The 4AM Dilemma
The Phantogram Solution
By Aaron Binder
Photos by Doron Gild
“We only come out at night” Billy Corgan once cooed to a disenfranchised generation. Since then, most of that generation has grown up and become more integrated into the fabric of society. Then there are the ones that seemingly slip through the cracks, never finding exactly where they belong…so they create their own realities and existences.
Phantogram is the duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, and much like the connective words of Corgan, their kingdom lies in the sounds of atmospheric night that they can claim as their own. Their debut album, Eyelid Movies, was recorded in an old barn at night, the only luminescence surrounding them provided by red and blue Christmas lights.
I spoke with them before a show of theirs in December 2010 as we huddled around a space heater which seemed, while cold, oddly appropriate once you know the lore of their recording process. The band brings a lot of that to their live show as well, not only is it really tight musically, they create stunning visuals out of incredibly minimalist tools.
Many people that I’ve introduced to this group have gone on to say that it is the perfect music at 4am when you’re just winding down your evening. The lyrics are sublime and haunting, the guitar ominous and powerful, the synth keyboards heart-rending. They are a young band with a lot of ground to cover, but with just one full length behind their name, the band has begun to soar into the hearts and minds of fans across the globe.
Here is the conversation we had on that one cold December evening.
Aaron: I caught you guys the last time you were in Toronto at the Drake Underground, it was pretty stellar. You guys have only been around for a 2-3 years now, you guys have signed to Barsuk records, how does it feel to be on a label with such a revered roster?
Josh: We’ve made some cool friends along the way.
Sarah: It’s nice to be labelmates with bands that we grew up listening to or admire…like Nada Surf, Death Cab for Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, stuff like that, it’s a huge honour.
Aaron: It must be awesome opening for a lot of those bands.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely, it’s been really exciting to meet some of them, hang out with them, ask for advice from the bands that have been touring for years and years and become successful.
Aaron: When you look at yourselves as a band, you have a really atmospheric sound, it’s also cool visually to watch you play, is it a big part of Phantogram to achieve that as well?
Josh: Yeah, when we started the band, our first show we bought little blinky lights and stuff, we’re always concerned about the visual esthethics of a show because we think it’s important. Psychologically, we connect better to audiences than having some bright lights up on stage, so we’ve always been concerned about the visual esthetic, and most of our songs are written with a visual reference in mind.
Aaron: That’s something people mentioned to me after the Drake show, “I was so stoned and it was awesome!” so I replied “I wasn’t stoned and it was awesome!”
Sarah: Its funny, we played a show at a college recently and some dudes came up to us while we were selling merch and they said “oh, you were so great” and it took them another couple of minutes and they walked back up and said “ I just wanna let you know, we’re on ecstasy right now, it was a really cool experience.” So I said, “Sweet, I realised that you were dancing really hard and I’m glad you enjoyed it.” Other people come up to us sober and say they felt like they were on drugs.
Aaron: I think that’s important, connecting the visual and audio elements. Even going through your record, it seems like the perfect record to listen to in the dark.
Josh: It was mainly recorded in the dark. Obviously not pitch-dark, but it was recorded at night.
Sarah: With Christmas lights, blue and red Christmas lights.
Josh: Out in a barn during winter at night, perhaps that where and when we recorded had an effect on the overall vibe of the album. I don’t know, maybe we could have been on a beach in the sun and we would have recorded the same album.
Aaron: One of your influences is really cool, the Detroit influence, how did that come about for you two?
Josh: Sarah and I have always been into underground hip-hop among all kinds of music, but for me, I started getting into making beats 8 years ago. I had a friend, still is a good friend that is a beat-maker and he turned me on to Madlib, J-Dilla and stuff like that. We got really into J-Dilla and the sort of Detroit sounding sort of loose on but sort of off-beat hip-hop and that’s pretty much where that influence came from. Sarah turned me on to some really cool shit too.
Sarah: I think it’s extremely interesting to hear and admire the textures that Madlib use in their beatmaking, it keeps you focused on that. It’s just different than mainstream hip-hop, it’s psychedelic.
Josh: More like thinking outside the box than pop-oriented and radio friendly.
Aaron: Detroit’s always been the underground music powerhouse. It seems like a lot of artists tend to shy away from that influence though as though Detroit is a dark-horse.
Josh: I think, and I speculate, Detroit probably isn’t the easiest place to live. I think when people have less things to do in their lives and there’s not as much around them, it spawns creativity that just becomes something beautiful.
Josh: I think, I don’t truly know. I think in a way we can relate to that because we don’t live in Detroit or anything like that, but we don’t live in a place that’s very stimulating so we’re left to our own devices.
Aaron: That’s something I was going to bring up to you guys, many bands have started out of dissatisfaction for life. Is this that project for you guys?
Sarah: Yeah, I guess we just want to make music that we wanted to hear ourselves and being able to connect with an audience one way or another. Having people come up to us after the show and saying they loved this, that, or the other thing is really nice to have that to be able to connect to people.
Aaron: Does being able to play your music still send chills down your spine?
Sarah: Oh man, now that we have a drummer and a sound guy, it’s stepped it up a level. You saw us at the Drake when it was just the two of us and it was wonderful at that point but now we’re adding more and we’re stepping up our idea and concept live. I think if it weren’t for the other two people helping us out live, it might be a little different, but now it’s just as exciting.
Live video of When I’m Small