“A Matter of Balance”: An Interview with Phantogram

Josh Carter may be one half of the noted electronic group Phantogram, but in a few short years, the group has gone from Barsuk signees to major label heroes. Carter walks PopMatters through the creation of their excellent new record Voices.

The cover of Phantogram‘s new album, Voices, features black and white photos of the electronic rock duo, their gazes cast out in opposite directions, their eyes spellbound by something off in the distance. Sultry and mesmerizing, it looks more like a movie poster than an album cover, largely owing to Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel’s striking looks, here shrouded in alternating slices of light and shadow. Overall, the image is classic film noir — half intrigue, half danger, all sexiness — and that’s definitely no coincidence.

Carter and Barthel leave nothing to chance, scrutinizing every element of their music and visual aesthetic, from their band name to their album titles to their songs to their videos. And for them, there’s very little distinction between the aural and the visual, which helps explain the evocative ambiance of Phantogram’s sound. Combining elements of rock, shoegaze, hip-hop, soul, EDM, R&B, and just about anything else that pulses, shakes, or grooves, their music lends itself to the same fits of daydreams that inspire the band’s music.

“Because our process is so visual,” Carter explains, “[imagery] just goes hand in hand with our music. And from day one, when we were writing songs for Eyelid Movies, most of those song ideas came from these hypothetical scenarios, these short movies that we would talk about that we just made up together.”

A lot has transpired between Eyelid Movies, the band’s 2009 debut LP, and Voices. Since then, Phantogram has toured extensively; collaborated extensively with Big Boi on his 2012 album, Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumours; had their music featured in both television shows and movies (including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire); and, most importantly, amassed a loyal and formidable following. Because of this, Carter and Barthel attracted the attention of the major record labels, which led to an all-out bidding war. They eventually signed with Republic.

For a duo that came from a purely DIY background, signing to a major label could have proven jarring, if not disruptive, but Carter asserts that it did nothing to change the band’s approach to creating music. “It had no impact on the creative process with Voices at all,” he asserts. “We just recorded music like we always do and wrote songs that we were feeling.”

What did have an impact on Voices, however, was working with a producer. Unlike with Eyelid Movies, which was produced by the band itself, Voices was recorded and produced with the assistance of John Hill. Like Phantogram, Hill’s musical background is diverse, his credits including artists ranging from Devo to Shakira to P!nk to Santigold. Carter and Barthel found Hill’s sprawling resume appealing.

“John and I produced the record and it was awesome,” Carter says. “He’s such a good guy. He has a really good ear. He’s worked with a really diverse group of artists, so I think he was a perfect fit for us to be working with because we have such a wide palette within our sound.”

Phantogram’s palette is indeed wide, so wide that pinpointing the instrumentation and elements in any given song can prove futile. Even describing their music exposes the limitations of nouns and adjectives. Some of their songs are built around guitar riffs, others vocal loops. Some around samples, others around drums. Some are ambient and ethereal, others propulsive and insistent. Most, however, showcase Barthel’s breathy, seductive vocals, which can morph from a whisper to a wail in the space of a phrase.

Somehow, though, Phantogram’s music sounds completely organic, as if genre distinctions are random and arbitrary, simple categories to delineate what needs no delineation. And, perhaps more impressively, Carter and Barthel are able to incorporate electronic elements in their music without sacrificing soul. The electronic and sampled elements never sound plastic or brittle, nor do they clash with the instrumentation. Carter chalks it up to equilibrium.

“I think it’s always been just a matter of balance,” he explains. “The way that we really achieve this soulful and organic sound with electronic elements is just balancing everything off, you know? I guess hip hop has been a big influence on us when it comes to that, because there’s so much soul in hip hop music and hip hop music is mostly electronic production. And we’ve always enjoyed the idea of juxtaposition. What sounds don’t really go together but that we can put together and make things really interesting?”

This curiosity to see how seemingly disparate elements intersect in interesting ways is, no doubt, partially due to the music Carter was exposed to as a child. “Growing up, my dad was always playing the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, T. Rex, stuff like that,” he recalls. “But especially the Beatles. I heard the Beatles every day in my house. And my mom was always listening to jazz and classical music.”

