Sleight of mind
The aural illusions of Phantogram
By Matthew Singer 02/20/2014
Phantogram used to make music for the movies playing in their heads. Now they write songs for actual movie stars.
“Bill Murray,” from the electro-pop duo’s lavish new album Voices, isn’t about the titular comic actor. But as they molded the tune’s twinkling xylophones and gently humming synths, his hangdog visage — that of Lost in Translation more than Meatballs — kept popping into their minds.
“Because we’re such visual writers, we were talking about the song and how we kept picturing a somber Bill Murray, like in that scene in Rushmore where he jumps off the diving board and just sits at the bottom of the pool,” says producer-guitarist Josh Carter. “Then we were like, ‘Why don’t we name the song “Bill Murray?’ ”
And hey, if the title eventually convinces Murray to appear in the video, that’s a bonus, right? Stranger things have happened to Carter and singer Sarah Barthel in the last five years, after all. Like having their music featured in films and TV shows and commercials for cameras and shavers. And being tapped for collaborations by the Flaming Lips and Big Boi of OutKast. And growing an audience far bigger than anticipated by their indie beginnings, and becoming the focus of a major-label bidding war.
It’s all more than they probably could’ve imagined when recording their debut back in 2009. Then again, Carter and Barthel have particularly active imaginations. As the title implies, Eyelid Movies, released on the independent Barsuk label, was meant to function as a soundtrack to the cinema of the subconscious. Exuding spy-flick stylishness with a hint of noirish danger in its mix of trip-hop beats and dream-pop guitars, the album evoked the stillness of night in a big city after all the bars have closed. Never mind that it was actually made in a converted barn in upstate New York. Apparently, when the members of Phantogram close their eyes, the film they see is set far from Saratoga Springs, the rural college town where they first got together.
Count everything that’s occurred since as a victory for self-actualization. In the intervening years, the band signed to Universal subsidiary Republic Records, moved to New York City and got the money to make the record it always envisioned. When it came time to start writing new songs, though, Phantogram found it difficult to conjure metropolitan unease while actually living it.
“We were writing in New York for a while, but our rehearsal space was really small,” Carter says. “No windows, and there were bands on either side of us. It was really distracting.”
And so they went back to the barn. Though it was finished in Los Angeles, Voices, Phantogram’s major-label coming-out, retains Eyelid Movies’ black-chrome cool and cinematic vividness. Appropriately for a big-budget sequel, though, the details are blown into widescreen. “Nothing But Trouble” opens the record with a thudding hip-hop drum break and transitions into a dark, grinding whir, the lead riff played on what sounds like a dial-up modem. The rumbling synths on “Fall In Love” are fat enough to rattle windows, even as the song is thrown into weightless free-fall by Barthel’s ice-breath vocals. Even the ballads, like the aforementioned “Bill Murray” and “Never Going Home,” feel grander and more dramatic. Carter credits producer John Hill, whose previous credits include work with Pink and Rihanna, for the record’s bombast.
“As heavy-hitting as we intended the first record to sound, we didn’t have necessarily the tools or budget to get it,” says Carter, who produced Eyelid Movies himself. “It’s a natural maturation of what we do as Phantogram.”
And so far, what Phantogram has done is pull off a skillful illusion, making music reflective of a world other than its own, which nonetheless feels authentically lived-in. At what point, though, does fantasy become artificiality? As the band gets bigger and its vision continues to magnify, won’t the flaws begin to show?
Carter, for his part, isn’t concerned. After all, in the Digital Age, geography ain’t nothing but a set of coordinates. Or, as the band itself puts it on Voices: “Ever have the feeling that you’ve constantly been dreaming? This is life.”
“When I was living in the country, I didn’t walk around with a piece of straw hanging out of my mouth and wearing cowboy boots,” Carter says. “We live in modern times. There’s the Internet. I grew up around bookstores. To add to that, there are a lot of country bands in New York City. So I don’t think your environment has that much play in what kind of music you decide to make.”
Phantogram will perform at the Ventura Theater on Sunday, Feb. 23.