Q & A with Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel

Madison RutherfordSeptember 13, 2019
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Phantogram has been making waves in the music scene for nearly a decade, boasting half a billion streams, two Gold-Certified singles and a slew of sold-out headlining shows since its debut album, Eyelid Movies, in 2010.

The duo, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, is known for its infectious, frenetic beats and airy vocals that crash into crescendos of synth-heavy catharsis. Its punchy, pioneering sound has led to collaborations with everyone from Miley Cyrus to Outkast’s Big Boi.

The band brings its unique brand of beat-driven dream pop to The Van Buren on Monday, September 16. PHOENIX caught up with Barthel to discuss the band’s evolution and what’s next.

You tour a lot and you’ve been to Phoenix quite a few times. Is there anything that stands out about a Phoenix audience?
New York, L.A., Nashville, Chicago, cities like that are more prone to having bands come play for them. Sometimes Phoenix isn’t on that list. I think it gets passed by sometimes, so the fans are just ecstatic to have you come and they have such a great time.

Do you have a favorite song to play live?
It depends on the mood I’m in. I can kind of always use my energy or whatever I’m going through at the time and cathartically go through the song. Right now, I think “Answer” is probably my favorite song to play live.

Tell me more about music as a cathartic or therapeutic experience. How has music been an outlet for you?
It’s my therapy. It’s my expression. Where some people are capable of talking about things they’re going through, I think my outlet to be able to express myself and my feelings is music. It works really well.

You and Josh [Carter] have known each other for a really long time. How does that translate to the music-making process? Would you say you’re always on the same page?
Yeah, we are. We call ourselves the psychic twins because we’re on the same wavelength. Sometimes ego gets in the way with bands, which I think is a really normal thing. Josh and I are on the same team. We always have been since day one. Nothing has changed, so we use that as an advantage. If a song is written lyrically by Josh or by me, there’s no disconnect if the other one is singing it. It always means the same thing.

Tell me about your creative process. Do the lyrics come before the music or vice versa?
It depends. There’s no formula, really. We usually start with a beat and then go from there but also sometimes we’ll have a title in mind for a song or a lyric might stick out, something we just wrote in our journals from before.

What about your latest single, “Mister Impossible”? What inspired that?
That was inspired by this beat we had, and we loved the idea of doing this old-school Phantogram beat, just a full, heavy beat and simple everything else. And then, it kind of turned into adding a really heavy, droning bass synth. It really makes you feel like you want to bob your arms back and forth and you see the audience kind of doing it in waves. The title, “Mister Impossible,” was Josh’s idea for the name of a song for a really long time.

How has your sound evolved from your earlier stuff, particularly Eyelid Movies? Do you take a different approach to your music?
There’s no different approach. I think just in general, we’re always evolving as artists. From the beginning, it was just Josh and I with no one else. When we collaborated with Big Boi it was kind of like our first collaboration. We had so much fun doing it that we decided we wanted to continue doing it with other artists, writers, producers, anyone that wanted to be a part of Phantogram. That’s the biggest difference from the beginning until now.

How did the collaboration with Big Boi come about?
He reached out to us. He put “Mouthful of Diamonds” on his blog and he was Tweeting about it and I Tweeted at him and he gave us his phone number and then we met and we’ve just been buds ever since.

Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
I just love artists that aren’t afraid of being fresh and unique, ahead of the curve, not following trends, they’re making them before they’re even considered a trend. Josh and I always say a really good example of that would be Beck because he can write any kind of album and it’ll be fresh and unique and different from the last. From Midnite Vultures to Sea Change, the difference between those two albums is so on the other side of the spectrum but I love them both. I love artists who are like that. Outkast, obviously, did the same thing as far as not being afraid to try something completely weird and bizarre… and people being able to love how fresh and new it is and there’s just no trends that they follow. They just laid their own path.

You play a lot of festivals. Can you tell me how that vibe differs from when you’re playing a festival to when you’re playing a more intimate venue like The Van Buren, which you’ll be playing in Phoenix?
They’re different in a lot of ways. It’s just a different vibe. People at festivals are letting loose, they’re letting go for a longer amount of time and I think that’s a big difference than letting go for a few hours after work. People’s mentalities are just different. I’m not saying it’s better but it’s different. Playing headlining shows of your own is great because we have more control over what we can do with our show and that’s very important for us in a production sense. It’s connected to our songs and our sound and the whole experience.

What visual elements do you incorporate into your live performances?
We have a shitload of strobes. It’s very intense. We play a lot with light and dark and on and off and psychedelic colors. It’s just a full experience.

Is there a new album in the works?
We have new music coming out, we can’t really talk about it, but we have more music coming out soon. You just have to be patient.

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