by Alex Suskind
When we go to sleep, our bodies go through several stages before reaching the point of rapid eye movement (also known as REM sleep). It is during this phase where our dreams take over, exposing us to a universe filled with our strongest and deepest emotions.
If we look at REM sleep through the scope of music, there are very few bands capable of shaping their sounds into the euphoric trance you experience while dreaming. However, Phantogram—a duo that makes, what they describe as “street beat psyche pop” —fits into that mold perfectly. Like dreams, Phantogram’s music is influenced by a variety of emotions, aspirations, and visions, the combination of which explode into a beautiful array of atmospheric and organic sounds.
Hailing from Upstate New York, their music draws on many different genres: from hip-hop to trip-hop to garage rock to avant-garde. And where other bands would likely fail meshing these genres into a coherent set of sounds, Phantogram flourishes. Their music has a three-dimensional quality, which is fitting considering that the definition of a “phantogram” is a two-dimensional object that appears three-dimensional.
Phantogram’s two members, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, met in high school. Years later, after Sarah spent time in college and Josh was playing in a band in New York, the two met back up in their hometown. Josh played Sarah some of the beats he had been working on recently, and from there they decided to form a band. Two and half years later, they are set to release their debut album, Eyelid Movies — the CD release on Barsuk Records, and the vinyl release on Ghostly International.
I spoke to Phantogram about their new album and their songwriting process before they hit the stage at the Rock N Roll Hotel in Washington D.C.
Thanks for taking the time out of your touring schedule to speak with Wax Poetics. First off, could you define “street beat psyche pop” for me?
Josh: It is actually a term coined by a good friend of ours who was trying to describe our music, so we didn’t come up with it ourselves but we thought it was fitting for our sound so we just rolled with it. Our music has elements of street rhythms and hip-hop and a little bit of dance I guess, and we are influenced by a lot of underground hip-hop and… ’60s psychedelia and obscure French pop and stuff like that and we just thought it worked well.
So when did you guys first meet?
Sarah: Josh and I actually met in high school and we have been really great friends since we were 14 years old. But music wasn’t involved in our lives at that point yet. Josh was a skateboarder, and I was…a…
Josh: …a stoner [laughs].
Sarah: [laughs]…so we were friends and then I went off to college in Burlington, Vt, and Josh went to New York to pursue a previous band that he was in, and after that we met back together and we started working on music.
Were you guys involved in music during high school?
Sarah: Singing in chorus, we were also in band together.
Josh: Everybody in my family, my brother, sister, mom and dad, they all play instruments, so I was always around it, but I was mostly into just listening to music and skateboarding. [Sarah] played the piano a little bit, but we weren’t really creating music then. I really started getting into [making] music when I was 18; my parents bought me a four-track for my eighteenth birthday. I just all of the sudden wanted to start recording, and that is how I got into music and developed a huge cache of weird sketches and beats and one minute long songs…I would go over to [Sarah’s] house because my best friend growing up lived right next door to her, and she’d be playing the piano and it sounded really pretty.
We started [playing together] two and a half years ago. I had been working on a lot of beats and my own solo ideas, and I was kind of compiling a bunch of random ideas and I played them for her one day and she liked them and encouraged me to do something with them. So I asked her if she wanted to try and start a project. She helped me finish a lot of the early demos and then we started writing music together. It clicked.
What about you Sarah? When you first went to college were you doing anything musically? Were you singing?
Sarah: I went to school for visual arts and got work done in videos and photography, and I started getting into music and being influenced by that. But I didn’t start writing writing, or taking [music] seriously until I came back home and Josh asked me if we wanted to start something up.
Josh: She would sing a lot when we would hang out, almost jokingly to R&B and stuff like that. But I noticed that she had a really good voice, just tooling around. When I asked [Sarah] to sing on a track of mine, I was just like “woah.”
Sarah: I think you discovered me when we were at karaoke [laughs] and I did a little Backstreet Boys song for [Josh] and I was like “Hey let’s start working” …[laughs] I am joking.
Josh: I think it was a Michael Jackson karaoke.
Sarah: Yeah I think it was Michael or Prince.
Yeah, I think those two are much better influences.
Sarah: I would say [laughs].
