Q&A: Phantogram

Phantogram: NightlifePhantogram: Nightlife (Barsuk, 11/1/11)

Phantogram: “Don’t Move”

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A few years ago, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel took to recording their own music in a barn in upstate New York. Though it was never intended for the masses, the music made an auspicious debut via the 2010 album Eyelid Movies on Barsuk, and a loyal Phantogram following materialized — and continues to grow ever larger. In addition to praise from unexpected sources (Questlove, Big Boi, Fitz and the Tantrums, Kings of Leon), the duo’s popularity has risen from a years-long tour stint, loaded with sold-out shows, international bookings, and major festival appearances.

And in the midst of the tour hustle and bustle, Phantogram has managed to pull off yet another standout release in the form of Nightlife. Carter’s minimalist guitar lines, hip-hop beats, and assorted loops and samples weave the perfect melodic backing for Barthel’s breathy singing and, at times, his own reverb-laden vocals. The synths and drum-machine beats draw similarities to Eyelid Movies, but the new record holds its own as a mini-LP — and also holds fans over until the next full-length release.

Here, ALARM speaks with Carter about performing live, his collaboration with Barthel, and Nightlife.

What do you like about recording in a barn versus a recording studio?

It was circumstantial, really. We lived up in the country in upstate New York, and it’s what we had. My parents had a barn on their property, and I had been collecting a lot of recording equipment and learning how to record myself. Instead of having to pay a lot of money to go into a studio, we just did our first album ourselves, and the new record as well.

You have a long, diverse list of musical influences. What non-musical influences impact your songwriting?

Dreams definitely impact my lyric writing and our songwriting. Often when Sarah and I get together to work on music, we kind of come up with imaginary plots that would be in a movie. We think very visually when we’re writing.

What are your roles in songwriting?

I write the lyrics. I make the beats and I write most of the music, but often Sarah and I get together and write. Sometimes she’ll come up with something on the piano or guitar and bring it to the table, or I’ll make a beat or write something on guitar or piano, and we’ll bring it together.

Sometimes we just jam over a basic drum-machine rhythm and vamp for a few hours and write that way. Often when I write lyrics too, I’ll bounce them off Sarah and see what she thinks of it; so, sometimes even though she isn’t writing the lyrics, she’s connected to them anyway because she’s there while I’m writing them.

Aside from the fact that you wrote Nightlife while on tour, how was the writing and recording process different between this album and Eyelid Movies?

Some of the ideas for Nightlife were old ideas. “Don’t Move” was a beat I made a couple years ago that I fleshed out into a song; I wrote the lyrics, and then Sarah wrote the vocal melody for it. “Nightlife” was an idea that we had written together a couple years ago, before Eyelid Movies came out. Sarah wrote the beginning guitar line, and I ended up laying down the guitar and recording all the instruments, and then we wrote the rest together.

“16 Years” was a song that I had written a couple years ago and sang gibberish on with autotune on my voice; then, when we were on the road, I kind of translated what the gibberish sounded like. The first line in the song was “16 years…” when I was singing gibberish, but then I started reading this article online about these two women in Mississippi who got arrested for petty theft and went to prison for 16 years, which is really crazy. So I started translating the gibberish into my feelings about the story that I read, and it just started to make a lot of sense to me.

I wrote “Turning into Stone” in March, and then I finished it this summer when we were on tour. “A Dark Tunnel” was a song that Sarah was really pushing for that I had written on tour. She wrote the chorus vocal melody, but it was really a pain in the ass writing that song. I really didn’t want to finish it, but she really loved it, so I said okay, and I just finished it in Seattle, actually, when we were playing Bumbershoot. “Make a Fist” was supposed to be on Eyelid Movies, and I originally sang on that, but for some reason, sonically, we didn’t think it should go on the record. Then we went back and worked out a big dramatic ending together for the song and rerecorded it with Sarah singing.

Why did you choose to make Nightlife six songs instead of extending it to a full-length? How did you decide on the “mini-LP” concept?

We’ve been touring so long on Eyelid Movies, and it’s been doing really well, but we know that our fans want more music, and we wanted to put out more music to keep ourselves happy. To me, often when I think “EP” I think two or three songs and a remix. For us, Nightlife is a body of work that goes together and belongs together. It’s not necessarily a single, a B-side, and a remix, and that’s how I view many EPs.

Do you foresee Phantogram’s sound evolving more on your next album?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’m really excited to start working on the next album. I have all kinds of crazy ideas. It’s just a matter of what we really decide to do. Some days I feel like we should do a super minimal record where we completely limit ourselves to one drum machine, a guitar, and synths and don’t go too crazy but just make every little texture count.

Sometimes I think we should just drone out and make a real heavy, heavy sounding record. I don’t know. It really just depends. I guess we’ll wait and see, but I definitely plan on experimenting a lot more. I’ve been fucking around with tapes a lot these days, so maybe you’ll be hearing a lot of weird tapes and stuff.

After receiving this adoration from critics and the public within so little time, do you feel any pressure to live up to expectations with your next full-length?

No. No, I don’t. The reason why is I never felt the need to live up to any expectation to begin with is because Sarah and I originally started making music and recorded Eyelid Movies just to please ourselves. We didn’t have an audience. Now that I know we have an audience, I guess all I gotta do is keep in mind that if people like something that I never really intended for the masses to hear, then I guess I must be doing something right, so why worry about it, you know? But at the same time, I do sometimes think about how things are going to sound live more since we’ve been playing in these big rooms — like “how are these songs going to sound out of a big, honking PA system?”

Once you decide on the instruments and melodies on a song, do you like to record it live before you make all the final adjustments to see how it will sound live?

Yeah, we started getting into that. Normally, we’ll just play things live and record it on a iPhone or something like that in the background to see how it feels live and how it might sound live. We don’t write anything that we don’t think we can pull off live. That’s super important because a lot of bands, especially nowadays, do so many backing tracks or nothing but backing tracks, and for me, that just seems like cheating. We use a drum machine and a couple of sequencers, but it’s a live experience. It couldn’t happen without us playing.

Do you feel that incorporating lights and visuals are essential to your performances?

We write really moody music, and we’re sort of a nighttime band, so lights are very important to our sounds. We write moody, beat-driven, atmospheric music, and I think lights are very key to that, especially to accent rhythm and atmosphere. I think it’d be different if we were a power-pop band who just got up there and rocked out song after song. We’re a bit different than that.

What about performing in a radio studio or during the day at a music festival where you can’t use lights?

Yeah, it is kind of weird, but we just try to get ourselves into the proper mental state and put our heart into the music. It’s just something that you have to do.

How does it feel to be playing these huge music festivals less than a year from your debut release?

We’re a young band, but putting so much effort into touring from the beginning did definitely help it. But when we first started a few years ago, I wouldn’t have expected that we’d be playing Coachella and Lollapalooza and Outside Lands and all that. It’s pretty amazing.

So it’s on to the next record after Phantogram finishes up the tour?

We’re doing a couple of private shows in December, and I think Big Boi is flying us down to Atlanta to work on some music with him for five days. Then, after that, we’ll start working on the next record.

Are you guys thinking of doing any collaborations on this new record?

No, I don’t think about doing that for our own records. I produce a lot of beats in my spare time. I’m always making beats. So I plan on collaborating with other artists for their stuff, but Phantogram, as far as I can see right now, is just Sarah and me.

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