In our video series FIRSTS we ask artists to tell us about their first musical experiences. It's an interesting approach to tracing their inspirational trajectories and creative growth, especially when it's something really lame that makes everybody laugh about how uncool they were. Basically a win-win. Last week I met up with Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel from Phantogram to talk firsts, but I left the camera gear behind, so this one's a reader.
Phantogram just released their new sophomore album Voices, a glossier, more fleshed-out version of their hip-hop/dream-pop "street beat" record that fits their ascension to major label pop stardom. But in case you thought they'd gone Hollywood, their remembrances of *NSYNC obsession and SXSW embarrassment should remind you they're just a couple dorks from Upstate New York who happen to be go-to hook singers for Big Boi.
Sarah Barthel: For me it was all boy bands. I was obsessed, obsessed with *NSYNC and Hanson. It was not healthy. But that’s how girls got with boy bands. That’s one thing you guys will never understand is how crazy you can feel for a boy band.
Josh Carter: Beastie Boys. From fourth or fifth grade until I was probably 17 years old I wanted to be a Beastie Boy. I had dreams that I was hanging out with the Beastie Boys at a show and they [would] invite me to be the fourth member. That’s how much I loved the Beastie Boys. I’d listen to them so much. So many Beastie Boys t-shirts, posters. I loved the Beastie Boys.
Sarah: He’s way cooler than I am. I listened to some shitty, shitty music as a teenager.
Josh: In my defence, I had an older brother who was really cool. He exposed me to good music when I was young. I think if I hadn’t had my brother John... Well, my parents listened to cool music too, so I was just exposed. We were listening to '80s music in the car the other day and everybody was singing along and I didn’t know a lot of those pop songs.
Josh: I missed out on so much too.
Sarah: [laughs] I don’t know how much you missed out on.
Sarah: New Kids on the Block. I was in Kindergarten.
Chart Attack: So, you went alone?
And you got wasted.
Sarah: And I was shitfaced. They had to carry me to my car.
Josh: To your Corvette.
Do you remember anything about it?
Sarah: Yeah, Donnie Wahlberg fell through the stage.
What? Was he hurt?
Sarah: Donnie was mine, Donnie was my man.
I can hear that in your voice. Was he hurt?
Sarah: Yeah, he had to go to the hospital. I was really upset. But I was more upset that there was a girl at the hospital that got to meet him, because she broke her arm or something stupid. It was on the front cover of the local news. It was a huge deal. I was bummed.
Josh: My first show was a Beck show when I was 14 years old. It was cool. I think it was around Odelay because he did "Where It’s At."
First Record Bonded Over
Sarah: We used to listen to a lot of underground hip-hop when we first started working on music together. First album we clicked on was probably Busta Rhymes.
Josh: Like when we were teenagers.
Sarah: What was it called again?
Josh: Extinction Level Event. We were about 16 years old. Sarah was listening to it on a field trip to Boston, and I wanted to listen to it to so she let me borrow it. We vibed on it, but I ended up borrowing it for like two years and gave it back to her all scratched up.
First Phantogram Show
Josh: The first show we played as Phantogram was in Saratoga Springs at this place called King’s Tavern. We were asked to play by a collective of indie artists and hip-hop artists called Sub-Bombin, but we had only written two songs and the show was in two weeks. So we just wrote every day and scrambled to come up with a set, and then played for a good 50, 100 people, a good crowd for your very first show. And we had a blast. We decided to take everything fully seriously from day one.
Worst Phantogram Show
Josh: I’d say maybe our first show at SXSW
Sarah: Oh god, yeah!
Josh: It was our very first SXSW, we didn’t know how to do that whole thing, we didn’t know how it was going to be. South By is just a big scramble. You gotta set up quick, you gotta break down quick...
Sarah: No soundcheck. You're lucky to get a line check.
Josh: And at the time we kept all our wires and chords in this Tupperware bin and they were all tangled up. We had no organization to anything we did.
Sarah: We had to set it up in the dark. And every sound guy is the worst. He hates that you’re there, because he’s overworked and you’re not from there, so no one is on your side. You’re playing in front of this whole new world of people that are important because you want to be recognized. And it was terrible
Josh: Yeah, it was terrible. There was this pale green light on us the whole time. I felt kind of sick, just playing, really nervous. There were about five people there.