Phantogram sticks to its icy, hip-hop-influenced creative guns
The band’s core duo, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, scale the dream-pop mountain the old-fashioned way
Published: June 25, 2014
PHANTOGRAM with Bad Things
6 p.m. Friday, June 27 | The Beacham, 46 N. Orange Ave. | thebeacham.com | $20-$25 | 12 and up
In many ways, the story of dreamy experimental pop duo Phantogram is the story that any aspiring band strives to achieve. Formed in 2007, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter started out “touring the U.S. in a Prius, playing for five people a night if we were lucky,” as Carter tells Orlando Weekly. In 2009, they released two EPs on niche labels that attracted the attention of respected Seattle indie label Barsuk Records.
Their debut full-length, Eyelid Movies, was a critical success that enamored hip-hop purists, deep electro fiends and mainstream pop aficionados alike with its blend of danceable beats, dark grooves and crystalline vocals. Infectious lead singles “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” were featured on the soundtracks of several movies and TV shows, the band’s touring profile rose exponentially, and then, last year, when the band got ready to write and record sophomore album Voices, a major-label bidding war ensued. (Universal Republic won.)
Along the way, Barthel and Carter have fleshed out their touring lineup to include a live drummer and bassist, put increasing budgets toward elaborate stage and light shows and turned a lifelong love of hip-hop into production gigs with elite rappers like Outkast’s Big Boi. Yet, as Carter says, nothing has felt forced, rushed or negotiated. “Our growth has been real natural,” he says. “Signing with a major felt like a step in the right direction for us – a step that furthered us, not a lateral move. Luckily, we didn’t have to compromise anything artistically. We love what we do, and we want to make a living off of it.”
That living has gotten a whole lot better in 2014: Voices debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard charts; Phantogram was booked for high-profile club and theater dates for up to 1,000 fans; they headlined slots at festivals like SXSW, Coachella and Sasquatch; and they appeared on numerous late-night TV gigs. Through it all, Phantogram has stuck to its creative guns, mixing the icy late-night noir vibe of Portishead with the more upbeat thump of modern electro-pop, an artistic assimilation easily tracked across Eyelid Movies and Voices, along with EPs like Nightlife.
“Everything we do is intentional,” Carter says. “Sarah and I write visually, whether from a word, a color or a shape that conjures up some kind of meaning. Sometimes we even talk about hypothetical short movie scenes and write around that. It’s psychological – we make music that’s better played at night.”
That visual aspect of the band is even more obvious in Phantogram’s intense light show and commitment to imaginative videos (entertainment platform Vevo featured the band throughout June in its Lift video series). “Production is super-important to us,” Carter says. “A lot of time and effort goes into the lighting design, and we’re constantly working to make the live show as exciting as possible. That’s key these days; music is consumed at such a fast rate that you really have to give your audience a unique experience.”
Standing out has never been a problem for Barthel and Carter. From their austere aesthetic to their ongoing Big Grams collaboration with Big Boi to the fact that they crafted their cinematic early material in rural upstate New York, nothing about Phantogram feels connected to the chaotic, neon-clad, drug-fueled contemporary electronic music community.
“We’re not really part of that scene or following a certain type of sound,” Carter says. “Lately, I describe Phantogram as experimental music with a pop sensibility and emotional content.”
> Email Nick McGregor