It is every artist's goal to be the next new thing -- clichéd as it is, any creative will eventually admit this desire. Few can make one radical thing while even fewer continue to deliver intriguing material. Phantogram, the electronic psych-pop duo from upstate New York, fall into the latter category, catching the ear of coffee-sipping Pitchfork critics and Southern rap legends alike. For vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and programmer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Carter, it's been a long and calculated venture, but a fruitful one at that.
Being critically aware of every move is part of Barthel and Carter's modus operandi, maybe to a fault. For a band that's on a label as renowned as Republic Records (an imprint under Universal Music group umbrella), the duo keeps their hands in as much as possible, from press photos to stage visuals to merchandise design to their mind-bending music videos. It's admirable: Instead of relying on someone that's outside of their creative control, the band keeps everything in their fold -- even if it keeps them up at night.
"Coming from a place where you put your entire life into one thing, it's a gamble, it's an investment," Barthel says. "There are a lot of decisions being made where you're like 'Fuck, is that the right decision? Is that the worst decision?' It seems like there's more of worrying about that kind of thing instead of just letting it be."
That same need to exercise and retain the full vision of Phantogram's direction was a massive motivating factor behind their signing to Republic. Where most would expect an easily excitable A&R rep sitting over Barthel and Carter's shoulders at all points of the recording process, Barthel is quick to note that they still call every shot, are still responsible for making the moves and still manage their creative output.
"Because we're signed to a major, the people that are on our label, everyone's different," she explains. "There's pop artists, like St. Vincent, which is pretty rad, but then you've got, like, Nicki Minaj and all those crazy fuckin' people. I always wonder and always hope that people know that we write every single song; Josh produces all of our music. There's no other person."
Keeping it all in-house would drive anyone a little crazy though, as it did for Phantogram during the group's writing process for their latest record, Voices. It took a trip to Outkast's Stankonia Studios and a sit-down with Big Boi, as well as members of his Southern rap collective Dungeon Family, to set Barthel and Carter straight.
"The beginning is like you writing music for yourself, but when you gamble the pressure is on a little more once you make that bigger step," Barthel says. "Those guys kind of reassured us when we played them our demos, like, 'What are you talking about? This shit is fucking awesome. You're killing it. I can't wait for this to come out,' and we were like, 'Oh. OK. Cool.' We had no idea."
Self-doubt aside, Phantogram produce a product that's indefinable in the best ways, allowing them that rare ability to cross musical boundaries with ease while retaining something signature, if not easily categorized. Barthel is aware of this -- after all, the grand scheme for Phantogram from the beginning was to "create something new and fresh, something that hasn't been done before," she says -- but they're still just as hungry as ever, humbled by each step that comes their way.
"Every moment is fulfilling," she says. "The idea of being in a band and getting paid $50 to play to a show was the most fulfilling feeling on the planet when you first started. We've had so many of those moments because we've gradually built up. Having people love our newest record but at the same time playing shows and having people singing along to every lyric from our first record -- that's the energy that we always kind of live for, connect to every person in every way, just to know that."
Phantogram is scheduled to play the Marquee Theatre on Friday, April 18.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!