Like most people, Phantogram’s Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have had quite the emotional journey in 2016. In October, they released their latest electro rock collection, “Three,” which has quickly ascended to become a career best for the duo, debuting at number-nine on the Billboard Top 200 charts and leading to a sold-out span of North American tour dates in the coming months, including a Dec. 1 stop at the Aragon.
Appearing as part of WKQX’s ‘The Nights We Stole Christmas’
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 1
Where: The Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence
Most critics have been unanimous in their praise of the album, calling it the duo’s most “self-assured” and “accomplished” work to date, which it is, with more sonic experimentation, lyrical exploration, and animated personas behind perfectly polished dark wave tracks like the first single, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” The realness that resonates on “Three,” though, also comes from the fact that it’s Phantogram’s most personal album to date.
Earlier this year, Barthel’s sister (and Carter’s good friend) took her own life, a tragedy that would ultimately permeate most of the album’s 10 songs.
“It was really tough to get back into making this record, it’s not really the thing you look forward to doing, but I really used it to write about my feelings as a therapeutic way to channel the experience,” admits Barthel, who has since worked with friend Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation to bring awareness to the importance of mental health. Though Phantogram has consistently played with dark themes and heavy psychedelic progressions on previous releases, including 2010’s “Eyelid Movies” and 2014’s “Voices,” Carter says, “This tragedy took these songs to a whole new level and almost gave them new meaning.”
Though there are the tangible mementoes like “Cruel World” and “Barking Dog” (one of the most gripping songs on the album), “Three” concludes with the hyper-charged “Calling All,” a call-to-arms about “owning it, owning whatever it is that you do,” says Barthel. The song has had its polarizing reactions — some responding to the line “We all got a little bit of ho in us,” as degrading while others praising the song for its feminist slant. Though Barthel is adamant the song isn’t just about women, in some ways it is reflective of her newfound confidence as a performer. In recent months, the frontwoman has given fans a double take, appearing on late-night programs with a radically different image — blond hair, edgy high-fashion looks and a visceral command over the stage.
“It’s been a natural progression I think, I’ve just evolved as a performer through a lot of experience,” she says. Nearly since the beginning, Phantogram has been touring almost non-stop, sharing the bill with bands like Muse and Metric and playing the gamut of festivals, including multiple appearances locally at Lollapalooza. “We also just wanted to step things up on stage,” she continues of the switch-up. “Live performances should be something unique rather than just standing around playing instruments. If I can listen to the record in my room, and not getting the full experience live, then I’m going to just listen to the record in room. That’s why we take our visuals very seriously.”
The astute production sense is a far cry from meager beginnings in New York nearly a decade ago, when they could be seen shilling out CDs to random passerby in the streets. Carter and Barthel originally met in preschool, though they didn’t think about beginning a musical project together until their mid-20s.
“Sarah hadn’t been in band before, but I was playing her some of the demos I had been working on, and asked her if she wanted to sing and play on some of the tracks, and that really became the blueprint for Phantogram,” recalls Carter who says even a decade later the well of ideas they have is still deep. “I think the future holds an ongoing process of experimentation and trying new things. We have all these untapped ideas musically and production-wise that I look forward to experimenting with.”
That includes bringing back Big Grams in the near future, their separate collaboration with Big Boi from Outkast. “We’re going to do another record with him after the Phantogram cycle for sure,” Barthel confirms. Carter, too, plans to start producing albums for other hip-hop acts, further extrapolating the line Phantogram has toed between multiple genres from rock to pop to rap — the list of artists they’ve been associated with includes The Flaming Lips, A$AP Rocky and Skrillex.
“I like that we are not a band you can pigeonhole,” says Carter. “We have a wide palette of inspiration and things we draw from, and we’re always looking forward to the future. I don’t think we will ever feel like we are where we need to be, and that’s a good thing.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.