story / Meghan O'Connor
photos /Ashley Pawlak
With a name like Phantogram, adjectives like “airy,” “swirling,” and “space” seem perfectly suited to match the so-called “psych-pop” duo from New York. What is less perfectly suited however, is the rest of this partnership’s story. Writing and recording in a remote barn upstate, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel call themselves “psychic twins.” We sat down with Phantogram to peel back a few layers of their mystery. Along the way, we just maybe caught a glimpse of the psychic messages they’re sending.
LADYGUNN: You’ve worked with some badass artists including The Flaming Lips, whom you’ve said is an influence. At GoogaMooga, Wayne (of The Lips) brought you (Sarah) out onstage to play the song “You Lust” and said you like to have your hair pulled, and apparently had to do so in order to perform the song “You Lust.” What was that about and how does that help facilitate the music playing process?
Sarah: Oh, it’s just a joke. He picks on me because I don’t really like to show a lot of skin performing and he always picks on me because he’s like the complete opposite with women. He’s like “if ya got it, flaunt it,” so we thought it’d be fun to make a little joke out of it.
It really seemed almost like you guys had planned it out…
Sarah: Oh no, we did! We did!
LADYGUNN: Well that was really cool. Big Boi is also a pretty badass artist you’ve worked with in the past. What was it like to incorporate a southern hip-hop element into your music? [They produced Objectum Sexuality as well as helped feature on Lines and CPU.]
Sarah: Well we kinda grew up listening to Outkast. Josh and I were such fans of hip-hop when we were friends in high school, when we grew up together. Josh’s production-making had always had the super-bright snares and we loved the way Outkast sounded so fresh and…so clean (laughs). We were able to spend some time with them over the past couple of years down there while we were writing the record. Our idea was not to mirror them, but they were always so new and innovating at the time and we loved that about them so we kind of grabbed hold of that idea from the start. Then when we started working with them, they were fans of us. We were playing our music for them, for big. He was so excited about it, the stuff we were writing for this record. I think just having his energy and having his excitement….proved something new for us.
The song “Nightlife,” for which your mini-album/second album (2011) is titled, is rather dark. Can you explain the meaning? Because the song seems to be about death of an identity of sorts, or the person trying to push through a process just to get it over with?
Sarah: Well normally we don’t like to explain what the songs are about, but that song in particular grabbed influence from different visuals that were going on. When we were making the song, we pictured this lonely desolate feeling that we get a lot from upstate where we’re from, where we write a lot of our music. We had kind of the feeling of playing in a field, a golden field in the middle of nowhere and singing to yourself and it responding to you, what you’re feeling, saying i’m okay when you’re not really okay…just because you want that comfort when you’re weak or dying.
Josh: Visually, we were thinking a scenario, like a scene of nowhere, driving on a country road. You see this car flipped over on the side of the road in a field and you pull over and the sun’s going down. You go out and you see this person dying that’s been thrown out of the windshield of the car, and you walk up to that person and that person’s singing this melody.
That’s a very particular image. Was it particularly one of yours, or-?
Josh: Well we talk about a lot of stuff together and throw a lot of ideas back and forth. That’s how we generate a lot of the ideas for our songs. Almost all of our songs are derived from a visual, or basically an imaginary scenario that we kind of come up with together.
Sarah: Yeah, it just kind of snowballs from there.
It seems like you two have a very intimate process, almost out of body even.
Josh: We’re psychic twins. We are. It’s just kind of how we work. I write the majority of the lyrics, but even if I write all the lyrics to a song, sarah still has a major connection to those lyrics. We go over them together and we connect the dots together, so there’s still a very personal level. It’s not like she’s singing my song or my lyrics or anything.
I can see why your music is so successful, because it feels very intimate.
Josh: Yeah, and we live such tight-knit lives.
Sarah: We go through the same stuff, everything, because we’re super close. We have the same people in our lives and we have the same experiences in our lives and the same sorrows and the same joys, so it’s not like “oh this is my song”” or “this is your song.” Every single song is ours.
Josh: It’s pretty fantastic that we can operate like that.
It is pretty fantastic. I would agree. “10,000 claps” (from their first proper album, Eyelid Movies) is another song that really intrigues me as it seems to be a cry for escape from the overwhelming effect of people. Is this song a reflection on being tired and on the road touring? If not, what does it mean?
Josh: I can say this about our lyrics and songwriting– One interesting thing about how the lyrics are written and put together between the two of us is that we both kind of interpret them as they’re coming out too. It sounds pretentious but it’s completely the truth; everything has multiple meanings. There’s a line, “parallel lines taking up all my time.” Well what does that mean? It could be a drug reference, or all kinds of things. I kind of imagined a woman accepting an award at a pageant and all these phony people clapping for her. It’s all just full of shit.
Sarah: It comes from desolation and loneliness. When we were working on those songs, it was in the middle of nowhere. We kind of isolated ourselves from the world because we were so focused on getting these things done, getting our album done so we could start moving forward with everything. It was before we played any shows. It was before everything. It was just kind of the closest thing you could feel to being desolate, to hearing the crickets at night and feeling the cold on your face.
You have a song called “Voices” that was put out on the Phantogram EP and Running from the Cops EP, but not either of the albums put out since then. Is this because you find it didn’t mesh with the sound of Eyelid Movies (or even Nightlife)?
Sarah: We actually re-recorded it and we were going to put it on our next album because it’s called Voices. It was actually one of the first songs we recorded and it evolved and it started sounding really fucking cool. We wanted to re-record it, but we didn’t have enough time to really hone in on the sound enough so we just put it on the side. We’ll probably release it again, maybe for a single.
Josh: A lot of our songs have been written in ten minutes. “Voices” I wrote in ten minutes. (to Sarah) Remember when that was going down, I had the guitar out? Sarah was like my cheerleader. She was like “yeah, play that chord next.” “Mouthful of Diamonds,” that was written in ten minutes. I made the new beat for our single “Fall In Love” like six years ago and then we just added vocals to it.
It sounds like a cool way to make music. In life, you have really quick experiences like that and then you build off of them and grow and sprout out. It make sense to do the same for music.
Sarah: Yeah, especially for us. We wrote our record before we even toured.
On the topic of your next album Voices (due out in spring of 2014), is it complete? What can we expect to see? How does it compare to Eyelid Movies and Nightlife?
Sarah: It’s basically our original sound, just a lot more mature and developed. With the songwriting, we wanted to make sure the production wasn’t taking over or overwhelming the songwriting. We paid close attention to that. We tried to add different elements of production that we never touched before because we had a co-producer help us. The songs sound a lot better.
Josh: We got it professionally mixed and mastered in a studio in Bristol, England. It’ll be nice to just be able to turn it up and bump it.