There are so many different influences in your music. Was it difficult to pinpoint that sound when you first started out?
Sarah: Yes and no… When we first started working on music together, we were sure that we wanted to do something different, and we wanted to use all of the different elements and all of the different genres that we really loved, to combine them together to make it sound, not necessarily a mash-up, but influenced by different elements…and I guess it did start from the first time we started working together. But I remember us trying to figure out how it could possibly happen without it sounding like a mash-up genre, right?
Josh: Yeah, I mean we both loved hip-hop and beats and stuff like that but that wasn’t the only music we were into…So we didn’t want to really go for a particular genre when we started but we knew we wanted to do something different. So we just kind of rolled with what was coming out and we decided that it sounded pretty neat to us and hopefully other people might think it sounds good and people feel it.
Sarah: We knew we wanted to be able to combine organic textures with technology and electronic sounds. We knew we wanted to have that type of sound from the start and I think it just rolled from there.
Do you find that you are still perfecting that style or do you think you have hit it on the nose?
Josh: No, I think we are always working [on it] and it is a lot of fun. The sad thing is, it would be great if we could just work on music constantly and not have to—I mean we love touring and playing live—but not really have to wait to put out records and just kind of keep putting stuff out, but that is not really how it works… We are always evolving and coming up with different ideas. And I think that it would be nice to put out EPs that all have the same vibe but are different sounding. So instead of doing that we just try to take everything and do the best we can.
Sarah: Yeah, I think as far as it goes, we hit it on the nose…for combining the organic [sounds] and technology, but I think it’s going to gradually get a lot more intense with the different aspects and elements that we can combine.
What’s your songwriting process like? Is it collaborative or do you each do your own thing?
Sarah: Yeah, mostly collaborative. Josh had some tunes before that he added to the record and the writing process goes, sometimes we start with a beat and then sometimes we write on top of that. And sometimes, I will write something on piano or guitar, and then Josh kinda helps with the guitar writing process for me. It is different for every song. Sometimes we have lyrics beforehand, or an image or idea beforehand, and we base the song around that idea and it kind of pushes forward that idea.
Josh: We just kind of encourage each other with songwriting. We will be playing a strange hook on the piano, and I will be like “Yo, play that again” and that it will be like ‘maybe you can go here,’ and [we just] talk it out. Sometimes we’ll play to a boom-boom-tick beat for four hours straight until we come up with something that we like and then start developing it, and often we have written full songs that we have completely scrapped after three days in a row and start over again. That happens a lot
Sarah: Yeah it happens a lot.
Why do you think that is?
Sarah: I guess it is because that you are working on it for so long and by the fifth day of hearing it over and over again, you kinda know it’s not exactly where you wanted it to go or it wasn’t meant to be.
Josh: It is easy to get excited about brand new ideas…
Sarah: …from the beginning, yea…
Josh: I think most artists and musicians generally get excited first [when they record something[ and then they take a minute, or a little bit of time to reflect on it and they realize that it’s probably not the best.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean it is the two of us listening to a song that we wrote and kind of examining it over and over; “Is this right. Does this guitar need to go up? Is this part stupid or awesome?”… So sometimes it is easy to second guess because it is just the two of us, but I guess we just kind of know when something really sticks, we love it from the start and we love it now, playing the same song to an audience.
Your lyrics have this dark, haunting feel, but at the same time there is this uplifting, bright undertone. Can you talk about the dichotomy between those two styles and how they reflect back into your sound?
Josh: Well I think almost the conception of us as a band has always been about the juxtaposition of, as Sarah was saying before, organic and technological, and light and dark, and happiness and sadness, and there is almost a fine line between the light and dark. I guess what fascinates us the most is that fine line and how it overlaps and how it connects to the human psyche or talking to your emotions. But I mean, most of our songs and our lyrics are about life and love and death and, life has its ups and downs, and I guess that is why our lyrics come out the way they do. It is the most relevant to us, and I mean sometimes they gravitate towards the darker side…
Sarah: …Yeah, maybe from a dream or an experience or colors that you see at a show that you go to the night before. Like simple things from life. Sometimes we have ideas come from a dream or a vision that you see or make up in your head, like walking down the street and [saying] “what if this happened now?” Like what if this random guy started flying, and then we kind of gravitate from there. We like to show a specific moment in somebody’s life…sometimes our lyrics can be drawn from that type of situation.
