When Greenwich, New York-born friends Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter joined together as Phantogram in 2007, they largely kept their music to themselves. They confided in one another—continually recording and writing—and by 2009, the duo did what so many musicians seem to have done: They planted themselves on a street corner and unapologetically gave away free CDs. As Carter recalls, they would tell passersby, “There are two songs—listen to it. If you need a coaster for your coffee you can use it as that.”
Now, nearly a decade later, Phantogram has two LPs to their name (Eyelid Movies, 2010; Voices, 2014), and tomorrow, they will release their third, aptly titled Three (Republic Records). Here, Barthel and Carter speak to rapper Vince Staples, a new friend (and musician they admire), about their evolution and the darkness in their music.
VINCE STAPLES: What emotions do you gather your music from? What emotions help you create your music?
SARAH BARTHEL: We definitely tend to gravitate toward writing more on the darker side of life, but also incorporate the light at the end of the tunnel; you can see a positive in it. Music for us is very therapeutic, it’s very cathartic. We’re not a band that wants to write about how the sun is shining and life is beautiful—[we’re not] as direct as that. We tend to use our music as therapy, in a way. You can definitely hear it on this last record.
STAPLES: Do you feel like the only way to really gain the brighter perspective in music, or just in life in general, is to go through the darker aspects of it? If you try to make music and try to convey to everyone that everything is all peachy-keen, you might come off like you’re full of it, and that could be something that draws listeners away. I feel like that’s the reason a lot of pop music doesn’t have that grasp that other forms of music do, because it’s more rooted in only the happier aspects of life—there’s not really a connection. Do you feel like the darkness of the music and of life in general is what can connect people?
JOSH CARTER: I feel like we write about life and love and death; it’s just what we gravitate towards. Sarah and I goof off a lot and we have a lot of fun, but it would be tough for us to write a song like “Happy,” the Pharrell song, or something like that. It’s just not how we express ourselves.
BARTHEL: For me, I don’t think I gravitate to listening to only dark music. If the lyrics have meaning to it and it gives me a certain emotion, I think that’s the most beautiful part about music—you can feel it and connect to it. Our beats and our production aren’t dark or emo by any means; it’s basically the lyrics I think, and the melody sometimes can be too. We like to incorporate all different elements into our music. Whatever the listener can connect to, they can pick and choose. Maybe one day a song might make you feel completely different than the next, but we like to have a lot of everything in our songs.
STAPLES: So would you say that the new album is leaning more towards the darkness, the brightness, or would you say you’ve kind of found the balance? Because I feel like finding the balance is the struggle with making music in general.
CARTER: I think a lot of what we do musically is about juxtaposition and contrast. So it’s about, even sonically, bringing pieces of music or sound that have a heavy contrast from one another and making it work. A lot of the new album comes from a very tragic viewpoint, as we lost a dear person this year. It’s kind of—even the artwork—it’s a beautiful tragedy, like a beautiful car crash. It’s white and blue skies but a big fire.
BARTHEL: Yeah, a beautiful car crash where even though you could possibly see some crazy shit if you look too close when you’re driving by, you still are curious and you want to look, in a way. It also makes you slow down; it makes you observe from the outside. I think there’s a lot of beauty with being able to do that. It’s definitely one perspective that our new record Three represents.
CARTER: A lot of our music is like driving down a dark tunnel and it may seem like it goes on forever, but you can see the light at the end of it. So there is a glimmer of hope in there.
STAPLES: Speaking of the album, it’s your third album [and titled] Three, which is a great idea. Do you see it as departure from your previous releases, and if so in what way? Also, how do you see it being similar to the two albums that you guys have put out prior?
CARTER: I think it’s just a natural progression of what we do as musicians. We just keep expanding our sound. The thing that I enjoy about what we do as Phantogram is we’re limitless within our sound. We sound like Phantogram, we sound like a band, but we have a deep well of untapped ideas that we can always hone in on, and we’re always going to. We don’t have to pigeonhole ourselves into creating such a specific sound that people have to identify with, like some garage punk band or, “Oh, you have to sound like this, that, and the other thing.” It’s just another extension of our sound and what we wanted to do for this record. I can see in the future making all kinds of different sounding records; that’s what I love about what we do.
BARTHEL: Yeah. Well said.
STAPLES: You focus so much on—if I’m understanding correctly—just trying to explore all of your options, and bring your music a different, unique perspective every time you make a record or song. Do you ponder much over what people say about the music as far as the response goes, whether it’s positive or negative?
BARTHEL: We try not to. We started this band as just a way to make some music together. We realized quickly how different it sounded from the rest that was happening on Pitchfork and whatnot. We weren’t sure what people were going to say about it but we didn’t really think about it. We’ve almost been playing together for ten years now, and we’ve evolved to learn what to listen to, and what not to, and what’s important. At first I think it was hard to understand. If someone says something good or bad, or whatever they have to say about your song, you’ve just got to embrace it. We don’t really pay attention to that stuff anymore. … You can’t take it too personally.
CARTER: At the end of the day, to compliment what Sarah’s saying, we started making music that we wanted to listen to. We’re making music that we would want to hear ourselves, and that’s all we’ve been doing this whole time. So we’re making music that we like. When we made our first album we had no fans at all—none, no fans. We’ve gained a lot of fans and we’ve toured our asses off. We’re making music that we like so if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Just keep on making stuff, and people are either going to like it or not.
