FESTIVAL SEASON 2017: Phantogram Shares Empathic Electronic at Lollapalooza
Story by: Erica Hawkins
Photos / Kris Fuentes Cortes
Phantogram are most comfortable existing in the sweet spot between delight and downhearted, as is evident in their latest offering, Three. The aptly named third studio album by the electronic duo, comprised of vocalist, keyboardist Sarah Barthel, and vocalist, guitarist Josh Carter, is full of a melancholy drenched dance worthy hits the duo is particularly skilled at conjuring up.
We caught up with them on the second day of Lollapalooza, right before their set and a day after their official after show, to chat with them about how visual arts play into their music and live performance, their ability to juxtapose light and dark in their music, and what drives them to keep it experimental in the studio.
If you had to compare shows like tonight at Lollapalooza and more intimate shows, which ones would you say are you favorite?
Sarah: They’re just different.
Josh: Very different. There’s a certain pumped up level you get at big festivals, playing in front of massive audiences rather than theaters and what we regularly do on tour. But, sometimes I prefer our own show because we can have our full on production and it’s dark in the club and we have our light show and everyone can see everything we put into it. But, I love both. It’s a little different we switch up our set list to cater more to a festival audience just to keep the energy up, but yeah they’re both fun, just very different.
Speaking of the light show during your own shows, I caught you guys in Atlanta, and your live setup is kinda crazy. Did you put a lot of thought into how the live set plays with your music?
Josh: Yeah, we put a lot of thought into it, Sarah has a good eye for that.
Sarah: Yeah we’re very visual writers when we write our music but we also really love visual arts, movies, and feelings connected to music. We kind of have these little ideas in our heads for what these different songs look like and kind of just use that inspiration to make a video, the lighting, light, dark, the strobes, different moments of the set. It’s important.
Josh: We try to make it psychological too because nobody wants to go to a rock show with basic lights. That’s boring, you might as well listen to the CD or the record or whatever. So we try to put out a real show that gives people a feeling and draws out emotion.
Speaking of emotion, I feel like the album Three had a lot of heavy themes but when you go to see it live you just want to dance. How do you juxtapose those two things, that heaviness, and that lightness?
Sarah: Well that’s kind of what we do, that’s who we are. That defines Phantogram; light, and dark. We have a lot of emotion in every single song. It means something to us and what we’ve lived, loved, and learned and lost and gained and everything that is us is in those songs. But live that’s what we love, we have this beautiful loneliness in the songs but you can dance to them. You can bob your head to them, and you connect to everyone around you.
Josh: All of our records have a dark nature behind them, but we enjoy that contrast, juxtaposition. Not only being able to write songs that you can bob your head to and dance to but even elements that we contribute sonically we like to mix a lot of genres together to make our own unique sound.
What do you feel drives that desire to be experimental in the studio?
Josh: That’s kind of been our modus operandi from the beginning because we were kind sick of hearing all these records where every song sounds the same. We’re big fans of The Beatles, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Outkast, Kanye West – people that continue to grow and change and not write albums where every song sounds the same. I was trying to listen to 21 Savage last night and it was like every song was the same song, like so boring to me. Not a diss to him, I know he’s popular, he might be a really nice guy, but people gravitate towards that. When you listen to a Beatles record every song is different and they’re constantly evolving and changing, or they were, and Pink Floyd and Radiohead and we’re definitely influenced by bands like that. I think it’s important as an artist, very important – otherwise, it gets stale and boring.
I feel like a lot of people have tried and failed to put you into a particular genre, if you had to create your own genre to explain Phantogram’s sound, what would it be called?
Sarah: Darkadelic experimental pop.
Josh: Or, just experimental pop.
Sarah: But darkadelic is such a cool word so you got to put it in there.
Josh: We’re a band that experiments a lot but tries to maintain a pop sensibility behind what we do.