A conversation with Sarah Barthel of Phantogram

By Andy Goh

October 27, 2016

The last two years have been bittersweet for New York-based electro-indie-hip-hop band Phantogram. Riding the massive commercial and critical success of Voices, their 2014 LP, the duo (composed of vocalist Sarah Barthel and producer/guitarist Josh Carter) collaborated with Big Boi of OutKast for the seven song EP Big Grams, which fulfilled a dream they had of working with one of hip-hop’s elite.

Fast forward to January 2016, and just days after the passing of David Bowie, one of the band’s major influences, Sarah’s sister Becky passed away from a suicide. Phantogram was in the middle of producing their third studio LP, Three, when it happened, and forced the duo to take a break from recording. They returned to the studio heavy with emotions, but refreshed and ready to finish the album.

With Three now out in stores, online and a full world tour to support it, Phantogram brings their gritty electronic sound to Charlotte at the Fillmore on Saturday.

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Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter of Phantogram. Photo by Tim Saccenti

We caught up with Sarah Barthel to talk about what makes Josh Carter’s beats unique, how they opened up to a collaboration with Big Boi and what affect their personal tragedy had on their new album.

CLTure: The last time you were in Charlotte was in June of 2014 with Shaun White’s band Bad Things. What stood out to you about Charlotte during that show?

SB: We love Charlotte. It’s the good fans that are coming out to see you, which is great about every smaller market that we hit. The audience is wild and they have a blast. They’re really happy that you’re there and that the music is coming through. You can’t beat it.

CLTure: Let’s talk about your musical background. Growing up, did you have any formal music experience singing, writing producing?

SB: Not training at all, I didn’t go to school for it. I just taught myself.

CLTure: Was that through singing songs that you like?

SB: Yeah, singing along to the radio, I guess. I was singing along with bands I liked, then started writing and started playing instruments. After that, I had a piano at my house growing up, I used to play around and write things, but that was about it.

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Charlotte, NC June 25, 2014 at The Fillmore. Photo by Jim Dimitroff for CLTure

CLTure: What’s the songwriting process like? Does it still start with one of Josh’s beats (producer Josh Carter)?

SB: Most of my inspiration from the beat comes from Josh making it cool. I like to snag it from him. I’m instantly inspired by it. It’s fun to write with just a guitar, it’s fun to write with my laptop or with production of my own, but the thing that really gets me going is the uniqueness of Josh’s beats. They’re just inspiring.

CLTure: In your opinion, what makes Josh’s beats unique?

SB: His sampling and the way he does it is so obscure and different from anything out there. It’s not like he’s just taking the snare with a kick and putting it on loop and then the rest falls into place. It’s like he’s drawing a picture. It’s just unique. I’m his biggest fan.

CLTure: When you’re performing on stage, you’re often in heels with straight hair and a leather moto jacket. How would you describe your style?

SB: It’s kind of a masculine thing, but I always need my heels to give me the motivation. It makes me feel more like I’m performing. I wear heels offstage, but I tend to dress a little more casually. I think it’s important to tap into your performer side when you’re onstage and be a little different than what you are offstage.

CLTure: When you’re performing onstage, are you still Sarah Barthel or do you slip into an alter-ego of sorts?

SB: No, I’m me. I’m 100% me at all times. I just have a lot of different sides of myself. A certain kind of Sarah comes out when I’m onstage than in my normal life.

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Big Boi, Sarah Barthel, and Josh Carter as Big Grams

CLTure: Y’all have recently collaborated with some big names such as Miley Cyrus, A-Track, The Flaming Lips, the-Dream and of course Big Boi. What has caused you to be more open and collaborative about the music making process versus when you started and you kept a lot of your music close to the vest?

SB: It’s just been fun to switch things up. As an artist, you can get stuck in your own head. When you don’t let someone to listen to your stuff because you’re not sure of it, that’s the beginners way of becoming an artist and creating. But once you’re feeling confident in what you’re doing and you’re getting reassurement from people, the rest is kind of fun because you can open up and you’re not afraid to collaborate and that’s kind of where we’re at now, which is pretty awesome.

CLTure: Let’s talk about Big Boi a little bit. You first got onto his radar when he heard the single “Mouthful of Diamonds,” which turned into y’all collaborating on three tracks from “Vicious Lies” and “Dangerous Rumors,” and then of course the Big Grams project in 2015. Why is Big Boi such a good fit, musically, for a collaborative project with Phantogram?

SB: It’s great because with OutKast, there’s no box, there’s no limit. We’ve always looked up to OutKast in that way. Our biggest motivation is to make music that we want to hear. We want it to be fresh, we want it to be new and something that’s never been done before in one way or another. That’s why Big Grams fits so well because we think alike. We think like Big Boi, Big Boi thinks like us, so it’s easy. It was a project that was just supposed to be fun and stress free. It was a blast.

CLTure: Were you ever worried about the Big Grams project diluting the Phantogram sound or brand?

SB: No, it’s a completely different project. It’s not Phantogram, it’s Big Grams. It’s not OutKast, it’s Big Grams. It’s just a different project. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, we’ve always wanted to collaborate with a hip-hop artist and were lucky to do it with Big Boi.

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Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of Phantogram

CLTure: 2016 has been a pretty crazy year with the passing of musical icons such as David Bowie, Prince and George Martin of the Beatles. You personally have had a bad experience in January with your sister, Becky, passing away (from suicide). Talk about how all that personal struggle influenced the production of the new Phantogram album Three.

SB: As an artist, you put what you are, who you are and what you’re experiencing into your music. Every person’s got a struggle to their life on one side. There’s also happiness too. As an artist, you need to find that balance between the dark and the light. That’s what this record represents.

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