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The pop-duo Phantogram (who first graced our cover in 2010), consisting of Sarah Barthel and Joshua Carter, has been creating genre bending music since 2007 when they formed. Known for their innovative style, mixing electronica, indie rock, pop and trip hop, they have released two albums – Eyelid Movies (2009) and Voices (2014) – along with several EPs including the self-titled Big Grams, born out of the new group they formed with Outkast founder Big Boi. Their leates album, Three, is expected to release October 7th via Republic. I had the chance to talk to both Sarah and Josh about their style, the production of the new album and their repeated appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Let’s talk about Fallon. You’ve appeared on the Tonight Show several times, including before most people knew who Phantogram was. How does a musician get a gig like that?
Josh: We toured our asses off on our first album Eyelid Movies. We built a very organic, kinda grassroots fanbase. We gained a lot of steam and momentum. And it turned out that Jimmy Fallon is a big fan of our music. I don’t know who asked who, but we were asked to play during our first album cycle. Questlove played the drums with us. It was amazing. Super nice guy. We’ve played Jimmy Fallon four times; we are very blessed.
What does an appearance on a show like that do for your career?
Josh: I mean, I’m sure it just causes awareness to people that may not have ever heard of us. A lot of people tuned into his show. For us, it’s about gaining more awareness and exposure and ultimately making more fans.
So about the new album Three….Phantogram has been labeled a genre-bending band, and particularly if you consider Big Grams a Phantogram-related band. For the most part, the new album seems to return to that original trippy, atmospheric, electronica type of sound. But even the new track “Same Old Blues” takes a detour and offers a bit of a gospel sound. Why do you experiment with different genres?
Josh: For us that’s why we make music. We listen to so much and we’re influenced by so many different types of music. I think our whole MO in the beginning was to be limitless. And not worry about trying to sound like a garage rock band or a trip hop band. We have so many influences ranging from hip-hop to jazz to shoegaze music or krautrock, or I guess gospel. So why not experiment and figure out a way to make it a cohesive sound? So far we’ve done a good job of doing that.
Sarah: In general, our influences range so much and we always try to put as many influences as we can in our songs. For example, that one [“Same Old Blues”] turned out more gospel than shoegaze. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record.
How has that experimentation affected your career and your fanbase?
Sarah: Since day one we’ve had a very, very, very diverse audience and fanbase. If you come to one of our shows we have everyone from college kids, to old hippies, to hip-hop heads, to indie kids, to everything. And it’s always been that way I think because of our influences and the way our sound is fresh. You can almost put your finger on what the sound is, but not too much where there is only one certain type of crowd that shows up to our shows.
Josh: I’ve had dudes in their 60s with gray ponytails wearing Dark Side of the Moon t-shirts coming up to me saying “Oh man, we’ve never heard anything like this. It’s amazing.” Or someone will say, “I only really listen to hip-hop music and I love your band.” Something is working in our favor. Some fans probably get disappointed here and there because they’re like, “You switched it up too much.” But that’s the whole part of being an artist…. the experimenting and constantly striving for something new and reinventing yourself. But luckily we have pretty loyal fans.
Would you recommend that approach to other musicians?
Josh: If you look at most great bands in the world…The Beatles went from albums like Rubber Soul where they were influenced by Bob Dylan, started smoking weed, to Sgt. Pepper. Or even like David Bowie from Hunky Dory to his latest album Blackstar. You gotta evolve as an artist. Or Kanye West. 808s & Heartbreak is a total shift from his previous work. I think it’s rad when artists do that. But also at the same time for some artists it doesn’t work. I’m a big Nine Inch Nails fan. It almost always sounds like Nine Inch Nails. It’s working for Trent Reznor.
What is different about this album than your previous albums, including any new gear or techniques you used?
Sarah: It’s been a very natural progression with our sound. We’ve been evolving since 2008, 2009. It’s again another step up from Voices, production-wise. We wanted the beats to be more boombastic, have certain parts of songs really hit when they’re supposed to hit. We collaborated with some artists for some of the songs. We got to experiment with a lot more loop pedals and analog synthesizers and just different kinds of ways of producing because we were in a professional studio, which was really awesome. It definitely made a big difference in our sound. It’s the same Phantogram, but just a little bit beefier and a little bit heavier and very emotional.
Josh: We also learned a couple tricks from our mentors about how to trim a little bit of fat off of the songs and get to the point quicker…we really wanted to have our songs to the point on this album, most of them at least and not too long. It has a pop aesthetic to it in a way.
Why should people listen to Three? What do you think people will like most about the new album?
Josh: It’s full of heart. It’s full of emotion. And it’s a very special album to us. We went through some difficult times during the making of it that came out in the lyrics and the content. Also it’s just interesting and it’s fun to listen to.
Sarah: The new, new shit. You gotta hear it.
Sarah – Moog Minitaur (for super gritty, fast, bass synth sound)