Interview: Phantogram

Photos by Eleanore Park

In today’s fickle, post-Pitchfork world, each new band can start to feel like the latest chillwave flavor of the month. In the ambiguous sea of lo-fi turned glo-fi turned back to shoegaze whatever, it is important to give certain bands the distinction they deserve.

Phantogram duo Joshua Carter and Sarah Barthel are a reminder that, behind the indie genre’s similarities, there are subtle but important shifts in influences and backgrounds. Conceived on an isolated farm in Upstate New York, their debut album, Eyelid Movies, is the lovechild of 90’s hip-hop beats and urban dream-pop.

Phantogram have already passed through San Diego twice this year — the first time opening for The Antlers at the Casbah and, more recently, opening for The XX at House of Blues, and we can’t wait for them to come back. We spoke with Sarah Barthel after their House of Blues performance, and we also caught up with her later via email.

Owl and Bear: There’s a compelling energy that Phantogram bring to the record, and it really shines through when you play live. Where does it come from?

Sarah Barthel: I think our energy comes from playing music that we love. Our sound really excites us and when the crowd enjoys the show, we tend to gain more energy. Josh, who wrote the majority of the tunes on Eyelid Movies, is an incredible songwriter, musician, producer, and beat maker. I’m very lucky to be a part of his work.

Owl and Bear: How would you describe your sound to a person who has never heard it before?

Sarah Barthel: Beat driven indie pop with dirty hands.

Owl and Bear: What are the main themes or topics for most of your songs?

Sarah Barthel: The main themes of our songs come from little dreamlike scenarios that we create in our heads. Sound has a huge relation with visual to us, and songs become emotional and surreal when visuals come into play. Themes from the songs range from living and death, and meeting the two parallel universes together, happiness, sadness, loneliness, and hopefulness.

Owl and Bear: Most of Eyelid Movies was written and recorded at Harmony Lodge, far removed from most things.

Sarah Barthel: Harmony Lodge is located in a very rural area in NY. It’s about 10 miles away from where we went to school and about 40 minutes from Saratoga Springs, where we reside now. The area is lush with rolling hills and farm animals — it’s quite breathtaking. We love getting away from civilization to take a moment to breathe and soak it all in. We wrote and recorded Eyelid Movies in the dead of winter of ’07 to ’08. Although the farm is beautiful, the winters become very desolate, quiet, cold, and lonely. A lot of dark visuals and musical themes came out of us during that time, and I think it had a lot to do with our surroundings.

Owl and Bear: Was it intentional then to be so removed during your process?

Sarah Barthel: Definitely. There is so much time to let ideas breathe, and it’s easier to listen to yourself and how you are feeling. There are no distractions or other activities luring you in to take up your time.

Owl and Bear: What is your music-making process?

Sarah Barthel: We have no distinct formula; it’s different for every song. Sometimes Josh will make a beat and we will write on top of it. Other times, we will bring a piano or guitar melody to the table and continue to write around that. Either way, we always make sure we write songs that we can pull off playing live. It’s really easy to want to keep adding layers upon layers to our songs, but with only two of us on stage, we can only do so much.

Owl and Bear: Are you surprised how well Eyelid Movies has been received across the board? Do you see yourselves as a “buzz” band?

Sarah Barthel: We are extremely happy that Eyelid Movies has been well received. We believed in our sound from the beginning and knew that people would like it, but we didn’t expect people to catch on to our sound so fast. We expected it after some more time.

Owl and Bear: While the record has a feel-good and dance-friendly quality to it, the lyrics are cryptic at times. Which came first, the music or the lyrics?

Sarah Barthel: We wanted the lyrics to be more visually descriptive and less definitive for the listener. We wanted them to create and connect with their own scenario and conclusion. There is a huge sense of openness to the lyrics and an enigmatic theme. A lot of the songs also have double meanings. When we wrote the record, we intended to have the lyrics be just as important as the music.

Owl and Bear: One of my favorite tracks off of Eyelid Movies is “When I’m Small.” Do you have any favorites?

Sarah Barthel: That’s a fun one to play. We also really enjoy playing one of our bonus tracks, called “Make a Fist.” The lyrics have a lot of meaning to the both of us and the beat is in 5/4. The song is also more on the minimal side compared to some of the other songs with so many layers. It’s a nice change.

Owl and Bear: Do you and Joshua collaborate in writing the tracks, or are there times when you work better separately?

Sarah Barthel: We spent a lot of our time together during this process bouncing ideas off of each other in the barn. When we wrote the record, we were still trying to figure out the sound that we wanted. It was a lot of trial and error, but eventually we wrote enough songs that we liked enough to put on the record.

