Saturday turned out to be a typical day for Mancunians; grey and wet and one in which you’re much happier being indoors. But I was off to meet incredibly hip two piece Phantogram, so I braved the weather. Manchester did its best at welcoming the duo from Upstate New York by ensuring it was raining all day, but keyboard player/vocalist Sarah Barthel and guitarist/vocalist Josh Carter were in good spirits when we met. The day before saw them play at Brighton’s annual Great Escape Festival, where they got to do a bit of exploring, as Sarah told me “That was a great vibe, just cool to go around the city and see a bunch of shows, it was nice to be a part of that.

The European tour kicked off in Paris earlier in the week, and besides the touristy attractions, the band also got to perform in a super cool club. Sarah “We played this really cool venue that David Lynch designed – this bar, super exclusive, members only club. David Lynch designed the whole thing in a basement in this weird place in Paris.” Having just finished with both seasons of Twin Peaks, I was intrigued to find out more. Amidst talk of red drapes, zig-zag black and white flooring and odd optical illusions, the band put the venue across pretty much how you’d expect a venue designed by David Lynch to be. Josh “Really trippy, really cool.” Sarah “Very dark, really creepy – exactly what you would expect. That was fun.

Having only recently discovered Phantogram, I was eager to discover how the duo formed. Josh “We’re from upstate New York and we got started about five years ago, we started making music together. I was working on some of my solo material and then I asked Sarah if she wanted to sing on it, and it sounded really cool to us and we decided to start a band.” Fairly typical beginnings, but it’s quite amazing how quickly everything came together for them.  “We started writing ‘Eyelid Movies’ and we worked on that, and got picked up by a label and a booking agent and started touring the US. We’ve just sort of hit the ground running and been touring for a long time now and just writing music. ‘Voices’ is our second full length, and we released an EP in-between ‘Eyelid Movies’ and ‘Voices’ called ‘Nightlife’ and yeah, we love what we do, we’re happy to do it.”

The pair seem really comfortable in each other’s presence, and it’s clear that they have a really good friendship. Luckily for them, this translates into their writing. Josh – “We hang out all the time when we’re not writing or on tour, we’re just good friends. So getting together to write is just – often we’ll try to carve out some time in Upstate New York, ‘cus we live in New York City, so often we retreat to Upstate New York in a barn or rural kinda area. We just put our heads together and sometimes we just jam over a simple drum machine rhythm, or we’ll bring separate ideas that either of us came up with together and work that way, or we’ll work independent from one another and just kinda trade off every few hours when we either get stuck or just a little bit bored of what we’re working on, the other one will take over – That’s kinda how we work. There’s no specific formula though, we just work really well together, we hang out a lot.”

‘Voices’ is the new record from Phantogram, out in the UK at the tail end of June. It follows on from their debut full length ‘Eyelid Movies’ and EP ‘Nightlife.’ The new records sees the band expanding on their sound, as Sarah explains “We grew a lot in the past five years since we’ve been working together; played a lot of shows and learned a lot about how we wanted to sound on record, ‘cus we realised we wanted to sound heavier and harder and louder from touring so much. So we ended up bringing that idea to the table before we started recording the record for Voices, so you can definitely hear the difference in that – a lot more dynamics, a lot more experimentation of using sounds and movement and a lot of…we play around more of psychedelic, darkadelic but also continue to maintain like experimental pop



The main thing I can gather from the group is their continual growth. With this record and their live shows, Phantogram are all about pushing forward and experimenting more. “We got to play a lot with different pieces of equipment that we got our hands on; with analogue synthesizers and guitar peddles, a lot more records and stuff that Josh sampled on, so there’s a lot more. It’s an organic growth of our other records.” Josh “I’d say it’s a louder more intense record in parts. Sarah’s vocals – to me – sound more soulful than previous works, whereas the other works she was a bit more wispier sounding. There’s some more aggressive guitar sounds on the new album. The beats on this album, there’s more low end. The production quality is a bit better because we actually had somewhat of a budget to make this album, whereas the first records were soley produced by me and we just didn’t have the money to get them professionally mixed or mastered. The new record has a co-producer named John Hill – It’s always good to have a third pair of ears on everything as well. That’s the main difference, but it still has all the main elements of, I guess typical Phantogram – it sounds like us.”

