Seven years after Phantogram’s hit “Mouthful of Diamonds” launched Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel onto the global stage, the electro-rock trip-hop duo is returning to the Capital Region to perform a sold-out show at Clifton Park’s Upstate Concert Hall on Saturday.
Barthel and Carter, both from rural Greenwich in Washington County, released their third album, “Three,” this past October. With songs like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Same Old Blues,” the album maintains the pair’s reputation for haunting lyrics and thundering beats that make it impossible to sit still.
“I keep having this dream where I’m stuck in a hole and I can’t get out. There’s something that’s always pulling me down. This is nothing new. It’s just the same old blues,” Barthel sings softly before the beat drops in “Same Old Blues.”
“Walk with me to the end. Stare with me into the abyss. Do you feel like letting go? I wonder how far down it is?” croons Barthel in “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.”
The sudden death of Barthel’s sister Becky last January no doubt influenced the band’s work, musically and otherwise, over the past year. “Becky was a sister to me,” said Carter. Since her passing, Barthel and Carter have begun working with organizations such as Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation, a nonprofit which supports LGBTQ, homeless or otherwise vulnerable youth.
After five months on tour and just a few days before taking the stage in Clifton Park, Carter took some time to chat with a fellow Greenwich native.
Q: Does it feel good to be coming back home?
A: Hell yeah.
Q: Did you go to shows at Northern Lights (now known as Upstate Concert Hall) often when you lived back in Greenwich?
A: When I was a teenager, I used to be really into hardcore, punk rock and death metal. I used to go see bands like One King Down and Straight Jacket. I even played drums in a metal band when I was like 18. I also remember going to see Ben Folds Five at Northern Lights. I went to a bunch of shows there.
Q: When did you first start making your own music? Were you ever a member of the marching band at Greenwich?
A: I started playing (drums) later in my teens. I tried band but I hated it.
Q: Do you remember if there was a specific album or concert you went to as a kid that made you think, ‘that’s what I want to do with my life’?
A: I started music relatively late in my life. Not too late, but in my later teens. I remember being into the Beastie Boys from a young age. Their “Licensed to Ill” was one of my first albums. From then on I used to have dreams that I was at a Beastie Boys show and they’d point at me and say “Hey you! Get on stage and be the fourth beastie boy!” I always wanted to be a Beastie Boy.
I remember seeing Beck at SPAC during the “Odelay” timeframe. He was incredible. I’ve been blessed to have gotten to meet him and play shows with him. Hopefully I’ll make a record with him some day.
Rage Against the Machine as well. Just finished a song I wrote with Tom Morello. They were a huge inspiration.
Q: Do you remember the first show you ever played with Sarah? You were going by the name Charlie Everywhere from 2007 until 2009. Were you nervous?
A: It was at King’s Tavern in Saratoga Springs. I was nervous as hell. I think I had to drink some whiskey to keep my hands from shaking at the time. A decent amount of people actually came out to our first show and I think we did an okay job for our first time.
Q: And now you’re on the lineup for Coachella (festival in Indio, Calif.) for the second time. Can you tell me about what it was like playing Coachella for the first time last year?
A: It was awesome. We had a really great slot at night and I remember we played at the same time as The Strokes. I was really nervous nobody would come watch us but we had a huge turnout and it was a blast.
Q: Did you ever go to festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo before you were playing them?
A: I never had the money to.
Q: What’s it feel like to know you serve as a reminder that it’s possible for something special to come out of a small town like Greenwich?
A: Well, I think it’s a lot of hard work. You have to work hard and you have to be brave. You have to get out of your comfort zone. For us, we toured and toured and toured across the U.S. in front of nobody. Then one person would tell another person. It built and built and built very organically. Bravery is a big thing. Certainly talent doesn’t hurt. I think you can be from anywhere and do cool things. There’s a lot of cool people doing cool things in Greenwich. It’s just a matter of where they want their art (to be seen) or (where they want) their music to be heard.
Q: In November, you hopped on stage with a bluegrass band from Greenwich named Eastbound Jesus at the Putnam Den in Saratoga. How’d it feel to be playing with guys you’ve known all your life and to see familiar faces singing your lyrics in the crowd? How did that come about?
A: I was talking to my buddy Dylan (Robinson) who plays lead guitar (for Eastbound Jesus) and he asked me if I wanted to play a cover. I don’t play bluegrass or anything but I got up and had a good time with some old friends. He’s a very talented guy. Eastbound Jesus is incredibly talented.
Q: You, Sarah and Antwan André Patton of Outkast, also known as Big Boi, have been working together recently on a side project called Big Grams. How did that collaboration come about?
A: Big Grams is the side project between three good friends. We became friends maybe five or six years ago and just really hit it off. We were really big fans of one another’s music. I’ve loved Outkast for so long and to meet one of my musical heroes and have him be a big fan of my music is pretty mind blowing. Big Grams — it’s serious but it’s more of a labor of love and fun. It’s not Phantogram. It’s not Outkast. It’s not Big Boi. It’s just us having fun, making music.
Q: How would you describe your writing process? Is it therapeutic?
A: It’s very therapeutic. It’s often very personal. The things that are personal we try not to make too obvious. There are multiple meanings behind our lyrics. It’s very dreamlike and fantastical in a way. What I’ve always liked about music is that it takes you to another place. Sometimes I write and create as a form of escapism. It varies from song to song.
Q: How do you come up with the concepts for your music videos, specifically for “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore?”
A: The video and the whole album really was about a beautiful tragedy. There’s some beauty you see in this old abandoned town that was once a resort. We filmed that video at Salton’s Sea in California. It’s a man-made sea kind of close to where Coachella is, actually. All the fish died. It smells disgusting. You can’t swim in it or else your legs will burn off or something like that. It’s also really pretty. Just wear a nose plug, it smells like a rotten fish.
Q: If you could tour with anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose?
A: If John Berry was still alive I’d like to tour with the Beastie Boys. Radiohead. Sometimes it’s not a fun thing to meet your heroes. Occasionally it can be pretty disappointing. Could be better to see people as you want to see them. I’d like to tour with Beck or TV on the Radio.
Q: Have you found Chinese food that beats Panda in Greenwich?
A: [Laughs] Nope.