So it is a mix of real life experiences with abstract thoughts.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And that, in a way is what Josh was saying with the juxtaposition of real life and dream life.
Now I read that you guys record in a barn.
Sarah: Yeah [laughs]. We are lucky enough to do be able toourselves. Josh recorded the entire album on our computer using his microphones and a bunch of other equipment and instruments that we have built up along the way, and it has been fun. It is nice out there. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but close enough to civilization.
It is interesting because when I first read that you guys were from a small town I was a bit surprised. When I hear your music—I guess just from listening to this style of music before—I think big city and metropolis. How has that small town upbringing influenced your music?
Sarah: Maybe being in such a small town, you have a lot of time for yourself. So being influenced by a ton of different music is because you have time to spend [listening to it] or discovering yourself in that way [and] figuring out what your interests are. I would say that is the only thing, being from a small town would do.
Josh: I think it influences our music in a way as far as our thought process goes. It is easier when you have grown up out in the country and you kind of step back and reflect, because you are often reflecting [since[ there is not much going on, so it allows you to get wrapped up into your imagination a little more. Although, I don’t know if that is true or not because, country [or] city, we would probably be making similar music, it is just our personalities [that make the music] so it might not be any different at all.
Josh: I know one thing is sure, being away from the pressure of living in a metropolis, you are not easily persuaded by trends and so maybe our music isn’t the hottest new thing or the trendiest thing, and it probably never will be, because we are not around that kind of lifestyle…I guess what I am trying to say is [living in the city or the country] doesn’t really make a difference.
With all the different layers in your music, do you find it difficult to translate what you do in the studio into a live performance?
Josh: It was a challenge to begin with. But we practiced enough and figured a lot of things out with our samplers and everything else where we are getting it down and so it’s a major challenge but it is fun.
Sarah: Yeah, whenever we write, we always try and make sure we are writing a song that we know that we will be able to perform it, because it won’t get that same energy out [live] if it is missing this piece or that piece. We always make sure it can work.
Josh: I think we have made the mistake, I know I have in the past, you write a tune and record but you can’t figure out how to play it live and now we write everything live and make sure it can get done.
What kind of instruments are you guys using to create the Phantogram sound?
Josh: A couple samplers, a drum machine, guitar, loop pedals. On our album there are four-track tapes, all kinds of percussion, drums, some analog synths, [and] some software synths.
You guys are playing overseas in a few months. Is this first time you have played over there as a band? Are you looking forward to it?
Sarah: Yep it’s our first time [and we are] very very excited.
Had you gotten a big response overseas when you were signed to the British label [BBE Records]?
Sarah: Yeah, it has been a pretty good response for [our album] Eyelid Movies and I think we will find out more once we get over there. We are going to be headlining most of the shows out there, so I guess we will really confirm [if] people like it.
What was it like being signed to a label that had released the likes of J Dilla and Madlib?
Sarah: Unreal, definitely. It was very unreal when we got the email from BBE for the first time [saying] that they liked our music. It is an honor to be part of a label like that, that has put out artists that we are highly influenced by.
Now how did the name for your album Eyelid Movies come about?
Josh: I think it goes back to what Sarah was saying about a lot of our songs and our lyrics are about just little daydreams and different scenarios while we are writing. An actual eyelid movie is, you know when how you fall asleep at night sometimes you feel like you are in a dream but you are not quite asleep yet? That is what an eyelid movie is. We thought it was fitting for the sound of the record and what we were trying to do with the record.
You think that idea translates to the visuals you guys use during the live show?
Sarah: Yeah, for sure, I mean we try…
Josh: We don’t get to do visuals a lot though
Sarah: We wish we could have a video guy follow us around everywhere because it would just complete our vision for our sound. Sometimes we have a friend locally that does some video for us and it really just completes our entire vision. But when we are on tour [now] we just use lights and strobe lights.
Thanks a lot for taking the time out to speak with Wax Poetics and the best of luck to you guys.
Sarah: Thank you!