Phantogram is one of those rare modern pop acts that thrived by keeping their own pace even as the industry around them became increasingly hectic and unpredictable. In 2009, they were an unknown duo putting together a debut album in a cabin in upstate New York, and after waiting more than four years, this year they put out a sophomore album that debuted all the way at No. 11. This seems impossible! Sure, Beyonce has the luxury to take as long as she’d like between projects. But go down a few levels, and a lot can go wrong in a similar amount of time: for instance, the industry could very well grind you down to dust (see: Sky Ferreira) or you could suffer a complete loss of good will (see: Azealia Banks).
But between 2009 and 2014, Phantogram have seemed to operate on their own plane, and avoided the common pitfalls. Between albums one and two, they offered up a couple EPs, signed to a major and benefitted from a confidence-boosting collaboration with one of their hip-hop idols, Big Boi. All the while, they never compromised their sonic mission, and that comes through in Voices, where the samples, beats and Barthel’s vocals all sound more muscular and evocative.
I spoke with the duo last week about their gradual rise to see how they’ve seemingly done everything right up to this point. Read on to find out why they’re still not done picking up speed, where the Big Grams project with Big Boi stands and which late night show has the best snacks.
Your sophomore album, Voices, debuted at #11. Obviously you have faith in your own music but did you think it would be that high?
Sarah Barthel: We really didn’t know what to expect now that we’re in the major leagues, after being on an indie label.
Josh Carter: We didn’t expect too much. When we first started, we were happy when we reached people in our local city. Now that things are expanding more, it’s really crazy. It’s a cool feeling to know that that many people care or are listening.
What are the benefits of sealing yourselves off from scene cities like New York or L.A.?
JC: The key advantage is that we’re not caught up in any kind of trend, creatively or artistically, and it frees us. We’re not influenced by anything around us, so we’re honest in that sense. Obviously we’re influenced by many different things, but it comes from something a lot more organic and less team-oriented.
So compare that to your time collaborating with Big Boi. Was it a drastic shift?
SB: It was a trip, a shock at first, because we were just doing our thing and touring, writing, and all of a sudden we find out one of our favorite artists on the planet is loving our music. It’s a crazy feeling, something that, where we were at, never thought it would happen. But when it did, it gave us reassurance that we were doing something unique and fresh. We look up to Outkast for many reasons, but mostly because they were innovative and fresh and making interesting music. And we kind of used that once we started Phantogram, so when one of the members comes to you and reassures you, it’s pretty rad!
Did that experience, combined with your signing to a major label, change your overall process?
JC: We didn’t really change the way we operated. It gave us a little more certainty and confidence, like meeting Big and [Andre 3000] and the Dungeon Family and Goodie Mob, the way they listened to their music and talked to us about our music was kind of comforting. It made us look within and realize we were doing something really cool, something worthy. So we kind of left that experience with a little more pep in our step.
Would you ever have a rap feature on one of your own tracks?
SB: I think Josh and I mean to keep it separate. Unless it’s like a remix or mixtape or something where we’re fully collaborating with the artist. When it comes to Phantogram, we have a strong vision that we want to maintain. But we love working with Big, and we’re gonna put out a collaborative EP with him sometime soon… Everyone’s pretty busy — he’s doing his Outkast stuff, we’re doing our thing. But hopefully it’ll come out soon.
You guys seem to put a particularly strong focus on EPs.
JC: It’s kind of like an appetizer to get people excited. When we released Nightlife, we just wanted to release something because we wanted new material out, to keep our fans happy. And we wanted more music to play. But as we’ve gone on, I would like to do lots of EPs. Just put out more music more frequently. Especially considering the way music is consumed these days, it’s much more fast-paced, so I think it would be better and more fun for us.
What’s the interplay between you two when you’re creating new music?
JC: It’s different every time. For Voices, a lot of that record started with a beat or rhythm, because we’re such a rhythm-centric band. But sometimes it starts with Sarah writing on piano or I’ll write something on guitar. Or I’ll chop up some samples and we’ll write something in the same key as the samples or twist samples to make them fit into a song that we’d already been working on. It’s really different each time.
And when do you decide who takes the vocals for a song?
JC: It’s pretty natural. A lot of the songs end up feeling right with Sarah, and I think we both kind of know when it’s appropriate for me to sing. I more often than not have Sarah in mind when I come up with an idea, her singing. But it’s just natural, we don’t draw cards or flip a coin or anything. It just so happens that Sarah sings on more songs on Voices, and I’m totally cool with that, she sounds fucking amazing.
I agree, her vocals seemed to be more of a centerpiece on this LP.
JC: I hear a lot more soul in her voice now, I think. Whereas her voice sounds great on the previous releases, but it’s a little softer and wispier. You feel a lot more passion behind her vocals on this one.
You guys have been dominating the late night landscape. Does your routine change depending on which show, the vibe of the host?
JC: Well, it’s the same thing for every show. [laughs] You go there, you soundcheck, then you wait around ’til they have you play. So, we eat a lot of those little mini sandwiches and corn chips.
Which show has the best green room snacks?
SB: Fallon. At Fallon, they go out and get cupcakes for you and you can order whatever you want and they’ll get it, they’re super rad.
On a related note: any progress recruiting Bill Murray for the “Bill Murray” music video?
SB: We haven’t gotten him to do it yet, but we should probably start the recruitment. We’re just waiting for him to call us I guess. We’re thinking it could really happen. We’ve got the whole storyline written, we have the ideas, we just need someone to direct it and we can help with that. And then we’ll be good to go.
Get an eyeful of even more pop music coverage, from artist interviews to exclusive performances, on Idolator’s YouTube channel.
You might also like