How a Death in the Family Changed Phantogram's Third Album

An interview with Phantogram about collaboration, suicide, and their new album.

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Complex Original

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If Phantogram got a dollar every time someone asked a friend, “What’s that song that goes ‘Ooh ooh ooh’?,” they could probably retire. The song in question is “When I’m Small” from their debut album, 2010’s Eyelid Movies. That LP, which also featured the singles “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “As Far As I Can See," established the duo as heirs to the slinking electro-pop throne, built on the backs of 1990s trip hop artists like Portishead and Sneaker Pimps, and their second album, 2014’s Voices, solidified their claim.

Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter return today with a third album, appropriately, if uncreatively, titled Three, following a fall 2015 collaborative EP with Big Boi as Big Grams. Wile their music has always had a darkness to it, Three comes with extra weight. In the middle of recording the album, Barthel’s sister committed suicide. They had a handful of songs completed at that point with producer Ricky Reed and, after taking some time away, they returned to the studio with a renewed sense of energy, fueled by both anger and sadness.

The music is as moody and rhythmic as it ever was, exploring addiction on first single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and deep sorrow on “Destroyer.” The difference is that, now, it feels more urgent and desperate, the lyrics admitting to a sense of loss and confusion. “I keep on having this dream where I’m stuck in a hole and I can’t get out,” Barthel sings breathlessly on “Same Old Blues.” “Barking Dog,” a song about suicide, is a continual loop with no real ending, Carter’s words finding him stuck to the bathroom floor and reflecting on how his actions could hurt others.

For all of its heaviness, Three still finds a way to lift itself up. Carter and Reed co-produced the album, and perhaps it is a credit to Reed, who has worked with Meghan Trainor, Twenty One Pilots, and Jason Derulo, that the whole project has a pop sheen to it. It’s sometimes hard to remember that tragedy lurks behind these massive, upbeat songs.

We caught up with Barthel and Carter recently to talk about the heaviness of the new album, welcoming collaborators into the room, and the deeper meaning behind the title Three. (Spoiler: There is none.)

Is it true that you guys met in junior high?
Josh Carter: Sort of. We became friends in junior high, but we’ve known each other since we were really little. We went to preschool together.

What music did you bond over when you became friends in junior high?
Sarah Barthel: Busta Rhymes.
JC: I borrowed a Busta Rhymes CD from Sarah, and it took me a year to give it back to her. When I did, it was all scratched the fuck up. I offered to buy it again, but I never did.

Which album was it?
JC:E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event). It had “Gimme Some More” on it with the Psycho sample.

You guys are now on your third album, which is conveniently titled Three. Is there any other meaning behind the title other than that it’s the third in the lineup?
JC: Nope. [Laughs.] We originally wanted to title it with three lines, but then Modeselektor did that and Miike Snow did it as well, and we didn’t want to be, ironically, the third band to do that in a year.

When did you start working on the new album?
JC: We pretty much made the record over a six-month period in a studio in Echo Park in California.

Did Ricky Reed produce on the whole record?
JC: He and I co-produced it.

This was one of the first times you guys really welcomed in collaborators, including Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. How did that happen?

JC: We found out that Tricky and The-Dream were big fans of our music, and they invited us to come down to Atlanta and just vibe out. So we brought some ideas down, and that’s essentially what we did. We just vibed out and fucked around with some of our ideas down there.

SB: After that, we went back out to L.A. and into the studio with Ricky Reed. [Former Semisonic frontman and co-writer of Adele’s “Someone Like You] Dan Wilson came in for a few sessions. It was really fun to open up the door of collaborating. We never did before. We were always that band who, no one was allowed to touch our stuff or listen to our stuff. It was only ours. In that way, it meant so much to us. When we first started working with Big Boi, we realized how much fun it was to work with other artists, or not even work, just have someone else listen to your idea and help you make it so much better.

JC: Or just give their input of what they think of it. We were pretty guarded in the past and didn’t want anybody to hear anything.

What do you think the fear was of letting someone else in the room?
JC: I think it was a mixture of not wanting anyone else to influence our pure thought or inception of the music. And also our music is deeply personal.
SB: And our process is very personal.

