Interview: Phantogram’s Josh Carter on making beats, trimming fat and spanning worlds
At the 2015 edition of the Roots Picnic, Sarah Barthel of Phantogram told the crowd a story about her band’s first big single. She and longtime creative partner (and childhood friend) Josh Carter were both huge hip-hop fans growing up, and he initially devised the beat for “As Far As I Can See” not as a song of his own, but as a cut to shop around – he hoped it might get picked up by Jay Z, or somebody of that stature. It did not, but that worked out pretty well for Phantogram all the same.
Since the release of 2010’s Eyelid Moves, the New York band has evolved from a brooding duo with a knack for catchy, spectral soundscapes to a hard-hitting electronic rock juggernaut. This fall brings their latest record, Three, which finds Barthel and Carter diving head on into the dark overtones that have always permeated their work, motivated in part by the death of Barthel’s sister, Becky. In a recent interview with Complex Magazine, Barthel summed up a theme of the album as “owning the darkness” – accepting and embracing all elements of yourself, angels and devils alike.
The album features some of the band’s most atmospheric work to date, but also some of its poppiest, like the massive gothic single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” And hip-hop is still a part of their lives, from Carter’s production work for Stones Throw artist Oh No and ATL hero Big Boi (the latter of whom collabed with the band last year on the Big Grams project) to getting namechecked and rapped over by artists from Vince Staples to Nas and Philly’s S.T.S.
With a headlining tour rolling into The Fillmore on Monday, I caught up with Carter over the phone to talk about the band’s origins, its growth in scope and its ability to fit in just about anywhere.
The Key: Before Phantogram began, there was your production work that you hoped would land on a high-profile hip-hop project. How did that transition between beatmaking and band happen?
Josh Carter: Beatmaking is sort of how I came up with the blueprint for Phantogram. It was my solo stuff, and I was really into making beats, but also playing guitar, piano, and writing music – stuff like that. So beatmaking was always a big part of what I envisioned for our sound.
For shows, we had our own rig – a friend of ours who does sound helped us set it up. It kind of unfolded with our samplers, and keyboards, it had my guitar pedals. It allowed us to mix ourselves at shows, and that lasted a couple years. And then we got a drummer, and had a different kind of mix, a front of house guy. Now it’s expanded to two players that join us onstage: Nick Shelestak, a multi-instrumentalist that plays samples synths and guitars, and Chris Carhart, a drummer who also does some sampling and a little bit of keys on some stuff.
TK: You’ve talked a lot about how hip-hop was such an influence on both you and Sarah – how has your work has intersected with hip-hop in the time since those early days? I know of at least one song that samples you, and there’s obviously the Big Grams project.
JC: A lot of hip-hop people like our music. I heard A$AP Rocky freestyle to one of our songs, there’s Big Boi like you said. Nas was on BBC 1 saying that his favorite song of the year was “Fall In Love.” It’s funny, the more people we meet, the more there hear that rappers that we really like are like “oh man, I love Phantogram.” It’s dope.
We just did an interview with Vince Staples, he’s a big fan. He interviewed us for Interview Magazine. I see it intersecting in a lot of ways. Ratking did a remix of one of our songs. Plus I produce for hip-hop artists as well, and I plan on doing a lot of that this year as we travel on tour. As well as continue writing music for Phantogram.
TK: It feels like you totally have this ability to span worlds. The electronic pop element has a strong foothold in modern rock, but because of all that crossover you’ve done, you can show up at any kind of festival, for instance, and fit in. Or at least that’s my perception – is reality different?
JC: Nah, it feels that way. I definitely feel like we can fit in to a lot different lineups. It depends, though. We can fit in at an EDM festival, but it might be a little awkward for us. Sometimes we can pull it off, sometimes we can’t. I remember we played one festival in Canada that was all EDM, and a lot of people were just scratching their heads. We got a good response, but they wanted to hear that four-on-the-floor shit with the bass drop. And, I mean, we don’t make music like that.
And then at festivals that are hip-hop oriented, where we have sort of the same vibe, we’ll see people scratch their heads a little bit because we don’t play straight hip-hop. That aside, I think overall we fit in pretty well with whatever because our music is so diverse sounding.
TK: Listening through Three, it is at the same time both more atmospheric than I’ve heard from Phantogram in a while, but also very poppy – “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” is one of the poppiest songs you’ve done, and I mean that in the best way. How did the vibe of Three come to be?
JC: It’s a natural progression of what we do. We’ve always written our songs keeping a pop sensibility in mind. And I think on this album, we wanted to cut down on the fat a little and get to the point more, and work on writing hookier stuff. Big hooks.
But there’s also, the album has a lot of different vibes to it as you listen. Songs like “Barking Dog,” that doesn’t even have a chorus. It’s just a three chord cycle, it builds and builds. Which is very different from a song like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” It’s a definitely still a Phantogram record, all the songs have a different vibe but it’s still us.
TK: With “Barking Dog,” you talked in that Complex interview about how that song took on new meaning after Sarah’s sister’s passing. You also talked about how it lit a fire under your ass. What does that mean, exactly – the songs came into focus, or there was more urgency to finish?
JC: Going through the tragedy we went through helped shaped the meaning of what was going on, what was happening at the time. Our music tends to come from kind of a dark place, it has a dark nature behind it. But it really affected how we do our stuff. We poured ourselves into the music even more in a cathartic way.
Phantogram performs at The Fillmore Philadelphia on Monday, October 24th; tickets are still available, more information on the all ages show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.