Record Rundown with Phantogram’s Josh Carter
by David Ma
“It was a series of vignettes, these short little pieces that could stand alone but all together went really nice back-to-back,” says Josh Carter, the production component of Phantogram, along with partner, musician, and vocalist Sarah Barthel. “At the time, I had never heard anything like it,” he says, describing his first intake of Dilla’s Donuts.
You can hear currents of Pete Rock, the Knife, and ESG in their songs despite a paucity of terms like “dream pop” or “electro-rock” used to describe them. Heavy swaths of rolling bass and sinking drums, melodic at times yet macabre in tone, anchor Carter’s effusive production aesthetic. Says Carter: “I grew up on the best ’90s shit, so my sound sort of encapsulates everything from the Nine Inch Nails to OutKast.”
Big Boi’s 2012 album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, featured Phantogram on two tracks, foreshadowing an eventual EP, 2015’s Big Grams, between the venerated ATLien and the duo from Greenwich, New York. OutKast soundtracked the youth of so many for so long, and Josh was no exception. “That’s always what I loved about OutKast: they never had borders, they just did what they wanted for like twenty years, and they got away with it.” After completing a huge fall tour in both the States and Europe, we asked Josh what records in his collection have been profoundly impactful on his own approach to music making.
Sparklehorse It’s a Wonderful Life (Capitol/EMI) 2001
I first heard this the very first day it came out. I was probably twenty years old, and I was in L.A. for the very first time, and I went to the record store right away to get it. It’s still one of my favorite albums of all time, so dark and eerie and sad. I always really liked how Mark Linkous would mix sounds, and I never had heard a band sound like them before; it was almost goth, almost like a dark country album. The lyrics are so dark and weird and heavy. It’s just super depressing but is a good listen from front to back. I’ve always liked depressing music.
J Dilla Donuts (Stones Throw) 2004
Dilla is a huge influence on Phantogram. His whole idea of juxtaposition and contrast to create different moods is very inspiring. And his songs sound special. When I first heard Donuts, I as unaware at the time of how much I was already a fan of Dilla’s—I just had never put his name to these songs I liked. I actually didn’t know who he was. I didn’t realize he had made all these songs that I liked before, and that he was the guy behind Pharcyde’s “Runnin’.” Even when I’d hear friends make beats, or even when I made beats, it was usually to freestyle over. Whereas this, these beats are more of a listening experience.
Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique (Capitol) 1989
One of the first albums I’ve ever owned. When did it come out, like ’88 or ’89? My brother was older, and he turned me on to music at a young age. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first heard this, but I was young, like ten or something. The production and samples and how it flows is brilliant. It really paved the way for a lot of other albums. I’m pretty sure that was one of the first records that got everyone all up in arms about sampling, on a legal basis. I’m a big fan of those guys. It was this, Licensed to Ill, and Fear of a Black Planet were among the first records I ever bought. I have huge affinity for Beastie Boys—as well as PE for that matter.
Radiohead OK Computer (Parlophone/Capitol) 1997
I first got this record on my seventeenth birthday; my brother got it for me. I remember first hearing this during a thunderstorm that killed all the electricity at my parents’ house. There was a tornado nearby too. [laughs] I also remember listening to it on CD, in a Discman. I remembering thinking it was one of the coolest records I’ve ever heard. I imagine it was like hearing Dark Side of the Moon or something for the very first time. It was intense. By the time you’re three tracks in, I was blown away. From start to finish it stands as a great, thematic album.
OutKast Stankonia (LaFace/Arista) 2000
That’s another example of an album that combined so many different styles and textures. The reason I really like Stankonia as compared to their other stuff is that it comes off psychedelic to me. It’s really colorful and rich. I think it’s a genius record. It’s fun, the skits are great. Nobody had ever made a rap record that sounded like that to me before. I mean, “Bombs Over Bagdad” had like a drum and bass sound to it. What kind of band could get away with doing stuff like that?
Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral (Nothing/Interscope) 1994
I just love a lot of the tones, especially the drum machine kind of stuff. I think Trent [Reznor] is a musical genius. It’s a very dark album, but he was able to create heavy darkness and evil sounds that are contrasted by songs like “Hurt” towards the end. I was always interested in the analog drum machines he used and wondered how he got the textures that he did. Mixing machine drums with live drums and stuff like that has been a huge influence to my approach to making music.
The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone) 1967
Their songwriting, if you deconstruct it, is much more complicated than it sounds. Paul McCartney on the bass is one of the most interesting bass players of all time; just listen to how he goes up and down the neck of the bass. The more I think about it, it goes back to that juxtaposition and contrast I mentioned earlier. So, like, on Sgt. Pepper’s, you’ll hear all kinds of styles; even just in a single track you’ll heard different styles. So many bands these days that get a lot of high praise and I don’t get it because with some of these bands, you hear one song and you’ve heard them all. But when you listen to the Beatles or Bowie or something, it’s all so different.
Madlib Beat Konducta Vol. 1 & 2, Movie Scenes (Stones Throw) 2006
That album really tripped me out when I heard it for the first time. Madlib has this amazing way of making beats really fun and interesting, almost like stoner-vision tracks. [laughs] He makes fun records to vibe and smoke a joint to. Between hearing Dilla and being influenced by someone like Madlib, this was sort of my first introduction to beats being off and not super quantized. I just liked the approach. For me, when I want to get inspired, I listen to Madlib. He’s having fun with what he does. When I hear what he does with certain samples and listen to his music, it gets me off my own ass. I’m making music because I love it instead of making all hits, and that’s what comes out from Madlib’s records.
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