Thick as Thieves: The Phantogram Duo Interviewed

If someone were to conduct a public opinion poll entitled, „rate the advantages of being a musician“, the option „touring“ would probably come up in the top-3 most popular answers. Anybody who has been on tour (not me) or seen touring musicians (me) can tell you — these people will contradict your beliefs, because boy, they don’t enjoy themselves on tour. By the time they have gotten out of the taxi/van/walked up to the venue (depending on the budget) they just want to lie down as straight as possible because their backs hurt from sleeping on the row of seats in the waiting room of some transport station. In other words, touring is hard. It is especially hard when you are playing 5 shows in 4 countries in one week.

This kind of week is the reality for the NY-state duo Phantogram. The band arrived in Moscow by plane and got on the night train to St. Petersburg right after their show at a downtown club. Despite their tiredness, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel look fresh and seem friendly. Being almost late for the interview, I’m awkwardly trying to place my chair at the right distance from their sofa, so it’s not too close to be intimidating and not too far away for my free app recorder to work. Josh and Sarah use this time to chat to their tour manager about the stage setup.

It turns out that Phantogram have already been to Moscow, about 5 years ago. Back in 2012 they were an experimental electronic band with 1 full-length album and a bunch of EPs under their belt. Numerous magazines were calling them trip-hop revivals and praising their nuanced production and dark lyrics. A lot has changed since: two more successful albums, a side-project with a member of the legendary hip-hop duo Outcast, numerous collaborations with A-listers from Miley Cyrus to A$AP Rocky… The second time Phantogram came to play in Moscow, they were a pop band in their own right.

Nastya: On your last record „Three“ you went for a bigger and more accessible sound. Was it a logical step forward for you as a band?

Josh: Yeah, it was a natural progression to go in that direction. I think we wanted to write more concise, shorter songs that would get to the hook and the meaning a little quicker  —  all while keeping our experimental element but also maintaining the pop sensibility behind the music.

Nastya: How honest do you allow yourself to be in your lyrics? Do you always draw from your personal experience or do you sometimes create fictional characters?

Sarah: In general, we do a little bit of both but it all stems from our personal lives and experiences. It’s usually not very obvious what we’re going through in the lyrics because of all the metaphors and interesting visuals we add to it, but it all comes from our world and our lives. [Josh and I] are best friends and we’ve known each other our whole lives so we’ve kind of gone through the same things, which makes the songs we write very cathartic for both of us.

Josh: Some of our lyrics are kind of dreamlike as well. I guess, that makes them personal anyway, even if they are fictitious. If they stem from the dreams that we have, then they are not completely made up.

Nastya: Do you prefer it when your fans listen to your tracks in their album order?

Josh: Generally, yes. None of our albums are The Dark Side of the Moon or something like that, where it’s built specifically to listen in order. There is a reason behind the tracklisting, but as long as [the fans] digest all of the material, and not just like, pay attention to a couple of songs, I’m fine with that.

Sarah: Yeah, I agree.

Nastya: Your songs seem to be very intimate yet bombastic at the same time. In which spaces do you think your music works best?

Sarah: I always seem to connect to music the best when I listen to it in a car. Being able to turn the volume up and make it as loud as you want helps you kind of embrace it. Also, walking around the city with your headphones on.

Josh: Yeah, I’d say driving at night, alone, by yourself, when it’s really loud. Or maybe as far as a live experience goes, I’d prefer an indoor rock club or theater. Maybe a theater setting is best. Or a nighttime festival — you know, we have pretty cool light shows. We are more like a nighttime band.

Nastya: I wanted to talk to you about the subject I thought you might appreciate, and that is hip-hop. It’s well known that you’re fans of this genre and you’ve also worked with some of its finest artists. So, my question is rather broad: how do you see modern day hip-hop in the context of the pop music industry?

Josh: It depends for me. I think that the pop music industry — at least in the States, I’m not fully aware what it’s like elsewhere — but a lot of that is just crap anyway, you know. So whether it’s hip-hop or straight up pop, I don’t really like most of it. There are exceptions. For example, [there are] some Kanye songs that I really like, some Rihanna songs I like and Beyoncé’s… I’m not even sure what we are and if you can consider us pop or alternative or indie…

Sarah: Experimental pop.

Josh: …but generally it’s just pop. It’s just a lot of people getting features just so they can make a song bigger. And it doesn’t really make much sense to me. I would rather listen to interesting music that is honest and creative, than „Oh, let’s just get Kendrick Lamar on, like, a Maroon 5 song“. Maroon 5 are getting Kendrick Lamar on the track just because he is popular and Maroon 5 are popular, and this whole thing just seems like bullshit to me. I love Kendrick but I hate that kind of stuff.

Nastya: This is exactly the thing I felt like was going on with hip-hop. It’s kind of blending in with mainstream music. So, I understand, you don’t really like what’s happening to it?

