A phantogram is an optical illusion that makes you woozy; Phantogram is a musical duo that toys with hip-hop beats, sleek vocals, and feral guitars in a way that creates a similar hallucinatory effect. Although Sarah Barthel (keyboards/vocals) and Josh Carter (guitar) live upstate in Saratoga Springs (pop. 26,186), they often retreat even farther from civilization to their barn/recording studio, Harmony Lodge, where there aren’t any complaining neighbors, and they’re free to fiddle with pedals, test the limits of distortion, and let their imaginations run amok. Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), their full-length debut, is the result; we recently chatted with Sarah and Josh from Brooklyn about their recording hideout, visually driven creative process, and skill at standing out from the MySpace masses.
So you’ve been friends since junior high. I admire that commitment. Were you in the same P.E. class or something?
Sarah: We’ve known each other for maybe 11 or 12 years. We went to preschool together, but we didn’t know each other then, so we didn’t really meet until junior high. My sister was actually friends with Josh, and we kind of met through that way; I moved into town and our neighbors were best friends with Josh … we kind of lived right on the corner, we called it the crossroads, where all the kids would hang out and skateboard and throw tennis balls at each other.
Did you have one of those pacts, like “In 10 years, if neither one of us makes it, we’ll start a band?”
Sarah: (laughter) No, it didn’t work out like that.
So when you busted out of Greenwich, Josh, you were in NYC with your band, Grand Habit… Sarah, you pursued a visual-arts degree. You were going down two distinct avenues… how did you reunite? Were you keeping in touch during this time
Josh: No, not really. We were home for the holidays, around Christmastime, and we randomly ran into each other and rekindled our friendship and started hanging and eventually started trading music, which led to working on music together. I wanted to work on something different. With my previous band, I liked what we were doing, but I wanted to go in my own direction, and that direction ended up being the template for Phantogram. So I had been working on my home recordings and demos, and Sarah lent a hand and laid down some vocals and helped me finish some tunes, and that’s how we started Phantogram together.
Sarah: I was at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. It’s a really small school near the University of Vermont. I just wasn’t satisfied with the medium that I was working with being creative, and I’d always wanted to be in a band. I’ve been singing my whole life, like in afterschool clubs and in a female chorus, high school musicals and in college. I also played piano. I played by ear, but I had no training. But I never thought it was possible, and luckily, when I moved back and met up with Josh, it worked it out, and we did just want we wanted to do.
Your songs feel so…cinematic. Like “Mouthful of Diamonds” would be playing during the breakup scene, when the starlet turns her back and walks away. I mean, your name and Eyelid Movies‘ title acknowledges that connection: How do you inject this visual quality into your songs?
Josh: When we were writing a lot of the songs for the album, what we would do, more or less, is brainstorm as we were jamming, and from one another we’d be like, “Picture this scenario going on,” or a certain visual.
Sarah: “Picture someone being in an open field and there’s nobody around, but they’re in desperate need of help,” or something like that, and we’d build that emotion with the music.
Josh: Even the title track, “Running from the Cops,” the reason why we named it that was because when we were writing it, we were trying to imagine this high-speed chase. Almost like the beginning scene from Vertigo, like jumping from building top to building top, running away from the police. That’s how we write a lot of our tunes.
With Harmony Lodge, why did you choose to remove yourself from civilization?
Josh: Well we’re from the boondocks anyway, so it’s not really anything new for us to be out in the middle of nowhere. The barn is on my parents’ property so it makes it a lot cheaper than paying for a rehearsal space. And it’s just a great space. I’ve been building a home studio for the past six or seven years. It’s just a lot of noise. And really late at night, we’re not bothering any neighbors.
Sarah: Sometimes we get some free dinners when we’re over there.
Josh: We can always walk to my parents’ house and get some food.
Sarah: Yeah, snack attack.
Any issues recording there? Neko Case recorded her last album on a farm and said it was “very creaky. There’s a lot of places where windows are missing. It’s pretty noisy.”
Sarah: It’s definitely not noisy. Extremely cold, quiet, desolate. And we had a rat problem. Rats were running around our feet and above us and along the walls.
Josh: We got some cats put in there to take care of the rat problem. The biggest problem with recording the album was that it was really cold. All the time.
I bet it’s hard to play with mittens on your hands.
Josh: Yeah, and hard to play those crazy solos.
Does it ever get blood-chillingly scary, recording in the barn?
Josh: Yeah, sometimes late at night. If we’ve been recording all day and Sarah ends up leaving and I’m there alone, I’ll lock the door. It gets a little creepy, especially if you smoke a joint.
Sarah: We’ve got a dog that takes care of animals that might come on the property, like deer or bear or wolf. He’s the sweetest dog in the world, and if a serial killer came up and wanted to hang out, he’d be so excited it was a person that he wouldn’t protect us.
Josh: But really, it’s not that scary. And we’re used to it.
There’s this spooky quality to your songs, but also this reassuring serenity. How has working in a pristine environment, with few people around, affected your music?
Josh: Because we were out in the countryside in a very serene area, it just allowed for us to take in all these feelings of desolation and isolation. That feeling of being cold and in the wintertime and really out there affected our lyricism.
Sarah: It definitely affected our emotions. When you seclude yourself for weeks at a time, which we did, we would spend five or six days in the garage/barn doing recording and writing, then we would go back to some civilization for one night or so, but sometimes that’s not enough. You have to go back to secluding yourself from everybody, and it brings a lot of emotion out in you. It makes your imagination go wild. You have to keep yourself entertained.
You’ve dubbed your music, “street beat/psych pop.” How did you absorb hip-hop and urban rhythms into your music when you’ve been hiding out upstate?
Josh: We have an eclectic taste. We were recently really into Madlib and J Dilla and Max Wonder kind of beats, and hip-hop instrumental stuff, but we’re also into a lot of indie rock. The exposure originally came from reading lots of magazines or blogs and figuring out over time what kind of music we find intriguing. We were really compelled by underground, dirty-sounding hip-hop music.
When you started performing, was it rattling to be put in front of a staring crowd of people when you’d been otherwise secluded?
Josh: Not really. We played our first show after we had written two songs, so we got really used to playing shows as soon as we started as a band. Writing, recording, and playing shows all happened simultaneously.
Sarah: We didn’t play too much when we were writing the record. I think we played a handful of shows before we started finishing the record and after we started a lot around the area. We were able to build up a nice little fan base in our hometown and the other towns around Saratoga.
How does an unknown band with such remote origins go about attracting a fairly big label’s attention, and one on the other side of the country at that?
Josh: It was kind of cool. There’s this guy named Eric Cannon who works for this radio promotional called Spectre out of Portland, OR, and he was just surfing the Web and he happened to stumble on our MySpace page, and he really liked our music and emailed us and asked us if we were planning on putting out an album, and we said yes. Eventually he knew somebody that works at Barsuk Records and told them to check us out, and they ended up really liking our music. Eventually they flew us out to Seattle, and we played a show, and it made sense. We’re really lucky for it to happen. It was serendipitous.
Phantogram performs at Mercury Lounge Friday, February 12