"You can't look away and you have to find the beauty in the flames."
"I think the best way to describe it is like a beautiful car crash," says Sarah Barthel. "Like, you can't look away and you have to find the beauty in the flames."
For both Barthel and co-conspirator Josh Carter, the making of the third Phantogram record was inextricably linked to the suicide of Barthel's sister, Becky. Her death came part way through the recording of Three and as such coloured both the process and the output.
"There's a lot of desperation and anger, but not in an Emo anger way, more in a beautiful, crying out for any kinda help way."
As Barthel explains, "Our records are driven more by sadness than writing happy songs. We're not really that kinda band. So this kinda circumstance and tragedy we turned into something beautiful. There's a lot of desperation and anger, but not in an Emo anger way, more in a beautiful, crying out for any kinda help way."
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Since forming in 2007, the two high school friends from New York have mined a moody seam of dark, dreamy electronica. With Barthel's often breathy vocals and Carter's love of spaced out guitar sounds, Phantogram have slowly but surely expanded their niche from the East Coast underground to global festival hopping.
Clearly though, personal events have put their career progress into perspective. "It kinda makes you step back and try to understand your art and your creativity," Barthel confirms. "There was this moment of, 'Holy shit, I can't believe I have to go back into the studio and continue writing because we're on this deadline and I feel fucking crazy.' but in that way it did help because it was almost like a kinda therapy. It wasn't like we were, y'know, trying to 'do it for Becky' or anything, but we held hands through it and we got through it together through music."
However, as the band wait for the album's release and rehearse their updated live set list in LA, Sarah Barthel contemplates the looming reality of going public with a very private matter. "It's private for sure," she concurs, "but also this record came from something very heavy and tragic and I feel like it wouldn't do it justice if I didn't feel comfortable explaining where the heavy lyrics and the screaming choruses came from. It's helpful and, I think, interesting as an outside perspective to hear from an artist what they're thinking of."
While Phantogram fans will find recognisable motifs on Three there is also a notably darker fizz in the lyrics. Its highly textured and introspective sonic palette makes it an almost voyeuristic experience. Whether it meets the expectations set up by 2014's much-loved Voices record will soon be revealed.
For Barthel and Carter though, the weeks in the lead up to the release are nowhere near as nail biting as we might imagine. "Personally these moments are the best because it's almost out and nobody can review it yet and give an awesome or terrible write-up. So it's like you're making music for yourself, as all artists do," Barthel elaborates. "There's no stress. It's the calm before the storm."