While New York seems to breed electro/synth-pop duos at breakneck speed, the world falls in love with them as fast as they appear.
From Chairlift to Holy Ghost!, Sleigh Bells to the late School of Seven Bells (and the list goes on) New York has produced some of the greatest representations of this seemingly disparate genre over the last decade.
Yet what holds this sound together is often the very thing that sets these bands apart. While music has long had a fascination with creative partnerships – viewing two creative souls toiling away at their music like some sort of plutonic and tortured love affair – the aforementioned duos all essentially sound absolutely nothing alike. Their resumes may read the same but their creative output transcends any presumed mould.
Phantogram are no exception. Friends since junior high, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have built their DIY project from the ground up by writing, playing and refining their sound year after year, and while their growth has been organic, their creative process is far from it. They are extremely disciplined and deliberate creators, drawing on Barthel’s visual arts background and Carter’s technical prowess, Phantogram stitch together EDM, hip hop, indie and shoegaze with the skill of surgeons, while maintaining a deeply hypnotic and concept-driven element to their sound.
Nothing sounds clinical mind you; they simply care about what they’re doing. They once explained that their song ideas for their first album, Eyelid Movies, came from short films they’d dream up together and then turn into song. Even their latest album, Voices, is a cacophony of imagery layered into sound.
It’s this unique approach to the creative process that breeds the somewhat insular environment in which they write. Barthel and Carter have worked on tracks for Big Boi and The Flaming Lips but when it comes to their own creations, they are deeply protective of what they do for themselves. So when Phantogram signed to Republic – their first step into the world of major labels – they did so with caution. “We started out with an indie label, then toured a whole bunch, and just built fans through that so this transition to a major label seems completely natural; there’s nothing sudden about it,” Barthel says.
“It’s definitely helping us now we have radio play, but for the most part we’ve never been pushed too hard, so we don’t feel like this band that came out of nowhere.”
Nonetheless, Barthel makes it very clear that while they’re enjoying a growing fan base, they’ll never want that to grow at the expense of their integrity. People create for an audience, otherwise why ever leave your lounge room? But for fans of Carter and Barthel, they best be prepared to follow them wherever they go.
“As a band people know that we’re Phantogram, we have full creative control. John Hill knew that when he worked with us, our label knows that,” she says. “That’s the reason we signed to Republic; because they gave us that option. Our music is our music and it doesn’t need to be changed or altered just so it can sit on the radio. If it doesn’t belong on the radio then it doesn’t have to be there but we’re glad at the moment that it’s sitting there; that’s a wonderful thing.”
John Hill co-produced Phantogram’s latest (and most successful) release, Voices. His history is diverse, working with acts ranging from TUnE-YArDs, to P!nk, Portugal. The Man and Santigold. Barthel and Carter were attracted to his eclectic resume and despite generally approaching things from an in-house perspective; they’re smart enough to know their limitations. They’ve had no shortage of studio experience with two albums, four EPs and a host of singles in their seven years together (as well as what can be assumed quasi-master classes from the likes of Big Boi), but fresh ears are generally a good thing.
“We’ve always done it ourselves and we’re those types of people who look at it like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she says. “We’re always down to collaborate but it’s important that Phantogram is coming from just us because that’s why we’re doing it. I don’t want to play a song that someone else wrote, my art is more meaningful when it comes from us. I have a connection to the songs when we perform… but while we write everything, we co-produced this last record with John Hill because we wanted another ear.
“John helped us hone in different tones and sounds and had a whole shitload of different equipment that we could use. He had a knowledge that we needed; Josh did what he knew how to do but didn’t know how to make, like, the beats crunchier or the synths more bumping. John was able to make things stick out more dynamically.”
There are other concessions Phantogram have made in order to ensure the quality of music comes first. They have two new touring members to ensure their live sound is as explosive as their records and have learned a lot from playing crap venues with heinous sound, taking a sound tech on the road with them most times. After all, keeping things close has always been for the sake of Phantogram and if Phantogram needs a little help, pride is not a concern. Barthel and Carter don’t work so intimately just for the sake of it, they want to create the best music they can above all else.
“Playing a lot of shows has made us open our ears up a lot more, especially with the release of this album, we put a lot more of a live feel into that record actually because of the amount of shows we’d played,” she says. “It took us a little bit of time to experiment with the songs live and to figure out what we wanted to do with the songs live. We’ve got two other players with us now so we’re able to pull it off a little bit better these days. It’s been fun having them along; people seem to be enjoying how we’re performing it and there’s been heaps of positive feedback.”
“Our music is our music and it doesn’t need to be changed or altered just so it can sit on the radio. If it doesn’t belong on the radio then it doesn’t have to be there but we’re glad at the moment that it’s sitting there; that’s a wonderful thing.”