The album has spawned two music videos, both of which are visually stunning. ‘Black Out Days’ is a very arty affair, whilst ‘Fall In Love’ is a lot more stripped back and is more focused on the band’s performance. On the filming for the latter, Josh “My personal favourite video that we’ve ever done is the video for ‘Fall In Love’, I really feel like that matched – I think I can speak for the two of us – what we’re really going for aesthetically as artists, and the visuals are a nice pairing with what we create song wise. That was done with Timothy Saccenti who did our album artwork and a guy named Joshua Davis who did the live projections in black and white on us. Both videos from the new album were shot in a day.”

Later on that night, Phantogram arrive on stage to a packed house at The Ruby Lounge, accompanied by two others – a live drummer and a seemingly jack of all trades guitarist/keyboard player/button pusher. The additional musicians provide a bigger, much fuller sound, something which the duo seem intent on creating. It was three songs in before they properly addressed the crowd, and that remained the theme for the rest of the night. It’s refreshing to see. I’m not massively into bands that feel the need to talk in-between every song, having to make awkward chit chat. Some bands are good at it, some aren’t – if you’ve got nothing to say, just keep it short and simple and focus on playing. I don’t see it as detrimental to the performance, if anything I’m happy that they keep the music flowing. It’s not that Phantogram are against speaking to the crowd – they do on numerous occasions, mentioning the new record and how happy they are to be back in Manchester – but it never gets in the way of the music.

The set really flies by for me, and the new tracks from ‘Voices’ sound great. I love new single ‘Fall In Love’, and it sounds just as impressive live as it does on record. The new songs are greeted with approval from the crowd too, who remain appreciative and loud throughout the night.
Vocally, Sarah really is fantastic. As alluded to in the interview earlier in the day, she’s become a lot more soulful with her singing voice, but there are times when she really holds a high note and it sounds great. The whole band give it their all, and yet make it seem pretty effortless – They are cool New Yorker’s after all…

When it comes to the live shows, the band are feeling good about the reception they’ve been getting. Talking about the response the band have received for their live shows, as well as their latest record, Sarah says it’s “…Great, all positive. We’ve been selling out almost every show in the States, and we’ve just finished our second tour over there, and now we’re just really excited about the release for Europe and the UK, we’ve been waiting for it. So far everyone seems to be vibing on it, so we’re happy. It’s been done for a while, the record, so we’ve kinda had a wait – it’s been finished and mastered for about a year now…To finally see it come out, for people to hear it for once, we’ve been looking forward to it for a while now.”

Talking with Josh and Sarah, I get the impression that Phantogram are very much always on tour. After a length of shows in the US, Australia, and then back around Europe to promote the records’ release, they fly out to the US for yet another run of shows! With the album being ready for so long, the question surfaces – what next?

Josh “Basically we’re just gonna be on tour for the whole time, but we’re starting to work on new music. In this interview and I was thinking last night when I couldn’t sleep – since our record has been done for so long, we’ve been working on some new stuff but I think it’s time to really hone in on new material. I cant wait to release new stuff. We have a lot of ideas, so we’re gonna start doing that. The only problem with tour is, it’s really tough ‘cus you’re so busy on tour, you have limited space ‘cus you’re on a bus or in a small hotel room, or setting up or running around or doing interviews and stuff like that, so hopefully we can carve out time to work on this new record. We’re also working on a record with Big Boi as well, so we have different projects going on. There’s this Sergeant Peppers cover that we’re gonna be doing with The Flaming Lips that we have to get done, so we’re busy (laughs) super busy. It’s fun.”

As the band come back on stage for the encore in record time (I’m not sure If i’d even had time to blink between them going off and coming back on…), it’s clear why they’re very much wowing crowds all over. Phantogram put on a great show in Manchester, and left me feeling pretty pumped up after the gig. They’re back this way around June, you’ll probably see me at the bar.

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Andy Hughes

Hi, I'm Andy.I'm the man behind Birthday Cake for Breakfast, a site featuring music news, reviews and interviews.Big believer in Birthday Cake, Pizza, math rock and beer (preferably all in one sitting.) I spend my mornings daydreaming about gigs and my evenings going to gigs. Lunch times are spent walking about town listening to Tom Waits.'Id rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy'