Well, well well, what do we have here? We recently sat down with Saratoga Springs’ Phantogram (formerly known as Charlie Everywhere), who’ve been making some serious waves in the upstate New York music scene. Back in January this self-described “street beat psyche pop” duo signed to UK-based BBE records. Over the course of our conversation, we spoke about Phantogram’s beginnings, their upcoming releases, and even a little bit about the state of today’s music industry.
InYourSpeakers: Okay, first of all, let's talk about some things I recently saw on your myspace. You guys just signed to a record label. Before that, you guys had only been together a few years?
Josh: Well, about a year and a half. I guess a little over a year and a half.
IYS:So things have come together quite quickly.
S: Yeah, definitely!
IYS: Can you tell us a bit about that process? A bit of background on your forming as a band up to the point of signing.
J: Well, when we started, Sarah was living up in Burlington, Vermont, and I was living down in New York.
S: We grew up together. We went to high school together. We’ve known each other since ninth grade. We went off and did our thing after high school, and we both headed back to Saratoga Springs. Josh was in a different band at that point.
J: Yeah, and I quit that band because I wasn’t fully happy with the direction it was going. So I started working on beats and stuff. Then Sarah and I met up together, and rekindled our friendship, and I played her a lot of my demos and stuff. At that point, my demos were pretty much just little one-minute long snippets of ideas. I guess she liked them. [Laughter]
Growing up, I didn’t know that Sarah sang so much because we were just goofing off a lot, you know, jumping on the trampoline and smoking pot and stuff. [Laughter] Anyway, turns out she has a nice voice, and she thought I shouldn’t let the ideas I had at the time go to waste, so we kinda started a band. She helped me finish those ideas, and then we started writing together. That’s how we started.
As far as getting signed goes, it’s hard to say how it happened. People just discovered us, somehow. [Laughter]
S: We’ve had a lot of our recognition through Sub-Bombin, which is a record label from Saratoga Springs. More of a collective. They had been putting our name out there, as well as us just putting out stuff through our Myspace and spreading as much as we possibly could through that and just connecting with people online. In one way or another, BBE found us, or we found BBE through Beatshot productions. They do photography of all the local artists, and they’re close with Sub-Bombin, so we became friends with them.
J: Beatshot is based out of Albany.
S: Yeah, and they are friends with J-Live, who is an MC on BBE, and he’s the one who showed BBE our music. I guess they liked us, because they said “Let’s do it!”. The actual signing process was quite longer though.
J: Yeah, they offered to sign us in late summer, and we only just officially signed. There’s a lot of negotiating involved with our lawyer and our manager and all that.
IYS: And at that point you just gave them the same 4-track demo that has been floating around?
J: Yeah, J-Live told Pete, one of the owners of BBE, about us, and he just listened to us on MySpace. Then we sent him our album -- the album had been finished by that point; it was finished sometime in late June. So we sent him a bunch of tracks from that.
S: We were actually just about to self-release the LP. We had been recording all year. All last winter through summer. We finished it up, and sent it out to get mastered. Paid all the money for that, planning on just releasing it ourselves, when we got the email that said “Hey, we want to sign you.” So we had to hold off on everything for a while.
IYS: So it was at that point that the band went through a renaming?
J: Yeah. When we first started out, it needed a name, and we just came up with Charlie Everywhere. It was always sort of a half-baked name, but it worked so we used it. Because of some complicated legal issues with some international trademark or something -- I don’t even fully understand the situation -- we needed to find a new name.
S: Which is easier said than done! Every name we settled on turned out to be used!
J: Yeah, there was always already a band out there with each name.
S: Or fourteen. [Laughter]
J: We were thinking of Phantom Hands for a little bit. Then I thought of Phantogram, and I thought it sounded good. I actually didn’t know what it meant, but I looked it up on Wikipedia, and a phantogram is basically those red and blue images on a 2-D surface that pop out in 3-D.
We thought that fit because we’re two people, and we make sort of a soundscape.
IYS: Word has it you’re going to be releasing an EP soon? Is that going to be before the album?
J: It’ll come out before the album, yes.
IYS: Is it going to be made up of tracks that’ll be on the album?
S: Well, it’s a five-song EP, and four of them are going to be on the album later, and then there’s the one bonus track. We’re self-releasing it in the States, and BBE is doing the release in Europe and Japan and the rest of the world.
J: Our full-length, however, will be released on a label in the States.
S: Also, the European version has a little bit of a different version of [the song] ‘Running from the Cops’. It’s a more instrumental version for DJs and that sort of thing.
