Phantogram Singer-Guitarist Talks About the Band's Latest Album in Advance of Its House of Blues Show

When Phantogram initially began touring shortly after forming in 2007, singer-guitarist Josh Carter and singer-keyboardist Sarah Barthel took a DIY approach to their tours.

“We used to play in places for like five people a night and tour in a Prius and sleep in Walmart parking lots,” says Carter, who brings the band to House of Blues on July 14. “We’ve come a long way as a band.”

Carter and Barthel, who both grew up in upstate New York and even attended the same preschool, have been friends since they were kids. Initially, they moved out of town and played in other bands before deciding to collaborate after returning to upstate New York.

“I was in a band in New York with my brother right after high school,” Carter explains. “Sarah went to college in Vermont. I decided I wanted to pursue my own music. I quit the band I was in and moved back to upstate New York. Sarah had just graduated from college. We rekindled our friendship and dated for a few years and about three years into us dating, I asked her to sing on some of the stuff I was working on, and it sounded really good, so we started a band together.”

Carter says he started writing songs in “all different kinds of ways.”

“With Phantogram, I’ll make a beat and find some interesting things to sample and write around it,” he says. “My approach to playing guitar, especially on the Phantogram album, is to compliment the bass-y synths. We try our best to complement each other and not overpower each other or get too noodle-y.”

The internet played a big role in helping expose the band in the early days. After the group posted a few tunes to its MySpace page, which at the time was a good way for indie bands to release music, a Portland, Oregon-based firm reached out to see if the band had an album ready to go.

“They asked if we had a record out and naturally I lied and said yes because I was super excited,” says Carter. “We had only written two songs. To make a long story short, [the PR company] brought us to the attention of [the indie label] Barsuk, and it’s been going full steam ahead from there.”

At the time, the band’s mix of indie rock sensibilities with electronic music was unprecedented.

“When we started, we were pretty fresh and original,” says Carter. “Now, I see more and more of this sound coming out of many bands. I don’t know if we helped blaze the trail for a certain type of sound or if we’ve been instrumental in forging that sound. At the time, we were fed up with the current music. There was too much four-on-the-floor disco indie happening. I liked some of that stuff for sure, but I was more interested with stuff with a hip-hop influence and indie and shoegaze and all different things blended together.”

The songs on Three represent another intoxicating blend of styles. Highlights include the album opener “Funeral Pyre,” a tune that features fuzzy bass lines and whispered vocals, and “Same Old Blues,” a song that relies upon soulful vocals and snippets of snarling guitars. A surge of synthesizers kicks off “Cruel World,” a trip-hop-inflected tune that recalls Portishead and Tricky with its ominous sounding sonic textures, and Barthel effectively raps her way through "Calling All."

“We started writing independently outside of the studio,” says Carter when asked about the songwriting process for the album. “I’m constantly making beats. The song ‘Answer’ I wrote when I was 21. I wrote that a while ago. I have all kinds of beats and ideas laying around. Sarah has all kinds of ideas lying around. When we go through the process of making a record, we sift through things and we see what catches each other attention and go from there. Tragedy ended up shaping the songs. I think it’s a beautiful album, but it was the death of Sarah’s sister, who was one of my best friends, that informs many of the songs, and a lot of pain went into the record. Her death influenced the album as a whole, including the artwork."

With its spoken vocals, the sparse “Barking Dog” resembles a Peter Gabriel tune from the '80s.

“Yeah. I get that a lot,” says Carter when asked about the comparison. “People say I sound like Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins. I don’t know much of their music but I take it as a compliment. What I’ve heard, I like.”

For the live show, the band expands to include two backing players.

“We have a live drummer, who plays live drums and drum sampler, and a multi-instrumentalist who plays samples and keyboards — whatever is necessary,” says Carter. “It’s awesome. It was just the two of us before and that was fun, but this frees us up to move around more on stage and interact with the audience. It’s not as much of a juggling challenge as it was before.”

Phantogram, 7 p.m. Friday, July 14, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $28-$36,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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