Smile Politely

The otherworldly transmission of Phantogram

Phantogram is a synth and guitar based electro-pop duo comprised of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. They released their first full length, Eyelid Movies, in 2010, and have consistently released material since then, culminating in their most recent release, 2016’s Three. Tonight, Phantogram will make their second appearance in Champaign-Urbana, performing at The Canopy Club.

No one else sounds quite like Phantogram. It is a common tale, hyperbolized by “hipster” ethos. When you love something, it can be difficult to watch it evolve. It can be tempting to want it to just keep being what it was. I liked you when you were this. So keep being this. To an extent, I’m guilty of that with Phantogram. The group’s 2010 release, Eyelid Movies, was just so good that I can’t help but unfairly measure everything else they do against “When I’m Small,” and “Mouthful of Diamonds.”

Those two tracks are indie-pop perfection. There is something about them that conveys the feeling that you have accidentally stumbled upon a ghostly transmission from another time or place. There’s a little bit of crackle present in the beats, as from old vinyl, or from a weak radio signal. There’s a patient, little, gently-grinding synth. There is crystal clean guitar. There’s Sarah Barthel’s voice, and then there’s a second Sarah Barthel harmonizing herself in a timid little falsetto. That’s it: two voices, a couple of synths, a guitar, a beat, and plenty of space to appreciate the beauty and persistence of each element. In my mind, those songs represent what Phantogram is, and thus, whether it’s fair or not, all other Phantogram material is measured against those two songs.

In October of 2016, Phantogram released Three. Overall, it is a successful balance between retaining those ethereal roots, while also evolving along a generally more pop-oriented spectrum. Production definitely has gotten “bigger.” Songs like “Answer” and “Funeral Pyre” largely deliver a satisfying continuation of those original roots that make Phantogram so good, and so different.  “Same Old Blues” and “Cruel World” act as a bridge between the old and the newer, while “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” (the album’s first single), “Calling All,” and “Run Run Blood” strike me as a more marked departure. Overall, Three showed that Phantogram’s roots run deep, but they are not afraid to try something new.

Our conversation addressed both the old and the new, among other things.

Smile Politely: Do you remember your first jams, or first shows?

Josh Carter: Yeah, I think our first show we only had two songs written, but we got asked to play a 45 minute set in Saratoga Springs [New York], so we wrote like a bunch of songs in a matter of two weeks, just to fill up the set.

We played for probably about fifty people. Mostly friends that we made come, and like our parents, and stuff like that. But it was good. I think that people were pretty surprised that it was our first show, if they hadn’t really known much about us. We would practice a lot, and play a lot together. Just from there, we started playing in the Capital District of New York, and then eventually New York City, then we got a booking agent, and started touring. Around the time that our first album came out, we started touring the U.S. very heavily.

SP: Did any of that original material survive?

Carter: Yeah, “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Running from the Cops” were two of the first songs that we wrote.

SP: Oh nice! Those are both great tracks. So what’s the writing process like for you guys?

Carter: I think it’s different every time. Sometimes I will write something on guitar or piano, and come up with a beat, and present it to Sarah. Sometimes Sarah writes something on piano or guitar and presents it to me. Well, what would you say, Sarah?

Sarah Barthel: Mmm. It usually starts with a beat.

Carter: Yeah. Like a beat that I’ll start making, with chopped up samples, or something. Then we kind of work from there.

Barthel: Yeah. We are just writing all kinds of stuff on top of the beat. Kind of just a mixture of everything, and then we just kind of go from there.

Carter: Yeah, we don’t really have things designated to one another. I guess, obviously, when we’re recording guitar, I’m going to play guitar. But I’ll play synths on stuff, and Sarah will play guitar or synths on stuff. It’s just really different every time. Often, we’re working in the same place together, but in separate rooms. Sometimes on the same idea, or two different ideas. If one of us feels stuck, we just give it to the other person and say, “Here you go, see what you can do with this.” Or we’ll call each other into the other room and be like, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” We work really well together that way. Sometimes, we will just jam together, over a drum machine.”

SP: Nice. Do you have any particular songs that you personally get really excited about playing?

Carter: Yeah, it was one of the first songs that we wrote, but I always love playing, “When I’m Small,” still. I really like playing, “Fall in Love.” Off of our new album – we actually play most of our whole new album – but I really like playing all the material off of that. What about you, Sarah?

Barthel: I love playing “Answer” live, and I really love to play “Funeral Pyre” live.

SP: Awesome. So you got started in upstate New York, is that right?

Carter: Yeah, we grew up in a very small town together. Right up near Saratoga Springs, New York. That’s where we got our start. We gained popularity in the Capital District of New York. Really, we decided that we didn’t want to be like big fish in a small pond, so we got out and started touring. So we’d play to like, five people a night, all over the U.S. Most of the time, those five people were like, the bartender, and four other people from the other band on the bill. But that’s how things go. We did things organically, and we toured real hard.

SP: When did you start seeing the shift, from playing to the bartender, to people showing up to see you?

Carter: Uhh. Over time. It’s like, two people come to the show that don’t know about it, and they tell two of their friends, and it doubles the next time. So it would go from like, we’d play for five people in Columbus, Ohio, and then the next time we’re in there, there’s fifty people, then the next time we’re there, there’s a hundred, and now we’re playing for a thousand people, or thousands of people a night. So it’s just hard work and word of mouth. We weren’t really like this internet craze band, that gained popularity from blogs or anything like that, you know. We did things kind of old school.


SP: Where do you call home now?

Carter: We were in Brooklyn for a while, after we became kind of established as a band. Right now, we mainly call home L.A. I love New York. I miss the hell out of it, but I got sick of the cold weather.

Barthel: Yeah.

SP: Yeah, I can commiserate, being from Illinois. Does that change the mood you are in, musically, going from East Coast to West Coast?

Carter: No, I don’t think so.

Barthel: Nah.

SP: It does seem like the beats have gotten stronger, the bass lines have gotten more muscular. Is there an intentional evolution, or does it just happen organically?

Carter: I think it just, everything has been an organic evolution. I think the reason why maybe you’re hearing stronger sounding beats or sounds, is just that we went from doing everything DIY, in a home studio, to actually being able to afford to get some shit done in a real recording studio. So like, you’re hearing things sound a bit more polished, because they’re recorded with better equipment. You know?

SP: Do you ever miss the DIY stuff?

Carter: Oh all the time. I can picture making future albums that are DIY, again. You know. I think it just depends on what mood we are in. We always record at home, you know. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll record our next record in our house, I don’t know.

Barthel: Yeah.

SP: Cool. Any other thoughts?

Carter: No, just we really appreciate the support, man. We look forward to playing out there in Champaign.

Phantogram plays The Canopy Club tonight at 9 p.m. Tickets are still available at $30 each. Visit the Canopy event page to learn more.

All photos by Wolf James Photography, used with permission of BIZ3.

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