Two years ago, a shot rang out o’er the tiny little world of Upstate NY.
It was less of a shot and more of a beat.
A loud beat.
A beat which was followed by a bleep.
An errant bleep, probably from a synth.
Then a guitar rang after the beat shot, weaving a wave of arpeggio over the ensuing sounds.
And then the words that stopped our sleepy little town, if for just a second…
You’re getting high on your own supply…”
Enter (their then name) – Charlie Everywhere.
There was something immediately magical about the duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. Everyone who knew Josh could tell he had talent and was capable of making intriguing music, but I’m not sure everyone knew that Sarah could be an equally powerful musical force.
I remember the first time I saw the band perform live (which may have indeed been their first show together) at King’s Tavern in Saratoga Springs. I remember technical difficulties left and right. The PA simply couldn’t handle amplifying vocals loud enough to power through the beats and sounds that were being pushed through at the same time. I remember long spaces between songs as they each took time to call up new settings on their sound processing gadgets that were tangled together in braids of black patch cords.
Despite all this, the groundwork was already there for what everyone in the room could feel was something special to behold. A new sound that was familiar, yet completely unknown and exciting to our ears.
Here’s the beginnings of a piece I started to write in 2008 about the band. I had hoped to start a feature for this blog called “In the Studio“, where I would interview/profile/tape a regional band in their studio space while they were in the throes of recording. I never quite finished this piece because it was around this time that their story began to change quite quickly and quite dramatically…
Take a drive twenty-five minutes southeast of Saratoga Springs, NY through some gorgeous farmlands and quiet fields and you may just happen to hear a surprising rhythm coming from a garage behind an old modest home. If it catches your ear as you drive by you will stop the car and wonder if it’s the ghost of your stereo picking up some progressive hip-hop station from the future, whose main goal is to override your pop-of-the-day-station. Then you’ll hear voices singing – a male and a female voice – sometimes singing together, sometimes singing apart and you’ll crane your head to hear what they’re singing about, but you are fighting your body’s urge to move to the beats and the music at the same time – close but still far away.
In August, I invited myself out to the wonderland that is known as Harmony Lodge Studio, where Charlie Everywhere Phantogram was putting the finishing touches on their first full-length album. Curious as to where and how this incredible music was being born, I was surprised to find quite a contrast to the complex and oftentimes dark moments that permeate the songs.
Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have known each other since grade school. Friends for years, they discovered a surprise songwriting and musical synergy when they casually got together to jam on some new music that Josh had been working on. A master of unique, street-influenced hip-hop beats, he has an equal affection for lush, swirling guitars and layers of synths which take these sounds to new ground. Sarah brought a certain sweet sadness to the table with her plaintive, emotive vocals – there is no flash in that voice, only the most tempered, honest tone with no bravado (or vibrato, for that matter). In their brief year together as Charlie Everywhere, they have amassed an impressive swath of songs that bring together a myriad of influences that quickly magnetized a hungry, underground group of fans into action.
It was a surprise to me to enter the converted garage / studio and note the little amount of gear laying around. Something in me expected a line of guitars and amps buttressing an overflowing microphone cabinet filled with the most vintage of mics. What was there amounted to just a bit more than their live gear; a simple, small dual keyboard setup fed by a laptop for Sarah, and a Fender Stratocaster guitar through a Peavey 2X12 combo amp for Josh. A few processors interrupt their vocal microphones’ route to the P.A. and a handful of ancient drum machines lie dusty on tables nearby but there is nearly no physical evidence that heavily layered and detailed recordings were made in this room.
On the day that I visited, they were terribly close to finishing the album that is now known as Eyelid Movies (released today, 2/9/10 on Barsuk in the U.S.). The two were still debating tracklisting, song order and even song inclusion at that point. Over the course of many months they had been adding and taking away songs, moving them to the front, then sending them to the back, possibly tweaking a mix, possibly canning a jam altogether.
As the story went, there was just one more song to be born to complete the album; “Futuristic Casket” (check the fun fan-made video) arrived within a week of our hang, only to be sacrificed to a late-night red wine + laptop death. Luckily, Josh and Sarah rebuilt the song because to me, it’s the cornerstone of the album and rightfully sums up the best parts of their music.
So what is it about Phantogram?
How did they get to where they are?
What launched them so quickly to a place where they are cruising the world, performing their music?
This is only a guess – but it feels to me that their formula is so compelling, so unique, so personal that it’s simply undeniable that once you’ve been hooked that you have to tell someone about it.
That they are so capable of evoking soundtrack-style moodiness with often sad, contemplative lyrics is an immediate magnet for lonely, human souls out there.
That they can incorporate the vibe of the unique beats of J Dilla into their music without sounding posed or out of place magnetizes anyone who has an ear for underground hip-hop.
That there is an element of melodic guitar squall summons the folks planted in their early 90′s UK bands.
Then the duality, harmony and contrast of male and female voices singing alone and together tying the whole mess into a bundle truly seals the deal as something ultimately special.
And the spread of it all?
Well, at first it was all about MySpace. Two or three songs posted. A few pictures of Josh and Sarah sitting in the grass with headphones on. A keyboard hanging from a tree.
A few fans turned into 100 fans.
100 fans quickly turned into 1000 fans.
1000 to 5000… and on and on.
Then, it was the engagement – songs would appear in their MySpace player for two days and then quickly removed – replaced by a completely different song. I remember logging in late at night seeing a new song had been uploaded within the last hour, then only to find it missing the next morning. I know I was hooked, and it certainly kept me coming back for more and more.
The whispers around town that the band had signed a few record deals came quickly and loudly. Seems like everyone knew it or at least everyone was talking about it. The details of all this took time to reveal though; first the announcement of signing with BBE in the UK. This was big, but the Barsuk then the Ghostly International announcements were the clinchers. Josh and Sarah were on their way.
There is the wonder why it took so long for Eyelid Movies to be released in the U.S. If we look back on the past year, we can see that plenty of smart moves were made for the band to set them up to have a true shot at bringing their music to the highest level it could muster.
Their booking agent / management team did them just right by putting them on nationwide tours with bands such as School of Seven Bells and Zero7, who would have fans and followers that would appreciate Phantogram’s music. These tours also served a purpose of connecting the band with the early fans that found them on MySpace.
New fans and old fans united; a true groundswell of love and excitement.
On this day of the Eyelid Movies album release, we who have known this music since its birth can sit back and revel in the miles of possibility in front of our friends.
And ourselves, if we try.