Big Boi & Indie-Pop Duo Phantogram on Their Big Grams Side Project, 'Tralien' Music and Hitting the Strip Club With Dave Chappelle

Tim Saccenti
OutKast's Big Boi and Phantogram team up for Big Grams, photographed in 2015.

Internet pop-up ads tend to be terribly annoying, but not for Big Boi. In fact, the Outkast rapper-producer, 40, has one to thank for his relationship with upstate New York indie-pop duo Phantogram, whose tune “Mouthful of Diamonds” began playing randomly while he was surfing the web, prompting him to Shazam the song. Impressed, he connected with band members Sarah Barthel, 32, and Josh Carter, 33, at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival in 2011, and then recorded three songs with them on his last LP, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. The chemistry was so potent that they decided to keep it going. The result: Big Grams, a self-titled collaborative EP due Sept. 25 on Epic that features Run the Jewels and Skrillex.

Big, you discovered Phantogram through a pop-up on your computer. Why didn’t you just click off?

Big Boi: When you look at porn, a lot of stuff comes up on the screen that you don’t know. I’m just joshing. This was back in my lustful days -- my wife oversatisfies me these days. A lot of the new music I get, it might be something [playing] on TV, and then I use SoundHound or Shazam [to identify it]. That’s how I discover a lot of new, good stuff.

Rappers collaborating with indie artists is nothing new. Why do Big Grams now?

Big Boi: I was never just a rapper; the music on the radio, those are just rappers. My last record was being called “indie,” and I didn’t even know what the f— indie was. But then, I was doing all the festivals and was like, “Shit, if this is indie, then that’s where I want to be.”

Sarah Barthel: We just knew, because we used the idea of Outkast when Josh and I first started playing together. We looked up to them. They made fresh-sounding music, always something different and outside the box. So when we met Big, it just clicked.

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Big, having been in Outkast with Andre 3000, how is it different working with a band instead of a rapper?

Big Boi: See, I don’t just rap. I write melodies. It was more so trying to see where Sarah was coming from and dancing around what she was doing. That’s what makes the group fun, because you don’t have to stick to the usual 16-bar verse. You can do whatever you want: Like on “Put It on Her,” there’s the alien Josh.

Josh Carter: I rap in an alien voice.

Big Boi: We call it “tralien.” That’s alien trap music.

What inspired you in the studio while recording?

Carter: We were watching old psychedelic cartoons like Fritz the Cat. Just kind of zoning in and trying to make this stoner vision of hip-hop.

Barthel: We wanted you to feel like you’re having sex on mushrooms. You can’t tell if you’re on acid or dreaming.

Big Boi: Like on “Run for Your Life,” we had so many themes -- running and escaping into a room with a girl with a vagina.

Barthel: She’s got a vagina that’s a mouth with teeth in it that throws up rainbows.

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Were you doing drugs when you made this record?

Big Boi: Not me. I’m just speaking for myself, but mushrooms make me paranoid.

Barthel: We were sober as f—.

Well, hopefully you made some real-life memories together as well.

Big Boi: One time, we took Dave Chappelle to the Blue Flame strip club in Atlanta -- a staple. And he’s like, “You’ve got to be the realest motherf—er in Atlanta. I can’t believe I’m in this bitch.” Josh was with me, just lap-danced out. We had Regina King up in there, too.

Barthel: I went another time and Big handed me a stack of ones like, “Go have some fun.” I was like, “Thanks, I’ll be back.” It was easy. Where we’re from, people drive tractors to the prom.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.

Listen to Big Grams and other artists featured in this week's issue of Billboard.