Photography: Benjamin Askinas
Styling: Donna Lisa
Hair: Loui Ferry
Makeup: Matisse Andrews
When most people undergo a personal tragedy, they stay in bed until they can stand the heartbreak. Not Phantogram. After losing Sarah’s sister last year, the band poured everything they had into a new album, Three. A piercing exploration of life and death, the record is the raw culmination of intimacy and heartache. After a decade, Barthel and Carter are seamlessly connected, Barthel’s voice the only counter to Carter’s production. Together, they crafted a record as magnetic as it is tragic. Three is gutting yet contagious, cathartic not just for the band, but also the listener who can feel the hurt in every track. Manic and exciting, the record cuts hard and hits deep.
But unlike most bands in the internet age, Phantogram really is on their own level. Inspired by Motown, hip-hop, soul and The Beatles, Barthel and Carter consistently deliver their own slicing brand of electro-pop—the band can’t be compared to anyone else because there’s nothing like it. With Three, Phantogram cements that sound—a cool mix of catchy hooks and heavy production, amplified by a grounded understanding of reality and the way they not only convey it, but make it better. It’s hard to articulate despair, and even harder to allow yourself to be completely vulnerable. On Three, Phantogram does both, detailing their own experience with loss, while providing a map for survival.
BULLETT caught up with the duo to talk life, death and OutKast.
Tell me about Three.
J: The main theme surrounding Three is beautiful tragedy.
S: It’s about heartbreak, it’s about life, love and death—the things we always gravitate our songwriting towards. But this is just another level of Phantogram, in general. We’ve grown a lot organically and this record, is another evolution of our songwriting and our production—and what defines us as artists.
You both went through a devastating loss during the making of the record. What role did your sister’s passing play in the process?
S: Tragedy was the role she played—not her, specifically, but what we encountered during the whole experience is what motivated most of the lyrics and what we were trying to convey with the record. The mood and the heaviness—all of that came from the narrative we were actually feeling. So we made the most of it and wrote this kick ass record.
Was making the record a cathartic experience?
S: For Josh and I, writing songs is very therapeutic—it’s really the only place we allow ourselves to open up, and to say things and feel things we don’t when other people are around. It’s harder to express, sometimes, being yourself and being completely you. But if you can put it into your art, it feels a lot better. Phantogram really is our therapy.
What were you able to do with this record that you haven’t with previous releases?
J: We really focused on cutting the fat, and getting to the hooks a lot quicker. In our earlier stuff, we always had trouble writing songs that were less than four minutes long. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we just really wanted to get to it quicker—don’t bore us, get to the chorus kind of thing.
What was the hardest part of making the record?
J: The hardest part was just trying to get through it after what we went through, trying to be strong. There were times I know Sarah just didn’t have the motivation, or just didn’t want to do anything, and I definitely went through a lot of that, as well. But we got up and got through it.
S: The hardest part for us is always deadlines. You have to work fast and that’s not something we totally enjoy. The pressure always adds up and there’s a lot to worry about—this needs to be done by that time because it’s in this cycle, and if it’s not ready by this time, then it won’t be submitted to The Grammys—all these things we don’t think about, but have to write fast enough to make. It’s like, you want me to write a good set of songs, but you’re giving me this certain amount of time—that weighs a lot on an artist.
J: It’s really hard to force inspiration and keeping up with the politics can definitely get in the way of that. But at the end of the day, we just have to work, even if that means making yourself get inspired.
You had a lot of collaborators on this record. Was it hard working with so many other people, when you’re used to it just being you two?
J: Sarah and I have always been perfectionists—we don’t want anybody to hear our music until we think it’s presentable, or completely finished. So that was a huge adjustment—showing all these people songs way before we were comfortable. But I don’t regret it, because we learned so much, and it really helped change my vision of what it means to be an artist—knowing that a lot of great art comes through collaboration.
What’s your collaboration process like?
S: It’s really the only way we know how to make music, and we’re really lucky because we have the same vision. That’s the beauty of Josh and I, and Phantogram in general. We started this band with no egos in the way, and we started it with love, because we just wanted to make cool shit together, and we’ve always kept that foundation alive. We trust each other in such a dramatic way where, if I really love an idea but Josh isn’t super into, he trusts me enough to just let it breathe and respect it. It’s really fucking beautiful.
How has the process, and the band itself evolved over the last 10 years?
S: When we first started the band, we were together all the time. So we’d sit in a room and jam and that’s how all the first songs came together. But then Josh taught me how to produce and play guitar, so if I had ideas on my own time, I could actually do it. From there, we’ve just learned so much about what we want and what we don’t want, and we’ve played so many shows, that our sound has become a lot heavier. We’ve evolved so much and have just become so much closer musically. We have a shared vision—the vision always stays the same but it’s also always growing.
Let’s talk about Big Grams. How did it come about?
J: Big Boy put our song, “Mouthful of Diamonds,” on his website as favorite song of the week, and Sarah caught wind of that. I suck at Twitter, I don’t even know what I’m doing—but she got in touch with him over Twitter and we really just vibed. He invited us to visit him at Stankonia in Atlanta when we were on tour, and the three of us just hung out again for several hours, smoking weed and drinking Hennessey, listening to music. It just clicked.
Do you get something out of it that you couldn’t with Phantogram?
J: We’re just having fun—three friends playing music. Phantogram is fun too, but there’s just no pressure, and it’s way less heavy on the emotional side of things. Whereas Phantogram, and especially this record, are a really emotional experience.
S: That’s our favorite part about Big Grams. We’re not Phantogram taking ourselves seriously, basically in a therapy session. With this, we can just make songs and have things be lighthearted. It’s a whole different side that Josh and I have never touched upon in Phantogram.
J: We’re like three kids, and it’s a very innocent approach to the creative process.
On Sarah: Blouse, Suit & Coat: Waltz, Top: Frenn, Choker: Brian Hearns, Shoes: Jeffrey Campbell; On Josh: Shirt & Trousers: Frenn, Shoes: Lanvin