Music & Nightlife

Phantogram turns success and tragedy into biggest album yet

Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter are Phantogram, an electro-rock duo that plays the Fillmore Charlotte on Saturday.
Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter are Phantogram, an electro-rock duo that plays the Fillmore Charlotte on Saturday.

The last year has been one of career milestones and personal tragedy for electro-pop-rock duo Phantogram, which returns to the Fillmore Saturday two weeks after its album “Three” debuted in Billboard 200’s Top 10.

With its 2015 collaboration with Big Boi from Outkast as indie-pop/hip-hop super group Big Grams, Phantogram reached a larger audience – and frontwoman Sarah Barthel discovered a sexier, more daring stage persona.

“You’re on stage with Big Boi from Outkast,” she says, “you better step it up. Our live performance got better. I gained a lot more confidence and a different kind of energy.”

For Phantogram fans who missed Big Grams, witnessing the previously dark, reserved Barthel in a blonde wig, thigh-high boots and a low-cut one-piece on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” was jarring.

“We’ve always been a band that keep it simple on stage,” she says. “I realized I kind of love the whole performance –the different perspectives that you can get from watching someone on stage – and wanted to do more.”

While she ramped up her stage presence and experimented with fashion, she and musical partner Josh Carter pushed further on all fronts, writing songs that are poppier and weirder than ever and teaming with a production company to elevate the visuals on stage.

“(Big Grams) was a little bit more light-hearted. The topics and things weren’t so heavy and dark and serious. I really loved it. It was nice to have that separation,” says Barthel, who returned to more personal subject matter on “Three.”

Thematically, “Three” is Phantogram’s deepest album yet due to the death of Barthel’s sister, who committed suicide in January following a history of depression, anxiety and alcohol. Themes of loss, love, guilt, understanding and hope permeate songs that are musically grittier in some cases, glossier in others.

“I needed some space, of course, then I was able to get my head back into it,” says Barthel, who has honored her sister through traveling and promoting mental health awareness along with Carter and friend Miley Cyrus.

“The focus was to dive back in and make the record. Our one idea we wanted to do was to make a darkadelic, experimental pop record,” she explains.

On it, dirty synthesizer-led pop songs cozy up next to droning meditations and full-blown ballads.

“We wanted to step it up a little bit and add some meatier production and heavier sounding stuff,” she says. “When you tour for as long as we have, you learn a lot from your live show. We wrote (our debut) ‘Eyelid Movies’ before we toured on it. We didn’t know as much of the concept we wanted to create on the record.”

With three full-lengths and nearly 10 years behind them, she concludes: “We want the records to keep progressing and get heavier, grittier and more emotional.”


When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Fillmore, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.

Tickets: $25.

Details: 704-916-8970;