The Arts Desk Interview: Phantogram
In which the author speaks with Sarah D. Barthel, half of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.–based pop duo Phantogram, while Joshua M. Carter, the other half, lies down to recuperate from oral surgery.
Washington City Paper: Have you ever read any William Kennedy?
Sarah D. Barthel: No.
CP: Oh. [Sound of your correspondent's intracranial gears grinding, as he has prepared numerous questions about Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Kennedy, author of the Albany Trilogy, which SDB will not answer.] Uh...is upstate New York as bleak and gray as everyone says?
SDB: I would say no. It’s a beautiful place. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve seen in the U.S. The people are humble, sweet, real, and the scenery is absolutely phenomenal. The little towns are beautiful as well. There’s something magical about it.
CP: Are you guys from there?
SDB: Josh and I grew up in small town called Greenwich…a smaller town outside of Saratoga Springs. A town of 1500 or something ridiculous like that.
CP: What kind of person are you?
SDB: I consider myself an ordinary person… I'm not an introvert or an extrovert. I enjoy peace and quiet as much as most people.
CP: What's a typical day like for you?
SDB: When we’re not on tour…we normally get up before 11. Sometimes that doesn't happen because we work late in the studio. We normally drive to Easton where our studio is—our think tank, which is even farther out in the country than Greenwich. We go out there and think and write and play music and surround ourselves with music. [But] that’s not everyday. I wait tables to make rent.
SDB: I wait tables at Caroline's Bistro in Saratoga Springs. It’s been there for awhile, supporting local farms and foods. It’s a jazz bistro. There's usually good music coming in.
CP: Do you think that waiting tables—that is, "waiting tables" as a stand-in for any day job a musician might have— is a necessary part of making art? Or, if the opportunity arose, would you abandon table-waiting?
SDB: In a heartbeat, I would stop waiting tables. I’ve been doing it for long enough. I’m noticing that I don’t like dealing with people’s shit. I do believe that everybody should wait tables in your life. I’ve learned a lot. The clientele that come in sometimes are very demanding, especially during racetrack season. I’ve had enough of it.
CP: What’s the racetrack crowd like? [Your correspondent imagines a sunny May day at the Kentucky Derby. Maybe he would wear a custom-tailored suit and order a mint julep. Or, standing in a hot crowd amidst sweet-smelling cigar smoke, maybe he would place a $2 bet on the 6 horse to show...]
SDB: [Saratoga has] the oldest racetrack in the country. Most of the people that I can’t stand are the extremely wealthy Long Island or New Jersey kids that are practically the same age as you.
CP: [Your correspondent wonders how old SDB thinks he is. 20?] The same age as me? But I'm 32...
SDB: Well, I’m 26. They’re in their 20s. Not all of them are like this, of course....but they feel like they own the place because they’re drunk or have a lot of money.
CP: Is it difficult to tour – to lead a glamorous rock life – then return to Saratoga and wait tables?
SDB: I don't have a problem with it. It's super-exciting to go travel and experience those things and come back.
CP: No "back to the grind" feeling?
SDB: We’ve gotten used to it.
CP: When did you guys form?
SDB: We’ve worked together for two-and-a-half years.
CP: Do you guys go out? Like, are you boyfriend/girlfriend?
CP: Is that annoying? To be asked that?
SDB: A lot of people ask. We don’t think it’s that important. We’re a team and we work together and we write music together and that’s it. That’s what people should see.
CP: Are the Beatles relevant?
SDB: They're a huge influence to us...[but] I don’t see the point in buying a remastered version of the White Album for the 15th time. We are highly influenced by the Beatles for sure. Josh grew up listening to them. His father always has the Beatles on. 24-7. He compares everyone to the Beatles.
CP: What's the point of records? What's the point of a physical document of music?
SDB: I feel it’s like the whole package that’s included with buying a record … buying vinyl, buying a cassette tape. You have to see our cover art—it’s the shit. To have that package with you, something tangible…it gives it more of an experience. Open it up, put it in the CD player, press play...It's different than ITunes, playing something for 30 seconds and being like "That’s boring."
CP: Do you feel like the music industry highway is crumbling just as you are finding the on-ramp? Crumbling like that highway in Matrix 2?
SDB: If it was 10 or 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten recognized [without] MySpace or the internet. We wouldn’t be here now if it was that time. But it's worrisome to think about the music business and making money off of our art. The best thing to do is not think about it and see what happens. We’re doing what we love to do. If we’re not going to make as much money, that’s okay.
CP: So you think of yourself as a MySpace phenomenon? You didn't get discovered in a club by the racetrack?
SDB: We were noticed on MySpace. People on MySpace spread the word and got our name out a lot faster and cheaper than what we would have to do 15 years ago...our friends here are part of Sub-Bombin Records. They always put on shows and do a lot of promotion and put out compilations of local music and asked us to be a part of it and we said "Sure, yeah," but we only had two songs and but we scrambled up enough ideas and played our first show. From there we just kept playing and writing and getting music out there and connecting with as many people as we could. [Your correspondent, still disappointed that SDB has not read William Kennedy, has run out of questions. He thanks SBD and makes Phantogram-related small talk.] Are you coming to the show?
CP: When is the show? Sunday? I don't know. Sure. I might come to the show. [Your correspondent is not just being polite. He may actually attend this show!] Don't you hate it when you play a show and everyone is like, "Put me on the list?"
SDB: You mean like...forget the list, why not just totally support me?
CP: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Phantogram plays the Rock and Roll Hotel on Sunday, September 27.
Photographs of Moyer by Darrow Montgomery