In an era defined by never quite knowing how popular a given music artist is, the amount of data there is to pull from is staggering. Sometimes it’s just the little things, like the way a friend reacts when you tell him about your upcoming interview with a band, or the way an artist orders lunch from their major label representative. For Phantogram, their current hit radio single and their Republic Records debut are blinking, electric signifiers, but the subtle details are what tell you where the band is in its own head. Today, they are a Cobb salad band. They are a side of brussel sprouts.
Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have known each other for 18 years and speak of a practically psychic energy when they make music, with the project rarely needing to see its core compromise because they are of the same mind. They don’t view their major label jump, after previously being affiliated with Barsuk, as a compromise either.
“We didn’t get any vibe that they wanted to change us or mold us in any way,” Carter says of his label, while his food on the way. “More that they wanted to give us the platform to reach new people, while not compromising any of our artistic integrity.”
Phantogram’s second full-length LP, Voices, attests to this, though it is also clear that the duo has risen to the challenge that more ears and more opportunities present. Three singles from the collection have been released before the album has even come out, and the LP has more where that came from. Complicated and busy-sounding, the album also displays pin-point precision, with every sound and grimy electronic flourish meticulously placed. Phantogram has not taken its opportunity lightly, and it shows.
Last summer, Phantogram opened for M83, who might provide an ideal roadmap for the similarly aimed duo. Phantogram acknowledges this and has nothing but praise for M83. But though “Fall In Love” appears to be Phantogram’s first bonafide hit, it isn’t quite as undeniable as “Midnight City,” and likewise, the band doesn’t have near the critical acclaim that M83 held on the release of its breakthrough Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Still, Phantogram has things that M83 doesn’t: sensuality, multiple creative minds at the project’s center and an aesthetic more urban and bleak, rather than soaring and otherworldly. Still, M83 has shown that one single can be the difference between headlining a Hollywood club and the Hollywood Bowl.
Upon suggestion that Phantogram is leaving its indie roots behind, Carter is quick to defend his band’s place in the music scene and claims nothing has changed with its new affiliation.
“We’re not leaving anything. We still have a lot of friends who are in independent bands that we play with,” Carter says, adding “Everybody that plays music in bands wants their music to be heard.”
The band puts its money where its mouth is, emphasizing shorter, more frequent releases rather than the imminent Voices, a rare LP for them.
“Maybe it is the time we live in,” Barthel says, “versus the ‘90s when albums were so important and cohesiveness between songs was emphasized, but we live in a different time now, and it’s important to listen to that. People want to hear new music all of the time and attention spans may be different than they were in the ‘90s. I don’t know how many people sit down and listen to albums these days. There is something attractive about releasing fresh music often, because we come up with a lot of ideas, and we want to put them out rather than hold off for two years to release a full-length.”
But this rather untraditional view on release strategy is just a part of a philosophy that affects all aspects of their project, which Carter sees more as responsibility than just a simple ethos, holding onto his indie roots while speaking about the band’s place in the commercial world.
“I think we have a lot to offer to people that don’t get to hear more unique bands,” Carter says. “It is sort of our duty to pave our way as a band.”
And though their album does show their creative synergy and is the product of carefully honed taste, Carter and Barthel speak mostly in cliches during the interview, and little of their personality shines through the conversation. Because of the amount of electronic instrumentation on the album, this is somehow unsurprising and likely unfair, as if the closer your music sounds to robots, the more we expect you to behave like machines. There is also the impression that they’ve given enough interviews that they leave their quirks for their personal life and stick to business when they are working. The music has to stand for itself, and Phantogram seems only concerned with its musical image, not its personal one. Whatever the reasoning, it works: they have an album that seems destined to please on both the critical and commercial levels.
Their succinct and well-thought answering changes near the end of our conversation, where a question about what success means to the band and what they hope for over the next year produces two widely different answers.
“Our idea of success is being well-respected by other artists, and by the world, or the universe in general,” Barthel says. “It’s the feeling of people admiring your hard work, your art. Which kind of has already happened for us, and you notice it more and more when people hear about your band and tell you they love you. I think we’ve already gotten to that point, so it’s hard to think about success and what we are going for in the next year.”
“Success for me,” Carter chimes in, making it obvious that Barthel was not speaking for Phantogram as a whole, “would just be touring and having fun playing shows all year. Growing as a band, writing more music. That would be success.”
Whichever metric the band uses to measure its accomplishments, the Phantogram explosion may just be beginning—in L.A., their sold-out concert was recently moved to a venue double its size, the 4,000-person Palladium, and sold out once again—and people might see the band’s workmanlike attitude as a reflection of its standing. But some people are just better suited to increased attention, and Phantogram seems content on playing it smart when in comes to career and delivering fully when writing songs. Their success is heard through song, not through interviews.