Finding a good band is tough. Finding an good electronic band is harder. One that blends them both, and does it well is… very rare. Phantogram does it, and not just a few producers and remixers have noticed. If you’re a rider of the BPM rail, you’re sure to have heard them spooled up on the floor in the last few years, an A-Trak remix of their ‘16 single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” making significant ripples.
Mothers, take notice: Sarah Barthel is what happens to little girls when they drink a lot of milk and there happens to be a piano in the house. If they have a voice that can shatter diamonds and they happen to meet up with a beat-master like Josh Carter. He had a vague notion she could sing. She thought he was a badass with a nice beat collection. She could. He did. Boom. Chocolate and peanut butter.
Converting an upstate NY barn into an improvised studio, the two patchworked their first long-player, making and trading beats like Pokémon cards. The appraoch was time-consuming but ultimately produced an exceptional record. Eyelid Movies caught the eye of heads at BPM (me) and SPIN alike with its dense tapestry of singular sound design overlaying master-level beats and samples taken from across the board: French mod-pop to trip-hop-rock.
“Medieval Times is probably one of my favorite pastimes. I’m definitely going to get into it. It’s extremely entertaining to me; I love it.”
Sarah’s whipser-sweet wail has garnered quite a bit of praise, but for those in the EDM crowd, Josh’s beats are indeed the sweet, sweet geometric nectar. The Flaming Lips, Big Boi, and the Alchemist are a sampling of devotees. Where EM is blessed with an intimate “in the same room with” vibe, their second LP, Voices (2014), along with 2011’s EP Nightlife, are shot through with huge, cinematic rollers, blasts from some complex and amazing celestial trumpet.
“The albums are a natural progression,” Barthel comments. In an era when bands’ sounds often become brands unto themselves, she continues, “I think in general, artists should be growing. We definitely never want our records to sound like the last record—so we purposely evolve. Artists, I think, are natural at changing and evolving, too. We have so many inspirations, and we love all kinds of music, as you can tell. I think we are capable of going any which way. We don’t plan too much ahead.”
Moreoever, their 2016 work Three possesses the same intensity, with all of the adornment sheared away. On quality versus quantity, Barthel observes, “You can get more of an idea of a vibe not by adding more layers, but more energy or more bombastic sound, or thicker-sounding stuff—more well-produced beats.” Boom.
The higher-quality stereo you have, the more she says makes sense.
In an era when album sales take back seat to concert revenue, and on-the-road-365 is the new work ethic, on-the-road ritual has become the new album cover. A habit or regular practice, at least for band members, can define a certain period. For Phantogram? Big Buck Hunter—the video game.
The game with the big orange pump-action is to Barthel what a game of pickup B-ball is to DJ Diesel. “It all started at a machine downstairs from my old place in Brooklyn, at this place called the Abbey. It was my go-to spot to hang out with friends, because my apartment was the size of a closet. So, I become very competitive—it’s my favorite thing to do when I’m not writing music.” Did she know that world championships were held from 2008–12 in Chicago and New York? Oh, yes. Did she compete? No comment.
And her high score remains a closely guarded secret.
Other pastimes verge on the realm of daredevilry. During their last breather between tours, Barthel-and-boyfriend conquered the El Camino de la Muerte, or “Death Road” in Bolivia, a treacherous, 49-mile stretch of road rife with drug cartel traffic and landslides.
“I was fucking terrified. It was so scary, because they tell you when you stop, ‘This part right here, a family of six drove off the road, committing suicide… here a Parisian couple were taking a selfie and the man stepped back too far, and this man tried to bungee jump but he died, and a bus full of 150 people riding to a soccer game tipped over.’ It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life. It was epic.”
Good enough. But one wonders how she may feel about performing in front of thousands of Headliners dressed up for medieval cosplay. “Medieval Times is probably one of my favorite pastimes,” she says, fingering the hem of her wizarding robe. “I’m definitely going to get into it. It’s extremely entertaining to me; I love it,” she laughs.