Phantogram might have scored their biggest hit yet with last summer’s breakthrough single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” but the buzz won’t be quieting down any time soon. With their mix of speaker-rattling hip-hop beats, bummer-pop melodies and high-goth fashion sense, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have been part of the atmosphere since the release of their 2010 debut Eyelid Movies. They’ve hit every festival you could care to name; their singles “When I’m Small” and “Black Out Days” are just as widespread in television placements as they are on dance floors; and they’ve collaborated with the Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus and Big Boi.
Their latest album, Three, which finds them working with pop overlords like The-Dream and Ricky Reed, had their highest debut yet on the Billboard charts, and they’re gearing up to dominate the festival circuit this year. And with a sultry new A-Trak remix of “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” featuring Joey Purp out today, it’s a good time to ask, Just who are Phantogram? As Playboy.com recently discovered, they’re old friends from upstate New York that still know how to crack each other up.
You two have known each other since you were in pre-school, but when did you first start making music together?
JOSH CARTER: We started making music together in our mid-20s. It started with some solo stuff that I was working on that was the blueprint for Phantogram, and I asked Sarah to sing on some stuff, and it sounded really great, so we decided to start writing together and then formed a band. And the rest is history.
When you two were growing up together, who were the artists that you first bonded over?
SARAH BARTHEL: I think the first CD that Josh ever stole from me was Busta Rhymes. What was it called…
CARTER: Extinction Level Event was the name of the album.
BARTHEL: We were both big hip-hop fans back then.
CARTER: But between the two of us, we liked bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Beck, the Beastie Boys… a lot of what was happening in the ‘90s alternative rock scene, but also Wu-Tang Clan and Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest.
Is there any particular artist that one of you really likes that the other person doesn’t like at all?
CARTER: I think Sarah leans more towards R&B than I do.
BARTHEL: Beyoncé is what you’re saying, right?
CARTER: I like Beyoncé, but I think Sarah is a little more into that stuff than I am. But I got a lot of respect for it. [Laughs]
You better watch what you say about Beyoncé. The BeyHive won’t tolerate any disrespect.
CARTER: Don’t get me wrong, I love Beyoncé…
BARTHEL: He just doesn’t sit around and sing along to it, which I wouldn’t want him to.
Would that spoil it for you?
BARTHEL: No, it would be awkward.
Was the plan always for you two to primarily be a duo? Is it a situation where you’re so close that it can be tough for other people to come in and get on your level?
CARTER: This is Sarah’s first band, but I played in a couple other bands before. What made it interesting and a little bit easier is just having less cooks in the kitchen. It’s easier to communicate, and we both have a similar vision. It flowed really nicely together when we started, and that’s how it still works in the studio. It’s just the two of us. Live, we have some very talented players to back us up.
BARTHEL: We’ve been friends for so long. We like to call ourselves “psychic twins,” because we think the same artistically…
CARTER: …and we share a similar vision. I think we’re very lucky in that way. There’s a lot of ego and artistic differences that can get in the way when you’re in a band. We’re blessed to not have to deal with that. We get along really well.
For this album, you worked with producers and songwriters like the-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Ricky Reed and Dan Wilson. For a long time, if you were a rock band, you were expected to write your own songs. If you had outside help, it was considered a cheeseball, sell-out move. But nowadays, even people like My Morning Jacket, TV On The Radio and Weezer write with professional songwriters.
CARTER: At the end of the day, most of the songwriting is Josh and Sarah. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily true: Tom Petty used to write songs with Stevie Nicks, and George Martin used to help the Beatles write songs. It’s always been a thing. It got to a point with us—a so-called indie band—where there’s this elite train of thought where it’s a bullshit move to work with other people, and that is something that we ended up getting past, because we realized that it’s not the right way to think. You can learn a lot from other people.
We’re crazy rock ‘n’ roll. The strippers are coming in a few hours, but we have to do sound check first.
“You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” is the biggest single you’ve had yet. How did it come about?
CARTER: Lyrically, what we were going for was a modern-day “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” kind of vibe, and we’re happy that people are vibing on it.
Are both of you getting over the rock 'n’ roll lifestyle, or is it more of a metaphor?
BARTHEL: We’re crazy rock 'n’ roll. The strippers are coming in a few hours, but we have to do sound check first.
You guys have a lock on the festival circuit. When you play these big things where half the crowd is waiting for the Weeknd or whomever to headline, can you tell when you’re winning people over?
CARTER: I don’t have the best eyesight, but sometimes I can see people singing along. That’s a good indication. I can only think of one festival where we really did not fit in. I won’t mention which festival, but it was a straight-up EDM festival, and the people were just staring at us, like “What? Why? This isn’t a DJ who just presses the spacebar!”
“Why is this person singing?”
CARTER: “Why are there instruments?”
You’ve released three albums, the Big Grams EP and several other EPs in just a little more than five years, and you are constantly touring either on your own, with Big Grams or hitting festivals. Do you get any downtime?
BARTHEL: We schedule time off. Because if we don’t, we’ll just keep going and going until we want to die. We realize the importance of it to keep our sanity.
What sort of things do you do on your downtime?
CARTER: It can take you a whole week to just re-assimilate to normal life if you’ve been on tour for a few months.
BARTHEL: Normal things. We like to do normal things that people do when they’re home, and it’s not a big deal to them, but to us it is, because we get to get away from the whirlwind of the life we have and watch Gilmore Girls.
Have you had a chance to watch the Netflix reunion series?
BARTHEL: No, we have not yet. But I plan to when I get home.
CARTER: I’ve never seen it.
The fact that you haven’t seen it is proof you’re working too hard.
CARTER: I hear The West Wing is good…
BARTHEL: No! Westworld!
You both grew up in Greenwich, New York, right?
CARTER: Yeah. It’s such a little podunk town. Very charming little town, don’t get me wrong, population 5,000…
BARTHEL: 1,500 actually.
CARTER: Not true, actually. I looked this up.
BARTHEL: Whoa! You did? But anyway, Josh was a grade above me, and I graduated with a class of 92 people.
Where do you live today?
BARTHEL: I live in New York.
CARTER: I live in L.A.
You two don’t live in the same town?
BARTHEL: Well, we live on a bus together. But when we have a few weeks off, we tend to do our own thing.
Do you two need time apart after being crammed in a bus together for months on end?
BARTHEL: No, I miss him every minute. But we live in different cities.
CARTER: We’re pretty bicoastal.
BARTHEL: But do you miss me, is what he’s asking.
CARTER: No, I don’t.
BARTHEL: [Laughs] He does.
Do you two fight about anything?
BARTHEL: Oh God. Sometimes.
CARTER: We’ll fight over who gets the last bowl of Golden Grahams.
BARTHEL: Or if he ate the last chicken nuggets, I get pissed.
Who tends to win?
CARTER: Sarah has larger arms.
Check out our original Sarah Barthel gallery here.