How so?
JC: Sarah and I go through a lot of the same things together because we’re practically brother and sister. It’s just a personal thing for us, the way we create. It’s almost like inviting someone into the bedroom with you. Like, “Hey, I’m taking a shower. Why don’t you come in?”

Did you have a sketch in your minds of what you wanted this album to sound like?
SB: We wanted to really craft the songs and work on songwriting. Kind of the way we’re really influenced by the Beatles. We love the idea of how they could write an album, and every song sounds different, and they’re all three minutes long, or close to, but every time you listen to the song, you feel complete. That’s what I love about the Beatles. We wanted to do that for this. In general, we knew we wanted it to be heavy and dirty and dark and gritty, the way that our music has been in the past. When we go on tour and we experience the things we experience together, playing hundreds of shows, you find yourself evolving just from that, and our sound has definitely gotten heavier from Eyelid Movies because of that.

You guys were in the middle of recording when, Sarah, your sister committed suicide. Could you tell me about her?
SB: Oh god, you’re going to make me cry. [Laughs.] She was a hero. She was a rockstar. She was so special to everybody. She was that person in everybody’s life who was a shining star. The way you think about how David Bowie has inspired you, and you think about David Bowie on that kind of level, like there’s more to him than a regular Joe Schmo on the street. She had that power to influence people. And she was fucking hilarious.
JC: She was the funniest person I knew.
SB: Josh and Becky and I would just laugh and laugh and laugh and make up the stupidest jokes, but we all got it. She also struggled with a lot of demons. She suffered a lot too.
JC: It’s strange how somebody so beautiful and funny, deep down there was a lot of sadness and depression that she was dealing with.

How did things change when you returned to the studio after her death?
SB: It was like lighting a fire in our asses. Under our asses. What’s the expression?
JC: In your butthole? Light the fire directly up your ass.
SB: It was driven from anger and obviously sadness and everything else.
JC: Our lyrics always come from a dark and personal place, and it was cathartic and motivating in a way to express this pain.

When did you write “Destroyer”?
JC: We started writing “Destroyer” in Brooklyn four or five years ago.
SB: We started writing it in the hopes that it would end up on Voices, but we were never able to figure it out. It went through a lot of different phases. But we loved the way it made us feel. I would just listen to that song on repeat, and it just made me feel so sad. It’s such a sad feeling. And finally I brought it back up to the table and was like, “Hey, can we finish this? Can we put this on?” So we brought it in with Ricky Reed and finished it there.


My favorite song on the album is probably “Same Old Blues.” How did that come together?
JC: We were digging around through some samples, and Ricky had this old gospel record, so we chopped up the sample and wrote around it. I was going through my notebooks, and I had this one line, “And this is nothing new. It’s just the same old blues.” Some kind of depressing drivel, and we turned it into a song.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?
JC: I think mine is “You’re Mine” or “Destroyer.” I also like “Barking Dog” a lot.
SB: I love “Barking Dog” because it’s so different than the rest. It just loops and loops and loops. You’re not waiting for the chorus. You’re waiting for some other thing to happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

What’s it about?
JC: It’s about suicide.

Did you write it after Becky died?
JC: It was already on the list, but after Becky’s passing it turned into something that was more of a priority, something that I just had to get out.

Three comes out Friday, and that’s the same day that amfAR’s new compilation, The Time Is Now, to benefit AIDS research drops. Everyone on there does a cover of a song from the 1980s, and you guys went with Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home.” Did you pick it, or was it assigned?
SB: We picked that one. We loved the arpeggiation.
JC: Sarah wanted to do “In the Air Tonight,” so I had to arm wrestle her to get to do “Take Me Home.”

Those are both good options, but I think I would’ve done “Against All Odds.”
SB: That one is so good.

Final request: Please elaborate on the line “We’ve all got a little bit of ho in us” from the song “Calling All,” which closes your album.
SB:[Laughs.] It’s a little tongue in cheek, but it represents owning it.
JC: I think there’s a darkness behind it.
SB: Yeah, it’s about owning that darkness. Like there’s a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and everyone has a dark side to them. It’s a way of owning what you are.

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