Earlier this year, PHANTOGRAM released their second full-length album, Voices, and graced Berlin with an excellent live show at the Lido just last month. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION met up with Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, in the venue’s 70’s style lounge where we chatted about the evolution of their eclectic sound, and why this latest record is considered their best yet.
‘Voices’ has been quite well-received, with many people saying that it is the most together and tightly produced work PHANTOGRAM has released so far. For you, what major steps led to these changes in your music?
I think it has been a natural process, how we write and production wise I would say the biggest evolution came from touring so much on our first album and EP. On Eyelid Movies we wrote and recorded an album without really playing any live shows and actually not really having a fan base, but in the process of touring and playing all of those songs live they became something a little more, and started taking on a heavier energy. As a result the production on the new album is a bit heavier and we also had a budget as well.
At this point, do you have more of a live show in mind?
Josh: Yes, and now some of the parts in our songs are specifically written for our live shows, and also for the two other musicians playing with us during the concerts. So, Voices was really influenced by that.
Do you work with your live band on any of the production or songwriting?
Josh: No, Sara and I are still the only songwriters.
Your songs, especially the lyrics, tend to take on a darker tone. Would you say this theme is carried over onto ‘Voices’?
Sara: Yeah I would say so. I think the production on Voices brings out the darkness a little bit more, and you can really get that loud-heavy-screaming–but-nobody–can-hear-me kind of feel. That is also what we were going for, which could be described as ‘Darkadelic’ songs with undertones of psychedelic sounds. I think this combination can really be heard on songs like Nothing But Trouble and Bad Dreams.
Are the lyrics something you pay close attention to, or does the music come first?
Sara: Yes, definitely very important. We also like to keep our lyrics quite open, so people can have their own ideas about them. We don’t really write happy songs. [laughs]
You mention Lucy in both ‘When I’m Small’ and ‘Nothing But Trouble’, what is that a reference to?
Josh: We came up with that line as a way to bridge our two albums together and to kind of say: ‘Here we are again’. It is also a tip of the hat to THE BEATLES. We really like to line up the themes found in our music through our lyrics.
So, ‘Lucy’ isn’t based on a specific person?
Josh: The line is based on something very real. It is more of a personal thing for us that we like to keep open for interpretation
You have worked with a lot of big name collaborators, like Big Boi, how was that?
Sara: Yeah, we worked with him on the last album and it was really great .
You have described your sound as ‘street beat, psych pop’, and your music is often defined by a large range of eclectic influences from so many genres from shoegaze to hip-hop.
Sara: Yeah, exactly. Our work with Big Boi came together naturally for us. Josh’s production and beat making is very pop oriented and it is sort of the same thing with Big Boi and his work with OUTKAST.
If you had to choose from just one of your many musical influences and only focus on that one genre for a particular project, which one would you be most interested in exploring in-depth?
Josh: I think that is why we make the music that we make. We really don’t have the desire to lean towards one specific genre. If we had to, I might want to go towards some type of ‘gothic folk’ project if I had to go all or nothing.
Sara: Yeah, that would be cool. I think it would also be interesting to do something like a film score. Maybe something focused on just piano; I am really big fan of that.
Have you ever worked on music for a film before?
Sara: Not a full soundtrack, but we did do a song for The Hunger Games, but it wasn’t in the film.
I think film scores are really interesting because you are sort of assigned a sound, which some bands react well to, and others might feel too confined.
Sara: I have also heard that it can get pretty complicated, especially if you have to go back and change a lot of things, so it is generally a complex process.
Did you experience any of that when you wrote the song for ‘Hunger Games’?
Sara: No, not really.
Josh: Yeah it was pretty easy, because they just wanted a song from us and we already had one ready that we weren’t going to release, so it worked out well.
Where do you do most of your recording and writing?
Sara: We always do it in the US
Would you ever consider recording in a different city, like Berlin, and see what could come from that?
Josh: Yeah it’s not out of the question. A lot of ideas for our music have happened while we were out on tour. We might consider going to a city like Berlin or Paris, or maybe Toronto. The guy who co-produced the latest record threw out the idea of going to Jamaica sometime for a couple of weeks. That would be amazing, but there is the risk that I would just spend all my time on the beach…
I think different surroundings can influence your music so much, but of course there is always the possibility of getting wrapped up in a new experience and just loosing track of what you came there to do.
For our final question we always like to know: What do the words ‘hope’ and ‘passion’ mean to you?
Josh: Hope and Passion…. (thinks)
Sara: It a good representation of positive living. Everyone wants to have hope and passion in their life to allow them to master the things they love to do. There are some people who might not be passionate about anything and I feel sorry for them, because it is such a wonderful feeling to have that drive in your life.
Josh: Yeah, it is really the only way that you can be passionate is to have hope. The two really go hand in hand.