By Lauren Harris; photos by Marc Lemoine on February 19, 2014
This is the process that unfurls beneath the attractive visages of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter—the darkadelic electro-pop duo better known as Phantogram. Out of a storm of cognitive dissonance and self-reproach, a sharp voice is sent through the encoder of Barthel and Carter’s minds and into their hands, out through a stutter of beats or the swell of a guitar, gilded in Barthel’s alluring vocals or Carter’s delicate crackle. From this one voice, disorder invades, and an emotional civil war begins.
This war that Phantogram are waging on Voices, their second full-length album and their major-label debut, marks new territory gained, and new adversaries met. For each of the band’s records, Barthel and Carter have receded internally, plumbing the depths of consciousness and, with what can only be described as unflinching determination, set to work cataloging limitation, deficiency and desperation. “Our records are very dark and lonely,” says Barthel, with a brightness that belies the music they make. That this noise— concerned with all that is emotionally ugly— can sound so beautiful is a type of aural illusion that the band has become known for.
For Phantogram, barns in the dead of night appear to be an exceedingly important element in their creative process. When childhood friends Barthel and Carter first started making music together, each waited tables to support themselves in their upstate hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. Once their shifts had ended at midnight, they would make the 40-minute drive to the farm Carter grew up on and retreat into the barn he had converted into a makeshift studio. “That was when we had time to write,” Barthel says of the nocturnal hours the band began to keep. Carter feels it was more than a function of scheduling. “Our gears tend to grind at night,” says Carter. “There’s this witching hour when things start coming to life, and I feel more imaginative.”
It was during these nocturnal recording sessions that Phantogram’s sound began to take shape. There is a distinctly visual quality to many of the tracks on their debut, 2009’s Eyelid Movies, as well as 2011’s Nightlife EP. Songs serve as dream-like stand- ins, exercises in sense-making. Bleak sonic panoramas emerge out of these albums, shot through with despondency, and intense enough to transport the listener out of broad daylight and into the hours of the night when it feels as though no one else is awake. “We wanted to write in the middle of nowhere, just to get that energy. You hear the crickets, you see the stars. And there’s nothing. You can really feel the darkness around you at night,” says Barthel.
For Voices, Barthel and Carter chose a different upstate barn in which to create, though their circumstances had drastically changed since the last time they recorded an album. On the strength of the band’s previous two records, a bidding war erupted, and labels big and small came to court the duo. While the band was initially thrilled to return to the studio, the twin voices of self-doubt and self-loathing came calling before long, and Barthel and Carter faltered. “It fucked us up a little bit,” Barthel says of how the transition to major label Republic impacted the band. “It shifts your idea of everything. We totally got in our heads, like, ‘We have to write really good songs!’ ‘Does everything need to be a single?’ Totally screwed us for about a month.”
Had it not been for the intercession of one of the most innovative musicians making music today, it’s unclear how long Phantogram might have stayed embroiled in their creative filibuster. About a month into writing Voices, Barthel and Carter made a pilgrimage down to Stankonia, the Atlanta recording mecca of Outkast’s André “Big Boi” Patton, under the auspices of working together. A few years prior, Patton happened to hear the Eyelid Movies breakout “Mouthful of Diamonds” and made the track his song of the week on his website. Barthel and Carter, longtime fans of Outkast and Patton’s production work, got in touch, and from there a working relationship developed. [The duo would appear on three songs on Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors.]
Phantogram were slated to head down to Stankonia when the inner monologue of self-criticism for Voices was at its most paralyzing. “We played our shit at Stankonia, and [Patton] was like, ‘Holy shit! This is so great!’” says Barthel. “Our confidence just boosted up.” In addition to similar working styles (“He’s a night owl; he makes us look like the early-bird special,” says Carter), the band credit those small-hour sessions with Big Boi for an altered sound, including snappier drums on Voices. What Phantogram played at Stankonia managed to drown out the tape loop of worry surrounding the major-label deal, and ultimately freed them up to make the record they wanted. “Once we stopped thinking about other people, things started to flow,” says Carter. “If you’re not writing because you love it, or making music that you like, then there’s no point at all.”
Fortunately, Phantogram are much happier people than their music would lead you to believe. Both Barthel and Carter are generous with a laugh, and within the first few minutes of meeting, social media relic Friendster, Miguel’s head-kicking fan assault at the Billboard Music Awards and Miley Cyrus are referenced. A scrapped wardrobe choice from the photo shoot is dismissed as too “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” In person, the duo are nothing like the brooding artists delivering half-pleading, half-defiant lines like, “I’m hearing voices and they’re haunting my mind.” Voices’ buzz- thickened slow jam “Bill Murray” is an encapsulation of the band’s sensibility: Barthel’s mournful vocals level the indictment “nothing works inside,” a line leavened by the image of the sardonically jowled comedy titan.
Equal parts therapeutic and creative, the band’s music is about amplifying the very worst internal voices they hear, and by extension, the worst in themselves. In so doing, they are able to exorcise those demons. “Making our music is very cathartic,” Carter explains. Barthel continues the thought: “You can get away with being open when maybe in real life you’re not being as open as you should be.” In addition to the songs on Voices taking the form of individual exorcisms, there is also a keening communion. “We experience the same situations in our lives because we’re so close. We’re like siblings who go through all the things around them together,” says Barthel. Because of this shared experiential pool, songs can contain two renderings of the same experience, which range from the corrosive effects of love, to a cage-match with self- estrangement, to the loss of a dear friend. It is both in spite of and because of the fact that there are two members of Phantogram that they are able to cover such intense territory: while it is terrifying to expose the contents of one’s self to another, at the same time, it would be impossible without another’s comfort.
While past recording sessions featured instantaneous writing and a fair amount of jamming, the songs on Voices were born out of the solitary writing sessions Barthel and Carter would have while utilizing the A and B rooms of the barn-studio they holed up in to record the album. Siloed and alone, Carter would write or make beats as Barthel worked on lyrics, the separateness in the process engendering more space and new possibilities. “This time around, we brought another layer to our sound,” says Barthel. “It wasn’t just like, ‘We’re on the spot, let’s write this song about death and love.’” Because many of the tracks were circling the same experience, Barthel and Carter would hand songs off in the middle, careful to preserve the space the other was creating behind closed doors, an emotional echo chamber developing between Barthel and Carter as they moved more deeply into the pieces that would comprise the album.
When Barthel and Carter first embarked on Voices, the band thought they would make a concept record. “Picture taking some acid at sunset with a friend, and walking into the woods,” Barthel describes as one initial scenario. “We made rules,” Carter says. “But by the time we got together to make the record, none of those rules stuck.” In many ways, though, Voices is a concept record. It is an unspooling inner monologue, the epidemiology of a thought, and an exacting measure of the space between the person you are, and the person you thought you were. In the emotional civil war Phantogram have waged, Voices is the spoils. F
Styling by Noel Jean, hair by Daniel Garza, makeup by Isabel Ruiz
This article is from FILTER Issue 53