INTERVIEW: Phantogram Talk Starting Out as Waiters, New Album 'Three,' Upcoming Tour

    • Posted by: Kirsten Spruch

    It's been two years since the release of Phantogram's album, Voices, but they've been far from quiet. The duo, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, supported Muse on tour in 2015 as well as collaborated with Big Boi on their side project, Big Grams. The release was followed by a tour which included slots at major music festivals like Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, and more. Now, the band has steadily been teasing their upcoming album, Three, which is set for release on October 7th. We've heard the dark, fury-filled lead single, "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" in addition to the just as great "Cruel World," "Same Old Blues," and "Run Run Blood." You think that's it? Nope. The band is also embarking on a much-anticipated fall tour (find dates below). In support of the release we sat down with lead woman Barthel to talk about starting out as a waitress, differentiating themselves from other musicians, and oh, their cute-as-fuck puppy, Leroy. Read below.

    KIRSTEN SPRUCH: So first very important question: Who is Leroy?

    SARAH BARTHEL: Leroy's my dog!

    KS: You take him everywhere with you. I saw he got into The Late Show and he even met Meat Loaf! How do you sneak him into all of these places?

    SB: Depends where you are. Some people don't even give a shit, but for the buildings that do, they think you got a bomb inside him or something, I hide him in my bag and just bring him up the elevator. He just sits in the bag, so it's awesome.

    KS: Does he give you emotional support?

    SB: Oh yeah. [Laughs] He gives everybody emotional support.

    KS: Cool. I just had to get that out of the way.

    Has Big Grams helped you write the new Phantogram album at all?

    SB: Yeah, in a way. It was a side project that was really awesome because it was our first collaboration ever with somebody else and it happened to be one of our favorite artists of all time. It was just awesome and fun. It definitely showed a different side of us because our music is a little bit more serious and dark in general. With the Big Grams project, it was nice to have that other perspective and be able to play shows and run around more and be able to connect with the audience more and not have to focus on playing our instruments perfectly. It gave us that whole other side, so it definitely helped us in a lot of ways.

    KS: Do you think you're gonna take that live aspect from Big Grams and incorporate it into the upcoming Phantogram shows?

    SB: We have to do a lot more on stage than the Big Grams shows, so it's a completely different vibe, but it definitely has turned us into better performers. In that way, in connecting with the audience, yes for sure.

    KS: You mentioned that a lot of your songs are dark and I actually want to ask you about that. When you go into writing a song, do you purposefully think, "We want this to be dark," or is it just something that naturally happens for you?

    SB: It naturally happens. We want to write music when we have something on the darker side to say. It just kind of happens that way. It's not when I'm at the beach and life is good and wonderful and we're laughing that I'm ever inspired to go home and write a song. It's cathartic in that way, you know. But our songs aren't meant to be like, "Oh, you should listen to it if you're feeling dark or sad," by any means. Ever since day one, our beats, our music, our arrangements, and our songs are very poppy... experimental pop. It's more like the lyrics can be described as less sunshine and a little bit more shadow.

    KS: When you're happy it's a lot harder to feel inspired to write.

    SB: Yeah, you just don't want to. I want to be happy. There's a different connection. That's the way we've always been, though.

    KS: You said that "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" set the tone for this record.

    SB: Yes.

    KS: Did you start writing it with a certain tone in mind or did it write itself?

    SB: It was a process. That song has gone through different levels and different looks in general. It was our first song that we knew we wanted on the record. In that way, it set the tone because we knew we wanted to make a more dark-edelic record with pop sensibility. We were like, "Let's think about that word, make up a word, 'dark-edelic,'" and kind of shoot for that. And then the rest just kind of came around it and worked.

    KS: People have said that your new singles, "Same Old Blues," "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," and "Cruel World," have that signature Phantogram sound but, like you said, with that added pop sensibility. Why did you decide to make it more pop?

    SB: We didn't necessarily decide to. I think it was a natural progression. Just from experience, from playing shows, and the experience of being in a band. These songs are just a lot more thought out and in a songwriting perspective, they're more thought out and professional. And also just more pop in a way. Not necessarily, "Oh, we wanted to go the poppy route," but using the term "pop" in a way The Beatles were described as pop. They had these three and a half minute songs - three minute songs sometimes - that just summed it all up and moved on. Move on to the next song, listen to the full album. All of the songs are connected and they're short and sweet and like "don't bore us, get to the chorus." It was this vibe in general. It was a challenge that we gave to ourselves and I'm proud of it.

    KS: I was watching a really old interview with you guys, from 2010.

    SB: Oh god. [Laughs]

    KS: No, it was good! You said that you were a waitress at the time and Josh was picking up odd jobs. Do you ever think back to that and how insane it is that you've come so far?

    SB: Yeah, every time I go to a restaurant I think about that. Josh waited tables, too, for five years. We worked across the street from one another in Saratoga Springs. We would work and then meet up and drive out to Harmony Lodge where we would write and work on music after our shifts. I think about it all the time. I pray to God I don't have to fucking wait on assholes anymore, 'cause it sucks.

    KS: What was the turning point when that changed and you could quit your waitressing job?

    SB: It took a little bit of time. We had to save our money up so we could buy equipment and pay for gas and a vehicle to start touring, since we weren't getting paid anything. We invested all of our money into it from the beginning. We stopped waiting tables when we didn't have time to wait tables because we were on the road. Luckily the people that we worked for were really close friends, basically my family now, and they also have other relatives that would just come in and pick up a shift. It was a very creative, musical family that owned this restaurant that I was a part of called One Caroline Bistro.

    KS: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians who are currently taking up waitressing gigs?

    SB: The best thing that I should tell anybody is try to be unique and fresh. Don't go with the trends and do it for the right reasons, because there's really not any money in it. Unless you get there, like Lady Gaga or some shit [laughs]. Do it because you love it.

    KS: I remember Josh saying that when you started, you two heard a lot of bands that were following trends and copying each other, so you wanted to make something different. When you go into writing, how do you consciously decide that what you're making is different from everything else?

    SB: Josh has this incredible way - and he does it without even knowing it - of making really cool, organic beats. He chops up samples like I've never heard before and when you look at his work in front of you with your eyes, it's like, how did you think of putting that there and there? Really, he's a musical genius to be perfectly honest. That usually starts the idea and if something is so unique, you can't just put something simple on top of it. It just doesn't happen. But then again, we're songwriters, too, and we can always appreciate the simplicity of just a nice, beautiful guitar and singing on top of a piano. I don't know theory at all and when we started writing together, I would put in a note on top of one of his beats or a chord progression. I didn't even know what a chord progression was. You kind of feel it and visually see it and you just know.

    KS: Do you think it's important for artists to be educated in theory?

    SB: No, because I wasn't. It depends on what you're doing. If you're a songwriter it's nice to be educated on theory but it can also fuck you up. Actually, I've been talking to people who've been taught theory in college and it can mess with them. When it comes to a computer and stuff like that, I say learn Logic or Ableton. Learn a program and then the rest you can do whatever the fuck you want with it. The options are endless. It's almost overwhelming in a way. Sometimes less is more because you're listening to your emotions. You're listening to yourself instead of listening to what someone else taught you to do.


    09/29 Las Vegas, NV - Brooklyn Bowl
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    12/28 Busselton, AU - Southbound Festival
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