Phantogram & Tycho
with Heathered Pearls
About Phantogram: Can a band working in relative isolation craft music that resonates with listeners around the world? Can that band and its music evolve and connect with an ever-widening audience without sacrificing quality or compromising integrity?
When the band in question is Phantogram, the answer to both is unequivocally “yes.” And Voices provides indisputable proof.
The New York duo’s second full-length album catches the ear quickly, melding hazy dream pop, dark atmospheres, and head-knocking rhythms into a compelling, original sound. Opener “Nothing But Trouble” contrasts waves of distortion with Sarah Barthel’s beguiling soprano, underpinned by Josh Carter’s gritty urban beats. Moments later, the staccato vocal hook and layered rhythms of “Black Out Days” drive the listener deep into a fever dream of echo and atmospherics. But do not confuse immediacy with instant gratification. The impact of Phantogram’s songs intensifies over time.
Since 2007, the Phantogram sound has evolved gradually and organically, and the band’s career has mirrored that progress. Formed in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York, longtime friends Carter and Barthel crafted music untroubled by outside interference. With each new release and national tour since 2009 debut Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), their sound has progressed—and so has their popularity. Yet Voices makes no concessions to commercialism. From inception to execution, Phantogram’s second album stays true to the aesthetic that has won them a wide, disparate fan base.
The making of Voices hewed closer to its predecessors than the band first intended. Although now based in Brooklyn, they retreated to familiar turf to minimize distractions. “We tried writing in Los Angeles, we tried writing in New York City, but we had to head back to upstate New York to get some peace and quiet,” says Barthel. Only after the initial songwriting was completed did they decamp to LA, where Carter would team up with co-producer John Hill (M.I.A., Santigold) to record and put the finishing touches on the band’s sophomore album.
Lead single “Fall In Love” emphasizes its sly hooks via contrasting dynamics, with quiet snippets of synthesized strings and isolated vocal passages sprinkled amidst pulsating bass tones and Psycho-worthy orchestral stabs. Bluesy, vapor trail guitar lines and a rhythmic buzzing reminiscent of a mad scientist’s laboratory impart the sublime “Bill Murray” with an eerie balance of contemplation and disquiet.
Although hip-hop is a key influence on their music, the division of labor in Phantogram doesn’t neatly split into clear cut old school roles of DJ and MC. The two members share creative responsibilities. Carter sings lead on two new tunes (“Never Going Home” and the percussive “I Don’t Blame You”) and Barthel assumed a bigger role in production on Voices. Sometimes they write together in the same room, at others they split up; immediate proximity isn’t a prerequisite after years of collaboration.
“We’re able to work separately from one another and accomplish the same goal,” explains Carter. An idea hatched on piano or guitar by one band member may then be passed on to the other for further refinement. “If we’re stumped on something specific, we’re able to swap the material we’re working on,” adds Sarah. “That’s a really cool process, because one of us will think of an idea the other might not have.”
Whereas their previous work was largely studio-based, this time the live experience factored into the composition, too. Phantogram has toured incessantly since the release of Eyelid Movies, headlining larger and larger sold-out shows at clubs and theaters and delivering knockout performances at festivals including Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Treasure Island. “Touring led the way to what the music on Voices would sound like,” says Barthel. “It helped us expand and discover new sounds and dynamics that we wanted to incorporate.”
In addition to the new sonic discoveries, all those shows have proved integral to Phantogram’s gradual, but steady, rise in acclaim. “A huge part of our audience comes from playing live and touring,” says Carter. “Being able to go from playing a crowd of five people to 50, then 500 or even 5,000 has marked our progress and shown us the value of working hard, while challenging us to still make our music unique.”
Discipline and innovation have won Phantogram admiration from well-seasoned peers. Acclaimed music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (The Twilight Saga, Gossip Girl) solicited an exclusive track (“Lights”) for the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The duo joined forces with the Flaming Lips for “You Lust,” a thirteen-minute epic showcased on the Oklahoma combo’s 2013 album The Terror. “It seems crazy that artists that we admire want to create music with us,” admits Carter. “That is huge compliment to us and all our hard work.”
