In 2003, a full year after I left college, I briefly returned home to Saratoga Springs to crash at my parents’ place, while I figured out what the next phase of my “real world” adventure would be. I’d spent the previous year as an expat, living in Madrid, Spain, eating lots of tapas, drinking endless cañas (quarter pints of beers) and teaching the businessmen and women I’d been assigned by my off-the-books tutoring company very little English. (I realized quickly that I didn’t have the patience to become a teacher.) That summer and fall in Saratoga, I spent a lot of time lounging on the couch at my parents’ house watching MTV and hanging out with my buddy Justin, who was also still living in town. And since he was working at Uncommon Grounds, by default, I spent a lot of time there, too. I got to know his crew of barista and bagel-maker friends pretty well. They were a spirited bunch. I had no idea that one of them, Josh Carter, would end up becoming one-half of Saratoga Springs’ greatest musical success stories since The Figgs: indie rock duo Phantogram.
Now, it’s entirely possible, if you’re from Greenwich, NY (pronounced green witch, not the way the English or Connecticutians do), you just stood up at your desk, shook your fist at your computer screen and said, “Now, wait just a minute here, saratoga living…!” That’s because, Phantogram, which consists of the aforementioned Carter and his longtime pal Sarah Barthel, both multi-instrumentalists, singers and songwriters in the band, are the most famous modern natives of the tiny speck of an Upstate New York town that is Greenwich (population: 1728), and you probably assumed, by default, that Phantogram was founded there. That’s actually not the case; as Carter confirms, Phantogram is, in fact, a Saratoga band, because the members were living in the Spa City at the time. But that doesn’t negate Phantogram’s importance to Greenwich; they’re the type of conduit between the “old” and “new” generation that any town tourism bureau would die to have. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, women’s suffrage icon Susan B. Anthony might’ve grown up in Greenwich—and however briefly, appeared on an oddly shaped collectible dollar coin—but she never made you want to get up and dance, right, Town of Greenwich?) Basically, the band is Greenwich’s modern-day Saratoga Race Course: It’s the one attraction that puts the town, otherwise relatively unknown, on the map.
Founded in 2007 under the much-less-memorable moniker Charlie Everywhere, Phantogram were very much a product of the Capital Region’s active arts community—specifically for them, the DIY indie rock, punk and hip-hop scenes. Bands in their orbit at the time included The Kamikaze Hearts (who re-formed to play one of my and Justin’s mutual friend’s weddings) and the Mathematicians, and they hooked up early on with a number of other local bands through the Glens Falls-based indie label, Sub-Bombin Records. But just a handful of artists, such as The Figgs and Jocelyn & Chris Arndt, have been able to break through the ultra-thick, opaque, plexiglass ceiling of the national music scene that has rarely allowed Capital Region bands get beyond the point of local radio play. Carter says he and Barthel consider themselves lucky. “We’re grateful for the scene that we emerged from,” says Carter.
It turns out that the aforementioned Uncommon Grounds plays a role, however small, in the formation of the band. Carter, who worked at the popular Downtown Saratoga coffeehouse for three years, says that back when he was an Uncommon-er, a lot of his coworkers were artists, Skidmore students and local musicians, and they had the ability to control what was playing in the café during the day. “At any given moment, I was exposed to music that I wasn’t familiar with,” says Carter. “We were always turning each other onto different bands, especially indie bands, while we were working.” In other words, Uncommon Grounds’ soundtrack may have helped sculpt the nascent band’s sound.
