"We toured the country multiple times, just the two of us," says Josh Carter, one-half of electropop duo Phantogram. "We'd sleep in Wal-Mart parking lots. Playing for five people every night was a success then. The first time we sold out Bowery Ballroom–that was a huge success. It's constantly building, and for that, I'm really grateful."
Vocalist Sarah Barthel looks back on those early days fondly, when she and Carter were forced to grind it out. Their highest point, she says, was their first tour. "We realized we were going to tour, and it was the smallest tour ever," she says, laughing. "We went to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pittsburgh, and we played in front of the other band, but we were so pumped–like, it was great, so crazy. We had to sleep in our car that night, but it was awesome because we were doing it."
The musicians spending the night in that parking lot could hardly foresee the trajectory Phantogram has taken. In addition to signing a deal for the major commercial licensing of their work, this year they released Voices, the acclaimed follow-up to 2009's Eyelid Movies.
Carter hints at writing new material, as well as collaborative efforts between the band and the likes of Big Boi, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. That hip-hop admiration, which bleeds through in their work, is the foundation for the band, as Carter and Barthel became friends while exchanging that genre's records in junior high school.
"It's so cool to be friends with bands I've always admired or looked up to, guys who have respect for us or admire us as well," Carter says. "Hanging out with El-P and Killer Mike, hanging out with Big Boi and Outkast, hanging out with the Flaming Lips–just having so much camaraderie. It's a really special thing for me; I just have to pinch myself."
The darkness that exudes from Phantogram's work is counteracted by Carter and Barthel's friendship. While "[we] laugh and joke and act goofy all the time," Carter says, they are at their most creative when they're channeling a shadowy place. "I'm really influenced by . . . this constant existential crisis that I'm going through, and unfortunately, that can be kind of dark.
"I grew up in a Christian household so there are some religious themes in our lyrics as well," he continues, "and this questioning of what is reality and what happens when you die, as well as the dichotomy of happiness and sadness. Sometimes, that line can be real blurry."
The approach is working for the pair. With strong visual elements, layered production and meaningful lyricism, Barthel and Carter operate in their own wheelhouse.
"We decided from the beginning what we wanted to do," Barthel says. "We wanted to create something new and fresh, something that hasn't been done before. But at the same time, we wanted people to be able to connect. It was important to us–setting that mood and connection is a part of Phantogram."
Phantogram perform at Fox Theater Pomona, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, (877) 283-6976; www.foxpomona.com. Thurs., Sept. 4, 8 p.m. $27.50 in advance; $30 at the door. All ages.