Phantogram aren’t always about dark thoughts, although that’s much of the makeup that keeps the duo together. Made up of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, the New York act went from young friends to music partners, using their “psychic twin” abilities to create a sound that teeters between isolation and recovery with the challenge of getting there. And they’re more than fine with doing it alone.
As Carter notes, “too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the batch.”
It also helps that they share the same appreciation for hip-hop and The Beatles, and that they learned how to stand each other’s company before 24-hour tour life was ever a thought.
It was almost seven years ago when Eyelid Movies came out, a debut album riddled with promise of a fresh duo ready to share their form of escapism. “Let Me Go,” “When I’m Small” and the head game anthem, “Mouthful of Diamonds” were standouts, charged with cleverly subtle lyrics and heavy string accompaniment.
This attention to songwriting continued on 2014’s Voices, as well as the fistful of EPs that followed. Their draw grew with undeniably igniting tracks like, “Black Out Days,” “Fall in Love” and the not to be overlooked, “The Day You Died.”
Now with their third album, Three, their previous eye-to-voice showdowns have been met by a jaunting heartbeat, one that explores more sonic textures, captive writing, and an expanded collaborative spirit. Three debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Top Albums chart, and later landed at No. 3 on Billboard’s Rock Album chart.
For this album the duo let down their guard and tight control over who heard their work and became more open to the influence of others.
This time around, Phantogram decided to open up and let people hear the music before it was finalized.
“Before, it was important for us to not have anyone hear or give an opinion because it was ours, and we didn’t want anyone to touch it,” explains Barthel. “After a while, we realized [that] thinking that way isn’t the smartest. Not that it’s selfish, but just more… why not have fun, open your mind to other perspectives and hear what comes out?”
“Maybe it was who we’ve now worked with, learning to adapt to other people’s styles you know? How they do things,” adds Carter. “But I also know why we keep it as a two piece band—it’s about maintaining a vision and not getting too distracted.”
Carter points to Stanley Kubrick as an example of someone who controls every element, every shot, and a director he admires since “he relies on all the sources around to make a good thing.”
Phantogram is Barthel’s first band ,while Carter’s been producing and playing music (including drums in a death metal band) for years before Phantogram came to fruition. This could be another reason why their work is so personal: two friends making music, taking chances and knowing where they came from, what to say, what not to say, and how to get each other going.
“When Josh and I first started, I didn’t know how to do anything,” explains Barthel. “It was just about listening, feeling, as cheesy as that sounds.”
Like any good friend who values talent, Carter interjects, “In Sarah’s defense though, she has a really great voice and I knew that, that’s why I asked her to join the band. And I knew she was good at piano, so it’s not like she was bad or anything.”
“I’ve never really looked up to artists that are technically appreciated,” Carter says. “I don’t know why Kurt Cobain is regarded as one of the best guitarists in the world—well maybe I do actually—because he was unique to himself. Same with Neil Young. Simple, structured songs can go a long way; I don’t think you have to be Ted Nugent.”
When it came time to start recording Three, the duo organized their studio time and work ethic in a more focused fashion. Concentration was key, so they didn’t end up “working on a song for an hour and then somehow watching ‘Tim & Eric’ online for two hours,” as Carter puts it.
“How we used to be was very contained and your mind can feel so ‘ch-ch-ch-ch’ you know? Like a hamster in a wheel,” adds Barthel. “I think that’s why this record happened faster too, because we didn’t do that to ourselves.”
Three reiterates Phantogram’s lyrical strength, which handled, experienced and toyed with by both Carter and Barthel. Three also shows that the Saratoga souls aren’t hiding anymore, and will continue to convey lyrics that pinch the nerves you thought you had numbed out. Lyrics like “hurt people hurt people too,” “I want to hear things you say when no one’s listening” and “I used to see beauty in people, now I see muscle and bones.” The album was also made with heavy hearts following the sudden suicide of Barthel’s older sister, a close friend of Carter’s too.
“We’re definitely into heavier, darker topics when we write, it’s very cathartic, but we’re not some goth kids in a basement being like ‘don’t open a window’ or anything,” Barthel jokes. “We’re goofy people that love to laugh, and I think that’s why our music goes to the darker; we can express ourselves in the darker way.”
Three bears witness to songs like “Your Mine,” which demonstrates the duo’s chemistry, alternating vocals with electro-rock sass. Carter’s voice is heard more on this album, a pleasantry indeed, especially on “Barking Dog” and “Answer.” The latter is a skuzzy piano-chopped gem that is one of the older songs pieced together from scribbles in his notebook.
“‘Answer’ was originally about not going [along] with other people’s expectations, and what they want you to do, whether it’s a romantic relationship or passion or whatever,” he explains. “But it evolved, shapeshifted a little over time, over like ten years, ha—it’s one of those that went into the vault until recently.”