Ever since Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel released Eyelid Movies in 2009, the duo known as Phantogram has become a fascinating band that pulls from multiple genres with Carter’s hip hop fueled production backed by the chilling and moody vocals of Barthel. With the release two studio albums and four EPs, Phantogram has broken the mold and refused to be put into a genre box. Which, in turn, has made them industry darlings. With the success of 2014’s Voices, the duo has regrouped and is in the process of creating new music – as evidenced by Big Boi recently posting an image with group, which has led to speculation that their joint EP Big Grams could be right around the corner. Life+Times caught up with Sarah Barthel to discuss the group’s origins that centered around a trampoline, their hip hop influence, working with Big Boi and whether Dilla would have been a fan.
Life+TImes: I understand that a trampoline is at the root of Phantogram forming…
Sarah Barthel: (laughs) Yeah! Growing up in New York, I lived in the center of the area where all the kids would hang out. Kids would come and go to this one street we called “The Crossroads” and we’d just hang out. I had a trampoline. All we would do is jump and Josh would come over and be part of this group of kids jumping on a trampoline.
L+T: But Phantogram didn’t necessarily begin there as you two went your separate ways and reunited later with music being the foundation.
SB: I was singing as a side thing after high school and I never thought I could take more serious than a hobby. We met at church on Christmas Eve after not seeing each other in five years. He never went to church and I only went on Christmas Eve but I was super pumped he was there so we could rekindle our friendship. We started hanging out a lot and he played me a bunch of his beats and songs he was working on. He wanted to make an album inspired by J Dilla or Madvillain. He asked me to sing on one of his songs and it worked out really well. We shared the same passions for art and music and shared the same vision that Phantogram is now where we wanted to do something fresh and new.
L+T: If J Dilla were here today, do you think he would have wanted to work with Phantogram?
SB: That would be a dream come true! We worked with Oh No and that was fucking rad. He did a remix for us and we’re hoping to get a track with him for something else. I never really thought of it but it would be one of those “Oh shit!” moments if Dilla just knew we existed. I think he would have been a fan of Phantogram.
L+T: Today you have fans from all over the spectrum. Was that always the goal?
SB: That’s what we were hoping for. We’re influenced by a lot of hip-hop music. That was one thing that Josh and I wanted to make happen. How do we write an emotional song but have the element of hip hop without it sounding trip hop or just being repetitive. How do you turn a hip hop vibe sounding beat and change into a chorus or a verse and lay emotion into it and it sounds unique and fresh? That was the question that we asked ourselves. Hip hop is huge to us and I’m not surprised. When we first started out it was just the two of us with the beats behind us. We wanted these elements of sampled based beats that are just as important as the melody guitar, lights and everything else. We almost didn’t want to have a genre so we can portray it more. I’m just glad we have a super diverse crowd. It’s insane. This really cool old gray haired hippy dude from Chicago and he’s very “Peace man, this is awesome!” and then we go to Atlanta and its full of hip hop heads because Big Boi’s cosign made a big difference for us.
L+T: How did the Big Boi connection happen?
SB: I didn’t believe it at first when he hit us on twitter. When me and Josh started making music, our ideas intertwined with Aquemini and Outkast in general. They made a fresh sound that nobody thought of doing at the time and it became so timeless. So we used to call ourselves Aquemini too as motivation. So when Big Boi tweeted at us we lost our minds. He found out about us a long time ago and has not stopped supporting us. He’s a mentor to us. He plays us some of his new music at the studio that gets us pumped up and we do the same. Then we play what we’re listening to and feed off one another. It’s like a dream come true to say that but it’s a really wonderful feeling to have another artist who’s a friend that you can shoot the shit with and just vibe off of.
L+T: “Fall In Love” was never supposed to be a Phantogram song?
SB: The beat was done about five years ago. Josh did the beat with the chopped up sample. He almost used it for another hip-hop artist. It was when we were waiting for Eyelid Movies to be released was when that happened. I picked up the beat when we were writing Voices and was determined to make it into a song. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I figured it out. The bass synth was the first thing I wrote on top of and the rest kind of happened. The middle 8th I wrote for something different but it ended up fitting. It took a lot of thought and it isn’t easy to write over something like that.
L+T: But Josh still wasn’t sold on the song, right?
SB: Josh wasn’t pumped on it. I had to tell him come on this could be really fucking cool. We went down to Stankonia Studios while Big Boi was working on some music and we played him a bunch of the songs. He was like “Holy Shit! That one, that one, that one!” We were overanalyzing everything and realized we were doing something right.
L+T: For someone who is always upbeat, you sure do make some moody music.
SB: We are just cold emotionally. It’s cathartic in a way to write what you’re feeling. I’m not that kind of girl who tells people how I’m feeling. I’ll put it in a song instead and it just stays there. That’s where we release our emotions and in general there’s more emotion to me when I’m thinking sad thoughts. There’s more art, creativity and connection to that feeling. When I listen to a really sad song, there’s nothing more beautiful in a way. There are positive songs out there like the Smashing Pumpkins “Today” where the lyrics are kind of dark. That’s just what we’re pulled towards when we create.
L+T: So what happens when you guys are happy?
SB: I’ll let you know what happens when we aren’t sad anymore. There are tons of emotions but I don’t see myself being always happy or sad. We’re human so we just pull from that side when we are writing.