As her bite-sized Yorkshire terrier Leroy The Good Boy crawls into her lap, Sarah Barthel rubs his head. Her bandmate and best friend Josh Carter also leans over to get in on some of the furry action. It’s Saturday night, and the pair is sprawled out on a couch at W Hollywood. In a few hours, their band Phantogram will play a late-night set at Wake Up Call Music Festival, entrancing their fans with luminous anthems such as “You’re Mine” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.” It’s a rare hometown stop for the Los Angeles-based pair, who spent most of the summer playing seemingly every music festival across the world. It’s been a busy year for a band that has been working seemingly nonstop for more than a decade. Fortunately, Barthel says their Instagram-famous pooch companion helps make every backstage area feel a little more like home.
Familial ties are everything to Phantogram. It’s how they stay centered no matter how hectic life becomes. It’s why they’re even a band in the first place—Carter and Barthel were friends long before they ever started making music together.
The pair grew up in Greenwich, New York. “We met in preschool, on the monkey bars,” Barthel remembers, “right before the bus picked us up.” They’ve been friends ever since, spending their teenage years bonding over artists such as Nirvana, Wu-Tang Clan and Smashing Pumpkins. (They got to hang out with the latter at the Smashing Pumpkins’ reunion tour the night before; Barthel still sounds stunned that she got to meet head Pumpkin Billy Corgan.)
Carter played in a handful of bands after graduating high school. “Things didn’t work out,” Barthel remembers. “It was with his brother, and he ended up moving back upstate, and I was going to school, and I finished, and I moved back upstate as well, and we became good friends again. Then a couple of years later, he asked me to sing on one of his songs, and I did, and it was so much fun and amazing, so from there we kinda hit the ground running.”
The old friends quickly became a collaborative pair. “He taught me how to write, how to produce, how to play, how to do everything,” Barthel says.
“How to dance,” Carter adds.
She looks over at him. “How to dance. I’m very good at dancing, thank you.”
Phantogram released their debut album Eyelid Movies in 2010, and have been working non-stop ever since. They’ve had their songs featured in movies such as Pitch Perfect and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and have collaborated with artists such as Miley Cyrus, A$AP Rocky, the Flaming Lips and Big Boi. “I think the secret to a good collaboration is just going in without too many expectations and having fun with the other artist and seeing what you can make out of it without your own ego getting in the way,” Carter muses. “Just meeting halfway, seeing what happens.” For her part, Barthel says their dream collaborator is Beck. “So, Beck if you’re watching this, just, you know, call us.”
Their most recent album Three debuted at number nine on the Billboard 200, buoyed by their biggest single yet, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” a colossal ode to disaffection.
“We started working on it on the side, demoing it,” Carter remembers. “We brought it into the studio with our co-producers with Ricky Reed and Dan Wilson, and it just started coming to life in a whole new way. Sometimes I get demo-itis, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I need it to sound like this,’ but it evolved very nicely and I think got the point across really well, with basically feeling dissatisfaction about the world in general, and personal demons.”
During the making of Three, tragedy struck the pair as Barthel’s sister Rebecca, also a good friend to Carter, committed suicide. The band recently partnered with The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, donating proceeds from their recent single “Someday,” ( backed by a cover of Sparklehorse‘s “Saturday”) to the organization. “We all grew up together. It was heartbreaking and it is heartbreaking. We wanted to be able to talk about it and finally were able to speak on it without getting emotional,” Barthel says. After taking time to grieve, the pair linked up with the Foundation. “We decided to give as much time as we could, and we also donated tickets sales to the organization, and we speak about it every night, just trying to do our part for it. So hopefully, others don’t have to go through such a tragedy.”
As difficult as the experience was, it’s clear that it brought the pair together even closer. In fact, Carter says, it’s the deep bond the two share that sets the band apart.
“I think the thing about Phantogram that connects to so many other people and why it translates is because we’re best friends. At the end of the day, we have a special connection, and in the past, we’ve called ourselves psychic twins,” Carter says. “We’re not always on the same exact wavelength, but when we’re really working things out together in a very special way, I think that just cosmically translates to the rest of the world.”