Best of What's Next: Phantogram
As online music discovery becomes the norm, artists might as well start saying they’re “from the Internet” instead of any given geographic locale. Regionalism still colors scenes across the country and crowns acts ready for national prominence, of course, but bands like the electronic pop duo Phantogram need not wait for the cold, quiet confines of towns like Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to churn them out.
From the ghosts of trip-hop past to the synthesizer psychedelia of tomorrow, keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Joshua Carter began as Charlie Everywhere in 2007, and these days make music that won’t tie them down anywhere. The duo released a self-titled EP in 2009 and their full-length debut, Eyelid Movies, is out in the states today; on both, Barthel and Carter split singing duties, which makes for twice as many voices to loop, squelch and flatted into their beat-driven compositions. Onstage, the two members of Phantogram are in constant motion, pausing their own groove-induced head-bobbing for split seconds just to trigger more textures, building grunts, sighs and vocal hooks on the sigh.
Paste became enamored with the duo at last fall’s 2009 CMJ Music Marathon, and squeezed into a booth with Barthel and Carter just after the Aquarium Drunkard showcase at Fontana’s to talk about horse racing, the devil and picking fights.
Paste: What did you have in mind for Eyelid Movies?
Josh Carter: It’s an interesting blend of different textures and a mix of organic elements and technology. What we were shooting for was a juxtaposition of elements that don’t necessarily go together. Kinda like, visualize a tree in dirt with mics and wires and radios coming out of the grass around it.
Paste: In this difficult economic climate, is a “Mouthful of Diamonds” really the best look?
Sarah Barthel: Never thought of it that way, but…
Carter: I think a mouthful of diamonds is a great thing to have. You’ll always have it just in case.
Barthel: It’s kind of like a security blanket for your mouth. You can sell your teeth if you need the money.
Paste: What are your musical backgrounds?
Carter: I started playing guitar and drums, and I dabbled on piano since I was about 18 years old. I played drums in a couple bands and guitar in a band before this. I’ve been recording a lot, some 4-tracks and eventually graduated to computer software. I’ve been really interested in sounds for about 10 years. My parents both play music and my brother and sister play music.
Paste: I have been singing my entire life. I pretend like I know what I’m doing on the piano. I don’t have any training so I just wing it. Josh picked me up and decided to work with me about two and a half years ago with hopes of recording, writing and everything else.
Paste: What’s your favorite piece of gear?
Carter: Our samplers are a lot of fun, a couple of my guitar pedals. At home we have a couple dual analog synths. But it’s more like a collection of a lot of different things that we like to tinker with than one holy grail.
Paste: What are you doing to prevent this precious gear from being stolen during your upcoming European tour?
Barthel: Praying to God. Praying to Allah. Praying to every god out there.
Carter: Secure parking, brass knuckles, bodyguards.
Paste: Where do you record your music?
Barthel: We have a recording studio in a barn/garage in Easton, N.Y.—about 40 minutes east of Saratoga, close to Vermont. We’re inspired a lot by nature, and we can make as much noise as we want out there.
Paste: Do you think you’ll stick in upstate New York?
Barthel: At this point, we can’t really afford to move. We were planning to New York a couple years ago to meet people and check out the scene, but luckily people got interested in our stuff online, so we didn’t have to. It’s beautiful up there, but it’s fucking cold.
Paste: Honestly, how much Portishead are you listening to these days?
Carter: Not a lot.
Barthel: That was back in the ’90s!
Carter: I got into their self-titled album when it came out. And their new record is really good as well.
Paste: You’ve professed love for hip-hop, so is that going to figure into future Phantogram recordings?
Carter: No rapping. We don’t think that would sound very good. We make beats a lot, but it would be pretty cheesy if we started rapping over our stuff.
Barthel: You wouldn’t want to hear me rapping.
Paste: Horse racing is integral to Phantogram’s existence because…
Carter: This year was my first time going to the [Saratoga Race Course].
Barthel: We went for two races. Our manager came to up to visit and wanted to go. We said “let’s go bet two dollars on a horse and see what happens.” It was pretty fun, but we didn’t win.
Carter: I lost about six bucks. Oh man, I had an awful time.
Paste: Phantogram kinda sounds like the Satanist symbol.
Carter: It’s funny, we played a show over the summer and on the bill it said “Pentagram,” and we thought, what the hell? We’re not a satanic band or a death metal outfit.
Barthel: Actually, a phantogram is an optical illusion to make something look like a three-dimensional object. You put on those red and blue glasses, and it’s supposed to pop up.
Paste: Do you have a favorite phantogram?
Barthel: No, but there are some cool ones online that you can check out.
Paste: What kinds of imagery do you hope to incorporate into live performances?
Barthel: Video. We would like to have a projector and someone to bring on tour to do video for us. It’s so much cooler live. It expands the entire sound for some reason.
Carter: We’ve gotten a lot of people who tell us that they haven’t seen a band like us live, and that it’s refreshing to see us perform rather than a four or five person band.
Barthel: Even without a drummer.
Paste: Do you worry about not having a drummer?
Barthel: Not at this point, but we would like to add that dynamic live.
Paste: One last thing for Josh. Who are you pointing at when you point out into the crowd during performances?
Carter: I usually point at the scariest looking guy in the room just to see if he’ll pick a fight.