By David Ma.
Duo Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter , known as Phantogram , make expressive electro-rock with swirling guitars and keyboards. Their releases have been melancholy, convivial, and at times even shoe-gazing — most of it however, especially the production, is underscored by an undeniable hip-hop aesthetic that edges through the electronic overtones. Their influences are almost always on full-display, as well as their lockstep chemistry, which are both things that struck Big Boi (OutKast), compelling him to seek out the pair for work. Says Big Boi: “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had a couple of their albums shipped to my place and that was it. They had so much chemistry it propelled me to reach out to them.”
Although Phantogram had in the past appeared on Big Boi’s 2012 release ( Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors ) the chance to do a full-on, legit release with the rapper was enormously humbling for the Greenwich, New Yorkers. OutKast had so many high-profile releases and manifestations that they (perhaps even by default) soundtracked the '90s and '00s for many—and Phantogram were no different. Josh, who handles the lion’s share of the group’s production, explains: “My favorite producers are probably the Dust Brothers and Dilla, so I’ve always been into hip-hop. And OutKast was also a big part of that. We played them all the time.” Adds Sarah: “There are so many artists that come to mind when we’re asked whose music we grew up on, but the answer, at least for us, has always usually been OutKast.”
The resulting release, Big Grams , is a nice autumn listen that frames the strengths of all three involved; Sarah serves as chanteuse while Big Boi raps over Josh’s propulsive arrangements. I recently asked Sarah and Josh to share their favorite, most influential, and personally moving records.
OutKast - Stankonia (LaFace/Arista,2000)
Sarah: This is a life changing record. And I’m not just saying that because we’re lucky enough to be collaborating with Big Boi now. Just the belief or idea that there are no boundaries, I think, is inspirational and applies to our music too. OutKast were always fresh when we were growing up - always. And we really ended up growing up on their music. Josh, what others? Would you say [Smashing Pumpkins'] Siamese Dream or a Beatles record or something?
Radiohead - OK Computer (Parlophone, 1997)
Josh: I was thinking of Siamese Dream but I would like to go with OK Computer by Radiohead. I recall it was my seventeenth birthday and my brother got it on CD. And at the time, a tornado just ran through town and was all around our house. There was no power so I was just sitting inside with candles on, listening to this, and it absolutely blew my mind. I couldn’t believe what I hearing. It was like Dark Side of the Moon or something - it was an experience. So much of it was left field.
David Bowie - Hunky Dory (RCA, 1971)
Josh: Another one I would have to say is Hunky Dory . I was in high school and it was a record either my brother or father turned me on to. I wasn’t too aware of the full scope of Bowie or how much of an influence he was on music and pop culture. I just thought it was amazing. And just Bowie’s whole way about him. There are times during that record where it’s just weird as fuck and so raw. I think it’s just triumphant.
J Dilla - Donuts (Stones Throw, 2006)
Sarah: Not only is this just sort of an inspiring album in general, but his production really affected us. I mean, I just always liked how cool his beats were, simply put. It also brought Josh and I together, especially because when we first started Phantogram and trying things out, we were listening to a lot of [music] from Detroit. And we’re both big fans of all those guys at Stones Throw. This album helped us hone our own sound. We’re extremely inspired by Dilla and connect sort of through Donuts . I could say the same about Sgt. Pepper’s or even the White Album .
Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989)
Josh: I was going to say Sgt. Pepper’s but I’ve got to go with Paul’s Boutique . Actually, I think the Beatles were real interested in sampling sounds and music too, in particular, McCartney. And for me, what connects the two, is song construction. I think it’s really something I notice. And when it comes to sampling, Paul’s Boutique is ground breaking, it’s unreal, it’s amazing. I mean, doesn’t it have something like 105 samples it? There really is no other record like it.