Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have known each other since attending junior high together in upstate New York in the late ’90s. Their friendship came in handy when, in 2007, Carter was looking to start a new musical project, one in which Hip Hop beats could commingle with atmospheric Indie Pop.
Enter Phantogram. The duo’s full-length debut, Eyelid Movies (released in Europe in 2009 in the U.S. in 2010), turned heads with Barthel’s impressive, versatile voice and Carter’s aforementioned mix of noir-like atmospherics and beat-driven production skills. Extensive touring with such like-minded luminaries as The Antlers, Beach House, Caribou and Yeasayer followed, including a rousing stop at the 2010 MidPoint Music Festival in Cincinnati.
After a couple EP appetizers — not to mention collaborations with artists as diverse as The Flaming Lips and Big Boi (among others) — Phantogram is finally back with its second full-length, Voices, another dynamic trip into the darkness.
CityBeat recently connected with Barthel by phone to get the lowdown on the duo’s latest “psychedelic experimental Pop” excursion.
CityBeat: How did the various people you’ve worked and played with in recent years impact your approach to writing the new album? I get the sense that you guys were cocooned in your own little world when you wrote and recorded the first album.
Sarah Barthel: Well, we spent a lot of time touring, and our sound evolved. We wrote Eyelid Movies before we even toured, and then toured on it and found out a lot about our sound and how we wanted the music to be for the next album or EP. After that we were able to get into a studio on our own where we had all these really cool instruments and effects, like guitar pedals and analog synthesizers and all these really cool things that we got to experiment with for the first time. So we were able to evolve and grow and do all the things we wanted to for the first time. That’s naturally how it built up.
CB: So you had a pretty clear idea of what you wanted Voices to sound like before writing it?
SB: We wanted to sit down and think about it in a visual way.
We had this idea of it having kind of like this psychedelic Experimental Pop kind of aesthetic. Like, for instance, you’re walking up a hill and you see a forest and you take a hit of acid with a friend and you walk in the woods at sunset and all this shit happens. Kind of like paranoia and all these dark feelings and experiences, but then again probably they’re really bright and happy as well. That’s kind of how we started it, and you can hear it. That’s why we chose “Nothing But Trouble” as the first song, because we can see that when we listen to it.
CB: The album is pretty cohesive when taken in as a whole. In this age of singles and YouTube clips, was giving listeners an album experience important to you?
SB: We’re really inspired by The Beatles in that way. They had cohesive albums, but they also had all these songs that didn’t sound like they wanted to be cohesive. They’re all just really good songs and they travel to different places on their own. That was one of our influences.
It does seem like this day and age is different. People like singles. People’s attention spans are different. I don’t even know if people listen to albums anymore. Sometimes I have trouble listening to new albums. I always will (listen), though. It’s really important for me to listen to a full piece. I’m not like a single person who has mixtapes and stuff. If I want to listen to Led Zeppelin, I’ll put on an entire album instead of just playing the hits.
CB: How does the songwriting process work for you guys? Do you collaborate on everything?
SB: On Voices it was different for every song. Most of the songs started with a beat, but we added various ideas to them. Our intention, in order to look at it in a different light, is, “How do we mix this sample and this beat into a song?” For instance, “Fall in Love” is like heavy, heavy sampling that was actually intended to be a beat Josh made five years ago for some MC to rhyme over. But I kind of wanted to see if we could turn it into something different. It was tough. I spent two and a half weeks just sitting in front of my computer trying to figure out arrangements and how could this still link to this part and how could it have a chorus and a middle eight. MCs don’t necessarily have to worry about that kind of thing. But for us, because songwriting is just as important as the production, it’s challenging.
CB: Do you write the lyrics? Or do you guys collaborate on that too?
SB: We both do, but Josh writes the majority of (them). We’re very close. We’ve been friends for 17 years, so we’ve kind of experienced the same things in our lives. We’re going through the same experiences of happiness and sadness, because we’re doing the same things. So if he writes the lyrics, I can relate to them, because I’m going through the same thing he’s going through, and that’s kind of how I add on my emotion and my ideas on top of that. I’m not singing his songs or vice versa. We’re connected. Josh calls us “The Twins,” because we have the same ideas, the same vision for the band.
CB: Speaking of vision, you have a background in visual arts. How has that impacted what you do in the band?
SB: I’m a very
visual person. Anything to do with creating, there’s always a picture in
my head. There’s always a visual. There’s colors. There’s light and
dark. It’s very emotional to me. Same thing with Josh. Again, it works
to our advantage that we both feel that way. … It’s really fun to do it
PHANTOGRAM performs Sunday, April 6 at 20th Century Theatre with Teen. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com.