Since the 2009 release of their first album, Eyelid Movies, the music of electronic/rock duo Phantogram, has continued to grow “organically and naturally,” building on experimentation and keeping an open mind.
The group, composed of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, writes the same type of music and the same type of song, it is their ability to work from an emotional place that provides the group with its distinct brand of alternative pop, Barthel said. Their sound includes shades of shoegaze, and electro rock that is reflected differently on each of their three released albums and several EPs.
What has culminated in their latest album, Three, released last October, is a departure from Carter’s and Barthel’s typical recording and songwriting process. On a typical day, they would go into the studio around 10 or 11 a.m., drink coffee and work until 6 or 7 p.m. This regular schedule afforded them the opportunity to channel emotions that were far more personal to them.
“We tended to be a lot more open with talking about this record,” Barthel said. “It’s a nice change where we couldn’t hide what we went through this past year in our lives. Three is about heartbreak and living through and getting through challenges and persevering.”
Despite this being the second album the duo recorded at their producer’s studio in Los Angeles’s artistically inclined Echo Park neighborhood, the change in location has yet to influence their music.
“We always thought that recording in California would change our sound, but so far there have been no differences,” Barthel said. “It’s more of what we’re going through as people that shapes our music, not where we are [that shapes our music].”
Phantogram’s personal and deeply emotional music, coupled with their innovative style, lends their music a visual versatility that works well for other media. Their music has been prominently featured in television, film and several commercials.
Though some have decried the use of their music in commercial media, Carter claimed it is this intertextuality that strengthens both the music and the medium in which it is featured.
“As long as we maintain our integrity and something that we believe in, I don’t see any harm in doing so,” Carter said.
The duo’s fans are familiar with the eclectic mix of sound that often composes a Phantogram album. One song can be “weird and electronic-y,” with the next song more in the vein of something classic, but their albums seamlessly transition from one to the next.
“We try out a lot of different-sounding things, whether analog or digital,” Barthel said. “Being in a band that’s innovating and trying to do something fresh and original is what we’ve strived for.”
Phantogram’s penchant for experimentation has also manifested itself in the band’s previous collaborations. Barthel and Carter have credits on Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz as well as Big Grams, their side project’s self-titled EP done in conjunction with rapper Big Boi.
Yet despite their illustrious collaboration, it wasn’t always easy for them to share their writing process with other artists.
“Collaboration has been a fun and big eye-opener for us. When we started out, it was just us. We didn’t want anyone to know about our music until it was done,” Barthel said. “But collaboration made us realize that we didn’t have to be that way.”
It is their effort to write music with other people, as well as their ability to maintain a strong sense of artistic ability that has given the duo a steady momentum, Barthel said. From selling out Terminal 5 to playing the Hollywood Bowl, Phantogram has put itself on the map of artists who do not let genre define their style.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once offered to let Barthel and Carter borrow their equipment, Barthel said. Both Tame Impala and Billy Corgan have said the duo’s music has touched them in a very poignant way. Phantogram has spoken to the music community with their unique range, refusing to be shut out by the ephemeral nature of contemporary music. They speak to the importance of staying powerful in an age of musical saturation.
“We never wanted to be a flash in the pan,” Barthel said.