TAS In Session: Phantogram

Saratoga Springs' dark, quirky electronic rockers Phantogram, the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, originally recorded their debut album Eyelid Movies as a demo nearly two years ago. However, the album generated so much enthusiastic attention that they released it in February, re-mastered and resequenced, on Barsuk Records, home to Rilo Kiley and Mates of State.

Phantogram, who impressively opened for the xx earlier this month, have also played with Yeasayer, Metric, Zero 7 and more. They're on the road doing an assortment of headlining and opening gigs his summer, including a show with Caribou on July 16th on Governor's Island in New York. Not long ago, Carter and Barthel, who mix their own live shows (much to the astonishment of sound folks at venues everywhere), visited The Alternate Side's Studio A and unfurled not only tracks from the album, like "Mouth Full of Diamonds" and "When I'm Small," but a bonus track, "Make A Fist."

Alisa Ali: Last time I saw you guys was in Austin for SXSW. You guys did some cool robot moves.

Sarah Barthel: I did some robot moves, I also had some fruit rollups and I think I stole about two handfuls of jelly bellies from your studio. I still have them.

Alisa: You do?

Sarah: No.

Josh Carter: We had fun. It was the first time I drank a beer at 1 in the afternoon. Even though it was SXSW, I don't like to start that early. I'm kind of a night guy. That's when I wild out.

Sarah: Nick Cannon style. [SXSW] was awesome. We had a really fun experience. We had fans who came to our shows and we got to meet with everyone and hang out with Barsuk Records people. We don't get to seem them very often so it was an overall positive experience.

Josh: Last year was our first time and we'd pretty much just started as a band and it was really nerve-wracking and scary and we didn't realize that you had to set up in three seconds. At the time we didn't have quite as sophisticated of a setup so we had all of this black spaghetti of wires everywhere and it was just hectic and scary. So this year we knew what we were getting into.

Alisa: Speaking of setting up, you guys arrived at our studio about five minutes ago and you're already ready to go.

Josh: We have a custom-built rig that a good friend of ours named Ryan Ghent helped us build. Well, he pretty much did it himself. We just watched.

Sarah: Yeah, we didn't have anything to do with it. We just sat there and plied him with grapes sometimes and he took care of all of it.

Josh: I had leaves and fanned him. So thank you, Ryan.

Alisa: You have your new record Eyelid Movies out, but you've had these songs for a while. It's been ready for about two years before it came out?

Josh: [The album] the first thing that we recorded as soon as we started "jamming." It was originally intended as a demo to float around the capitol region of New York and some buzz started building up around us. We began to play New York City and started getting hit up by record labels and we've had a serendipitous career. But it is weird having a record that's been done for two years out now.

Alisa: So by the time that Barsuk Records got into the picture it was pretty much done. What did they do? They resequenced it, right?

Sarah: Remastered it and we resequenced it.

Alisa: You're very low maintenance! You even mix yourselves in performance.

Josh: Sometimes sound guys get mad - they're like, "oh man, we want to do more. All I have to do is sit and drink beer during your set." But they're happy.

Sarah: Well, you get both kinds of sound guys. You get the ones who go, "sweet, awesome, I don't have to do anything." And other sound guys who go, "you're going to do [the mix] yourself? Are you sure you know what you're doing?" They get really nervous sometimes because they don't think it's going to work out. Then after our set, they're like, "I don't believe that worked out! It was so great!"

Alisa: The official video for that song is a little creepy! Josh, you look frightened.

Sarah: Creepiness!

Alisa: Josh, you're holding an axe or a shovel in it?

Josh: I'm digging Sarah's grave!

Sarah: Or maybe you're digging your own grave, you just don't realize it yet.

Josh: What are you trying to say, Sarah?

Sarah: Nothing at all (laughs).

Alisa: Every second we're all digging our own graves. Your music does have an eerie quality to it, a very dark sense of humor.

Josh: I know we have a really wacky sense of humor and often dark, politically incorrect and zany. But lyrically we gravitate towards the darker side of life, I suppose. Our lyrics are about life, death, love and what's-it-all-about existentialism. I write most of the lyrics, well, for the record I wrote most of the lyrics with a hand from Sarah on a few of the songs. So I guess a lot of them are out of my journal and lyric book. Sarah definitely has a big hand in helping - she does have big hands, sausage fingers. I'll present them [to her] and she'll say, "oh, that doesn't sound so good," and if I need a line or two, she's always good at helping me out. That was for this record, but our newer material is definitely a bit more collaborative lyrically. She's a dark girl.

