From collaborating with music heavyweights like Big Boi and the Flaming Lips to playing legendary festivals like this year’s Lollapalooza, Phantogram is leading a life as surreal as the 3-D optical illusion that inspired its name.
The red and blue of this equation are Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, the electro-pop duo whose latest record, Voices, is getting people talking.
“Our set last night felt like a milestone for us,” says guitarist and beat-crafter Carter, reached by phone on the second day of the Lollapalooza fest. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because a lot of our songs are deeply personal, and when you see people singing along to every word and connecting with them so much, it’s a real trip and an honour. We’ve worked really hard to get to where we are now.”
Through continual live gigs and consistent sonic output since the 2009 release of its self-titled debut EP, Phantogram has been able to build a fan base organically and avoid the flavour-of-the-week branding that so many digital-age artists bear. And according to Carter, the group’s productivity is integral to his craft.
“It’s something that I have to do,” he says. “When I started making music at around 18 years old, it became a compulsion. I remember when I got a four-track, I would record every day. And I try to make a beat every day now still, because I’ve always thought of it as cataloguing, like taking photos or journalling. I take down a sort of sound journal. Whether it’s a little vignette, a song idea on guitar or piano, a recording of people talking, or just field sounds, it’s impor-tant to me. I can’t really explain why, but it just feels like how I want to document my life.”
Voices is all about “stark contrast”, juxtaposing Barthel’s fresh pop vocals and spun-sugar melodies with gritty trip-hop beats and angst-clouded lyrics. Haunted by themes of heartache, loneliness, and bad habits, the tracks are R&B smooth and darkly luminous—like black gems, and just as finely cut. They reflect Phantogram’s eclectic trove of influences, including hip-hop producers, Motown, French pop, and psych rock. Take Phantogram’s sumptuous single “Fall in Love”, for example. It samples the 1965 soul hit “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason so cleverly that the sound bite is unrecognizable.
“I like chopping up all kinds of music, recontextualizing it, and creating something new,” explains Carter. “I listen to everything from Flying Lotus to Beethoven. I collect a lot of records, and sometimes I’ll buy records that I don’t even like, just to listen to them and get a vibe for their sonic qualities. What really excites me about Phantogram is that I feel like we have this well of so many untapped ideas. We have such a huge power that we’re working with. We don’t even have to think outside of the box, because there is none.”
Hinting that the band will soon be sneaking into the studio, Carter adds, “I’m just excited that I get to do this, and with my best friend. It makes our bond stronger, if that’s even possible. And even though it’s a lot of hard work, we still have the best job in the world.”
Phantogram plays the Stawamus Stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Sunday (August 10).