As summer begins to draw to a close, so too does one of the more high profile summer tours in indie music as Phantogram work through the final US dates in their move to usher in a new era for themselves and their fans. Since 2007, the Greenwich NY based duo, consisting of childhood friends Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, have been serving up ultra-prolific works within the realms of electronic rock and trip-hop, comfortably earning their status over the years as major festival staples renowned for the highly visual live experience in many of their shows.
Following the announcement of their return to both the studio and the road, the band has released two brand new singles since May, “Into Happiness” and “Mister Impossible”, effectively setting the hype train for a new album into full motion. Of course, Byline Houston is all aboard so we reached out to Sarah and Josh just before their stop in town for a quick chat about new material, influences, tour and even the spooky season coming in around the corner.
Byline Houston: So you’re getting through the last quarter of this tour by now. How has it been treating you so far and is there anything that sets it apart from previous tours?
Josh Carter: Yeah it’s been great. We have a brand new visual live show, playing a really fun setlist, bringing in some old songs we haven’t played in years. We’re also playing brand new songs that nobody’s ever heard that will be on our upcoming album. Of course, we’re playing some of our newer releases, and yeah, just having a lot of fun. I think what’s really great about it is that so many people are coming to the shows and we don’t even have the album out yet. The shows have been fantastic.
Byline Houston: And you’ve been hanging with the guys from Bob Moses all summer, how’s that been? What can you say of them as a band?
Sarah Barthel: Oh, it’s been fun, they’re really nice people and they’ve just turned out to be a great a band to play shows with. Our fans are really digging it, I feel like.
Byline Houston: Pretty neat you guys decided to include new, unheard songs into the set list. Are there any anxieties about fans hearing the live versions of these songs first instead of what you intended for them to sound like in the produced versions?
Carter: Um… nahhh. No because, our songs are never really exactly like how they are on the album when we play them live anyway. And we prefer it that way. So I mean, we keep them pretty close, but there’s definitely no anxieties about it not sounding like the recording or anything like that.
Byline Houston: Well, in constructing new music, is the way the songs will sound live usually part of the grand vision, or is that just something you sort of figure out later?
Carter: Yeah, it’s now turned into more part of the vision. When we first started we didn’t have many fans and we weren’t really playing many live shows. So we’d just record whatever and not think about how we were even going to perform it and stuff. So now a lot more thought goes into like, “oh how are we gonna play this live, who’s going to play what?” Yeah, it’s something we definitely think about more.
Byline Houston: Major details are clearly still under wraps, but what can you say about how the new album is coming along?
Barthel: It’s going great!
Carter: Yeah, it’s definitely coming along. You’ll uh… you’ll be hearing it soon…
Byline Houston: In a post back in May regarding your return, you made references to light, darkness, and the personal journey that both of you had to go through over the last three years. What do you hope fans will take away from this next album?
Carter: I think what fans are going to be able to take away from the new material is the original spirit of Phantogram and our roots, in a way. Just making cool ass music. It’s definitely not a happy album, and I mean, it’s not a sad album either. All of our material on all of our records basically explore the human condition, light and darkness and you know… basically what I’m trying to say is that we’re back to feeling like Phantogram, back in our shoes again and back on track. It feels good.
Byline Houston: Given the electronic nature of a lot of your music, have you ever felt prone to over-producing a song? What steps do you take to ensuring you know when a song is finished?
Carter: Well, sometimes you sort of just feel like the song is finished. But you can definitely over-produce a song, and you can definitely under-produce a song, but it really depends on what you’re going for. I can tell you one thing for sure, anything in our production is intentional. So if something does sound overproduced, it’s because we wanted it sound like… maximal, you know? Maximum. If it’s under-produced, then it’s because we wanted it to sound very sparse.
Byline Houston: Are both of you equally involved in the visual arts aspect of the live show? What’re some of the core influences and inspirations in regards to that side of Phantogram?
Barthel: Yeah, both of us are involved, since we’re both such visual people in general. When we’re writing music, we always tend to gravitate towards what we see in our dreams or daydreams, and sort of tie it into the songs, if you will. Whatever ties into the emotional intensity of the song, that’s what we like the most.
Byline Houston: Sarah, what steps did you take to find your voice as a singer?
