My mild obsession with Phantogram is, certainly, fueled by the music but, at least to a significant degree, rooted in commentary. I learned of their existence early last year when my roommate put a copy of their debut LP, Eyelid Movies, in my hand. From there, I tried to push that record onto my bandmates – not just for entertainment reasons, but for educational ones as well. Success was mine after the four of us spent the best part of our Friday afternoon at SXSW loafing on a sofa, drinking handmade salty dogs and watching Phantogram play right in front of us through a wall-tall picturesque window that butted up to the simple, treated wooden stage on which they played. We brought related commentaries home, and were thrilled to catch them at the Masquerade this time through. The following night, Phantogram commentary continued in a casual conversation that I was having with a darling fellow local musician, too. This all leads to goose chasing, but you get the point. Whatever it is that Phantogram does is something worth discussing at great length, apparently.
Today the discussion is about their live show. Now, there are lots of things I love about this band based off sheer Phantogram fact. Great female vocals. Two-piece band. Synths mashed up to reverbed, delayed Fender guitar sounds. They are a great cup of tea for me. Also noteworthy – members Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have been joined by drummer Tim Oakley for live shows since the latter part of 2010. So both times that I’ve experienced Phantogram, Oakley’s contributed live drums, and live drums I like.
My account of the show goes like this:
Moved from King Plow to Masquerade at the last minute, the physical capacity of the show is stretched so that a hundred or so more patrons can attend. This is great, but means that bills are stacked at the Masquerade, that early arrivers have to wait in line for the doors to even be opened, and that headliners The Glitch Mob, whose publicist had been kind enough to list me, will likely go on well after midnight. The heavy, cloudy skies hold their breath until, just shortly past the hour of 9p, doors are opened and waiting commences inside.
Com Truise opens. Having only discovered him – Seth Haley – a couple of months ago, I dig the music. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out to be something that I’m particularly interested in live. For some part of his set, in fact, I am parousing the merch/bar area, running my mouth and my mind running on the assumption that the ‘skrade crew is just letting some house music play (though it’s much more satisfying than the usual, I note). Don’t get me wrong – if you like electro indie, you have to check out his stuff. But an overcrowded, talking swarm of youngish kids comprising a sold out crowd for Phantogram and The Glitch Mob doesn’t leave much for lingering aesthetic value while Com Truise is performing.
Phantogram starts rusting around eventually. Mild, on-the-spot sound checking lingers slightly long enough for me to dart off to the ladies’ room line, which has doubled over onto itself by the time I get there. Only missing about half of the first tune, I walk into a slew of familiar opening set tracks that included “Bloody Palms,” a down tempo favorite of the crowd’s, it seems. For me, slightly less of a fan of the triphop-ness of the second half of Eyelid Movies, I thoroughly appreciate Josh’s shoegazey icing of guitar work live.
With “Mouthful of Diamonds,” a song we know so well, I pay attention to how the sounds are generated, trying to pick out what is programmed. Sarah holds the mic with her right hand for most of the song, while pressing through low notes with the left. I notice that Josh’s live guitar is super loud, which is great and welcomed, an element that sometimes gets lost with electro-heavy bands live. Not only that, but it is warm and thick – not peaky at all, which I half expected. I notice him playing with no pick, which obviously contributes to these sonic characteristics.
After some familiars, the two thank the crowd and have a quiet moment – a juxtaposed transition to the next. It’s “Running From the Cops.” The programming is very heavy by itself, before drums come in a couple of bars later. On this, I notice that Sarah’s playing that low, super distorted synth, or at least appears to be doing so. There are strobe lights on the chorus, and The Glitch Mob kids like that a lot. I’m sure the heaviness of that particular track appeals to their likings.