STAPLES: We live in an age where everyone is so opinionated about everything in general in life, especially their expertise or their personal knowledge of anything that they’re commenting on. I think the opinion is worth less now than it ever has been. It’s not like somebody’s really going out and anticipating the record … They’re taking your life’s work and passion with a grain of salt. I feel like as creative people, it would hurt more than help to pay attention to those kind of things. But like you were saying before, you focus on the reason behind it, that you’re making something that you’d want to listen to. I feel like it’s impossible to be completely yourself, because you’ll always get bored; you have to push your own limits.
CARTER: And we’re not about following what’s trending or anything like that. You’ve got to block out all that outside noise. When random people have a voice this day and age—which is fine, I think everybody should have a voice—you can’t let people on YouTube or Facebook or whatever dictate how you should feel about what you want to do as an artist.
STAPLES: [They’re] also not understanding the creative process—what goes into actually making the song. Speaking of that, what is the creative process that you guys have? Do you make the music first? Or write the lyrics first? What starts the process off for you guys?
CARTER: It’s kind of different each time. I think a lot of it starts with rhythm. We’re a pretty beat-centric kind of band. So a lot of it starts with the beats that I make or something like that, but it could also start with something Sarah writes on piano or guitar, or I’ll write something on piano or guitar. Or just words. We’re such close friends too that we’ll come up with ideas together just humming along and things just materialize that way. It’s really different.
BARTHEL: The motivation for sure is to continue with channeling fresh sounds and new shit. For me, at least, it’s Josh’s beats. He’ll make a beat and he’ll play it for me and if it’s instantly like, “Holy shit I need to work on this,” then I think the motivation of just adding on top of that is simple and exciting.
CARTER: Sarah steals my beats though. I’ll make a beat and I’ll say, “Oh, I want Vince Staples to rap over this,” and she’ll be like, “Nope!”
BARTHEL: [laughs] C’mon!
STAPLES: That’s the way that a group is supposed to work.
BARTHEL: I’m sorry. I can’t help it. It’ll never stop.
STAPLES: I’m a beat hoarder. I’ll record five songs in a year and I still hoard beats, so I understand where you’re coming from. Do you guys feel any pressure to follow up albums? I know you said that you had no fans when you were starting out, which was a lie—I know a lot of people who were following you guys in the beginning. But is there any pressure to follow up these albums? Or is it that the inspiration just builds on top of the foundation you’ve already laid?
CARTER: For me, I’m just onto the next. I’m working on new music right now and just keep on making music. I’m happy that our record is going to come out and I’m happy to play it live, but I just always want to make music. Even though we’re supposed to be promoting our new album—obviously I’m still going play it live—but I’m just working on new ideas. I want to get to the next [thing].
BARTHEL: We started from nobody knowing us and I guess we’ve toured, and toured, and toured, and toured forever—even when it’s just the two of us in a hatchback rental car around the U.S.—building, building, and building. We’re proud of how we’ve developed our fans. We have real fans that have been following us. … We’ve got our core fans and it’s just going to keep organically growing, which is really important to us.
CARTER: We put on a kick-ass live show, too. That’s another part of it. We’ve really honed in on how to make things special for an audience, because if you don’t put importance on your live show, then people might as well just sit at home and listen to your record.
STAPLES: That’s great. Is there anything in particular that you guys are listening to that inspires you or that gets you excited about what music is or where music is heading?
BARTHEL: Well, I usually mention you in an interview. [laughs] So this is kind of awkward, but I would have to say your shit is so dope and I listen to it all the time and I praise you. Your new stuff and your new EP is so great. I love the direction you went too.
STAPLES: Well thank you.
CARTER: Yeah, I feel the same way. I love the production on a lot of your music as well how kind of minimal it is. There’s a lot of open space in there. I don’t even know how to describe it.
STAPLES: You guys have much more music experience than me and just know a lot more. It’s hard to explain to somebody like you guys, who clearly probably know everything in the world [about production], to explain stuff where you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you know how you want it to sound. It’s very difficult.
BARTHEL: Right, but there’s a really cool way that it can be done even if you don’t have a lot of experience; you’re coming from the most important thing and that’s emotion. It’s not like, “Oh, if you’re writing a song, you’re playing a G and you change to a C because in theory class they taught you that kind of stuff.” It’s coming from somewhere deeper and that’s how we started writing together. You can hear that it’s coming from something deeper. It’s awesome.
STAPLES: When I was a kid I used to want to be a Beethoven or something. That was my dream.
BARTHEL: Wow. [laughs] That’s a good dream.
CARTER: I listened to the new Danny Brown album last night and it’s quite, quite good. I like what he’s doing as an artist. I admire people who don’t do things that are typical.
BARTHEL: Yeah, you have to. You’ve got to. People need that, they need us—or artists like us—to do that because there are so many layers of bullshit and everything sounds the same. But when you listen to a Vince Staples record, it’s so meaningful, because we have to be innovative, we have to be fresh, we have to be new. People are counting on that.
STAPLES: Creating music and just having someone’s art directs the way you think about life subconsciously. They’re showing you so much life, and then you help show them something. We’re all equally important at the end of the day, and I feel like that’s something that you guys portray through your music, or at least that’s something that I’ve always gotten: a sense of humanity, a sense of awareness of yourself and the world around you.