Photo by Timothy Saccenti
Editor's Note: This story appeared in its original format in the Winter 2014 issue of Variance. Click here for the full version.
Many acts stick to a release formula that has become dependable for anyone interested in music in the new millennium; Demos and EPs leading to a first full-length, then releasing another EP and another full-length until the spark is gone.
Over the past few years, Phantogram has bucked this trend in releasing only one album and a handful of rich EPs that have kept them at the forefront of indie music. Their work has since been featured in smash movies, popular television series, and even used to promote brands like Canon and Gillette.
While many bands would feel obligated to churn out an album or two with this level of exposure, Phantogram has kept a steady course that has allowed them to work on their own terms. It's also afforded them the chance to work at length with a modern music legend, mixing genres and their fans on a grand scale.
A couple of days before heading off to Mexico City for one more show, Sarah Barthel (the vocals and keyboards to Josh Carter's guitars and sampling) explains the decision to roll out their self-titled EP ahead of their forthcoming record, VOICES: “It’s just the way it worked. We finished the album and we weren’t able to finish it in time for the deadline that we had for our label, and they wanted more time to push it. And then we just wanted to be able to focus more on it, so they decided on pushing it back, and instead of pushing it all back and not giving fans a little taste of Phantogram, they were like, ‘Alright, we’ll just release some of the songs for now, and then we’ll release the rest of them, the full length, later on in the cycle.’ That’s what the EP [was] for, really. Just to kind of give a little taste of what the full length is going to be.”
Phantogram was actually the fourth of the four EPs released since the band’s debut album, Eyelid Movies. During this run, the duo also decided it was time to expand their reach. Originally releasing their material exclusively through the Barsuk record label, they recently joined forces with Republic Records. Known for pushing popular, progressive acts to the top of the charts, this is an opportunity the band is looking to take full advantage of, as Barthel explains. “The reason we transitioned is because we wanted more of a push. We wanted our music to get out to more people, so we wanted to make this the next step. I mean, so far, so good, but we’re looking forward to the next year when we can really get our music out to more people, and they’re the best for that.”
Now part of a roster that includes forward-thinking artists such as Drake and The Weeknd, Phantogram are in a fantastic situation to sample, shake up and fuse disparate genres into a crackling creation for audiences that may not go digging for fresh music regularly.
In between releasing their music in exciting doses, Phantogram also had the fortune of being discovered by hip-hop great Big Boi, one-half of the seminal Southern rap act OutKast alongside André 3000. For his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, Big Boi featured the group on three tracks and shot them a producer's credit for the track “Objectum Sexuality.”
Barthel elaborates: “He found us online, like [an ad or something] just popped up on his screen while he was doing something, and he pressed the button, and it took him to a music video for “Mouthful of Diamonds.” He looked through it and he fucking loved it, he was super pumped about it, put it on his blog. We found out about that; we started just talking to him. After that we became friends with him on Twitter, and then we were doing the same festival circuit at the time, so we met him in San Francisco, and then we met him again in Atlanta when we played. He invited us over … Josh played him some of his beats that he had just laying around and hoped that he would want to use some of them.”
Listening to OutKast growing up, Barthel says it's a “dream come true” to be working closely with Big Boi. “It’s great. He’s kind of a mentor to us in a way. He’s always rooting for us. Whenever we stop in when we’re on tour and stuff, we play him our stuff and he gets really excited about it.”
Although they've had success delving into the hip-hop genre, the group still draws creative boundaries for individual projects. The new album, VOICES, will be a distinctly Phantogram record, continuing the sonic themes of their last EP. “We kind of wanted to keep the album a piece of work on its own, just because sometimes it’s hard. There’s a fine line of change that can happen if it’s not done right. Like intermixing different genres or having guest appearances and things like that. We wanted to keep VOICES [separate].”
Collaborating with Big Boi will undoubtedly attract new fans to VOICES. But for those who cannot get enough of the Vicious Lies... efforts, there will be a future release expanding on those ideas, according to Barthel: “What we’re going to do with Big, we’re going to release an EP with him where it’ll be a collaboration of stuff. Because we’ve got more than just one song idea. It just gives us another really fun excuse to work with him for longer.”
Of course, the timeline for that has yet to be drawn, considering an expected OutKast reunion this spring at Coachella and what will likely be a busy summer for both Big and André. But Barthel says it’s definitely in the works.
When it comes to the influences of VOICES, Barthel points to the origin of the title: “It actually came from an idea of an older song that we made a long time ago. We ended up re-recording it. The plan was it would be on the album, but it didn’t come out together correctly. It didn’t fit,” she says.
“But it’s just the idea I guess of having personal conversations with the other person in your head. Hearing voices, not knowing where they’re coming from; It kind of gives it a psychedelic idea, too, which there’s a lot of psychedelic [influence] on the record as well. Just kind of leaving it open to – you know, everyone has their own voices that come up, come in your dreams or when you’re walking down the street or wherever.”
The samples and songwriting also put bandmate Josh Carter's talent on greater display, as Barthel explains. “The songwriting in general is great, but Josh was super [big] on records and old vinyl, these pieces of music that he finds in the most random places, from an old band concert to some Indian records we sampled off of. We played some really cool shit, old soul, Motown. Just obscure stuff that we kind of started with as the base for the album and kind of built from there, built around it and were able to build songs on top of it. We were able to make full dynamics. A lot of things are more dynamic compared to our last album.”
She ultimately cites their approach to production as the quality that stands out most on VOICES: “The biggest influence, I would have to say, is just beat-making and sampling. We just got such a different way of looking at production and beats. You’ll hear a lot of that.”
Phantogram rode a steady wave of quality releases into 2014, but it’s only the beginning. Incorporating ideas from different, dynamic genres of music and pulling new fans from each of them, they are now postured to continue surprising the public with their effusive, beat-driven pace. All in all, it’s going to be a very good year for this pair.
VOICES arrives Feb. 18 on Republic Records.