Not surprisingly, when Carter started developing his own tastes in music, he went in a different direction. “From there,” he notes, “my first love of music was hip-hop. My first records, the first CDs I ever got, were Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.”

As Carter got older, his tastes broadened to include indie rock and R&B, rounding out what would later become the foundation of his own music. “In my preteens and early teenage years I was still really into hip hop music, like Wu-Tang Clan. But I got into bands like the Flaming Lips, Beck, The Smashing Pumpkins, Guided by Voices, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Sparklehorse, Elliot Smith … now I listen to a lot of Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. I don’t really have one particular style of music that’s like, ‘This is what I like to listen to.'”

Echoes of all of these influences are found throughout Voices. “Nothing but Trouble” features a tight drumbeat and walls of guitar distortion — as well as a shredding guitar solo. “Fall In Love” is built around a thick groove of bass and programmed drum arrangements. “Bill Murray” (so named after one of Carter and Barthel’s visual sketches, in which the actor is featured in the video to the song, looking forlorn) is all dreamy guitar and drum machine, Barthel oozing the lyrics on top. It all plays like an obscenely genius mashup of a dive bar jukebox.

This begs the question of how a Phantogram song takes shape. With such an unorthodox approach to music and a myriad of influences flowing into their songs, Phantogram’s songwriting process can’t be the same as, say, a folk singer, a matter of finding a chord progression on a guitar or stumbling upon a catchy melody. Or can it? The answer is both yes and no.

“It’s different every time,” Carter explains. “Sometimes the song starts on an acoustic guitar, sometimes on piano. Sometimes we’ll chop up an old soul sample or something and write a song in the key of what I’ve chopped up.”

Carter and Barthel have known each other since junior high, a fact that helps explain their artistic symbiosis. “It’s just a very collaborative process,” Carter muses. “We both write music. A lot of times we make beats — like every day — on the side. We’re just this great duo that works really well together. We have this kind of psychic energy when we work and it’s easy to read each other. We have a very similar vision in what we do.”

Inevitably, though, when Carter discusses the band’s songwriting process, the discussion somehow finds its way back to the connection between sound and vision. “Sometimes [a song] comes from a phrase that one of us may have heard somebody say on the subway,” he explains, “and then [we’ll] just end up writing lyrics or coming up with some kind of visual scheme between the two of us and then we write music based around what visual scenario we’re discussing.”

Not surprisingly, Phantogram puts a lot of thought and planning into their live show, where sound and vision are inseparable. To help recreate their meticulously crafted sound in concert, Carter and Barthel have enlisted the support of additional musicians. “We have our good friends Chris Carhart on drums and Nick Shelestak on guitar, synths, and samples,” he says.

In addition to fleshing out the sound, Phantogram is busy planning the look of their live show. “We’re working with a new lighting designer,” says Carter. “His name is Jason Carroll. We’ve been doing pre-production right now. And we’re working with lights and design and with how the sound and everything goes. It’s gonna be a whole new light show. We’re really excited. It’s gonna be a real dynamic and fun set to play every night.”

Lest anyone think that Phantogram’s show will devolve into sheer spectacle, Carter is quick to qualify himself. “I mean, I can’t promise that Sarah is gonna jump out in a bubble across the audience or do any pyrotechnics,” he jokes, referring to the live show of their pals, the Flaming Lips. “But it’s gonna pretty cool.”

Phantogram will take the live show through the United States, across the pond, and back. Carter hopes that they can also play for audiences in places they have yet to perform.

“All of April we’re gonna be doing the U.S. again, a full U.S. tour. May we’re going to the UK and Europe. And then some more U.S. touring in June. And I’m hoping that we can go to Australia and Japan sometime this year. I’m not sure if it’s gonna happen or not but I’d truly love to because we’ve never gotten to play out there.”

As for what Phantogram does after touring in support of Voices, that’s anyone’s guess. Barthel has stated that they left a lot of music off the album, hinting that it might surface on a future release. And Carter? Well, he’s enticingly cryptic.

“What’s exciting for us as a band is that we have this well of so many untapped ideas,” he says, but then declines to elaborate. “We know that we have no boundaries on what we do.”

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