Having reached widespread acclaim domestically through their ear-catching records and appearances alongside heavyweight names in popular music (be it on tour or as guest collaborators), it did not take long for Phantogram to develop into a project that has less to prove than expectations to meet. Borrowing influences from shoegaze, trip-hop and electro-pop, the duo from New York has grown gracefully with every release with a creative drive turned towards evolution rather than safety and redundancy. With the bands’ third record, the band make no exception. The album known simply as Three sees the band push the poppier aspect of their sound further into the forefront all the while delving deeper into brooding, bittersweet atmospheres and themes inspired by the bands’ recent personal tragedies (most notably the passing of Becky’s sister, which is said to have had a profound effect on the bands’ latest output). Be it through the catchy single “You don’t get me high anymore” or the frail, tragic “Answer” and “Black Dog”, Three is an addictive pop-driven record exploring the blissful and irresistible contemplation of tragedy. The band being currently on a headlining European tour, we were fortunate enough to catch up with frontwoman Sarah Barthel to discuss the bands’ third record.
One of the more recent bands’ I’ve had a chance to interview gave me an interesting thought, which was that no one really can really understand the true essence and identity of an artist until they release their third record. Do you think this applies for Three or do you regard this new record as a new step for the band?
Well we always consider ourselves a band that follows a natural progression. We’ve built ourselves very slowly and organically and we’ve got solid fans. Our music has definitely grown, from Eyelid Movies to the Nightlife EP, Voices and up to Three. We’ve gone through a lot with our experience on the road playing shows, collaborating with other artists for other projects… and we’ve been learning all throughout our career. This record is just another part of us. It’s interesting that your interviewee said that, because I can understand that. I think the songwriting process for this record is the best it’s ever been. Production-wise we collaborated with Ricky Reed, who helped us gain that extra power and grit for the record. He definitely helped us add that pop, that hard-hitting quality we were looking for. This doesn’t necessarily define us as a band, rather it’s just another phase of us. We plan on making many more records, and I think people need to look at artists as ever-growing entities. If people relate to this record in particular, that’s great, but there are always going to be different phases for an artists.
The album seems to carry a few underlying themes relating back to some personal tragic events. Would it be fair to call this a concept record ?
I think this record is definitely our most cohesive. When we write a record we always consciously steer away from making every song similar. We’re very influenced by the Beatles, and every single song on their records are so different from each other. I love that aspect about them and I love that about us. Why make a song that sounds just like the last one? When it comes to the grand scheme of things, this album does feel more cohesive because we’ve actually opened up about what the record means to us. It’s about heartbreak and it’s a beautiful tragedy, a beautiful car-crash you can’t look away from if you’re driving past it even though you know you should. You don’t know what you’re going to see; it could be awful, you could see flames coming out of a car, the kind of thing that causes you to stop and think and perceive things differently. I think this is what creates the cohesiveness of this record.
One of the recurring key-words that came to mind when listening to Three was “Disintegration”, be it through the album cover, the lyrics, the use of glitchy loops and bitcrushed beats and also the song titles.
Yeah I guess so, there’s this feeling of destruction and things falling apart around you, burning. The album cover is a beautiful photo that covers that theme, it’s very colorful and lively. The flames are destructive but there’s also beauty in it. It’s not so much about being warriors amongst the destruction but rather survivors that see the beauty and the light in the dark.
You’ve recently switched your hair color recently since the promotion of this third record. Is this related to the bands’ aesthetic identity at all? Do you regard fashion as an integral part of Phantogram’s artistic identity?
Yeah. Again, I think bands should evolve and change and not stick to one thing because it works or it’s easy to be recognizable. There’s not point in rewriting songs that sound just like the others and I think that principle applies to all aspects. We made this album art different from any of the other album covers we’ve had so far, our light show is different, our voices have changed, I’m playing bass and guitar live, my hair is a different color because I’ve had the same hair for 10 years or so… It’s a change and I think it’s okay to change and evolve. We can now pay attention to the clothes, the costumes and the general vibe onstage but when we started out we didn’t have the money to do any of that, we just wore regular clothes. You work with what you have and now that we finally worked hard enough we can start thinking about the other elements to complete the whole vibe of the band.
The music video for “You don’t get me High Anymore” is a beautifully shot yet very cryptic piece to say the least. Could you tell us a little about the concept and the ideas behind it all?
It basically revolves around the concept of being around destruction. We shot the video in this crazy destructed place outside of Los Angeles called Bombay Beach, close to the Coachella festival area. You wouldn’t think but people actually live there, they hide at night. It gets super hot there during the day. There are all kinds of drug addicts and stranger people living in the town and it’s on this beach that used to be this vacation place. People used come there from LA but something happened to the water where it was polluted and it killed all of the fish. I don’t think there are any shots of it in the video but all around the entire beach it just smells awful and there are rotten dead fish and fish bones everywhere. The video was directed by Grant Singer, who also did video for Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd. He’s the one who found the place. The concept behind the video is basically not knowing what your vice is and never feeling that high, no matter what it is. There’s this sense of paranoia and urgency when you listen to the song, that frustration of not feeling the way you used to feel and not understanding why. You also find that aspect in the way Grant edited the video: it’s all choppy and fast, with all of these weird scenes. You’ve got this gimp which goes back to the idea of trying to find that high, going further and further no matter what it takes.
To finish off : could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
Okay… Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Junior.
Movie… Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Album… Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins
Interview by Robin Ono.
A huge thank you goes out to Sarah and to the Staff at HiM Media for making this interview happen!