Phantogram - Q&A
Phantogram were formed in 2007 by childhood friends Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. And they didn't have to wait long before 2009 hit single ‘When I’m Small’ catapulted them to the top of everyone’s playlists.
Creating a hit single in your early days can be both a blessing and a curse. Perfecting your sound in one explosive moment of pure creativity can propel you to a long lasting music career – as long as you back it up with other credible and inspiring works. However, it is also possible the popular largesse and enormity of the hit will render you incapable of ever reaching those heights again – placing you in the unenviable realm of the one-hit-wonder.
When Phantogram released synth-pop hit ‘When I’m Small’ you never felt it was their Icarus moment. The song (taken from debut album Eyelid Movies) proved to be a gateway to other equally interesting and intriguing works, including second album Voices and collaborations with Big Boi from Outkast, Steven Drozd from The Flaming Lips and a guest contribution from Barthel on Miley Cyrus’ ‘Slab of Butter’.
New album Three has just been released and is perhaps their darkest so far. Initially postponed due to the untimely and tragic death of Sarah’s sister, the album is imbued with both profound sadness and anger but also hope and redemption – an ode to the myriad effects of personal loss. Phantogram are currently touring throughout the UK and we caught up with Josh to discuss touring, working with producer Ricky Reed and the tragic influences on their latest release.
Q. Greetings and salutations to you both – you effectively grew up together but how did the band come together and what musical influences did you both share?
We grew up together, but the band didn't form until our later 20s - I played some demos for Sarah and we decided to start a band. Influences include everything ranging from classical, jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll, shoegaze, to kraut rock.
Q. What were your initial ideas on what you wanted your music to be and how have these evolved over the course of your careers?
Initially, we were going to be a two-piece band with a rooted hip-hop influence and melodic pop sensibilities and experimentation. Over the years, it's evolved into creating anything we feel inspired by, and we consider ourselves to be an experimental pop band. By 'pop' I mean we lean toward having a pop sensibility in our songwriting.
Q. You released your third studio album, Three this September. Can you tell us a bit about the ambitions behind this album, the recording process and what your thoughts are on the finished product?
The album was written over the course of about six months in Los Angeles. The ambition was to just keep on creating a natural and organic evolution of what we do, and we're proud of the final product. Working with co-producer Ricky Reed in the studio was a very focused effort - no cats on YouTube. The songwriting is a bit more to the point than previous albums, maybe...? We went through a great tragedy during the making of the album that affected our work and the overall tone of the final record.
Q. You have spoken about the tragic and painful death of Sarah’s sister [who tragically took her own life]. How was it channelling and getting in touch with your creative energy in the face of such challenging circumstances and do what reflections do have about these experiences in reference to your recent album?
Not to underplay anything at all, but all of our albums have a lot of darkness in them. This album was particularly difficult and we had to get away from work for a long time in the middle of the recording process.
Q. You have used collaboration to interesting effect and have worked with an array of different artists in the past – notably Flaming Lips and Big Boi. On Three you worked with the-Dream, Tricky Stewart and Ricky Reed. Can you tell us a bit about what these collaborations brought to your work.
We were interested in experimenting with working with other artists - it's fun to branch out and push your comfort zone. Some of the stuff we tried worked out and wound up on the album, some didn't, but it was an educational experience.
Q. You are currently on tour and will visit the UK this November. What are the challenges of translating the recorded works into a rounded and energetic live performance?
Every night we put a lot of emotion and energy into our set, and tour can be quite tiring, but we love what we do, and feel blessed.
Q. The track ‘When I’m Small’ off Eyelids was a huge hit around the world. Did the success of this track take you by surprise and what effects (if any) did it have on your career and the trajectory you were on?
We knew as soon as we wrote that song that people would enjoy it - but when we wrote that song we didn't have any fans whatsoever, so we didn't have any idea how it would impact anyone.
Q. You belong to a generation of musicians and groups that have either been discovered or signed through online presence and output. Today we have streaming services and access to music everywhere and anywhere. There seems to be a double-edged sword to this access for musicians and listeners alike. What are your thoughts around technology and music and what do you see as the main benefits and negatives?
As you said, it's a double-edged sword. The pros - without the internet we may not have been able to reach as many people or have been discovered by our early fans. The only down-side about everything is that people expect to listen for free even though a lot of energy and effort goes into making recordings.
Q. You come to the UK this November and have live dates in London, Manchester and Glasgow. What are your favourite memories from the last time you were here?
The last time we were here, Muse invited us to open for them and we played a bunch of huge arena shows. It was an amazing time.
Q. Finally, what does 2017 hold in store for Phantogram?
We've been working on some pretty interesting collaborations and new music - a lot more touring all over the world, and hopefully we'll be back to the UK for some festivals.