Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel on Feeling Like Selena, and the Time Her Bandmate Got Roofied
Phantogram is the brainchild of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, childhood friends who released their debut album, Eyelid Movies, on Barsuk Records last year. Where that label's releases frequently skew toward the poppy and immediate, Phantogram makes hummable songs that nevertheless have more to do with trip-hop than indie pop. On the dark and sultry Eyelid Movies, the bass thumps menacingly, the beats are confrontational, and Barthel turns in vocals that are ethereal and mysterious. You can hear those sounds evolving on the group's new EP, Nightlife, which came out last month—it's somehow more upbeat and dancey, yet still quiet and personal. Phantogram plays Black Cat tonight. The show is sold out.
Washington City Paper: What was the recording process like for Nightlife compared to Eyelid Movies?
Sarah Barthel: It was a little bit of a different process for us to do it. When we recorded Eyelid Movies, Josh and I were pretty much trapped in one room the entire time, always together and always just surrounding ourselves with the same room and the same pieces of equipment and bouncing ideas back and forth in the same room. But for Nightlife, it was a little bit different because we wrote some of the songs a couple of years ago and we just had to sit on them because we were still waiting to make Eyelid Movies. So we had some new songs we were working and we thought, “OK, might as well record them and get them down and maybe someday we’ll be able to release them as a bonus track or a free track online.” Some songs we wrote separately and sent our ideas back and forth via email and recorded on our own. One song we finished on the road with recording in hotel rooms and stuff. It was all over the place.
WCP: Did your influences change at all for the EP?
SB: I think we were more influenced by writing songs that had more, I guess, dynamics and that really build at parts and were really soft and quiet at other parts. We weren’t able to do that with Eyelid Movies. We wanted to but it was more about the process of getting the music out there, we wanted to be heavier and more emotional, we wanted it to really capture a certain emotion and scenario, whatever type of connection we could make with our fans. It’s definitely a little bit more mature-sounding, so we’re definitely happy and think we’re going in the right direction.
WCP: You obviously do a ton of live shows, but is it difficult to make your music translate to a live set?
SB: No, because we have a live drummer now! It’s not just the two of us anymore, so we’re able to pull it off a lot better. We also have an incredible sound engineer and lighting guy and we’re able to pull off the entire feeling and emotion that we want to portray.
WCP: I know you and bandmate Josh Carter have known each other for quite a few years. Were either of you in bands before or is this your first time?
SB: I wasn’t but Josh was, he was in a band, he was in a couple bands, actually—funny as it is, he was the drummer for a metal band. He was known as The Machine. He was an insane drummer. Unbelievable. After that, I didn’t see any of his music from that, but he was also in a band with his brother for a few years called Grand Habit and I saw them play a couple of times before we started working together. As for me, this is my first band.
WCP: How is it?
SB: It’s great! It’s fun, Josh and I have a really good energy going and we’re on the same page on so many different levels and it’s really the only way we can work, we both have the same ideas of what we want.
WCP: Since you’ve had some experience touring now, do you have a favorite city to play in? Do you have any especially crazy tour stories?
SB: We were in Europe for four months, which was wonderful, I loved playing Switzerland and France. We also got to play the Dominican Republic which was fun and also we just played a show in Mexico City, which was amazing—the people and their energy there was astounding, they really make you feel loved. I felt like I was Selena! It’s really a different culture. Oh, and Josh got roofied a couple weeks ago in Madison, Wisc. That was pretty crazy and fucking weird. It came out of nowhere and he didn’t drink too much—he drank three beers and we literally couldn’t get him off of the floor. It was really bizarre.
Phantogram performs tonight at 8 p.m. at Black Cat. Sold out.