Concert Review: Phantogram



November 2, 2011
The Fillmore
Better than: Being stuck in a Phantogram music video.

Having made the festival rounds this summer, Phantogram settled into the Fillmore last night just two years after it released its first album. The sold-out show was proof that the duo, keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter, has managed to build a loyal fan base in a short amount of time. Fans packed the room and crowded the stage before the lights dimmed, and eagerly awaited what was about to be an incredible show.

With lasers and colors that reflected eerie keyboard lines and spiraling guitar riffs, the duo took the stage and presented a visual experience to fit its sound. Barthel, the visual artist in the group, created spectacular lighting effects that gave the show the quality of an expensive industrial party in some far-flung warehouse.

Phantogram’s body of work evokes Portishead and Moby, but those subtle trip-hop beats are pulled into the future with an inventive psych-pop twist. Following its debut album, Eyelid Movies, Phantogram released the EP Nightlife earlier this week. Aptly titled, both albums feel like supernatural nightmare soundtracks. The show last night was a balanced combination of both records, and the crowd had already memorized and sang along to the new songs released just days ago.

With a voice as ethereal as her vocal work, Barthel didn’t complicate the music with banter between sets. When she did talk, her words were difficult to understand. It only added to the feeling of being stuck in some kind of elegant nightmare, like the band’s music video for “When I’m Small.” The set was sparse and lights were flashing. Even with hundreds of other fans in the room, it was as if they invited just you into their heads. What threw off this intimate vibe was the huge bass, which made it hard to get too close. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or a misstep by the Fillmore crew. But it took away from the band’s otherwise dreamy sound.

With only an album and an EP, Phantogram seemed to run quickly through most of its material. But the set was a great mix of old and new. The heavy lights in “Mouth Full of Diamonds” had an underwater aesthetic, as if the duo was seducing the crowd into drowning with a sinking ship. “Don’t Move,” one of the highlights from the EP, was also one of the highlights of the evening, with layered beats and synths grooving with the light display.

As a relatively new band, Phantogram is one to watch, and it will be exciting to see how it develops with a little more time. Its energy at the show and the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction certainly signaled that this duo has the creative power to stick it out.

Cartoonish opening band Reptar — a reference to the ’90s cartoon “Rugrats” — played an incredibly danceable psych-rock set. It was as if David Byrne got together with Air and the Muppets. The keyboardist, William Kennedy, was having the most fun onstage by far. I managed to track him down during Phantogram’s set and asked what it was like to play at the Fillmore. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Every time we play here it’s like the sky is opening and it’s raining rainbow raindrops.”

Critic’s Notebook
Most informative shirt award: Goes to Reptar’s leading man, Graham Ulicny, whose shirt read: “Science gives me a large hadron.” In case you skipped lab, a hadron is a class of subatomic particles that are composed of quarks and take part in strong interaction.

Most ironic poster award: At the end of the show, fans were given a poster of a toy poodle sitting next to a rose that looked like a rave handout you find slipped between your wiper and windshield.

Overheard: “That bass really messed me up, dude.”

See the full review in Sf Weekly‘s All Shook Down blog.

Interview: Chris Thile

The Goat Rodeo Sessions
The Goat Rodeo Sessions
The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile needs a drink. Since January, he has toured all over the country with his band, the Punch Brothers, recorded an album with guitarist Michael Daves (touring solo when Daves returned home for personal reasons), and collaborated on Yo-Yo Ma’s latest project, the Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks). Due out in October, the Goat Rodeo Sessions combines a group of insanely talented musicians — cellist Ma, double bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and Thile — to create a fantastic concoction of genre-bending arrangements. To ease any potential chaos in the studio, Thile, also a budding mixologist, whipped up some timeless cocktails for the group of master performers. Speaking over the phone before a show in Cork, Ireland, the unassuming musician talked about his upcoming set with the Punch Brothers at this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, and explained how to make a drink for Yo-Yo Ma.

