Phantogram on walking electronic music’s tightrope

From the dramatic opening of ‘Funeral Pyre’ to the carefree closer ‘Calling All,’ Three continues Phantogram’s run of being one of the most inventive acts within the electronic space. Though the album crescendos the sound the New York duo crafted across their previous two LPs, not to mention a slew of EPs, it’s a far cry from the musical ground they set out to cover in their first venture – performing as part of a school band.

“My first instrument was a saxophone,” says Sarah Barthel. “It was a rental when I was in high school. For Josh [Carter, bandmate], it was the drums – he’s actually a really good drummer. We played in a high school band together for a few years. He continued on playing drums and played in a metal band.”

Fast forwarding over a decade, the pair clearly haven’t charted an obvious trajectory from their humble beginnings. You’ll still find Carter’s drum work across their records, but likely sliced up and spliced together into a Franken-beat; you might hear some big band sounds, albeit sampled from an old recording and worked into a new melody. Simply put, Phantogram have managed to achieve their sound by walking a tightrope – embracing the possibilities of electronic production while still holding onto their history of performing.

According to Barthel, taking disparate styles and making them fit together was the goal from the outset. “We wanted to take analogue-sounding beats and synths and connect them to more electronic-sounding tones,” she explains. The result is a confluence of electronic and organic sounds, which marry harmoniously. “It’s a unique juxtaposition but it isn’t completely foreign and confusing when you hear both of those elements at once.”

“We’re big fans of all kinds of music,” she continues. “We have a huge cache of different kinds of influences, so we listen to anything we love – whether it’s electronic-sounding or hip-hop or jazz or classical music. Whatever really sounds good, we just tend to grab a hold of it and use those influences.”

Though straddling multiple genres is something Barthel says comes naturally, it isn’t without its tribulations – she needn’t look any further than the songs she recorded with Carter that she loves but failed to make it onto Three because they “just didn’t fit the theme of what we were going for.” In fact, she admits that there are “folders and folders and folders” of unused ideas she hopes will see the light of day. (Editor’s note: we suggested she turn them into a Phantogram archive museum of sorts – something she was jokingly down with.)

When working with such a large pool of styles, it’s ultimately about choosing your battles; making tough calls on which sounds to work with for the sake of a cohesive album. “We had the intention of writing a natural progression from our last record… but we also wanted it to be darkadelic and experimental and pop enough for people to grab ahold of,” says Barthel.

Interestingly, despite Phantogram’s heavily electronic sound, Barthel hasn’t always been the biggest fan of one of the genre’s most enduring elements: remixes. “It’s always been a tough thing to understand, and I think that’s just the time and the place in which I grew up,” she says. “I never really understood the reasoning behind changing a song that’s already written and experienced – what’s done is done to me. Why spend the time changing a song when you could write a brand new song?”

And maybe that’s because, for Barthel and Carter, the experience of a track is sacred – “songwriting is just as important to us as the production and the beats and the samples and everything else,” she says. It’s the same reason they’re resolute about performing as much of their music live as possible. “When you first figure [a song] out, you always envision it live without backing tracks, because otherwise you lose the essence and the energy as a band,” she explains. “We aren’t DJs, so we can only get away with so much [pre-recorded material]. We try to stay true to ourselves as musicians.”

Barthel, however, explains that she’s changed her tune on remixes in recent times. “I’ve been understanding and realising that they’re actually a lot of fun. We love doing them and we love hearing them.” She notes that Future Islands’ take on ‘Black Out Days’ is among her favourites: “It almost sounds like a cover song of theirs but with my vocals. It’s cool to hear a band leave their own touch on your music.”

And maybe that’s why Phantogram began walking their electronic tightrope in the first place: a desire to make new music bearing the marks of older styles and people. As for where it’ll take them in the future isn’t yet determined – Barthel says she’d love to work with brass or strings if the opportunity arises, and jokes that she isn’t opposed to adding some sax into the mix… just maybe not her own. “Maybe it wouldn’t be me playing because I don’t remember how to, but hey, you never know,” she laughs.

What’s clear is that it’ll be on her and Carter’s terms: “if we wanted a string quartet, for us, that would be using a mellotron and violin samples; chopping things up and making things on our own.”

First published on Pagesdigital.