Owl and Bear: We interviewed The Antlers when you played at the Casbah earlier this year, and Darby Cici mentioned how “really talented” he thought you guys were. In addition to The Antlers, you’ve also played with Yeasayer and recently The XX. How does touring/playing with other bands affect your music making?

Sarah Barthel: We are so blessed to be able to play with such incredible bands! I think we all influence each other in one way or another. It’s cool to find inspiration from not just their music, but the experiences we have during the time we are together. It was an honor to hear Oliver from The XX say to us that our show inspired him, because we are big fans of what they are doing. It’s cool to read an interview of Yeasayer saying they love our music as well!

Owl and Bear: Do you read the reviews of your own work?

Sarah Barthel: We try to steer clear of the reviews — it’s not good for our psyche. Pitchfork‘s reviews can be a scary thought, even though they gave us a decent review. It’s the only site that we take very seriously, but at the same time, [we] find their reviews to be pretentious with trivial perspectives.

Owl and Bear: Phantogram has been described as everything from shoegazey to glo-fi to indie rock. But, in addition to all of those elements, there also seems to be a subtle, underlying hip-hop touch to the way some beats are laid down. Where does that influence come from?

Sarah Barthel: Hip hop is a huge influence in our music. The beats are just as important as the melodies in our songs. Josh’s beats are influenced by a lot old Motown, soul, and afro-rhythmic music. We definitely wanted to incorporate our love for beats into our songs.

Owl and Bear: Who are some of your musical heroes?

Sarah Barthel: Outkast! They set the rules as to what was fresh in the last decade. I absolutely love them.

Owl and Bear: Is it a creative challenge to intertwine two seemingly distinct genres?

Sarah Barthel: When we first started working together, we knew that we wanted to do something different, and we wanted to incorporate all of our influences into our own style. Josh had been working on his own ideas for a few years before Phantogram, and that was when the beginning template was first thought out. From there, we started sharing influences with each other and developed our sound through experimentation in the barn.

Owl and Bear: What is your take on the music industry these days? Do you think the “download” generation has helped music or do you think it has decreased music’s cultural value?

Sarah Barthel: This is a tough one because without the Internet, we would have a lot harder time getting our music out to people. It would have taken us much longer to build a fan base. Today, it’s possible to find incredibly talented artists with just a click of a button; that also means there are a billion bands to sift through to find the ones you like. I think people’s attention spans have shortened tremendously. Instant gratification is perceived as being better than giving time for music to breathe and marinate. Bands have to make an imprint on the listeners ear within the first 30 seconds of their song or else they will get skipped to the next track. It’s sad to me that people don’t treat albums as a tangible thing anymore. I think we are going back to singles and EPs to keep peoples attention. This is a good thing for us because we want to be releasing new music all the time.

Owl and Bear: How has the move to Barsuk Records been? Are you free to creatively do what you wish?

Sarah Barthel: It’s been a blessing to be apart of such a wonderful record label, and they take very good care of us. If we didn’t have total creative control, we would not have signed with them. That was one of the first things they wanted us to know when they started talking with us. We love them.

Owl and Bear: What are your fondest musical memories?

Sarah Barthel: My fondest musical memory was when my grandmother was still alive. She was a concert pianist all of her life and she would play classical pieces on her piano. Her favorite composer was Chopin. I remember sitting on the floor next to my mother’s feet watching the tree branches sway to the music. I remember thinking that somehow the sound from the piano was vibrating their roots from underground. That’s how trees were able to move their branches.

Owl and Bear: When you’re not performing or working on your music, what do you guys enjoy doing the most?

Sarah Barthel: It’s hard to step of out of the music world sometimes. If we do find the time to do so, we love seeing shows, watching movies, tubing down the river, going fishing, camping, BBQs, and spending quality time with friends and family.

Owl and Bear: What is one item you must have while you are on tour?

Sarah Barthel: A lot of music and podcasts. Jamba Juice and In-N-Out Burger are very soothing to the soul as well.

Owl and Bear: Are there any bands or books you would recommend to our readers that your into right now?

Sarah Barthel: I haven’t had any time to read any books lately so I would love some recommendations from the readers. As for music, my new favorite band at the moment is Avi Buffalo. Also, Oh No’s new record Ethiopium is ephing awesome.

Owl and Bear: So whats in store for Phantogram in 2010?

Sarah Barthel: We’ve got some more touring to do, which we are excited about. Canada, Europe, and the good ol’ U.S. of A. We are also working on some new music for our next record.

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