‘Just writing and writing and doing what comes naturally’ A pre-LouFest interview with Josh Carter of Phantogram
In a crowded indie landscape full of electronic pop, it’s unlikely that most bands will ever cut through the noise, and even less likely that they’ll be exceptionally good. Young Phantogram has already defied both odds.
Only one full-length album and three EPs into their career, the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel — with the touring addition of Tim Oakley — has stirred up a bucketful of attention for blending darkly addictive tunes that heavily reference dream pop, hip-hop production and shoegaze.
The band released two EPs in 2009, but heads began to turn en masse with the releases of its debut full-length, “Eyelid Movies,” in early 2010 and its third EP, “Nightlife,” in late 2011. Both garnered enthusiastic responses from fans — for hooky electronic melodies — and critics — for melding a diversity of sounds into something wholly original.
I recently spoke to Josh Carter — the band’s songwriter, guitarist and secondary vocalist — on the phone about the origins of Phantogram’s sound, how to deal with expectations and the band’s first, err, second St. Louis appearance, this Saturday at LouFest.
Chris Bay: What’s your favorite boy-girl duo, past or present?
Josh Carter: Sonny and Cher. Captain and Tennille. Just kidding. Let’s see, I like Beach House a lot. They’re a good band. We just did a show with Sleigh Bells a couple of weeks ago. Those guys are really nice, too.
When “Eyelid Movies” dropped, the thing that I was most impressed by was that it had a very well-formed, original character to it, which is unusual for a band’s first full-length these days. A lot of music sounds derivative when it first comes out of the box. How did that feel from your perspective?
It happened very naturally. Phantogram was basically the product of my solo work. When I was about 18 I started writing songs a lot and played the drums and guitar and synths, and I would write these little ditties. And then a friend of mine who was really into hip hop got me into some more obscure underground hip hop, like Quasimoto and Madlib and stuff like that.
I grew up with an older brother who is really into good indie rock like Sonic Youth and shoegaze music, like Ride and Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. And I also grew up on the Beatles. So basically, it wasn’t really sought out too much, it was just me blending my favorite elements of music together to create something that’s natural.
I met up with Sarah — we’ve been longtime friends — and I was singing a lot of these songs in my falsetto and I thought it’d be really cool to have a girl sing them. Sarah has a really great voice and she’s really good on piano, so I asked her if she wanted to collaborate and we started Phantogram.
You just leapt ahead of me quite a bit from where I wanted to go with that comment, but this is as good of a time as any to go there. You write a lot of the lyrics, if not all…
Yeah, I write all of the lyrics.
…So what’s it like to have somebody else sing your songs, especially when a lot of them seem to be very personal?
I think it’s because we’re such close friends. I’ll often write lyrics with Sarah present and kind of run them by her. So I think she can really connect emotionally to what I’m writing about even though she’s not writing the lyrics. She definitely has a big emotional connection to them.
You do this because you feel like it makes the music work better with a female vocalist?
Yeah. I sing on some of our songs, but we sort of pick and choose who sings on what songs. But we both have very different sounding voices; there’s very high contrast.
When we first started the band we wanted to do more of a Thurston Moore / Kim Gordon type deal where we both sing, where there’s not a lead singer. But Sarah has more or less taken the lead, obviously because she has a stronger voice than I and she’s a great entertainer as well, and I don’t mind that because I just like to make music. I’m lucky that I have such a great partner to do it with.
“Eyelid Movies” was very well received and the band has accrued a lot of positive goodwill so far. What do you do with that as an artist?
Sometimes I struggle. At the end of the day we just want to write good music that we like, and that was the whole purpose behind “Eyelid Movies.” We didn’t know we were going to have an audience. We recorded the record in a barn on my parents’ property, just because we wanted to make music that we wanted to hear. So now that we have an audience, sometimes you’re thinking, oh, people really love “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small,” or “Don’t Move,” we’ve got to just recreate that. And then I’m like, no, fuck it.
We’re just writing and writing and doing what comes naturally. We’re basically trying to write more songs that we like, that we want to hear. We don’t want to alienate our audience, per se. We’re not going to put out a screamo record or a country record, but we’re definitely going to do what we want to do.
We’re lucky that people like our music, so I figure if we write music that we like, I don’t think we can really fail our audience or our fans.
You’re working on the next record already?
We’re writing it right now.
Are you recording it in the same barn?
No, we’re in a different barn, in the same area. We’re not recording it yet, we’re basically demoing it right now. We’re recording it at demo quality and then we’re going to take it to a studio and record.
“Eyelid Movies” had a distinct bedroom noir character to it. The EP ["Nightlife"] is a little brighter, a little less dreamy, a little more dancy in places. Does that indicate the direction of the new stuff at all?
I don’t know, because I … you know, you’re not the first person to compare the two like that. I honestly felt that “Nightlife” felt darker than “Eyelid Movies.” Right now, we’re writing emotional music. We’re really pouring our hearts out, and also maintaining our Phantogram, air-quote, aesthetic.
This will be your first St. Louis appearance, if I’m not mistaken. Is that correct?
You had a date scheduled here last summer [July 4, 2011 at 2720 Cherokee opening for Glitch Mob], and that one for sure was cancelled, but I don’t recall any others.
We did play St. Louis once. I think it was our very first tour. We were on the road for just two weeks with this band called Pomegranates that took us out. I think we played at some place called the Firebird.
Yeah, that’s the place.
Them and School of Seven Bells, those were the first two bands that took us out, for us to warm up and do a tour. That was about three years ago when we were just getting started.
And you’re playing LouFest soon, of course. You’ve been doing the festival thing a lot lately. Do you prefer that? Do you enjoy doing smaller, darker club settings, or being up on the big stage?
I do like it. It really all depends. The thing that sucks about playing festivals is that you don’t get a proper soundcheck and you’ve got to hurry up and go and just hope that everything works right, and make sure that there’s not technical difficulties with my guitar pedals or the mics or anything like that. So it’s kind of a crapshoot when you do festivals.
My favorite festivals so far have been Coachella and Bonnaroo, because those are the only festivals we’ve played were we’ve gotten a nighttime slot, and I love playing at night, with the lights and stuff. Our music caters a little bit more to that darkness and that dreamlike quality. But either way, we’ve had a blast at most festivals that we’ve played, daytime or nighttime.
Phantogram appears at LouFest on Saturday, August 25. 88.1 KDHX is a media cosponsor of LouFest 2012.