The low beats of their music transport you to the big city, where even if you were walking down a country road you could close your eyes and imagine hearing the horns of yellow cabs, the sound of business-clad pedestrians pounding the pavement, and the signature siren of an ambulance. It’s the sound of busy anticipation and excitement. But during my interview with Phantogram’s guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel, these ever-so-cool musicians took a break and slowed down the tempo for a quick, very New York, backstage chat.
I’m led up a couple flights of narrow stairs at Vancouver’s hotspot Venue, to a small room where Carter, Barthel and other band members are just chilling out. The take-out dinner has arrived and smoke lingers overhead, as Carter fingers what looks like a freshly rolled cigarette. They sit there, on a dark leather couch, looking relaxed and nonchalant as they do their ceremonious press duties, with the two previous interviewers desperate to win the band’s approval, citing their own band and suggesting what one can imagine is music that only one person in a thousand might find. But I don’t blame them. These two performers, that make up Phantogram, ooze a certain unattainable vibe. It’s not that they are pretentious, they’re not, but they speak in measured breaths and only as much as they have to. It’s a confidence that sets the stage for a show that leaves the audience breathless and wanting more, while Carter and Barthel know they’ve given just enough.
Pop Counter // Culture: With every song that comes into creation, what’s the process like from first developing that song idea to actually having a track?
Josh Carter: The song writing process is different every time. Sometimes it starts with a beat I might make or I’ll write something on guitar. [Barthel will] write something on piano. On Eyelid Movies a lot of things started with a beat. I guess that’s pretty apparent when you listen to the album; it’s a heavy beat album. That’s often where a lot of things start, and I’ll build around that beat if it’s right.
PCC: When you do a live show, is the sound different:
Josh Carter: It’s more aggressive, more punchier, a little droonier. It’s probably what we should have sounded like on the record but when we made the record we made it for ourselves and its snowballed from there, got bigger as a band. So yes, we sound different live but not so different that we aren’t recognizable, its just got more edge to it.
Sarah Barthel: Yes, because we’ve been touring on these songs for three years now. So after the first year of playing them, trying to play them exactly like the record, we got bored and decided to switch things up a bit.
PCC: The music on the album is very reflective. What are you thinking about on stage?
Sarah Barthel: I connect to the lyrics differently every night. Josh writes the lyrics. I connect to them on a deep level and the way that he wrote them anyone can do that. The song can somehow be for you.
PPC: If you were to pick an activity that your music would be awesome for, an everyday activity?
Josh Carter: Driving at night…the stereo cranked.
Sarah Barthel: Yes, driving at night, or walking in a city or really anywhere with headphones on and with things to look at.
PPC: When you initially listen to the music, it kind of sounds like the big city influences your music…but you’re from a small town. Do you think you were trying to create your own sound of what a utopian or dream city would sound like?
Josh Carter: Maybe like a future city [laughs]. I think we were just trying to make music that we wanted hear ourselves. I don’t think it makes a difference where you live to make the kind of music we make.
PPC: How was playing at Coachella?
Josh Carter: It was awesome; we played at night, thousands of people. It wasn’t super hot when we played. There was a nice cool breeze.
PPC: What prompted a full-fledged Canadian tour?
Josh Carter: We just signed with a Canadian label, because it made sense. We’re pretty close to Canada and we want our music to be heard anywhere it can be heard.
PPC: Favourite song on the newest album Eyelid Movies?
Josh Carter: “Ten Thousand Claps.”
Sarah Barthel: “Futuristic Casket.”