Phantogram: Dream-Pop Duo Unifies Its Vision

Phantogram: “When I’m Small” (Eyelid Movies, Barsuk, 2/9/2010)
Phantogram: “When I’m Small”

Phantogram: Eyelid Movies
Phantogram: Eyelid Movies

A phantogram is, by definition, an optical illusion. It goes like this: Two separate but identical images are shown in 2D. Putting them together creates the look of a single image, and a three-dimensional look appears at the illusion’s “sweet spot.” This technique is the basis for 3D movies, a major part in the way we perceive each other, and a most appropriate description of guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel’s music.

The duo is in the middle of its first European tour when we get the chance to talk. “It’s just us out here,” Carter responds when asked about tour mates. “Yeah, we’re going to be touring for the rest of our lives,” Barthel adds. Already, the duo has shared the stage with established acts such as Ra Ra Riot and Brazilian Girls. Phantogram’s talent is clear even before its debut record hit shelves. In its well-polished live show, the duo really earns its moniker.

While Carter moves about freely, wielding his guitar and stomping on a plethora of pedals, Barthel is stationed behind the keys, a massive rack consisting of all the electronic flourishes that fill out the corners — almost invisible at times, repetitive and foundational at others. In the stage show, the two combine into a single vision. When that new dimension opens up and our perception changes, they not only complement but complete the outfit. On record, Phantogram sounds like five people; on stage, the two act as one.

Phantogram began where many bands do, in a small hometown. For Carter and Barthel, it was in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. The two were neighborhood friends growing up in nearby Greenwich. After high school, they parted briefly, but a chance reunion led them to form a band.

For Carter, it was an unexpected surprise. The songwriter had recently returned to Saratoga Springs from New York City after his band Grand Habit, an experimental outfit that he founded with his brother, went belly up.

For Barthel, playing music was a new experience. Before playing with Carter, Barthel had studied visual arts. In the summer of ’07, she returned home as well, dissatisfied with the degree and trying to take a break. After she and Carter discovered a mutual love of underground hip hop, the two began collaborating on music together.

The two friends began driving 45 minutes one way to a barn in the middle of nowhere. They retrofitted the space into a proper studio and dubbed their lair the Harmony Lodge. It’s there that they spend most of their time, working out songs that combine their diverse influences and explore greater creative expanses.

In an increasingly crowded and cramped world, the open and isolated space provided by Harmony Lodge allows the pair to create without restrictions. “Most of our music is made at night, in the middle of winter, out in the barn,” Carter says. “We would come up with imaginary scenarios and write around a certain idea and just see what happened. A lot of the lyrics might tend to be on the bleaker side of things, but it was the dead of winter.”

Phantogram’s debut LP, Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), is a swirling, beat-propelled gem of dreamy, texture-driven indie pop. Filled with a combination of electronics and organic instruments, the record is a blend of elements that include drum machines, samples, live instruments, and the occasional vinyl crackle.

“We really wanted to capture a certain sound on the record,” Carter says. “We’ve been experimenting a lot with weird samples. Whether homemade or in the studio, we just keep looking.” He adds, “[The album] eventually shaped itself the way it did naturally. We didn’t think too hard about it.”

Instead of constraining themselves to capture their vision simplistically, the two experimented fully to achieve the exact feel that they sought. The experimentation and sampling only heightened their musical sweet spot.

At moments, the pair can sound jaded, even cynical. But its best comes from its sleepier side, the dreamy and explored sounds. After all, what are eyelid movies if not dreams? Phantogram, if nothing else, makes us long for that moment in our own eyelid movie, reveling in our own illusions, before clocks and whistles command our attention.

Citing influences from early hip hop to Serge Gainsbourg, Phantogram isn’t about mashing up tastes and seeing what works. The pair has had many nights in the dead of winter, searching for and building up a seamless blend, the perfect cocktail of sounds — mixed and chilled, contemplative and complementary. Working off each other, the two create music with a darkly mirrored edge. Phantogram pulls back just enough yet fill its tracks with all manner of blips and programmed beats, psychedelic guitars, Barthel’s cool vocals, and Carter’s paranoid falsettos.

At home and on the road, the two friends are just discovering the possibilities of their talents. Each single that they release is more sophisticated and more complete than the last. In time, Phantogram could well become the vision that it has set forth with Eyelid Movies, a great introduction to a new sound.

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