The most important thing about this set for Phantogram is the introduction of a couple of new songs, which are supposed to be included on a new EP due out sometime this fall. I am impressed by both, to say the least. The first contains some really high-on-the-neck Strat melodies, which are thin in context, but not in texture. Those melodies sink naturally into heavy synth and dissonance guitar chords for a minute, then Sarah’s vocals come in to a simple cadence to the effect of, “Oh… shake, shake.” Those are my cue lyrics for that song. I note that they came in after two times of the first and second riffs, pushing the introduction of voice back a little more into the meat of the song. Harmonies between Josh and Sarah rise with the synth layers, then real drums couple to a simple sample, then more guitars. It’s nice.
During “You Are The Ocean,” I realize that Sarah’s personal stylish movements seem to be the same throughout the set, even though the song is slower – like a double time interpretation. It’s interesting how each band perceives their own music, especially live, is all. The sound and lights all come down together for a second before the outtro of this one, bringing huge live dynamics to the Masquerade. Sarah comes in alone next, with Josh following into a much heavier verse of “Turn It Off.” The live guitar seems to be completely different than what’s on record for this one. The harmony vocals are great, and both vocalists are loud enough. Tim plays full hats and snare during the turn, which is a breather, and makes things consistent, level-wise.
Next they play another new tune. This is my absolute, hands down, favorite song of the night. There’s lots of texture that rises beneath high guitars that are very post-punk/indie like. Sarah sings to a broken down beat, making her voice loud and clear. Secondarily, Josh comes in with some 80s style light chord texture play. It is beautiful. There are lots of real drum contributions by Tim on this one (my drummer’s theory is that Oakley will be on the new EP), which champion high melodies that rise on the chorus. The song then goes to gorgeous, new wave-esque, single note guitar lines. For certain, I love this song more than any other, even above all the ones I know and love. The cadence is so clear and concise. It sounds like an electro indie band experimenting with textures at great length, as opposed to a trip-hop band making a transition. Phantogram are here.
“When I’m Small” backup tracks begin in the dark, then Sarah’s vocals come through before super loud drums, guitar and keys that all feedback as a unit. The song ends in tasteful drum rolls, thanks is given, and Phantogram exit.
The Glitch Mob get things rolling fairly quickly. Elaborate, custom stage lighting (characteristic of their live shows) is pre-prepared, and the three members jump into action within minutes of the physical stage transition.
The Glitch Mob is a show of lights back dropped to a sea of young hands in the air. Girls in tight short dresses and Jeans and halter tops bounce around the site, bringing something sleezy-but-cool back for the sake of DJ dudes buried beneath overencompassing lights that are curvy and appropriate for this particular set. It sounds just like a record would live, but thicker, like all the layers have the capacity to expand and breath out to the far reaches of the room’s walls. Vocals are samples and low ends are extremely amplified. Some light drumming, no matter how electronic based, occurs on pads on stage, and the stick wielders get into it, adding an attitude and an element that definitely makes The Glitch Mob a heavy-hitting live performance for fans of their music. The light show behind makes it larger than life when they get into electro drums and triggers. Each one-third contributor is like Q-Bert on Acid.
Unlike other groups comprised of two or three DJs with extra sound toys onstage, The Glitch Mob make no allusions that they started as a band – or even that they are one. This is not an experimental electronic unit (important to remember). This is a group of DJs that have combined forces. They are all equal live, take turns leading melodies and supporting the others fully when not. Leads for song structures undoubtedly have origins in different areas, but the glue of their sound style lies in the fact that it’s always the three of them – not in the fact that they write a ‘certain way,’ as is the case with bands. That really hits me live.
I grasp onto pieces from Drink the Sea, The Glitch Mob’s 10-tune LP that came out last year and geared up a big splash for the continuation of touring into this midsection of 2011, no doubt. I notice differences and live configuration changes, but am not familiar enough with the threesome’s recorded history to give detailed commentary. Suffice it to say, they headlined the tour for a reason (the number of The Glitch Mob fans compared to Phantogram fans actually surprises me this night, though it’s definitely not a contest). Also suffice it to say, as mentioned above, the layers of sound give definite dynamic and warmth to the live show. This, coupled with The Glitch Mob’s own unique style of producing larger than life theatrics is the obvious reason for the large, rowdy turnout.
photos by Stacie Simmons