Phantogram Talks Major-Label Debut Following 'Unreal' Bidding War
After Phantogram released its debut album, "Eyelid Movies," in 2009 on indie label Barsuk Records, there was instantaneous demand for the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., act. The duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel quickly found themselves in the middle of an old--fashioned major-label bidding war. "It was unreal," Barthel recalls. "We were just touring, doing our thing, being on an indie label, and then all at once every label called us and said, 'We want you! Come here and we'll spend money on you for dinner and buy you Champagne!' Our lawyer calls it the best time of his life."
The artists selected Republic, primarily because they felt that senior VP of A&R Nate Albert understood how best to help them grow their fan base (and, as Barthel puts it, because "Nate is the man"). Phantogram officially signed in April 2012 and then took its time writing the songs for second album "Voices," out Feb. 18. Carter and Barthel decamped to a converted barn in upstate New York for two-and-a-half months in the summer of 2012 — a familiar experience, as they'd penned much of their previous material in similar spaces. "It's kind of where we always find ourselves—in a barn in the middle of nowhere," Barthel says.
"Voices" was later recorded with producer John Hill (P!nk, Rihanna, Santigold) at his Los Angeles studio the following summer. For Barthel, the most exciting thing was working with a producer for the first time, an experience that she feels took Phantogram's music above and beyond the last album.
"If we didn't have the money to go to a real producer, we would have just put these songs out, and they would've sounded like 'Eyelid Movies,' which we're proud of," she says. "But John helped us so much, and we're so happy with it."
Like the band's past work, the album is a confluence of styles and genres, with the lush pop aesthetic of Barthel's vocals floating over sample-heavy instrumentals, creating a collection of surging songs that owe equal tribute to shoegaze and trip-hop. For Albert, it's that unique blend that attracted him to the band.
"When I heard Phantogram, I heard the records they grew up listening to — hip-hop, rock, alternative, pop — all mixed together in this unselfconscious and honest way," Albert says. "This is how people listen to music today, and they're just mirroring that back to us."
Republic released a self-titled EP featuring four of the album's tracks in late September, leading with "Black Out Days" as the entry point for fans. The EP was presented as a partnership between Barsuk and Republic. For the new album, Barsuk heads Josh Rosenfeld and Wes Howerton will continue to manage the band, with Republic taking on label duties.
"The real value we did as a label for Phantogram was creating a cocoon in which they could make the record they needed to make without prodding them or pushing them, and helping mentor it," Albert says. "From a marketing standpoint it was about introducing them back to their fan base in a very honest way, which is saying that this is a team effort between Republic and Barsuk and the band."
Meanwhile, Phantogram appeared on three songs on Big Boi's acclaimed 2012 album, "Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors." The band's music also found placement on TV shows like CW's "The Originals" in the fall, while the track "Lights" was featured on the soundtrack to "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in November. Albert says these placements were never integral to the marketing campaign for "Voices," but believes they bolstered the album's first official single, "Fall in Love," which went to alternative radio on Jan. 7 (it's currently No. 22 on Alternative) and will hit triple A on Jan. 27.
"People have become more familiar with Sarah's voice because you hear her everywhere without it being jammed down your throat. Now that the single is out, that's why it's been more accessible to people."
Phantogram will head out on a brief stateside tour starting in February, and hit South by Southwest in March. There are plans for a full North American tour in April and a European trek in May. The band will also appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Feb. 19. There aren't yet plans for a second single, primarily because the label wants to gauge the public reaction one step at a time. "[We've] been reading things each day, like, 'Does this feel right?'" Albert says. "Culture is fluid—you can't jam something too much. You have to feel what people are digging."
Phantogram is feeling the flow as well — the act is already ahead of the curve for its next album. "When it was all flowing, we just picked from certain piles we wanted to turn into the record," Barthel says. "The songs on the album are all connected, but we left a lot behind—and we're still writing."