Meanwhile, working with Big Boi on three tracks for his 2012 solo album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors did more than just broaden Phantogram’s listening audience. The Outkast veteran also dispensed sage advice as they graduated to a larger record label and bigger crowds. “The conversations with him gave us composure and confidence,” says Barthel. “He told us not to worry and stay true to what we were already doing.” Lend an ear to Voices and it is clear Phantogram took that advice to heart.
About Tycho: An epoch is defined as an extended period of time typically characterized by a distinctive development or by a memorable series of events, and Scott Hansen, leader of the band Tycho, has named their new album Epoch (Ghostly International) with that in mind. The last installment in a trilogy, Epoch is the culmination of more than a decade’s work that has seen the band evolving and maturing through two sublime releases Dive (2011) and Awake (2014), and developing from featuring Hansen as a delicate solo performer into the iconic frontman of a powerful multi-layered live band performing on the world’s largest stages.
“Dive was where the whole thing crystallized,” said Hansen. “I found that crossover space between what I was doing before, which was more IDM electronic stuff, and the rock music that reflected more of what I was listening to and not necessarily what I was making. Awake was a prototype of pushing it as far into the rock realm as I was comfortable with. Epoch is basically coming full circle. All the lessons of Dive and Awake were applied and then expanded upon.”
Epoch leverages the sonic aesthetic of Dive’s down-tempo vintage-style synthesizers and beautiful melodies while drawing on the kinetic energy of Awake’s progressive composition and organic instrumentation. “I felt like I explored a lot of open-ended unbridled, optimistic spaces with the other records. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my life, but it seemed like that’s what just came out at the time.” For the new record, the themes felt a bit darker as he explored new musical territory. “My threshold for darkness is much lower. Things that seem dark to me seem happy and light to other people. I think it’s the darker sounds themselves. The timbres are a bit more aggressive.”
Hansen initially attempted a more traditional recording process at Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach, CA, but ultimately opted to do the majority of the recording in his home studio in Berkeley following a temporary relocation from his home in San Francisco.
“I’ve been in the same San Francisco house the last 11 years. I made the last two records in the exact same room. I figured it was time for a change. There were a few other factors as well. I wanted to get some more space, be relaxed, and not be living in the middle of a crazy city. I wanted to have a more relaxed environment where noise or people didn’t bother me. Mostly just for the isolation.”
Once complete, it was important to Hansen to release Epoch as a surprise album. “I’ve never been fond of handing in an album then waiting 4 months for it to be released,” he said. “I wanted to be more connected to the people consuming the music. There is a kind of visceral fulfillment you get from sharing something that you’ve just created with other people. That’s a very satisfying feeling as an artist.
“All art is in some way shaped by the current state of the world around the person creating it so there’s a element of zeitgeist built into any album. We just finished mastering the album so it will be a month old when people hear it. I’m hoping people get a sense that this music is directly connected to the time they are experiencing it in.”
Epoch was arranged alongside Zac Brown, a long time collaborator and partner in the Tycho project. Brown contributed bass and guitar parts to the songwriting process, while Rory O’Connor played drums. O’Connor was brought in during the Dive tour cycle. Hansen has known Brown since their Sacramento upbringing.
“At the end of Dive is when we started to work together on a couple songs. I thought there should be more guitar. Zac played on a couple songs like on ‘Ascension.’ He played some bass and guitar on ‘Hours.’ I brought him on to play parts in the shows. We did Awake together. We took the same approach with this record.”
Hansen sees Epoch as a multi-dimensional artistic vision at the confluence of his graphic design work via ISO50 and music with Tycho. The graphic presentation of the album artwork is as important as the music itself. The keystone is the central image of Epoch and the colour scheme red and black. This is a stark contrast to the almost rainbow palette of Awake.
$35 General Admission
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