Nerding Out with Phantogram’s Josh Carter

It's not all about expensive gear—being broke can make you creative, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll make it big and play Madison Square Gardens.

Mathias Rosenzweig

Have you purchased a Gillette Fusion ProGlide? Well who could blame you: you want the best a man can get. Perhaps you treated yourself and bought a Canon 650D camera, because smartphone cameras just won't do. Maybe you secretly watched MTV’s adaption of British show Skins (horrible recreation of a show, but the music was great). Even without a ton of radio play, chances are you've heard plenty of the songs from Phantogram's debut album, Eyelid Movies. Songs like “As Far As I Can See” and “When I’m Small,” were everywhere back in 2009 and for a good while after—on commericals, on soundtracks, in coffee shops too. Even if you’re not aware, you’ve most likely had a Phantogram song stuck in you’re head at one time or another, and you probably liked it.

The band returned this year with the darkly dramatic, hook-heavy follow-up Voices and while you can read endless material on how bands like Phantogram started, when they got their break, how they found their sound, it’s challenging to find the nitty-gritty details about technique and the behind-the-scenes action that helped mold two kids living in Greenwich, New York into a band that will, in March next year, be sharing the stage at Madison Square Garden with Alt-J. We spoke to Phantogram’s Josh Carter about teaching yourself to play, using creativity to outsmart overpriced gear, and the art of sonic experimentation.

Noisey: What was the first instrument you picked up?
Josh Carter: The first instrument that I learned was the drums. Started playing in my late teens, and it was a Tama Rockstar Kit—this old used kid that my parents got for me. Then after drums I taught myself how to play guitar and a little bit of piano.

When did you start recording and playing around with technology?
When I was 18, I bought a four track tape machine, and, you know, digital recording was around back then but I didn’t have enough money. I didn’t get a laptop until I was about 23. So I would record all these ideas onto this four track. I remember buying an electronic sampler, a drum machine, and messing around with keyboards and the guitar pedals. I used to write a lot of songs that were just short sketches.

Sometimes I’d just get together with my friends and smoke pot and record the weirdest stuff in the world, like funny conversations, or we’d come up with like funny skits. I don’t know, I just remember getting really obsessed with sound and sonic texture when I was about 18 years old. I remember a friend of mine had this little hand-held tape recorder. We would just go around recording people saying things. I just fell in love with that.

How were you able to find an affordable way to learn music and recording?
I think what’s cool is if you’re creative, there are a lot of options now that are much more affordable, that weren’t necessarily back in the day. When I got laptop for the first time, I bought Logic Express, and that was probably, $600, $800 dollars or something? And now you can buy Logic Pro for like $200. And a lot of computers come with software already built in. Like, Apple has Garage Band. I’ve never really messed with it, but I think Logic is just a little step up from Garage Band and all of our records that we’ve done have ended up getting recorded into Logic.

You don’t need a lot of money to make cool stuff. That’s kind of how I always was, event though I started with a 4-track tape machine. I had limited resources and I would just buy crappy mics at RadioShack and just use whatever keyboards I could get my hands on, and run them through guitar pedals. And I would save up a lot of money to buy gear too. I still love buying gear.

Some people get intimidated by how expensive breaking into music can be and give up early…
If people give up that easy, then maybe they’re not cut out to be creating art. There are ways to buy things cheaper. You can buy stuff on Craigslist. You can go to used stores. My first guitar, and it’s still probably one of my favorite guitars ever, was a $100 guitar. The Yamaha Pacifica. It’s basically like a strap model guitar, and I still use it today, even though I have a lot of guitars. In our live shows, I play mostly Stratocasters. It’s what I learned electric guitar on and it was cheap. I mean, like I said, if you get too intimidated and it discourages you from following something that you felt like was a dream, then maybe you should reevaluate your dreams. Because I think that nothing should get in the way of people doing something that they really feel they want to do. And we’re lucky enough in this day and age to find ways to do things on a show string.

Your tracks all sound so unique from one another. How do you accomplish this variety?
I think most of the reason why we have such a diverse sound as a band is because we listen to so many different kinds of music. A huge influence on our approach to music has been The Beatles. If you listen to a Beatles record, a lot of the songs sound different. They have all kinds of different influences in their songs…but it still sounds like the Beatles. I get kind of sick of hearing albums by bands where it seems like they’re doing the same song over and over and over again. We like to experiment with different influences and different vibes to create something that’s going to feel fulfilling for us. We don’t want a one trick pony kind of record.

At the same time, listeners can still identify a Phantogram song as being distinct from other bands.
I mean, there’s a lot to be said about a coherent record where a lot of the sonic elements remain throughout an album, and I think that we achieve that as well. But for us it’s just about experimenting and having fun. And whether we have a studio with a million different things to mess around with, like different analogue synths, percussion devices, drums, all kinds of stuff. Either it’s that or we just have an iPhone with a voice memo. We create in all different ways. Even on the road, when I’m on tour, I’ll record random field sounds with my voice memo. Or people playing drums on buckets on the street in New York City or whatever, and just sample that shit.

Any final words of wisdom for kids trying to get their music careers started?
Basically my advice is, if you want something, then you’ll figure out ways of doing it. I was fortunate enough to be self-taught at everything. But when I first started I would buy videos of people playing the drums or I’d go into the bookstore and just read guitar magazines. I’d do a lot of research. And I’m constantly doing research today and learning, and I think to any new musician out there or anyone who wants to make records and get into producing, or learn an instrument, it’s all about constantly learning and constantly feeling like you need to learn. And just feeding that need to expand your horizons and gain knowledge. That’s the best advice that I would give, and that’s what I’m still doing today.

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