Joey Grihalva
Rock Preview

We Played for Clay Matthews

Phantogram’s catchy music has been used in ads, but musical hipsters like it, too.

By - Apr 9th, 2014 02:09 pm
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Phantogram. Photo by Cameron McLellan.

Phantogram. Photo by Cameron McLellan.

I’ll be honest, I can understand if you lost Phantogram in the wave of electronic acts that flooded the music scene since Katrina gut-checked New Orleans. MGMT might have made the vowel and lower case letter un-cool, but they wouldn’t be the only duo to push buttons, sing some stuff, and make the kids bob their heads and shake their tail feathers. It was during this era of heavy auto-tune and psychedelic guitar riffs that Upstate New Yorkers Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, better known as Phantogram, first emerged on the blogs and college radio waves.

When Phantogram’s debut album Eyelid Movies was released (2009) I had just moved back to my college town and was frequenting my old radio show. As soon as I heard “When I’m Small” I brought my laptop into the station, popped their CD into my optical drive and imported. “When I’m Small” has this intoxicating Danger Mouse-esque bass line and Barthel’s vocals remind me of Karen O and Emily Haines. The song was such an earworm that it was used in a Canon camera ad and the Gillette company used it in a commercial featuring our home-state football hero, the one and only Clay Matthews!

The thing that sets Phantogram apart from the pack of hipster-friendly electronic acts drum machining their way up the alternative charts is their hip-hop influence. Not only have they been inspired by hip-hop luminaries like J Dilla, Phantogram actually collaborate with them.

In 2012 I was back at a college radio station, this time in Montréal, and another Phantogram audio worm buried its way into my ear. Technically, it was a Big Boi (one-half of OutKast) track called “Lines” featuring A$AP Rocky (see what I said about the lower case letter) and Phantogram. The OutKast member apparently stumbled upon Phantogram’s music while online, was so excited he posted their video to his blog, and the rest is Internet friending music history. The band ended up being featured on three cuts off Big Boi’s second solo effort, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (2012), and Carter plays beats for Big Boi whenever they run into each other on the road.

This Friday, the same night their mentor Big Boi reunites with his better half, André 3000, to headline the Coachella Music Festival, Phantogram will headline Milwaukee’s classiest venue, the Pabst Theater. It may not be a valley in Southern California chock full of scantily clad young women, but the Pabst will be brimming with libido.

The comment I made earlier about losing Phantogram in the shuffle of cool bands was made before listening to their 2013 sophomore album Voices. For this, their latest release, Carter has incorporated more obscure record samples, a hip-hop staple. According to Barthel, the songwriting process for Voices included using those samples, be it an old band concert, an Indian record, or a Motown soul song, and building the production around that base. “Black Out Days” is a full-on banger, but the best named track has to be “Bill Murray.” Here’s a video of “Black Out Days”:

Four years might seem like a stretch in between albums, but Phantogram has mastered the art of the EP. They’ve put out four in total, whetting their fans appetite while supporting the likes of The xx, Metric, Beach House, Yeasayer and Minus the Bear. There’s a Phantogram-Big Boi EP in the works, but considering their heavy touring schedules, we’ll have to wait for that one. In the meantime, there’s a dance party this Friday at the Pabst backed by Phantogram.

TEEN will open for Phantogram. Doors are at 7pm. $20 general admission tickets available at 



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