Barthel: Well, I used to sing as a kid, and it was always just a part of my life in one way or another, whether it was just singing along to the radio, or singing in choir. It was always a part of life, and so it was just another step up from there.
Byline Houston: And Josh, what’re some of your influences in regards to your own vocals? Totally mean this as a compliment, but I sometimes get Phil Collins vibes.
Carter: Yeah I think that’s awesome. Funny, lot of people tell me that they get Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel out of it, and that’s amazing to me because I didn’t really grow up listening to Genesis, or Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but now I really like their music. But really I’m just trying to channel myself. I think honesty is — like, I hate it when singers just try to sound like other people. I wanna hear the sound of somebody being honest. But, you know, I don’t really pride myself on singing, I just pride myself musical integrity. So basically I’m more concerned with the overall art and production, and guitar playing, pianos, synths, beats, lyrics, and singing is included in that. But I don’t really pride myself as a singer. Sarah definitely has a far superior voice, especially when it comes technicality.
Byline Houston: Phantogram is consistently praised for putting out stuff that’s as good, if not better, than previous work. In your opinion, how do you feel you guys have been able to maintain such a steady growth over the years?
Carter: I think what’s worked for us is constantly experimenting and just the fact that when we started the band we set out to make boundary-less music, or genre-less music, in a way. So we feel like we can do whatever the fuck we want. And I think that’s why all of our albums sound different. I guess maybe to some people they get better… or whatever, I mean I don’t know, I just think that we’re always just trying to try new things, you know? Trying to stay fresh.
Byline Houston: Your work notably has been featured on a variety of things like ads, TV shows, video games. Is that usually just a kind of deal where you green light management, and are there any features that either of you are particularly proud of? “Keep Yourself Alive (K.Y.S.A.)”on the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack was pretty cool.
Carter: Yeah, that one was pretty awesome. We actually wrote and recorded that in two days — well, actually one day — just an all nighter in the back of our tour bus. But yeah, I’d say that’s the one
Barthel: Yeah, that one
Carter: Yeah, we agree with you. But it’s something we green light, usually. Management will bring something to us and be like, “hey, so and so wants to use your music, is it okay?” And we’ll just tell them yes or no.
Byline Houston: Have you guys considered or have plans to make ventures into other realms and genres of music?
Carter: Yeah I mean, I produce hip hop music, and we collaborate with other artists often. But other genres? Yeah, of course. I mean, I don’t plan on doing like pop-country or anything like that. But like I said, even with Phantogram, I just think we can get away with venturing into other genres and just different things without it being too weird because of the nature of our music.
Byline Houston: Okay, just because summer couldn’t be over sooner, I’m just going to fire off five Halloween/spooky questions on you guys. Ready?
Byline Houston: One – What was the earliest Halloween costume you remember wearing?
Barthel: I remember being a mummy, when I was really little. With toilet paper wrapped around my whole body.
Carter: I remember being a clown.
Byline Houston: Like, a scary clown?
Carter: Nah, just a clown. *laughs* I mean aren’t all clowns scary anyway?
Byline Houston: True. Okay, two – What was your favorite Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?
Barthel: Well, last year I was Post Malone. I think I killed it.
Carter: I was Zach Galifianakis from the Absolut Vodka commercials in Tim and Eric.
Byline Houston: Three – have you, or would you ever, play with a ouija board or participate in a weird ritual?
Byline Houston: Four – what are your favorite horror movies?
Carter: Ooooh… I like Halloween.
Barthel: Oh yeah, that’s a good one! Um… I’ll go with The Shining.
Byline Houston: Solid answers. Five – have either of you ever had a ghost encounter or a creepy experience?
Barthel: Um… (takes a moment) hmm, I don’t think so. Have you, Josh?
Carter: Oh, I’ve had a lot of creepy experiences. (laughs) But nothing supernatural, just stuff like walking in a bad neighborhood at the wrong time of night. I haven’t seen any ghosts, at least not that I think. Sometimes I wonder if Sarah’s dogs are seeing ghosts or barking at ghosts. But who knows?
Phantogram hits Houston Thursday, September 12. The show is at White Oak Music Hall and is very much sold out.
Photo Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel