Phantogram, The Duo Adds a Drummer
Story and Photos by Catie Keck
A tall, slender woman with slick, shoulder-length black hair moves easily over a sea of wires and a stacked table of keyboards, drum machines, and pedals as her bandmate tunes his guitar effortlessly by ear. They are sound-checking their instruments before Phantogram begins their set at The Wonder Ballroom during Musicfest NW.
Currently headlining a national tour, duo Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter are making swift strides to superstardom with the release of their debut album, Eyelid Movies, earlier this year. The two will be touring this fall with Why?’s Josiah Wolf, in addition to playing shows with the likes of TOBACCO, Black Lips, LCD Soundsystem, and Miike Snow. Phantogram integrates a mix of beats that range from dance pop to hip-hop, creating some of the most eloquent experimental electronic currently gracing the indie music scene. Sarah’s evocative vocals and Josh’s sultry guitar riffs dance around bass-heavy beats, creating their unique, poignant sound. Josh Carter spoke with Ethos about his band, their successful first album, and the upcoming tour with drummer Tim Oakley.
Catie Keck: How long have you and Sarah known each other?
Josh Carter: We’ve been good friends since high school. One of my best friends lived right next door to Sarah, and I was really good friends with Sarah’s older sister. Sarah and I started hanging out when I was in ninth grade, she was in eighth grade, and we’ve been friends ever since.
CK: Phantogram is starting a national tour. You’ve brought on a drummer for the upcoming tour?
JC: Yeah, we’ve got a full U.S. tour. We’re bringing in a drummer named Tim Oakley, who’s a friend of ours. We’ve got a whole new set and it’s going to be very exciting. We reworked a couple of songs off the record, but we’ve got a couple of new songs, as well.
CK: Has your dynamic changed at all on tour with a third member?
JC: Since rehearsing with a drummer, we’ve gone off and done a couple of shows just as a duo. Now we’re used to a different set up, and it was little weird. We’re really excited about touring with Tim, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re still going to sound like Phantogram - we’ll still have the beats and drum machines going - but our set is going to be a lot more dynamic and interesting. This is also our first tour with a sound guy, too. Sarah and I have toured the U.S. three times with just the two of us, so it’ll be cool to have other people around. It’ll mix things up.
CK: Phantogram has been booking a lot of festivals. How has that been?
JC: It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a whole different ball game. The problem with a lot of festivals is that you don’t really get a sound check and it’s very rushed. You kind of have to get all of your stuff up and ready, just play, and hope everything sounds good. That’s the only downside of festivals. The upside is that you get to share the stage with bands that you really admire. I’ve been listening to Pavement for God knows how long, and [at Sasquatch!] we got to play a festival with them. How cool is that?
JC: We’re working on a lot of new material, but it’s a slower process these days since we’ve been so busy touring. We’ve got a lot of new ideas up our sleeves for the next record. Sarah and I are really excited about working on the next album. With our first album, we were really surprised and happy about all of the great critical reception it received, but the funny thing is, that wasn’t really intended. Meaning, we had no intentions with that record other than making it accessible to the capital district of New York. Now that we have a fan base and the ball is rolling for us professionally, I’m really excited about putting out more music.
CK: You’ve been described as everything from pop to trip-hop, but Eyelid Movies incorporates many different styles of music. What inspires your sound, and how do you and Sarah describe Phantogram?
JC: I prefer playing indie when it comes to being billed with acts or festivals. I think indie music definitely fits us the most because kids really get it more. As far as our influences and the way I’d describe us, we kind of just draw elements of music that we like and incorporate it into our own sound and make it cohesive - make it sound like Phantrogram. We really like hip-hop music and I really like making beats, so that might be where the trip-hop comparisons come from. We also do a lot of droney synth and guitars, and airy vocals. I don’t really know what you’d want to call us, but I think trip-hop is a bit dated. Either we’re a revival of it or people are lacking the creativity to come up with a better term for us because I think we have a fresher sound. You can call us anything you want, really. We just want to make music.
CK: On Eyelid Movies, there seemed to be a haunting element in the lyrics and some of the songs, and even in your video for Mouthful of Diamonds. It’s pretty dark. Is that something unique to this album, or is that an element that you’ll be bringing into the next record?
JC: I’m not really sure, as far as the next album goes. I’d like to describe our music as a deep, dark tunnel with a light at the end. There are elements of hope, fear, and sadness, but there’s definitely a sprinkle of optimism in our music. It’s just about existence and basic human emotion, death, and what it means to be alive. Often when I write music and lyrics, sad qualities come out. It’s a little cathartic letting that out.
CK: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans?
JC: I just want to say thanks so much for the support and having an open mind to different music, and to what’s not the standard or what’s considered the trendiest thing to do. Think for yourself, be creative, and don’t follow footsteps. Blaze your own trail.