This is how I know Josh Carter of Phantogram is at home in in the rural environment of upstate New York: he's recorded the sound of his car driving over a bridge. Not the Tappan Zee bridge, but probably one of those small two lane bridges over the lonely upstate streams and rivers. Having once lived in rural New York near Syracuse for four years, I know what he's talking about. It's the sound of one car on a bridge, with nothing else around. Just you, the car, the bridge, and nature. The sound is pure and unadulterated.
Yes, Carter and Sarah Barthel, the members of Phantogram, live in New York. With their hip hop beats and electronic rock, this is hardly surprising. It's a great place to live if you want to make that kind of music, since you are surrounded by like-minded people. Only it's not New York City I'm talking about. It's upstate New York. And I am not talking about the 30 minute drive from the city that residents of New York City consider to be upstate. I'm talking about Saratoga Springs, New York.
It's here--actually, 45 minutes from Saratoga Springs, in a studio they call Harmony Lodge--that Carter and Barthel make the music that has earned them universal critical acclaim for their new release Eyelid Movies on Barsuk Records, including a recent spread in Spin magazine. They've talked about moving to the city for a few years, but Carter likes the serenity of a rural environment. What a better place to create music with funk beats, synths, and guitars, right? Take a listen:
So read my interview with Josh Carter of Phantogram as we talk about his creative process.
When I was about 18 I got into writing music, and I used to keep a lot of journals, writing down my thoughts and observations about the world around me.
Do you have any literary inspirations or favorite authors?
When I first got into writing music, I was on a William S. Burroughs kick. I had read Junkie and Naked Lunch, and I was really inspired by the cut-up style of writing in Naked Lunch. As I developed as a writer, I was inspired by Breese D'J Pancake. His short stories are very Hemingway-esque, and he writes sad stories about living in the south. I could really relate to his quality of writing because it's serene and takes place in a rural area, similar to where I grew up and still live.
Talk to me about the physical act of your writing process.
It's different every time. With some of my stronger songs, the lyrics just come out as I'm playing guitar or the piano, like stream of consciousness. I think that's what makes for my better songs. Other times, I'll have a song written and go through my journals to see if any lyrics match up well.
If I'm feeling a particular way and pick up my guitar and start singing, the words just flow. If I'm sitting by the pond looking at the trees, the words just come naturally. I revise my lyrics a lot and work on the meter.
What do you do to revise?
I revise my lyrics a lot. I try to make every word mean something, and I also focus on rhythm and meter. I might have a line that is too long and I have to take a word out, or sometimes I'll even pronounce a word differently so that it fits.
Do you get inspired by everything around you? Would you call yourself an observer of the world?
Absolutely. I carry around a handheld tape recorder everywhere I go. I'll hum lyrics or recall something I just overheard. I'm always quick to write something down if I find it interesting, whether I am talking to someone or just observing my surroundings. What sucks is when I don't have something to record what I've seen or heard, and later that evening I'll try to remember and can't. I try to keep something with me at all times to catalogue my thoughts or interesting things that happen during the day. Even tonally, if I like the sound of my car driving over a bridge, I'll record that so that I have it later.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I write a lot and I have suffered from it many times. A good friend told me that the best thing to do is take a break. So if I am feeling stuck, I'll leave it alone and try to live a normal life, hanging out with friends. Also, reading helps with writer's block. So does watching a good film.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you set aside time to write or do you wait until inspiration strikes?
Usually the latter. I don't set aside enough time for my friends and other things. I'm usually working on my music, so when I make time for things, it's about making time to go to dinner with friends or meeting them at a bar.
What would be your ideal writing environment?
Being alone in a studio with books and records. Maybe a TV to throw on a DVD.
You live in a rural area. It's cliched, but do you find that living in a natural environment makes you more creative?
There's fewer distractions. We've tossed around the idea of moving to New York City, but I like living out in nature. There's not as many things to do, so I'm more inclined to work on music.
What's your preferred method of composition?
I like writing on paper. I can't write on computer; it seems too sterile. I like to be able to look back on my journals, and I can figure out my emotional state just by my penmanship. I like the honesty of paper and looking at something written by my own hand.