Phantogram has become a bit of a monster, happily eating up genres, accolades, and the lives of its two founding members, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel. “We’re busy as fuck,” Barthel says, “but it’s a good busy.”
Barthel is answering the phone from a Brooklyn studio where she and Carter are trying to finalize the details on their upcoming tour—the lights, the cameras, the action. Phantogram has released a steady stream of EP’s and songs since it was formed in 2007, but Voices, released this week, is only their second LP. “We love the idea of putting out EP’s [as well as] the idea of putting out a full-length album,” Barthel says. “EP’s are fun because they’re not taken as seriously, you don’t have to worry about it being this masterpiece.”
And yet, Phantogram has become known for the complexity—the sheer musical density—of their songs. Impeccably sampled, cut up, and pasted together, Phantogram’s sound is both a disorienting patchwork of influences and an organic whole thanks in large part to the emotional heft of Barthel’s voice and Carter’s ample use of original, vocal samples. “It doesn’t come from a beat machine, Josh has a really fascinating way of making beats, which I’m not going to give away here,” Barthel explains with a sly laugh. “Josh taught me how to produce, so this past record I’ve been able to express what I’ve been thinking. I can put it down and hear it for myself.”
It’s the kind of music that is both melancholic and danceable. “I guess we gravitate to sad writing,” Barthel says. “I listen to happy music all the time but for us, [music] is an outlet. That element, that emotion that comes out of us is very cathartic in a way, therapeutic in a way that, maybe, I don’t express in my everyday life.” The songs on Voices hew close to those themes, brushing up against isolation, nihilism, and heartbreak, with titles like “Nothing But Trouble,” “Never Going Home,” and “The Day You Died.”
It’s heavy stuff from happy people. Just speak with Barthel and Carter, and it’s easy to see their upbringing in upstate New York (Greenwich, to be exact) has made them happier people than their songs might suggest. In fact, not moving into the city has afforded the band room to grow. “We didn’t want to eat tuna fish for dinner, we didn’t need to struggle [financially], because we didn’t think that would help us,” Barthel says of their decision to stay upstate to save money. “I can see how artists want to do that, they want to be in the scene no matter what. We were able to spend that time writing, and we put the money we saved towards a van.”
Since then, things have picked up for the band with a number of top billings at major festivals and songs featured in MTV shows and even The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. They’ve gone from hustling for gigs to something more akin to stardom. “It’s way easier than it was when we first started because we were the only ones trying to get the interviews, booking the shows ourselves, all that shit,” Barthel says with relief.
Both she and Carter have used that breathing room to create a lush, complete album, one that might appeal to a different kind of listener ready to take a trip upstate: “It seems like people’s attention spans might be a little different these days. I don’t know a lot of people who sit down and listen to a record the way that I used to when I would go for a drive and let an album repeat for ever.”