IYS: Well, on the note of DJs, are you involved or do you have plans to be involved in any remix projects?
J: Well, we’re hopeful. I mean, we’ve had a bunch of more local acts ask to remix the stuff, and I’ve basically always said no. The reason we’ve said no, I think, is because to me our music is already kind of remixed. In a way. We seem to always start with an idea, and by the end of it we’ve completely re-arranged the idea.
So I think we’re also kind of waiting for somebody who can really make it crazy, rather than just do something we could do on our own.
IYS: Your sound is unique, and even your MySpace quotes it as having some pretty interesting influences. Urban beats and rhythms. Psychedelic melodies. What would you say is the source of your style though?
J: Well, we listen to all kinds of different music. I mean, Sarah listens to David Bowie a lot--
S: Yeah, we have a huge list of influences. Everything from Herbie Hancock to Curtis Mayfield. A lot of old soul -- In fact, a lot of our ideas come from chopping up and looping together sounds from old soul songs. Shoegaze; My Bloody Valentine-type sounds.
J: Yeah, we listen a lot to Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, The Beatles; a lot of Detroit hip-hop like Black Milk; so it comes from a lot of places. We try to make music that we’d like to hear.
I mean, we love the more underground, dirty hip-hop, shoegaze, pop -- all that. We don’t try to mash it all together --this isn’t a mashup project-- but we take all that and we go with it where it goes.
IYS: So at that point, what is your method as far as writing and creating the music?
Well, sometimes it starts with Sarah playing piano and finding some cool tune, or I’m playing guitar and I come up with something. Most of the time, however, I think it starts with making a beat. A beat that is kind of meant for someone to rap over, you know? And then I think, well, we don’t rap, so at that point it starts to become something else. We layer in some stuff we’d been chopping up, maybe some old soul samples or whatever. Then maybe I’ll record myself playing drums and cut a break out of it and layer that in. Then we’ll layer in some guitar and vocals.
We don’t really have a formula though.
S: Yeah, like Josh was saying, on the debut album, what would happen is he’d make a beat and go over it in our practice space and fuck around with it and songs came out of that. Lately, we’ve been starting with stuff we completely come up with on each of our computers though, and then we get together and talk about “well what would you add to this” or “what should I do at this part”. So now we’re kind of doing something a little different.
I guess none of that will be out until the next album though. [Laughter]
J: I think we’re already both dying to put out another album, even though this one isn’t even out yet.
IYS: What would you say the music scene is like up in Saratoga?
J: It’s good. We know lots of people that play lots of different styles of music up there. It’s sad though, because the music scene in Saratoga isn’t really able to thrive at all because all the venues are geared more towards crappy cover bands that just play ‘Free Bird’ all night.
That being said, there’s a really great scene that’s sort of underground there -- lots of good underground hip-hop, electro, indie. Everyone shows up to each other’s shows and supports each other, but it’s unfortunate because the general public doesn’t really get into it at all because they’d rather hear something that sounds more familiar to them.
IYS: How about the scene over in Albany?
S: It’s great. There are a bunch of great venues there -- Red Square, Rev Hall -- and they have really great music coming out of there. Beware! the Other Head of Science, Scientific Maps, all of that. They’re definitely thriving. It really seems like they have a good base over there.
IYS: Speaking of shows, you have four SXSW shows lined up?
S: Yeah, we’re excited. We applied and they accepted us and it’s going to be great. We’ll be playing some showcases and some other shows there.
IYS: Any wide-ranging tours planned?
J: We’re planning on touring Europe this summer. We’re going to be playing a few festivals there.
IYS: Anything in the States?
J: We’ll be playing a bunch in the states before the European tour.
IYS: You’re new to your record label, having just been signed. Thoughts on major record labels?
J: No good. They suck.
That’s the great thing about indie labels -- They care about your career, and helping you along.
S: Yeah, instead of just saying, “Hey, you want to be number one? We’ll make you number one,” making you change your whole image up and then dumping you just as quick, they take care in progressing your career and your music. Indie labels bolster your ability as a musician.
J: I mean, I’m sure there are dickheads at indie labels, but every person we’ve worked with has been great. I have no interest in signing to a major record label. If you can do well on an indie label anyway, what’s the point? Plus, really, major labels just put out a bunch of whores.
IYS: So you aim to be career musicians?
J: Definitely. I want to do it for the rest of my life. I want to make the kind of music I love for the rest of my life. Hopefully I can make music other people love for the rest of my life too.