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Thursday preview: Phantogram whips up psychedelic atmospheres from a barn

March 3, 2010 |  3:26 pm


Bands and critics often speak of using the studio as an instrument. Yet technology doesn't have to be bleeding edge for the environment to play a major role, especially when one is working till dawn in a barn in the middle of nowhere. 

The music of Phantogram, which will be in Los Angeles for a performance Thursday night at Bordello, conjures, at times, fanciful, late-night dreamscapes, a rural-meets-computers sound crafted about 40 minutes outside of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Dusty, hip-hop ready beats, warm electronic grooves and spacey atmospheric guitars combine for a low-key psychedelic mix, resulting in a sound that falls somewhere between the trip-hop soul of Massive Attack and a more digitized version of Mercury Rev, which has also recorded in less urban parts of New York.  

"We wrote the album during the winter months of 2007, out in the barn," said Josh Carter, who, along with Sarah Barthel, makes up the instrument-and-vocal-swapping duo. "That might be the reason the record has a lot of dark undertones. We felt a lot of isolation, and it was cold and dark all the time. We were working very late at night, out in the middle of nowhere. Even though we had each other, there was this feeling of loneliness going on. I think that translated into the music." 

The act's debut, "Eyelid Movies," was released last month by the Seattle-based independent label Barsuk Records. The album opens with one of the first songs the pair -- high school friends who reconnected post-college -- composed together: "Mouthful of Diamonds," a slow-burning churn of sci-fi effects and Barthel's comforting vocals. 

"I came up with a bleep-and-bloop loop going on in the song, and I was just screwing around with that on a synth and began playing guitar on top of it," Carter said. "That song came together in probably about one hour, fully written. We kind of put it to the side because I couldn’t come up with any lyrics. About a month later, I stayed up all night and wrote the lyrics and the vocal melody."

Carter and Barthel formed the band during what Carter referred to as mutual "transitional periods." Carter returned to his childhood home of Saratoga Springs after playing in a band in New York City with his brother. The songs that would eventually find their way onto "Eyelid Movies" were recorded late at night, sometimes after the two finished shifts waiting tables. 

Barthel dabbled with the piano, but had never been in a band before Carter recruited her. "She was done with college, and I was done in New York City," he said. "I noticed she had a great voice, and every time she played the piano, I thought it was great. I initially just asked her to help me on one of my songs and lay down some vocals."

It soon turned into more of a full-time band. Barthel introduced Carter to independent hip-hop beatmakers, who helped in adding a murkier rhythmic drive to his songs, and Carter handed over much of the vocal duties to Barthel, whose softer, richer tones brought a greater balance to the songs. Moments of the album are all scratchy tension, such as "Running From the Cops," while songs such as "When I'm Small" and "You Are the Ocean" match the synths with more Euro-pop tendencies. 

"Sarah was listening to more hip-hop and R&B, and I was listening to a lot of shoegaze music," Carter said. "We really love David Bowie and the Beatles and Pink Floyd, but I was really into Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy -- French pop from the '60s was really inspiring to me. I turned Sarah onto that, and she turned me onto beatmakers like the 9th Wonder. That’s how our music came together. We took elements of what we liked in music, and tried to incorporate them."

-- Todd Martens

Phantogram: Thursday  at Bordello, 901 E. 1st St. Tickets are $12, and available online in advance

Photo: Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel. Credit: Doron Gild