Q&A: Phantogram's Sarah Barthel talks new album, finding light in darkness

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Timothy Saccenti

Phantogram jumped into the music scene in 2009 with a boldness reflected in their sound. Since then, they have dominated the trip hop genre, and hits such as “When I’m Small” and “Don’t Move” have become standards on any indie playlist. Their newest album, Three, demonstrates the duo isn’t going to stop innovating their sound anytime soon. The Daily Texan spoke with keyboardist and singer Sarah Barthel about the band’s origins, the sadness in the record and how it functioned as a form of therapy for the band.

The Daily Texan: How did you and Josh meet, and what made you decide to start making music together?

Sarah Barthel: We met in junior high. We grew up together. We started working on music together in our twenties when we met back up. Josh had some really cool beats that he was planning on releasing on an instrumental record. I was a huge fan of his music, and he asked me if I wanted to sing on one of his songs. It worked out to be really cool, so we decided to start writing music together.

DT: Did he seek you out or was it more coincidental?

SB: It was very coincidental. We found one another on Christmas Eve at our church that we went to when we grew up.

DT: This new album, Three, feels different — a little sadder or even angry at points. What inspired that album?

SB: My sister committed suicide in January, and it was a really hard thing to go through. A lot of those emotions went into this record. 

DT: Were there any songs dedicated to her specifically, or was it more of a tone [produced in the album]?

SB: In general, when you both go through something so tragic, there’s a lot of sadness that opens up in your life, but there’s always — for us, in general — a lot of light in the dark.

DT: I read you didn’t have any training with piano and you taught yourself by ear. What made you decide to pick up music, and what was it like to learn that way instead of through formal training?

SB: I didn’t have any interest in going to music school. I think, in general, I was more interested in being an artist. There was nothing interesting to me about reading music and learning how to play an instrument and be in an orchestra or jazz band where everyone’s super technical and smart. It’s awesome — I love all kinds of music — but it wasn’t something I was interested in doing … I didn’t need the technical training to connect with my emotions.

DT: In the future, do you have anyone in mind that you’d want to do a collaboration with?

SB: We always wanted to collaborate with Beck. We’re a huge fan of him. We love his production. He’s very similar; he tries new things, and he’s not afraid to make a record sound completely different than another one of his records. 

DT: When you and Josh started playing together, did you know right away that you had something special or did it build up to that? What was the moment when you knew you guys were producing really great music?

SB: In a way, we knew we were doing something different, but we were also just making music that we wanted to hear. I think at the time, there was just a lot of repetitive, same-kind-of-genre, everyone-copying-one-another bands, and we wanted to hear something different. … That was when we first started making music. We weren’t sure if it was going to catch on, but we knew that we loved it, and when we realized people were liking it on MySpace, we wanted to start playing shows and touring. That was when we realized that we knew what we wanted to do.

DT: What inspired the album artwork for Three?

SB: It was inspired by the year that we had. [It’s] representing a beautiful tragedy. The cover, you’re not really sure what’s burning, but the flames are beautiful and it’s bright and colorful, but it’s also dark at the same time. It’s kind of what the record represents.

Phantogram will play the Dragon’s Lair stage at Sound on Sound Festival on Friday, Nov. 4.