Phantogram eventually rose above the noise floor in 2010, with the release of their 11-song debut, Eyelid Movies, on well-respected Seattle indie label Barsuk Records (labelmates include Death Cab for Cutie and Nada Surf), and within the year, there was major buzz behind the band. The album garnered a respectable 7.5 out of 10 from the be-all-and-end-all of indie music tastemakers at the time, Pitchfork—the indie rock equivalent of a first-time author getting a favorable review in The New York Times‘ Book Review. Fans responded in kind, with the album cracking the Top 40 on Billboard‘s indie rock chart. That was followed up by 2014’s Voices, which bested their debut’s output considerably, peaking at No.11 on the Billboard 200 and No.3 on the Top Rock Albums and Top Alternative Albums charts, respectively. It also moved more than 100,000 units, which in the post-CD era, is pretty remarkable. Although the band’s third album, Three, hasn’t pushed as much product as its predecessor, it still charted higher, landing in the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, an unheard of feat for a band from our part of Upstate New York. (That was helped, in part, by single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.”) Needless to say, Carter quit his day job a long time ago, and both he and Barthel now live in the Los Angeles area. They’ve since recorded with everyone from Outkast’s Big Boi and the pride of Oklahoma, The Flaming Lips, to pop princess Miley Cyrus.
In between albums in 2018, the band released a two-sided single, featuring one original (“Someday”) and one cover (“Saturday”). The latter was penned by one of the band’s favorite artists, Sparklehorse, whose creative force and lead singer, Mark Linkous, took his own life in 2010, the year Phantogram made their big splash. All proceeds from the single’s sales ended up going to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Of course, none of this was done at random; the suicide epidemic had hit close to home for the band. “Sarah’s sister and one of my best friends, Becky, committed suicide a few years ago now, and that really affected our lives in a major way,” says Carter. “[We wanted] to spread awareness and let people know that it’s OK to not be OK, and that everybody’s a little fucked up and goes through stuff, [and that it’s OK to] reach out and talk to somebody. [Addressing everybody] Please don’t make a permanent decision based on a short-term feeling. Feelings come and go, [and] it’s best to reach out to people and talk.” When I offer that, maybe, one way toward happiness is to listen to more Phantogram, Carter responds that “we mostly write sad music.” (Not entirely true, in my opinion.) Most important, says Carter, is people figuring out how to process their feelings. (And if that means doing it by listening to or playing music, sad or happy, all the better, I say.)
As of August, Phantogram has released a pair of strong new singles, “Into Happiness” and “Mister Impossible,” and Carter tells me that, yes, the band will be releasing a new album soon, though he wasn’t able to confirm a specific street date. He also says that the majority of the album was recorded at one of the band’s studios, Harmony West, located on Barthel’s property in Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles, long connected to the music industry. (Everyone from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to The Doors and The Byrds called Laurel Canyon home at one time or another.) “We wrote some music with some major icons in the music world,” teases Carter, though with whom, he wouldn’t say. “The fun thing about making our newest [album] was that it reminded me of being back home in Greenwich, recording in the [Harmony Lodge] barn,” where the band cut their earliest demos and EPs.
On August 31, Phantogram is set to play a hometown show at Clifton Park’s Upstate Concert Hall, one of a string of tour dates that finds Phantogram playing an array of songs from their catalog and appearing all over the US, Canada and Mexico. Carter’s excited about the band’s big homecoming show. “What’s fun about playing in [the Capital Region] is the energy,” he says. “The fact that we’re back home in invigorating. I think a lot of people that come are proud of us for our success.” (Yeah, Josh, we’re definitely proud.)
Phantogram have now been together for more than a decade—if you’re wondering, Carter and Barthel have always been just friends, not an item; Barthel has been dating multiple-gold-medal-winning Olympic snowboarder Shaun White since around 2013—and the duo have known each other since pre-school. “We’ve been best friends for a long, long time, and of course, there are times when we want to strangle each other, but for 99 percent of the time, we just get along really well,” says Carter. (I prompted Carter’s “strangle each other” comment with my question, “Have you always been friends or have there been periods where you’ve wanted to strangle each other?,” by the way.) Carter ends the thought by saying, “We love each other, and what fuels making music is the relationship that we have.” So says I: Keep that friendly love flowing, Phantogram. Because as long as the spigot’s open, us fans will continue enjoying your great music. What could be a happier thought than that?