Hip hop. Post-punk. Soul. EDM. Rock. Trip hop. Synthpop. Try describing New York band Phantogram’s sound to a friend, and you’ll end up choking on hyphens.
“I don’t know of many people who just listen to one genre of music,” says one half of Phantogram, Josh Carter. “And if they do, they must be pretty boring.”
Phantogram are a band for today, for people who grew up with both Public Enemy and Yeah Yeah Yeahs posters on their walls. Their sound seems purpose-made for iPod shuffle; seamlessly shifting between grimy beats, wailing noise and beautiful melodies. Not just between tracks, but between verses. Phantogram make music for the mashup generation.
“People my age have been exposed to so many different kinds of music. And I think that they wanna hear things that are more fresh,” says Carter. “As an artist it’s your duty to mess around and have fun with what you’re doing. And be exposed to all kinds of music.”
By all accounts, Carter and his creative other half Sarah Barthel created Phantogram in a vacuum. Starting in 2007, the duo would play bits and pieces of songs for each other, weaving them into full tracks in the process. Up until the release of their debut album, Eyelid Movies in 2009, they’d never played a single live show. Their sound is their sound. It came from within them, and nowhere else.
Rather than attempt a multi-hyphenate genre-mashing descriptor, Carter sticks with the simple “experimental pop” when asked what Phantogram do. And luckily for us, the pair is bringing its experimental pop to our shores for Splendour In The Grass in July.
“You’re going to get some high-energy performances out there, man,” Carter says. In the US, Phantogram have become as known for their live shows as their dynamic recordings. Their last tour boasted an insane light show, co-designed by Barthel. Carter isn’t sure if they’ll be able to bring all that production to our faraway land, but assures us that we’re in for something special regardless.
“It will be very visual, very energetic, and emotional as well,” he says. “We wanna give people an experience that’s more than just seeing a band. We want to connect with our audience.”
So, how do US indie darlings prepare themselves for a tour to the other side of the planet? “We pack lots of socks and underwear,” Carter deadpans. Ahh. There’s that Brooklyn humour.
“We’ve never been to Australia before, so we have to humble ourselves,” he continues. “We’re doing pretty well in the States, but out there we’re playing for a brand new audience. So we have to introduce ourselves by putting on a great Phantogram show.”
Phantogram are doing more than “pretty well” in their mother country. This year’s album, Voices, hit number three on the US alternative charts. In the five years since their debut, Phantogram have gone from jamming in a barn to playing the Hollywood Bowl. They’ve found loyal fans not just at their packed-out shows, but amongst their heroes as well. In what must be the biggest mark of a band transcending its humble beginnings, the duo has been sought out not only to play alongside The Flaming Lips, but to write three songs with Big Boi from Outkast.
“Outkast and the Lips, these are bands I grew up listening to,” Carter begins. “And now I talk with them on a regular basis, and they’re fans of mine? My mind is blown.
“What I take out of working with artists like that is a sense of confidence. Confidence to create and not worry too much about what you’re creating. Just do you, and don’t limit your sound.”
Limitless creativity. That’s something that many artists strive for. But what does that mean for an experimental pop band? Carter and Barthel have so far used their interests in design and imagery to craft a striking and singular visual look to accompany their cinematic sound.
“Music has always been very visual for me. It’s hard to fully describe. When I write, I’m writing a piece based on a short movie, or vignette, in my head. I picture shapes, colours, and scenarios moving with the music.”
Phantogram plan on using these short films that exist in their heads to craft videos for their music. And like their songs, most of these images are shadowy and sinister like a film noir scene. Carter professes a love for “subject matter [that] can be very grim or sad”.
“It doesn’t mean we’re sad people,” he laughs. “Darkness is just interesting to us.”
Through the darkness, the future looks bright for Phantogram. After all, how many indie bands get to make a fan out of Wayne Coyne or Big Boi? How many get to fly to the other side of the earth to play for a whole bunch of strangers at Splendour In The Grass? Not many. And after the killer live shows, and as the fan base builds, what’s next for Phantogram?
“As a young band it’s important to just focus on writing good songs,” Carter says. “But I’d definitely like to make a concept record at some point. It doesn’t have to be super crazy, but I still listen to Dark Side [Of The Moon], Sgt. Pepper’s, The Soft Bulletin. That would be cool.”
Catch Phantogram at the Metro Theatre on Thursday July 24, tickets available online. Also appearing at Splendour in the Grass from Friday July 25 until Sunday July 27 alongside Outkast, Lily Allen, Interpol, Two Door Cinema Club, Foster The People and heaps more. Voices out now through Universal.