What’s a goat rodeo?
A goat rodeo is a situation — a fiercely chaotic situation — where basically everything has to go right or it will end in disaster. So we actually felt like it was a good name for our project because it was such an unlikely group of guys. The arrangements are like — what’s that game? Jenga? If one little thing doesn’t go right, it sort of creates a domino effect of things going wrong. I think certainly at the beginning it seemed very goat rodeo-ish. And the fun thing is I actually feel at the end of the project now, everything did go right, and we ended up with something really neat.

Musically, you’re all from pretty different backgrounds — did you ever bump heads in the process of making this record?
I think it was pretty seamless. The complications that you would expect — Yo-Yo coming from a fairly formal background and Stuart coming from a very informal background and Edgar and I sort of coming from an in between place … I actually think that because we’ve all been involved in so much music that’s similarly difficult to describe, we’ve cut a lot of those problems off at the pass in other projects. So even the parts that were maybe temporarily uncomfortable were comfortable because we’ve gotten used to some of that stuff.

Have you talked about doing a tour together?
Yeah, we have! I think we will.

I heard you were making cocktails in the studio. What does Yo-Yo like to drink?
What I’ve been making for Yo-Yo is a Negroni, which is equal parts gin, a good sweet vermouth — I recommend Carpano Antico — and Campari. And that’s always stirred, never shaken, served either off or on the rocks with an orange twist.

1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
1 ½ oz Campari
1 ½ oz gin

How did you get into mixology?
There’s the bar in New York City called Milk and Honey. A buddy of mine took me there and I said, ‘Really, I don’t like cocktails, I’d rather have a whiskey neat or a beer or a glass of wine or something.’ and they said, ‘OK, we’ve got just the thing.’ They came back with this drink that was absolutely amazing called an American Trilogy, and I was a changed man. I’ve been trying to do it at home but mostly trying to learn from Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy at Milk and Honey, who have become very dear friends.

Considering the deep-rooted American tradition of bluegrass, what kinds of cocktails can a mandolin virtuoso enjoy?
For the longest time it was just whiskey stirred. I just wanted strong whiskey drinks in the old fashioned or Manhattan family. Then finally I started doing some whiskey drinks that have citrus in them. The Negroni — that drink I was telling you about — that was the drink that got me on team gin, so I started trying gin stirred and gin shaken and then after that … I’ve always loved cognac, so I started asking the boys at the Honey for some cognac-based cocktails and there are some absolutely brilliant ones. The Trilogy is a Milk and Honey original, although you’re starting to be able to get Trilogies all over the place because it’s a great drink.

American Trilogy
1 oz Rye
1 oz Laird’s Bonded Applejack Brandy
2 dashes of orange bitters
Brown sugar cube
Muddle bitters and sugar, add rye and brandy, garnish with an orange peel. Add ice and stir.

You played at Hardly Strictly last year with the Punch Brothers and T-Bone Burnett. Is there anything you’re looking forward to about this year?
Just playing in Golden Gate Park is so amazing. It was so beautiful, just the whole vibe at that festival. With it being free, it just seems like the milk of human kindness is overflowing for a hot second. I love that aspect of it.

Do you have any favorite spots in San Francisco?
My favorite restaurant in the city for the longest time was Quince. It moved and I haven’t been to the new location yet. but I’m looking forward to that. Rosamunde in the Lower Haight just kills me — I love going there and taking it next door and having a beer at Toronado. As for cocktails, I really love how low-key and unassuming Absinthe is. They free-pour instead of using jiggers, but they do a pretty good job. They have a hell of a good Sazerac cocktail. I just can’t believe the free-pouring good Sazeracs there.

Aren’t you exhausted?
I think the next proper day off at home is in December. I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I like it that way and I do it to myself.

How are the cocktails in Ireland?
I was instructed by those two bartenders that I mentioned before — Sammy and Mickey — or Michael, as he’s formally known. Anyway, Mickey is Irish and he told me not to have cocktails here, he said keep it to Guinness and whiskey. And so, I have dutifully done that.

See the article in SF Weekly.

