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INTERVIEW: Phantogram

The moody electro-pop act returns to Cain’s Ballroom

Phantogram is Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel

Phantogram first made a splash in the indie/college radio world with 2010's Eyelid Movies and a pair of infectious singles, “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small." The following year, the Greenwich, NY-based duo (Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter) cemented their status as breakout darlings with the Nightlife EP and the hipster sexy-time song “Don’t Move,” followed by the sophomore release Voices and a lucrative touring gig with Muse.

This year, the band released its third LP, Three, an album unexpectedly marked by tragedy—Barthel’s sister died in the early stages of its making.

Live, they now perform as a four-piece, and tomorrow (Wed., Dec. 14) they’ll return to Cain’s Ballroom for the sold-out Edge Christmas show with Third Eye Blind.

Phantogram’s Josh Carter spoke with us about the new record, the tour and why Tulsa is a highlight.

THE TULSA VOICE: First, I want to express my condolences to you on the loss of your friend.

JOSH CARTER: Thank you, man. It’s been a tough year for us. I really appreciate that.

TTV: Have you been able to turn that pain into power and creative energy?  

JC: Yeah, very much so. It was a driving force for us, actually. She passed away during the writing process and a lot of pain and anger and mixed emotions went into that process so it’s been very cathartic to play these songs on stage each night. Sometimes it’s not always very easy for us, but there is nothing me and Sarah would rather be doing than perform these songs and do it for her. It’s empowering, for sure.

TTV: I know you’ve toured relentlessly but this is your third visit back to Tulsa.  Do you remember the last one?  

JC: We’ve toured so much it’s hard to keep track. But Cain’s? Yeah, I remember last time at Cain’s and, oh, it was amazing! The crowd was rowdy as fuck and so pumped.  I loved it.  

One fun thing about playing cities that aren't, like, major cities—it’s fun to play a city like Tulsa ‘cause people just seem extra excited and a little less jaded so the energy is really on point. It was a lot of fun and If I remember correctly it felt like the [Cain’s] floor was, like, bouncy? I don't know if it was a spring-loaded floor or what but, yeah, it was fun.

TTV: Did you go anywhere while in Tulsa last time?  

JC: We didn’t get to do a whole lot, but I do recall going to a really great coffee shop down the street from there. I forget what it was called.

TTV: Chimera?

JC: Yeah, yeah! That’s exactly the name. Great place.

TTV: How has this tour been going, so far?

JC: A lot of these next few shows right now are “radio shows” and are kind of mixed with a hodge-podge of bands so we’re playing with bands that we probably wouldn’t normally be playing with. Not that we wouldn’t associate with these bands but we’re kind of playing with bands that wouldn’t necessarily fit on the same bill. But ah, man...it’s been fantastic. [We’ve] been on the road for almost three months. We did a headline tour across the states, every show was sold out and then three weeks in Europe, sold out every show there. Now we’re doing a short radio run, then more headlining shows in the states.  

I just feel super blessed that we get to do what we do and that people are enjoying it.

TTV: Do you feel having a live drummer and others instead of just you and Sarah helps? Does it add to the live performance?

JC: Yeah, absolutely. Aside from having a live drummer, the other guy is a multi-instrumentalist, not just keyboards; he’ll do extra guitars in certain parts, and Sarah plays synth and also a little bit of guitar and a little bit of bass guitar, as well.  I play mostly guitar and a little bit of a MPC sampler.  

And we do improvise a bit. I don't always play the same thing on guitar each night. I mean, I'm no Jimi Hendrix but I switch things up. You kind of have to to keep things interesting.  

TTV: The single “You Don't Get Me High Anymore” is one of those songs that’s on the radio every time you turn it on. The rock band PUP recently covered it; I wonder how you feel when bands/artists cover your stuff?

JC: It’s flattering. I mean, if anybody wants to cover us, whether it’s a big band or kids in the garage next door, if anybody wants to cover us, it’s always flattering, for sure.   

TTV: Has there been a moment in your career where you feel you've “made it” or met some of your goals?

JC: Yeah, I feel like we’ve grown very organically and toured our asses off. I guess some personal highlights for me were the first time we did Fallon and maybe playing the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden. Stuff like that. But it’s all been a natural kind of growth and so I try to not take anything for granted. As long as I get to do this I’m a happy fellow.

Also, another reason I feel very blessed and stoked is that there are a lot of bands that we’ve always looked up to, or bands that we really respect and like [that] are now big fans of us. It’s validating in a way. Makes you feel like you’re on the right track.  

TTV: Do you still get “high” performing live or have you built up a tolerance to it?  

JC: Oh, yeah I always get “high” when performing live. I went through a phase a few years ago where I just hated playing live. I hated touring. And still now, I consider myself more, umm—I love being creative and creating music in my home studio—but then something kind of changed in my life.  I’m not exactly sure what it was, per se, but I really love playing live shows now. I think maybe it took a little bit of time to get used to it. I’m not necessarily the most outgoing person all the time, so maybe that’s part of why I used to not like touring. But I love it now.  

TTV: Your last show in Tulsa was a high-energy blast. Can we expect the same?

JC: We pride ourselves on our live shows and the passion and energy we put into them. We are gonna come and kick everyone’s ass, for sure.

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