On its Barsuk Records debut, “Eyelid Movies,” atmospheric New York duo Phantogram pulls off an impressive trick that belies its relatively young age: resurrecting the ambience of moody ’90s trip-hop while subtly moving the genre forward with stuttering synth beats, haunting melodies and danceable chord progressions.
Combining a handful of chopped-up, experimental sounds with indie rock accessibility and beds of shoegazing distortion is by no means unique, but Phantogram makes it sound natural — and even inevitable — despite Sarah Barthel (keyboards, vocals) and Josh Carter’s (guitar, vocals) attempts to inject a streetwise grittiness to the music. It’s a trick that has recently garnered praise from taste-makers such as Pitchfork, Spin, NPR and the Village Voice.
We talked to Carter in advance of Phantogram’s headlining slot at the Larimer Lounge on Thursday, May 13, with Light Pollution and Tommy Metz (of Denver’s Iuengliss) about the band’s inception, its name and the secret Barthel was hiding from him all along.
Question: Both of you are originally from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., right?
Answer: We’ve been really good friends since about 9th grade. We actually went to nursery school together, so we’ve been around each other our whole lives, but good friends since high school.
How old are you?
We’re both 27.
How do you think your friendship translates into your music?
Things just kind of clicked because we have a good understanding of one another. We’re also not afraid to say what’s on our mind, so we don’t have to bullshit with each other. A lot of people who know us like to talk about how we look on stage. They often say it looks like we’re very comfortable with each other and that they can sense a good connection, which is totally true. We have fun together. We just try to take it easy and play music that we like and look at each other, although occasionally we get each other laughing on stage, even though we’re playing serious music.
How did the band start?
Sarah went to college in Burlington, Vt. I was down in New York City playing in band with my brother and ended up leaving that band to pursue the ideas that eventually became the blueprint for the first Phantogram record. Sarah moved back to Saratoga as well, so we were both in this transitional period in our lives and didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do. We were both waiting tables and she was also working on a lot music and we were both hanging out a lot. Then I noticed she had something she had hidden from me the whole time we were friends, which was that she had a great voice and was really fantastic on piano as well. So I asked her if she’d be willing to collaborate and sing on one of my tracks. It came out really cool so we decided to start a band.
How long ago was that?
In 2007. We were called Charlie Everywhere, which was an inside joke name. We had two songs written and for some reason wanted to get out there and play and see what we could do. But we would have been stuck with that name, so once we realized that record companies were showing interest and our name was getting out beyond New York state, we realized it might be a good time to change our name to one we actually like and feel fits our sound.
And how does it fit your sound?
Well, we were thinking of Phantom Hands or Ghost Hands or something along those lines. But every time we had an idea we’d look up online and find there’s a million bands out there with a million cool names that have already been taken by some teengers in Ohio or something. So we were thinking that and then I said, “Well, what about Phantogram?” I thought it sounded cool, so we looked up what it was and the optical illusion description seemed to fit us very well — being a two dimensional-image that pops out in three dimensions. We’re a two-piece band that creates stereophonic sounds.
I’ve read you two write and record in a remote barn in upstate new York called Harmony Lodge. Are your musician friends jealous that you have your own little bat cave like that?
I don’t think so because a lot of our friends who are musicians have their own bat caves. In the area that we live it’s not to hard to find a cool place to rehearse for pretty cheap. I mean, we’re very fortunate to have a place that’s free on my parents’ property. We get free meals out of it and a place to crash if we’re up all night working on music. Only we have cooler equipment… just kidding.
I saw Phantogram play at South by Southwest this year in a packed day show at the Mohawk and you sounded fantastic. How was the experience for you?
It was our second year. We played last year and last year was really hectic. We didn’t know what we were getting into. We had a few shows lined up but didn’t realize that everything’s very rushed and you have to set up really quick and play, then get your ass off the stage. This year was incredible for us. We had a great time and people actually knew who we were and came to see us perform.
You’re on a relatively lengthy tour at the moment. Is it your biggest so far?
This tour runs into Mid-may and we’ve got 16 dates with the Antlers, then we headline our own tour on the way back to the east coast. Is it the biggest? We went to Europe in November and did a month straight, so that was long. But this is going be about almost two months on the road, and after this tour ends we’re just going to keep touring. So yeah, it’s definitely the longest.
You’re only a two-piece, but every band responds to touring differently. What are the challenges of that kind of schedule for you?
I guess just the realization of not being home or a particular place for more than 24 hours at a time. It’s something we expected, but once you actually experience never being in the same place and just traveling constantly you’re like, “Wow…” When we first started touring we did five days in a row and I was like, “Man, I’m getting a little homesick.” So I think that was the biggest initial challenge — to make yourself comfortable and used to being on the road. So we just prep ourselves and make sure we buy snacks and enough cigarettes and listen to books on tape and make sure we have good music to listen to. We’re total road warriors now.
How did the deal with Barsuk Records come about?
They were a label that we had started talking to through a friend of a friend. Basically, there was company called Spectra Entertainmet out of Portland, Ore., and they somehow stumbled across us and really liked our music and wanted to do the college radio for our record. And our friend Eric worked at Spectra, so he floated our record over to Barsuk and the people at Barsuk really showed interest.
Were you guys psyched about that?
Barsuk is a label we’ve always really admired and liked and as soon as we started talking to them we felt a certain kinship that we hadn’t felt with other people. So it just kind of made sense. It felt really good.
Was the record finished at that point?
Pretty much. We ended up resquencing it, but our record’s been done for about two years now. We wrote and recorded it when we first started as a band initially just to have at our local shows. It was kind of cool and surprising that people started catching on so fast.
Is it tough knowing that people are judging your recorded output by something you did over two years ago?
Sure. I think anybody or any artist would say if they could change this, that or the other thing they probably would. But we’re happy with our record and people seem to be responding well. And I just can’t wait to make another record.
No, probably in 2011. But we’re writing right now and working on new material. And speaking of touring, one thing that we’re excited about for this tour is that we bought some recording equipment that we can bring on the road with us, and a little Martin guitar, just so we can be artistic and creative while we’re touring instead of feeling stagnant.
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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.