Exclusive Interview: Phantogram's Josh Carter Doesn't Want You to Have Sex to His Music

(A. Ortega for Zimbio)Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of Phantogram never performed together as children, although they’ve known each other since junior high. A mutual friend of theirs had a video camera — a rarity, back in the ‘90s — and Josh remembers filming comedy skits and skateboarding videos before heading to Sarah’s house to jump on her trampoline.

“We'd all jump on her trampoline for hours,” Josh recalls.
“True story. True story,” Sarah nods and laughs.
They know all each others’ stories, these self-described “partners in crime,” yet they still manage to entertain one another.

It’s been three years since the group released their debut full-length album Eyelid Movies, a collection that included the haunting blog hit “When I’m Small.” Though they managed to write and record their terrific EP Nightlife while on tour, the band is currently on a break. A sophomore album is in the works.

“We have a little spot in New York City and we're kinda just getting started at the moment,” Sarah tells me at the Governor’s Ball Festival. “That's our spot to write, and we both live really close to each other, which is nice, and we kind of go back and forth to each others' apartments and listen to ideas and just kind of marinate on different older and new stuff.”

Sarah and Josh came together in 2007 in their hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York, when he asked her to record vocals to some beats he’d created. Though their process has since become much more collaborative, they remain faithful to beat-driven songs that reflect a lot of the hip-hop and alt-rock they listened to and traded as teenagers.

Carter also acknowledges that there’s an elegant element to their music that’s influenced by French pop from the ‘60s. ”What's cool about that kind of music is it has this funk behind it, but it's very pretty. I would describe our music to be similar in that sense,” Carter explains.

Though Barthel performs the majority of the vocals, Carter is the primary lyricist. He admits that most of the words come from a dark place, but with “lots of sprinkles of hope.”

“It's kind of like being in a dark tunnel but you do see that light, you eventually get to that light,” he says.

In song, Barthel’s vocals are so breathless and clear they seem to reflect a haunting emotional detachment. In the “When I’m Small” video she’s a starkly sexual creature, her dancing an act of clipped aggression. In person, however, she is unfailingly sweet and quick to laughter. The evening before our meeting, one male fan gushed to me about his run-in with her at a club in Hoboken, swooning hard as he described their brief alleyway conversation. I ask her how she feels about the fanboy adulation and she gets uncharacteristically squirmy.

“I don't know, it's weird, yeah. I mean, I notice it, but I guess I just kinda see it as them respecting us as artists in general,” She says. “If it was [just] me, and I was doing this like, pop stupid thing... I think the music has a lot to do with it. We always get described as like, sexy, or—not always. Not always. Only like, a few times. Whenever we hear it we're like, 'Oh well, we're not sexy, but I guess we're not ugly people.'

I note that their music is often extremely sexy.

“Some people tell us they have sex to our music,” Sarah admits.

Josh groans. “I don't like that. I wanna hear that people are just f**king to our music. I don't want to hear 'sex.'”

“What about love?” Sarah interjects, laughing.

“I want people to just f**k to our music. Suck and f**k,” Josh deadpans.

Later in our conversation, when it emerges that Josh's first concert was Beck, Sarah teases him for being so cool (her first concert was New Kids on the Block — a child of the ‘90s, again). “I'm not cool. I just said 'suck and f**k.' I'm not cool,” Josh insists.

I'm the former Zimbio Music Editor. Into music, cats, karaoke, and shiny things. Follow me: Google