Listening to Voices, Phantogram’s latest album, offers an escape for listeners. The dark cinematic music ushers you into the night, into a buzzing mind that is both racing but self-aware. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter perfectly emulate their music. The duo seems most comfortable talking about time spent in silent countrysides and late night recordings. They understand the beauty in the quiet and in the dark. Voices, their sophomore LP, is a dense album of dark analog synths, sparkling sounds, rough guitars and the pair’s delicate vocals floating throughout like a lullaby. They have translated the thoughts and senses of that unnerving four-in-the-morning insomnia into a cohesive and expansive record.
Barthel and Carter first came out with a bang in 2009 with Eyelid Movies, an album that struck a chord with listeners, notably for the single “Mouth Full of Diamonds.” The song caught the attention of many critics and fans such as Big Boi of Outkast. The album was fresh, sounding unlike anything else at the time. Since then we’ve seen a whole genre rise with releases from CHRVCHES, Lorde and others offering a similar blend of trip-hop, r&b and rock. After signing with a major label and releasing a number of EPs, the duo is ready to show the world a deeper and more orchestrated attempt at album making with Voices. The use of an outside producer to help polish and evolve the band was a major step in defeating a sophomore slump. Phantogram sought input from acclaimed producer John Hill. I recently sat down with Sarah and Josh in Montreal to discuss collaborations, the new album and whether the creators of dreamy dark songs sleep well at night.
While the urban myth may not permeate as deep as Bon Iver’s escapes into the countryside, Phantogram have previously discussed their late night musical creations in an isolated barn hidden within upstate New York. Josh is hesitant to credit the countryside, but states “I mean, all of our records have ended up in the country, but that’s just a matter of where we’re from and where we’re most comfortable creating. I think that what does have an impact on our writing [is] being around nature and writing at night, it’s kind of like a whole different energy that comes out in the country. It’s just different and evokes darker feelings, that environment.” He adds, “Whether we’re in Nashville, New York, L.A. or on a farm upstate New York, we probably would, because of who we are, make the same music and themes lyrically.”
Based on the dark and dreamy music birthed in said location, I had to ask how well the duo sleep themselves. Sarah chuckled responding, “We do work at night so we’re kind of in a dream-creative mode. We worked all through the night when we wrote this record, start[ing] at 8:00 at night and work[ing] till 4 am. It’s when most of the writing and producing worked best for us naturally; when you’re alone and it’s dark out you fall into this other world.”
Josh nods along and adds, “Since we’re very visual people as well, how we write [benefits from dreams]. Dreams are very inspiring, so abstract and vivid. We tend to both remember our dreams. We have a lot of friends who say they ‘didn’t dream last night’ and, well, you dreamt, you just don’t remember. It shows how lucky we are [to remember dreams and have that inspiration].
Continuing the topic of inspiration for Voices, songs like “The Day You Died” and “I Don’t Blame You” led to my next question. Did any relationship trouble or breakups aid in the construction of the album? Sarah is quick to answer, “No, the record is meant to be for whomever is listening. Those people who have personal demons is the best way to describe it, there isn’t any anger trying to come out, it just seems like it in some lyrics like the “The Day You Died.” It seems to be directed towards somebody, but it’s meant to be directed towards whatever is in your life that is upsetting you.”
Josh agreed with Sarah, saying that “Lyrically all of our songs touch on life, love, death and [those] things in general. Our lyrics try and have open interpretation for people. When we listen to songs and know exactly what they’re about it changes it, you want to come up with your own feelings, occasionally I like knowing exactly what [a song is] about, and it can make it more interesting, but if I found out [that a song is] not about what it’s always meant for me, I’ll think of it differently after that. [The meaning will] change how I listen to the song and ruin that awesome feeling, whether I made up the lyrics or interpreted them differently. I think art should be interpreted as an individual [experience] for everyone.”
The art Phantogram produces had a hand from John Hill on their latest effort. I asked about working with the man behind the boards of songs from the likes of Santigold, Shakira, M.I.A and Wavves. Sarah responds that “It was great, it was awesome because we always needed another ear.”
“Well we wanted another ear, not needed,” Josh is quick to correct.
Sarah continues, “Just in general as artists, allowing other people to hear your stuff who have good input is always a good thing. Sometimes you can spend a lot of time in your own brain just going back and forth, is this good or bad. Josh and I do that often with our music so it was really nice to have somebody we trusted and [who] was able to add a lot to different elements [to the record. John Hill] had a ton of different analog synthesizers that we were never able to use before because we had our small setup, our small amount of equipment for the last two records but he had all these new things for us to use which was beneficial for us.”
The choice of producer is always a massive concern for artists, especially when it’s the first time entrusting your sound and album to them. Phantogram’s decision to work with John Hill was a timely and thought-out decision. Josh said, “We met with nine different producers to co-produce the album. I think when we met John Hill, Sarah was saying that him and I have very similar personalities and that’s why she liked him, so it was a matter of trust. Plus his work is so diverse, from pop acts like Shakira to Wavves, punk rock, hip-hop, he did stuff with Jay Z, then Santigold and M.I.A. We just thought he’d be a really good pick for us since we have such a wide palette as Phantogram and that he’d be a good match.”
Josh and Sarah already had constructed much of the album before Hill’s arrival. His polish and input was partially due to the need for new territory both in terms of instrumentation and with what the final product of each song would be. Josh elaborates that “we both felt incapable of writing a song under four minutes long, we tried to get to the meat and potatoes of songs for the record, not that we needed to, but it was a goal.”
