Phantogram Talks 'Finding Beauty In the Darkness' on New Album

Brian Lowe
Phantogram

Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter need a rest. It’s a warm Los Angeles evening, and Phantogram’s singer-keyboardist and producer/multi-instrumentalist are curled up atop a bed in a luxury apartment, reflecting on a year of epic highs and one devastating, personal loss — the suicide of Barthel’s older sister Becky in January. Tomorrow in Las Vegas, the New York-bred duo kicks off a five-week, 29-date tour ahead of its third album, Three.

“The record is about heartbreak,” says Barthel, 33. “The best way to see it is like a beautiful car crash, that for whatever reason makes you slow down and look.”

Becky, Barthel’s only sibling, was also a classmate of Carter’s growing up in the pair’s hometown of Greenwich in southwest New York. Details around her passing remain spare, and it’s understandably a sensitive topic for Barthel, who gets noticeably downcast when discussing heartbreak as a theme for their latest work. She’s also wearing a letterman jacket with her sister’s initials, “BB,” on the front and “Bextacy” emblazoned across the back.

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Three, which comes out Oct. 7 on Republic Records, isn’t the first time Phantogram has explored melancholic themes. The LP follows 2014’s Voices, which hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart and generated the doomy, pulsating single “Black Out Days.” The pair’s 2009 debut, Eyelid Movies, was the culmination of years of heavy touring, during which Phantogram at times played for audiences of five.

“It’s funny, because we’re both goofballs,” says Barthel. “We’re fun people, but if you only know us from our music, you’d think we sit in a dark room.”

Phantogram is a study in contrasts, even down to Barthel’s chin-length, two-toned hair. Dressed entirely in black, Barthel and Carter are warm and quick to laugh. Through the band’s rise, it has collaborated with acts as disparate as The Flaming Lips and Big Boi, with whom Phantogram released the 2015 LP Big Grams. The trio also hit the festivals, playing Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Air & Style — the festival founded by Barthel’s boyfriend, snowboarder Shaun White.

“We don’t feel pigeonholed to make a specific sound,” says Carter, 34. “We’re not afraid of anything.”

Made during six months in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, the 10 tracks on Three explore themes of dissatisfaction and mourning. The contrast between joy and pain, the highs of success and the lows of tragedy are highlighted in “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” which has spent 14 weeks on Alternative Songs and is No. 7 on the Oct. 15 chart. The track oscillates between a throttling guitar riff evocative of Muse (which Phantogram opened for on tour in 2015) and lyrics about car crashes, staring into the abyss and increased chemical intake. “It’s that light and dark, Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of mentality, where there’s a double meaning,” says Carter. It was this song, they say, that set the tone for the rest of the record.

“In making this album,” says Carter, “we learned how to trim a lot of fat and get to the point in more of a pop way.”

Even the album cover, a photo Carter took of a fire, illustrates Phantogram’s willingness to comb emotional wreckage for meaning. “You don’t know exactly what’s burning, but it’s bright and beautiful,” says Barthel. “But it also represents a lot of sadness and darkness.”

“Ultimately,” adds Carter, “it’s about finding the beauty in the darkness.”

 

 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.