Posted July 24, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

Tragedy Shapes Phantogram


Singer-guitarist Josh Carter and singer-keyboardist Sarah Barthel have been friends since they were kids. After initially performing in other bands, they formed Phantogram in 2007. The indie electronic act draws from a variety of subgenres including electro rock, dream pop and trip-hop. Its latest album, last year’s Three, features carefully crafted atmospheric tunes with predominantly dark lyrics. Carter recently spoke to us via phone from a Reno tour stop.

You and Sarah have known each other since junior high. How’d you first meet?
I was always good friends with her sister Becky. We all hung out in the same neighborhood after school, and we naturally became friends. We’ve been really good friends since about eighth grade. We even went to preschool. Back in junior high and high school we would exchange CDs and tapes, but neither of us played music.

How’d you wind up collaborating?
I was in a band in New York with my brother right after high school. Sarah went to college in Vermont. I decided I wanted to pursue my own music. I quit the band I was in and moved back to upstate New York. Sarah had just graduated college. We rekindled our friendship and dated for a few years and about three years into us dating, I asked her to sing on some of the stuff I was working on, and it sounded really good so we started a band together.

Did she play keyboards?
She played a little piano and sang.

You played guitar so did you write the songs on guitar?
Not really. I played piano and guitar. Drums are my first instrument. I write songs in all different kinds of ways. With Phantogram, I’ll make a beat and find some interesting things to sample and write around it. My approach to playing guitar, especially on the Phantogram album, is to complement the bass-y synths. We try our best to complement each other and not overpower each other or get too noodle-y.

The internet had a big role in helping expose the band in the early days?
It definitely did help. We were discovered on Myspace by a guy based in Portland running a small indie publicist company for indie bands. He asked if we had a record out and naturally I lied and said yes because I was super excited. We had only written two songs. To make a long story short, he brought us to the attention of Barsuk and it’s been going full steam ahead from there.

I liked that label BBE that put out your first record. Was working with them a good experience?
They put out our first record in Europe. We were pretty naïve at the time, and I was just stoked that they had put out J Dilla and Madlib and stuff like that. Automatically, I thought they’d be a good label. We didn’t have a good experience with them, but we had a great experience with Barsuk, and now we’re really happy with Republic as well.

What was the indie electronic music scene like at that time?
When we started, we were pretty fresh and original. Now, I see more and more of this sound coming out of many bands. I don’t know if we helped blaze the trail for a certain type of sound or if we’ve been instrumental in forging that sound. At the time, we were fed up with the current music. There was too much four-on-the-floor disco indie happening. I liked some of that stuff for sure. Then, I was more interested with stuff with a hip-hop influence and indie and shoegaze and all different things blended together.

When did the songs for Three start to come together?
We started writing independently outside of the studio. I’m constantly making beats. The song “Answer” I wrote when I was 21. I have all kinds of beats and ideas lying around. Sara has all kinds of ideas lying around. When we go through the process of making a record, we sift through things and we see what catches each other’s attention and go from there. Tragedy ended up shaping the songs. I think it’s a beautiful but it was the death of Sarah’s sister, who was one of my best friends, that informs many of the songs.

A lot of pain went into the record.

Cruel World” is one of my favorite songs on the record. Did a specific incident inspire the album?
Our lyrics are pretty dark on all of our albums. We draw from a darker place when we write the music and lyrics. Jogging my memory, I’m not sure if [the death of Sarah’s sister] specifically influenced that song or not. It influenced the album as a whole, including the artwork.

Barking Dog” reminds me of a Peter Gabriel tune. Is that you singing?
Yeah. I get that a lot. People say I sound like Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins. I don’t know much of their music but I take it as a compliment. What I’ve heard, I like.

What’s the live show like? Do you have a band?
We have two backing players. We have a live drummer, who plays live drums and drum sampler, and a multi-instrumentalist who plays samples and keyboards—whatever is necessary. It’s awesome. It was just the two of us before and that was fun but this frees us up to move around more on stage and interact with the audience. It’s not as much of a juggling challenge.

Do you play mostly new material?
It’s a mix of stuff. We play most of the new album and a lot of our first two albums. We’re steadily growing as a band. It’s been a natural process. We used to play in places for like five people a night and tour in a Prius and sleep in Walmart parking lots. We’ve come a long way as a band.

You’ve worked successfully with Big Boi. Do you have plans to work with him again in the near future?
Yeah, definitely. We’re going to make another album. Hopefully sooner rather than later. I’m already working on some beats. Before that we’ll put out some new Phantogram material in the fall. We’ve just having fun. It’s just three friends having fun. There’s no pressure behind it. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].