“It was influenced by The Beatles,” Sarah explains. “Where [their songs are] only three minutes long, but everything just happens.” Continuing to discuss the choice of producer she says, “It’s different with every producer. It took us a while [to choose] because some don’t want to co-produce and this was a co-production. Josh produced most of Voices before we got to John Hill and a lot of other producers we met with didn’t know what they needed to do. That’s why John was great, he had all these interesting ideas to add on to what we already had and I think that’s difficult for some producers cause they want it it to be like this, but John’s great because he wanted to collaborate.”
Josh adds that, “A lot of producers we brought it to said this great but you guys already produced an album so just put it out, john worked his way into our project without compromising our vision.” I asked Carter if there were any other producers he’d like to work with in the future. “I don’t know, Chris Coady was high on my list. He produced the Beach House records. He was a super nice guy, New York City based, and I like him a lot. In general since we built such a nice relationship with John I’d like to work with him again.”
Josh proves to have a clear concept of Phantogram, a drive and knowledge of music that comes across throughout the course of the interview. While the duo share writing and singing roles, Josh’s interest in production has been a key part of Phantogram’s success. The blend of trip-hop with traditional rock and pop carved the pair a niche that has seen a whole genre of similar styles come after their debut.
Based on the grand scope of genres sprinkled across their discography, Phantogram’s own musical taste was the next topic to discuss. “I was listening to Gladys Knight and the Pips on the way here,” explains Josh on the variety the two artists enjoy. He mentions Four Tet, while Sarah mentions Flying Lotus when asked who the two are listening to in regards to electronic music specifically. “I don’t think the two of us listen to electronic music much.”
Sarah jumps in, saying “No it’s not what we gravitate towards. Except who’s that cool producer from London?” Josh and I both start spewing names like we’re on a game show. “He doesn’t have an album yet,” She continues. Josh wins when mentions Jai Paul. “Yes, Jai Paul is awesome,” exclaims Barthel.
Josh states, “I think all music these days is electronic.”
Sarah adds, “When I think of electronic I just think of computers and technology that bands use, which means electronic is very vague.”
Josh clarifies, “I don’t consider ourselves an electronic band. I picture, like the Aphex Twins. If you listen to any hip-hop, it’s all electronic. Pyromania by Def Leppard is all recorded to a click track. You plug in your guitar and amp into the wall. I think everything is kind of blurred these days with genres and modern technology.”
Phantogram’s open mind in regards to new styles and collaborations has become a major part of their story. Their work with Big Boi on his last album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors created hype and acclaim for the duo and for the rapper. Barthel explains, “Big Boi was a big fan of our music and especially Josh’s beats. So it wasn’t like we’d throw him an idea and he’d be like ‘well…’ It was always ‘this is awesome, let’s use it.’ We’d just keep adding onto it and collaborated really smoothly with him.”
“I mean, when you’re collaborating with others… we get set in our own way and you have to open up that side of you for collaboration.” Josh turns to his partner, “Sarah and I work together. It’s collaborating, but it feels like we’re psychic twins, like one working unit. So [with collaborations] you have to just let go and leave it up to the universe and it can be a lot of fun.”
Recalling songs by A$AP Rocky, Big Boi and Danny Brown, I ask why they think the rap community has become so open to collaborating with pop and electronic artists as of late. Sarah said, “It’s always an interesting topic to think about cause it seems as though artists are trying to grow in general and musicians and artists just want to keep creating and evolve. It seems like the natural thing to do is find other outlets or influences to be a part of; to create something new. I think hip-hop artists are looking for something different, something to make them travel somewhere else. It needs to be done correctly, not like hip-hop rock mash-ups. When it’s done right, like working with Big Boi, he understands that level of collaborating with a different genre without making it sound cheesy.”
I turn to Josh to list a few rappers he’d want to work with, as I had read previously he’d be open to producing hip-hop. His face lights up, but attempts to remain modest, “I always have silly ideas,” he shrugs. “I wanna execute ideas that are little bit, almost, taboo. I want to do a track with A$AP Rocky and Aesop Rock in the same song. I think that would be cool. I’d like to do a track with Ghostface and Action Bronson in the same track because Action kind of sounds like he’s highly influenced by [Ghostface Killah]. I’d want to see if that meshes or if Ghostface doesn’t like him cause he’s biting his flow.” Josh pauses, “Not to stir waters. Also I’d love to do the first tribute song for MCA with Mike D and Ad-Rock, I think that’d be really cool.”
Satisfied with the conversation, covering inspirations and collaborations that led to Voices, I had one final question that resulted in laughter from the duo. “Coming back to the earlier topic of sleep, I just wanted to ask, what’s the weirdest place you two have ended up sleeping?”
They both fall silent and start to ponder over their lives on the road and adventures. Considering their sleep-less nights creating music meant to be listened to by the moon, I knew it was a relevant question. Sarah finally turns to Josh and responds firmly, “In our friend’s farm. He invited us to stay at his house outside of Detroit. We slept next to a chicken coup and there were spiders everywhere and mildew and it was just… yah, disgusting.”
At this point Josh is laughing and agreeing, “Yah it was damp and a little gross, no offence to my friend. Just very back-country.”
While the sound of chickens may not be sampled on an album anytime soon. A country night will be an association for me when it comes to Phantogram’s music. As polished and shimmering as some songs may be, they remain organic creations of two skilled artists producing through late nights. The duo’s strong pop sensibilities mashed with their respect and love for so many styles of music has continued to elevate their sound. Josh and Sarah will continue to expand their horizons and experiment while remaining two people who just love spiritual nights making haunting music.