this weird effect on it. You don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s actually just his voice.

TMN: I actually caught your show at Pitzer College in 2011, then the sold-out one at the Fox this year, and now seeing you at a festival. It’s really interesting to think of the different tiers and types of places you have played at. What are the differences between playing really large shows vs the smaller shows? Tell us a bit about how your live sets have evolved and changed during these last few years?

Sarah: We’ve been touring for so long now and played a lot of shows. They’re all really different. When we first started playing in front of 5 people, you’ve got to find determination, because you’re not playing in front of fans, you’re trying to make fans. So, you put a lot of different energy than possibly what we put into when we play tonight with this fan base. Especially here, since we’re close to Seattle, we’ve got a really good core group of people that love us so that kind of energy comes out especially from festivals.
 Even intimate shows, we just went to Europe last week and played smaller venues in front of different kinds of audiences. They’ll sit back and are very polite; they don’t want to interrupt or move too much. The culture was just different, so you have to find a different kind of energy for that. It’s all over the place. We’re always learning.

Josh: There’s always an element of wanting and having to prove yourself to new audiences. Whether it’s tonight because, sure, there are going to be fans of us, but there’s still going to be 1000 people out there who have never heard of us before. In Europe, I’m sure a lot of people just came because they thought, “Oh, maybe I should check out this band” or whatever. I think all of our live shows have a sense of urgency because we just love playing live and we want to put on a good fucking show. But there’s a difference between trying to win an audience and a sold out show at the Fox Theatre when it’s like everyone’s with us. So we can kind of get into this groove where we have this sort of unspoken dialogue between ourselves and the audience, and that’s a great feeling. But it’s always going to be this leveling up and winning over new audiences.


TMN: You’ve toured with some other really huge acts as well. Do you feel like you gained any wisdoms from any of those artists in particular? If so who and what was the lesson?

Sarah: I think we got a lot of stuff from the Flaming Lips. We played some shows with them as special guests for the Dark Side of the Moon tour they did last year. We got to play the same festivals and venues. I always love the way Wayne [Coyne] interacts with the audience. It’s really inspiring to me. He’s got this connection that makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the audience, but it’s with everybody. Everyone is just so happy to be all together. I love that about them and they’re loud and rad live too so their show is really fun.

Josh: You kind of get inspired by people’s moves too—just what they do. [Laughs] You don’t want to cop anybody’s moves but you’re like, “that guy looks sick when he does this so what can I do that’s cool?” It’s not like we sit around and practice in front of a mirror how we look but it’s inspiring because you go from some of your very first shows when you’re all nervous and real self aware to playing with other kick-ass bands. And it’s like, “oh man, we’ve got to step up our game because this band is so inspiring. Let’s do it.”

TMN: As a big hip hop fan myself I definitely notice the breadth of influence drawn from some of the great producers in the genre. How would you describe the genre fusion achieved in your music? Who are some artists who have influenced you as of late-past or present?

Josh: I’d say we’re experimental pop—that’s the fusion right there. We maintain a pop sensibility with how we do things but we experiment will all different types of influences as far as genres are concerned. What I’ve been listening to a lot lately is this band called Dungen, a psych-rock band from Sweden, and Tame Impala. As far as hip-hop goes, I really like Pusha T—”Numbers on the Board” is a sick beat. And that song “Hand In My Pocket” is so good. I also like the new Lykke Li album that just came out.

Sarah: Run the Jewels or just any kind of Stones Throw record. I think we get a lot of inspiration from that. I think that’s a true collection of sounds turned into a hip-hop rhythm—it’s all over the place.

Josh: Madlib was super influential on us from the beginning, and Sarah has a good point with that. The way that Madlib samples is so different than anybody else. It’s got this real psychedelic vibe about it, stoner-rock vibe where you can take a psychedelic rock sample and loop it up to make it sound dope; with the [Beat Konducta] in India and in Africa records he did, and even the Rock Konducta ones too. I don’t think Madlib sits around and listens to hip-hop all day, you know?

TMN: On a similar note you’ve done some great material with Big Boi as your styles really mesh. How did that come about and are plans still in place for a collaborative EP? Are there any other artists you plan on working with?

Josh: Yeah, we’re making an EP with Big [Boi] that’s hopefully going to come out before the end of the year. But we’re not sure because Outkast is touring and we’re touring so it’s going to be more of a trading off via email files for a while. We definitely plan on working with some more artists, and I plan on producing for hip-hop artists.

TMN: It has been an amazing year for you between the extensive touring album release and a couple enormous songs. What are the best, worst (if any), and most surprising things you have noticed that have come with the success?

Sarah: I don’t know. We just keep moving. What month is it? [Laughs] I’m trying to think: the album has been out for three months here…

Josh: I’d say the best thing for me has been playing this last US run. We’ve been playing some really huge places and selling them out. Sarah and I will be backstage before the show and we can hear the roar of the audience getting ready for us, and we look at each other like, “holy shit.” Because we did tour the US just the two of us in a Saab hatchback and play for five people a night if we were lucky, and to see this grow is such a rewarding, fucking awesome feeling. I’m always grateful for what we have.

TMN: Any funny childhood memories that you have shared?

Josh: There’s been a lot of funny stuff, but not sure we can say much of it in an interview. We used to make prank phone calls on the porch all the time.

Sarah: Yeah, Josh is pretty good at it. Really good prank phone caller. If that’s even a thing now. Maybe people prank text now.

TMN: I did that as well when I was in middle school.

Josh: Yeah? Any good at it? I’ve got some great videos of Sarah spinning around on a wooden floor in her socks wearing a helmet.

Sarah: That’s not a story, that’s just a visual! Prank phone call’s a good one.

We’d like to thank Phantogram for taking the time out of their extremely busy schedule to speak with us and, of course, for continuing to create amazing music. 

Photo Credit: Ash El Gamal and Ron Besseling. 

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