This article first appeared in The Alt on January 2, 2017.
Two lifelong friends will return to town in mid-January along with the hordes of other holiday vacationers and college students looking to relax and visit family between semesters. These two friends won’t return like any others; instead they’ll bring with them a posse, a stage crew and a host of samplers, microphones, lighting equipment, guitars and smoke machines. Greenwich’s Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have been best friends since junior high and have known each other since preschool. You’re more likely to know them as Phantogram, or perhaps if you haven’t paid attention to them since they hit it big and left the area, you might know them as Charlie Everywhere, the name they used when they played local venues like Red Square (now Parish Public House), Kings Tavern, Revolution Hall and local VFW halls.
Their sound has transformed over the years from slight, beat-heavy trip-hop to exploding, bombastic dream-pop that owes as much to hip-hop as it does to alternative rock.
Barthel said in an exclusive interview that she and Carter love to play the area during the holidays despite how much has changed since the 2009 release of their debut album, Eyelid Movies. “To be able to come home for the holidays is really important,” said Barthel. “It’s nice get to see all of our friends and family. To come back to our hometown in this way is something that doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s gonna be a party and its gonna be full of love.”
This homecoming, following the recent release of their third album, titled Three, is particularly significant to Barthel and Carter. On Jan. 16, 2016, Barthel’s sister Rebecca committed suicide. It’s an event that sent shockwaves through the band’s world. It was also a heavy influence on the creation of Three. Barthel told Complex that her sister’s death “lit a fire under our asses,” and that their creative process, “was driven from anger and, obviously, sadness and everything else.”
Barthel said that Miley Cyrus has helped her cope with Rebecca’s passing. She’s been working with Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation to raise awareness of mental illness and to boost suicide prevention efforts. “Miley Cyrus has been a huge outlet for me on this, she’s been a huge support and kind of helped me get through it,” said Barthel. “She always wants to help kids who are feeling different. We’re going to be speaking out more and donating in some areas of our tours to charities that work with kids.”
Barthel said she wants to make sure that kids aren’t “afraid to talk about it. Depression and suicide are uncomfortable things to bring up, but kids need to know they’re not alone.”
Listen to Phantogram’s debut, Eyelid Movies, and there is a feeling of being in someone’s bedroom late at night as they intimately whisper the details of their life to you. There are the pitter-patter beats that invoke Portishead, Carter’s guitar play, which is reminiscent of Radiohead, and Barthel’s voice—exposed, slight, cracking at the apexes, peeking out behind the curtain but still vulnerable. It was the single “Mouthful of Diamonds” off that album that won the band attention from major labels. They went from indie label Barsuck to Republica. Since then they’ve become ubiquitous.
“It’s been an experience. it’s been almost ten years since Josh and I first started the idea of becoming a band, since we started with Charlie Everywhere,” Barthel said. “It was the beginning and since then we’ve had so many opportunities, and we’ve taken all of them and appreciated all of them.”
Vermont radio station WEQX played a major role in helping the band grow. “They used to play our music on their local music show on Sunday nights. It was a huge deal for us. I couldn’t believe it when we first heard “Mouthful of Diamonds” on the radio,” Barthel said.
That sense of vulnerability from the early days still remains in the band’s work, but nowadays it’s scarcer. The intimacy recurs at places on their albums, but the band’s singles “Don’t Move,” “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” “Blackout Days” and “Fall in Love” are grandiose, in your face and unflinching.
“When we wrote Eyelid Movies we had zero fans; we wrote it for ourselves,” said Barthel. “Yes, we were looking for a way for people to hear us, but we didn’t have to think about who would be hearing us, we didn’t have to think of anybody. We just wanted to release music that we wanted to hear,” said Barthel.
Playing major crowds quickly informed the band’s recordings, “We had a natural progression after Eyelid Movies. We wanted to be more heavy, bombastic, punchy, and we learned that from playing shows.”
That sound caught the attention of a number of major acts like Cyrus, The Flaming Lips, Big Boi of Outkast and Run The Jewels. The group has collaborated with the aforementioned artists, even combining with Big Boi to create Big Grams, a supergroup that mashes hip-hop with Barthel’s soaring choruses.
Barthel said that Big Grams started as “just a side project where wanted to not take ourselves very seriously, to try to get away from Phantogram and have some fun, just try music with our friends. That was the true meaning of it all. But there wasn’t any compromise, because when you collaborate, your eyes and mind are open.”
Barthel said that Big Grams is by no means a one-off and that the project has taken on a life of its own. She expects the group will release new material in the near future.
On Saturday, Jan. 14, when Barthel and Carter play their sold-out show (sponsored by WEQX) at Upstate Concert Hall, they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing they’re an inspiration to a host of local acts that hope to follow in their footsteps. “Our goal is to make our home town proud,” said Barthel. We grew up together, so it’s pretty great to come out of the middle of nowhere, to become successful and become a band that is known by everyone around the world.”
all photos provided