Josh: Personally, I don’t, but that’s my opinion — I can’t speak for the two of us. What I mean is I like it when certain artists gain a level and a status where they do become popular. I’m very happy for Kendrick Lamar. And I think Kanye often makes really good music, and so does Jay-Z… But it depends on context for me.

Sarah: It’s very formulaic. There is always a formula of knowing what works, and every song just fits that. It’s a broad spectrum. Take Beyoncé’s songs. Only one song from her last record Lemonade really got on [pop] radio. And I consider her the biggest pop star on the planet and I love her, I love a lot of her work. So, it’s just mostly like, what’s the formula for radio that gets pop music air time?

Josh: Like, you get these record executives and A&R people that work at the biggest record labels and they just want to put out something that’s going to make something else more palatable for the masses. So, it’s like, let’s take this artist and get the feature from that artist because that artist is huge and so it’s going to make this artist look better… It doesn’t seem as artistic as it does more strategic. And that I don’t like.

Nastya: Are you ever going to record a rap album? I know that you have been incorporating some elements of hip-hop music into your production, but like, with rapping and everything?

Sarah: Well, we do it with Big Grams, the other band that we are in. We do a little rapping there but that’s just for fun. It’s just our side project, it’s not the Phantogram thing, it’s Big Grams. It’s different. It just allows us to have fun and to do whatever we want, not taking it too seriously. Phantogram is a very… serious band (looking at Josh, smiling).

Josh: Right, I don’t picture any rapping on Phantogram stuff, unless it’s a remix or something, that we are OK with. That’s fine. I mean, A$AP Rocky has rapped  over our instrumentals and Joey Bada$$ and some… I’m trying to think of other rappers… but I’m fine with that. Big Grams is our main focus, as far as side projects go.

Nastya: Now, to change the subject a little bit. If you were offered the chance to record an alternative soundtrack to an existing movie, which movie would it be?

Josh: Like, write our own soundtrack? (Pauses to think) I think, Blade Runner would be kind of cool.

Sarah: Mm, that’s a good one.

Josh: Maybe erm, Mulholland Drive or something. Or like, actually no, not Mulholland Drive — Blue Velvet would be cool.

Nastya: So, something, noir/sci-fi?

Josh: Yeah, something weird

Nastya: The song „Calling All“ really stands out for me. Given that it’s the last track on your latest album, could it be a sign of a new, more light-hearted direction for your band?

Sarah: The reason it stands out differently and what I love about it, is because it’s more “groovable” and it feels good…but light-hearted …

Josh: It feels good, it’s metaphorical though.

Sarah: …it’s definitely not light-hearted — its lyrics represent, I think, a certain darkness that everybody has, whatever that is… [it’s about] kind of just going with it. It also is very empowering as well. I love that song because people like to dance to it when we perform it live. It’s different from any other song that we play.

Josh: Yeah, it’s dancey and it sounds a little bit light-hearted. And it’s funky, but you know, lyrically it’s supposed to be an expression of the dark side that everybody has within them. Using the line, like „we all got a little bit of ho in us“, [it’s] pretty much just exposing the humanity behind all of us. I mean, it’s open for interpretation. And what I like about a lot of our music is that people can take things literally if they want. Or dig a little bit deeper into what we’re trying to say.

Nastya: You tour a lot. I wonder if you have any fun or interesting touring traditions you would want to share?

Josh: It depends on the day, because it’s so busy, but we try to walk around different cities and see things. It’s nice to eat food of the country or the city that we’re in.

Sarah: Culture. It’s always cool to be able to have someone showing us the best place to eat, try the traditional food. To be the tourist that goes and sees the touristy stuff but also goes and finds secret cool spots to see. We’re in a different city every day, so sometimes there isn’t a lot of time for any of it. Like, today we probably won’t get to see anything again. [Despite this being our] second time in Moscow.

Josh: Yeah, sometimes we spend just all of our time in a bus or a plane and in a dressing room and then we play.

Sarah: A lot of flights, a lot of travel.

Nastya: What is the secret of you two getting along so well for so much time?

Josh & Sarah: We’re best friends.

Sarah: We’ve known each other forever. We share the same sense of humour and we’re living the same life and we’re just like siblings…

Josh: Yeah.

Sarah: …and the coolest part is being able to enjoy all of this with your best friend. I feel very blessed for that. I wouldn’t be nearly as happy if I was just a solo artist.

Josh: There are so many bands that we hear about or even know, where nobody likes each other in the band. That would suck! I don’t think we would last if we didn’t like each other, you know.

Sarah: No way!

Josh: That’s what keeps us going. Luckily, we have a really good crew of people, too. Not just the two of us, but everybody in our group, we all get along very well.

[Josh keeps on speaking, but my recorder had already been paused by the call from my mum (which, she later claimed, was purely accidental). He then trailed off talking about sushi, so hopefully this missing bit wasn’t as relevant to his point about his friendship with Sarah.]

Interview & text by Nastya Kazakova

Editing by James Scott


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