The general consensus is that electronic-pop duo Phantogram materialized from the ether, emerging from nowhere to produce the type of danceable tracks Salvador Dali might craft if he traded his paintbrush for a drum machine and analog synthesizer. This is nearly the truth; Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter’s “nowhere” is the obscure New York town of Saratoga Springs. The pair had no pedigree as previous members of lauded bands or grand industry connections when they wrote the songs that became 2010’s sleeper success story Eyelid Movies.
“We weren’t planning on making a debut record,” Barthel says. “Technically it was supposed to be our demo. It just caught on a lot faster than we expected.” The vocalist and keyboardist explains this with an air of disbelief in her voice while Phantogram prepares to soundcheck before their sold-out headlining show in Denver, a mere 1,800 miles from their quaint upstate New York home.
The moniker Phantogram sounds like a message from a ghost, but the name is taken from an optical illusion that builds three dimensional projections from phasing blue and red images. Either definition fits the group, whose new Barsuk Records EP Nightlife floats above street level into the hazy neon lights of imaginary cities lifted from comic books.
The band’s cosmic tracks come from an unlikely place. “We recorded in a barn on Josh’s parents’ property upstate,” Barthel says. The barn, nicknamed Harmony Lodge, became a recording studio and practice space out of necessity, but the self-sufficiency helped form Phantogram’s aesthetic. “The barn was just something we had in front of us and we had the capabilities of making it work. We weren’t interested in going to a professional studio by any means. We were more interested in more textural sounds, things that are recorded with shitty microphones or in a really open shitty-sounding room with nothing professional about it.”
“When we made Eyelid Movies, we spent every waking moment together writing and recording and basically just living in a barn together,” Barthel says. “For a lot of the songs, Josh would make a beat and we’d play it on a loop and just marinate on it, sometimes for hours. Sometimes the songs came together really fast. Our two most popular songs ‘When I’m Small’ and ‘Mouthful Of Diamonds’ were written in an hour each.”
The circumstances behind Nightlife were different, with Phantogram laying down tracks during the rare spare moments in a hectic year of festivals and support tours for the likes of Minus The Bear, Caribou and Yeasayer. Barthel says, “We’ve had kind of a heavy emotional past few years in our personal lives and experiencing our band growing and shit happens. A lot of that went into our lyrics and the entire feel of the record.”
To quell speculation that might occur with statements about “personal lives” and “shit happens” coming from a co-ed act, Sarah and Josh are just friends. Many of the struggles of Nightlife seem to stem from their struggles with patience. “Some of the songs on Nightlife were written when we were waiting for Eyelid Movies to come out,” Sarah says. “We were just sick of waiting for these songs we had written a year and a half beforehand to be released to the world, so we started writing songs and just putting them to the side. It can be tough for us because sometimes we feel like our music is evolving faster than we can release it.”
For Phantogram, the EP is an ideal format. “Josh and I always fantasized about releasing only tour albums or EPs or singles to keep up with the way people’s attention spans have shifted in the past five or 10 years. We’re always moving now, and sometimes it’s hard to even finish a song.” Sarah admits, “I’m guilty of that myself.”
Phantogram have managed to stick out in an attention-deficit disordered culture the hard way, by keeping their music consistently compelling. Hearing the mutilated samples and futuristic Motown vibe of Eyelid Movies standout “As Far As I Can See,” the idea of skipping to the next track seems blasphemous.
Common threads permeate Phantogram’s catalog—synthetic beats, organic guitar lines, Barthel’s angelic alto and Carter’s urgent tenor—but songs never run together. “Josh and I always want to keep things moving,” Sarah says. “We admire The Beatles, how every single song sounded different but it worked so well together. We’re always inspired and influenced by so many different artists that I don’t think we even could make all our songs sound the same,” she says. “We don’t usually go towards Christian rock or pop country, but everything else…”
Nobody expects Amy Grant or Vince Gill to show up on Phantogram’s iPod, but some have made the assumption that Sarah and Josh are trip-hop connoisseurs. “We are always confused by that description,” Sarah says. “It’s easy to put somebody in that category if they have a female vocalist and don’t use live drums. I think people take advantage of that. Personally, I’ve never been a huge Portishead fan. I just decided to listen to Massive Attack last year because people always compared us. They’re okay, they’re probably last on the list of influences.”
Ranking higher on Barthel’s lengthy list are Outkast, David Bowie, J Dilla, Deftones, Missy Elliot, Beastie Boys and Mozart. Hearing Nightlife, this list comes off less like the name-dropping of a proudly diverse collector than the gushing an excitable and insatiable music enthusiast. The EP’s single “Don’t Move” is as much sound collage as pop song, complete with reoccurring horn stabs that appear to come from an underwater funk band.
Of all the musicians she raves about, it is obvious that Sarah Barthel’s favorite artist is her collaborator and beatmaker Josh Carter. “I think his beats are so interesting and they’re always ahead of the game,” she says. “He wrote the beat to ‘Don’t Move’ two years ago. ‘As Far As I Can See’ he wrote five or six years ago. He’s so amazing at what he does.”
Barthel couldn’t be more thrilled to get back into the barn with Carter. Phantogram’s current nationwide jaunt is their last before the duo begins working on their next full length. As she begins talking about samples and drum programming and chopped up vocals, she starts to feel self-conscious about the childlike enthusiasm she exudes.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just get so excited when I start thinking about beats.”