Like all great relationships, it started with a healthy dose of Internet stalking. Well, kind of. After Big Boi came across Phantogram online and posted a song from the duo as the “Song of the Day” on his website, the two camps exchanged a couple of tweets before meeting up at Outside Lands in 2011. Something clicked, and before long the three musicians got together in the studio. They emerged with three songs for Big Boi’s 2012 Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors and a desire to keep going.
“We all push each other on all fronts: from production to lyrically. It’s like [we’re] scientists, and we’re really just trying to discover that new sound,” says Big Boi. “It’s very gratifying when you can be in a room with two other people that are as passionate about music as you are.”
The chemistry snowballed into Big Grams, a creative outlet that brings out the best of both parties while pushing them to try new things. Their self-titled debut EP, released in September via Epic, has taken what the collaboration has already revealed through various cameos at one another’s shows and expanded upon it.
“It was mostly just experimental — I mean, we wanted to do a bunch of things that we potentially might not necessarily do on our separate records,” says Sarah Barhtel, one-half of Phantogram. For her, pushing boundaries meant delving into spoken word. “it actually ended up being awesome, because it was something that I never thought would happen.”
Evidence of this collaborative thinking extends to the guests on the album, namely Skrillex and Run The Jewels, who contributed to “Drum Machine” and “Born to Shine,” respectively. They were particular about the collaborations, drawing from longtime collaborators and close friends, since their own dynamic relies so heavily on a mutual respect for one another’s art.
“It’s all just three friends doing best friends shit,” says Josh Carter, Barhtel’s other half and the duo’s producer. He, too, delves into some spoken word on the EP — they call it “tralien,”a fusion of trap and alien — while Big Boi gets outside of his usual pattern with some singing.
“There’s nothing that can’t be done,” says Big Boi. “I think that’s how the collaboration works so well — we all just have vision, and when you put it together you’ve just really got this Frankenstein put together with different grooves and styles that just can’t be touched.”
Between the trap aliens and the mad scientists and the Frankensteins, the trio’s description of the recording process quickly sounds like an episode from a far-out comic. Truthfully, that aesthetic isn’t far off. In the studio, old school cartoons like American Pop and Fritz the Cat played on mute in the background almost constantly, providing an ambient distraction that seeped into the songs.
“If you do the same thing [when listening], it’s actually pretty amazing because it brings you into that place,” says Barthel. “A lot of the inspiration for the record, especially “Born to Shine” and “Run for Your Life,” was pulled from those kinds of images and ideas.”
Fans won’t have to look far to get into the stoned-out spirit for either of those two tracks — they’re being brought to life with their own cartoons early next year — but visuals will continue to be a focus for the performers in their live shows, too.
For now, their only headlining gig to date as Big Grams is slated for Irving Plaza on December 21, and despite significant back-and-forth bringing one another out for shows together in the past, the significance of the opportunity to appear together as a singular unit isn’t lost on the trio.
“Between Big Boi and OutKast and us, Phantogram, there’s no box: we don’t work within any realm of boundaries,” says Carter. The excitement surrounding Big Grams’ future is compounded by the fact that Big Boi and Phantogram are both working on their respective third albums, too, and the momentum from the work they’ve done together has only fed into their other pursuits.
“I think next year’s gonna be real exciting to see, with all the touring. And we got more records coming,” says Big Boi. “As a unit we’ll probably be performing all over the place. And separately, once we drop our own albums, you never know — you might get a Big Grams and a Phantogram and a Big Boi show all into one. We might just take over.”
Big Grams plays Iriving Plaza December 21. For ticket information, click here.