Sarah: I enjoy lyrics that are very descriptive but not so literal. Metaphorical. Josh writes dark and metaphorical lyrics that are double-sided, have double meanings. Like "Mouth Full of Diamonds." The music video is very dark, but very beautiful.

Josh: We like bands like The Smiths, how they wrote. Because "Mouth Full of Diamonds" is a song that's a little happy sounding and The Smiths wrote kind of happy sounding tunes with really sad or dark lyrics. The Beatles did that all of the time, especially later Beatles.

Alisa: Last time I spoke to you, you had a project or contest with each other to create a "beat a day." And last I heard, Josh, you were winning.

Sarah: Josh is always the winner in the beats, but I'm getting there, I'm getting better. Josh is very inspiring, and comes up with the coolest stuff. Hopefully we'll be able to post them somewhere.

Josh: We want to have a website where we can start posting vignettes, short songs and beats to keep fans interested. This tour, it's been very busy and grueling so we've been a beat every other day. We're trying.

Alisa: So you guys are very productive, eating jelly beans and making beats.

Josh: I don't eat jelly beans. I just put them in my nose.

Alisa: A lot of your music is very beat-driven. I'm surprised that Kanye West hasn't snatched you up.

Josh: He should. I don't think he's heard us yet. So if you guys have the connects, yo, Phantogram.

Alisa: Do all of the songs start with a beat?

Josh: No it's different all of the time. Sometimes it starts with a beat. Sometimes it starts with Sarah writing something on piano, or me writing a tune on guitar. Occasionally, for samples, we'll dig through records that are in the same key of the song that we wrote and that can be tough, to find the right samples. But when we're just jamming out, we'll just start with a beat and do it that way.

Sarah: "When I'm Small" started with the beat first and we actually wrote it in one night.

Alisa: I understand that when you write music, you try to record it live so it's something you can perform live.

Sarah: Yeah, in the past have written songs where it was impossible to play live and they're really good songs, and we wish we could figure them out.

Alisa: What songs?

Sarah: This one song called "Nightlife" which we have recorded. I think it's a bonus track in Europe, but it's a really good song.

Josh: I think it's available in Japan.

Sarah: Okay, Japan, I guess! And it's an awesome song. But that's an example.

Alisa: Do you think you'll ever pull out some hired guns to go on tour with you?

Sarah: I hope so.

Josh: Maybe in the future.

Sarah: At least a drummer would be nice for added percussion. For right now, it's working for the two of us, so it's not needed yet.

Alisa: Sarah, you've got a beautiful voice.

Josh: She does. I'm very happy to have her as a bandmate.

Alisa: But Josh, you do some singing on the record too?

Josh: I do, a little bit. [Sarah] helped me out big time.

Sarah: We teach each other things a lot. Josh teaches me how to make beats and I teach him how to sing better live.

Alisa: Sarah, you take most of the vocals, but Josh, how do you decide to do them? Do you try them out?

Josh: It's not that hard to delegate who sings, it's just a matter of what feels most natural and who'll make the song sound more honest. A bunch our songs I'd sing at first, but they'd be out of my range. And I'd be like, "Sarah, help me out, dude." And she'll just take it over. She has a very nice voice. I'm working on my voice, but I don't mind being raspy or weird. Most of my favorite singers don't have the best [voices] like Tom Waits or Steve Malkmus. When I sing I just aim to be honest and come from the heart and, hopefully, that shines through.

Phantogram Summer Tour

July 8 - Wrong Bar, Toronto, ON

July 9 - Ottawa Bluesfest (with Wintersleep), Ottawa, ON

July 10 - Casa del Popolo, Montreal, QC

July 11- Festival d'Ete (with Passion Pit) - Quebec City, PQ

July 16 - Governor's Island (with Caribou), New York, NY

July 24 - Truck Festival, Hill Farm, UK

July 26 - The Lexington (with Active Child), London, UK

Sept 5 - North Coast Music Fest, Chicago IL


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