Interview: Jimmy Eat World

Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World

In 2001, four friends from Mesa, Ariz., made an album called Bleed American — a set of sentimental, earnest, and immensely relatable pop-punk anthems. Teenagers everywhere shoved the CD into their car stereos as they snuck out past curfew; the album went platinum; and lead singer Jim Adkins got to quit his retail job. But this isn’t just a record that a generation of suburban kids lost their virginity to — even upon obsessive re-listening, Bleed American never loses its impact. The album sent the previously under-the-radar Jimmy Eat World on a trajectory toward stadium tours with bands like Green Day, and helped fuel a long career. This week, to celebrate the anniversary of the album that changed everything, Jimmy Eat World will be playing Bleed American in its entirety at the Fillmore. We talked to Adkins about Bruce Springsteen’s influence on his biggest hit, how to keep a band together, and his thoughts on how the Internet is changing the music industry.

Sixteen years is a long time to put out music and tour. What do you attribute the band’s success and your ability to stick together to?
In part it might be that we were all friends before we started the band. We were always just getting together to have fun. As time has gone on, we’ve done a good job of setting realistic goals for ourselves. A lot of that is basically just focusing in on the things that matter and letting all the stuff that doesn’t just sort of happen in the background as we’re doing what we want to do.

How did things change for you after the success of Bleed American?
Things changed in just about every way they could change. All of a sudden we had a record label that was excited about us being on the label. We had a professional team, stuff like a booking agent, and a manager, and a lawyer. We had to grow up pretty fast. Our families became a little more supportive of what we were doing. It was a strange time because it became something we do rather than a side project.

You had to self-finance Bleed American after being dropped by Capitol — do you think this had anything to do with the success of the album, in terms of motivation?
We’ve always done our best work when we’ve been in our own world, forgetting that anyone was willing to listen to what we come up with. That period was an extreme case of that because we had no idea what was going to happen, but there were signs of things to be encouraged by. When we went on tour, it just seemed to be getting better and better. Of course, none of us could foresee how much better it would get.

In an old interview you said that with Bleed American, rather than challenging yourselves by getting experimental, you challenged yourselves by getting very simple. Do you think that has allowed you to maintain a loyal fan base?
That the writing process going into the Bleed American material was kind of a reaction from how we approached working on Clarity. Clarity was more like, “This will probably be the last time we will be able to afford to go into a studio to record, so today we’re renting Tiffany’s” [laughs]. Part of it was a decision to get back to the basics — the four-person rock mode — but we’ve always just done what we wanted. We’ve always been pretty honest with ourselves as far as what challenges us and what we’d like to do.

What was the inspiration behind [breakthrough single] “The Middle”?
That song was kind of a joke, really. It was just so simple that I didn’t think any of the other guys would like it. It was right at the beginning of us trying to use the Internet and someone wrote us a fan e-mail — that was our foray into social networking at the time, that we had an e-mail address. Someone wrote in saying that they were in junior high and faced with an “I’m not punk enough” kind of feeling or something in dealing with cliques that were going around. I have an autographed promotional flat of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and I was thinking, “What would the Boss say to somebody like that” [laughs]?

Bleed American came out in 2001— how have you been coping with changes in the music world since then in terms of fans accessing your music digitally?
If you’re a music fan, it’s never been a better time, and if you make music it’s never been easier for you to be your own worldwide distribution. We try to present things in a way that we as music fans would appreciate. There’s so much music out there — it’s like, are you really going to buy everything out there? If you’re a fanatical music [lover], you’re going to be totally broke. I’d rather have a lot more people be able to hear our stuff than put a wall up and make people pay $17.99 for something they put into their computers once.

Do you have any plans to be back in the studio any time soon?
That’s going to be our homework for the fall. We’ve got a couple ideas, but it takes time for us to flesh those out. Some people only write songs on the road, but we’ve never been that type of group — we need to be at home with our toys.

You’ll be playing Bleed American in its entirety at the Fillmore. What can your fans expect at these shows?
We’ve done the playing-the-album type of shows a few times before. It’s a little different — it’s definitely cool, but it’s just different. But we are going to play extra stuff, so it’s not just going to be that and then, “Later!”

See the interview in SF Weekly.