Sept. 27 2016 03:12 PM

An examination of the synth-pop duo’s crawl toward commercialization

Photo by Timothy Saccenti

Turn on any commercial alternative rock station in America right now, and there's a good chance the DJ is going to play "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," the new single by synth-pop duo Phantogram. It's hard to miss, actually—the song is essentially all hook, a big buzzing synth bassline and click-clacking dancefloor rhythms juxtaposed against Sarah Barthel's dizzyingly fast sing-speak chant. It's the logical contemporary endpoint of a lineage of alt-rock provocateurs that stretch back to Trent Reznor, and with the same potential to cross over into actual capital-p Pop territory.

There's just one thing that's a little strange about it: This is a side of Phantogram that's come to be developed only recently. Back in 2010, I saw the band open for The Antlers at The Casbah, and they were a perfectly enjoyable indie duo in the vein of The Postal Service. Their songs were catchy, their stage presence charming enough, but at no point did they ever give the impression that they were destined to be a household name. Which leads to a fairly important question: How did they get here?

However Phantogram went from low-key trip-hop rookies to primetime contenders, it was gradual. It took a full five years for Barthel and songwriting partner Josh Carter to release their second album, Voices, which might as well be an eternity in an age when Drake drops two mixtapes a year and every week brings a new version of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo. They did, however, issue an EP, Nightlife, in 2011, that suggested bigger and brighter things for the group, particularly the single "Don't Move," whose sample-based hooks and big-budget (or so it looks) video, which blends the surreal and the seductive. But it's also still somewhat artsy and abstract—still more college radio than Home of the Rock.

To Phantogram's credit, they have had another hit. In 2014, the band's single "Fall in Love" went as high as number three on the Billboard alt-rock chart (though it dropped right off after one week), thanks in part to its hypnotic layers of heady Flaming Lips-style psychedelia, built up from a heavy looping sample of Barbara Mason's "Yes I'm Ready." And it's easy to hear why it was, for a time at least, a radio favorite. The damn thing is catchy, and any song that offers an escape from the general insufferability and ubiquity of Twentyonepilots is a welcome change. And yet, it still seems subtle in comparison to "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," whose groove is downright aggressive in its accessibility. It's not just an earworm—the damn thing is drilling right into your cerebral cortex.

The video for the song is even more enlightening. For one, it looks expensive, featuring wide shots of desert landscapes and giant waves. It packs in a notable number of music video cliches of years past: Needless destruction of property, an old person looking melancholy, two inexplicable figures in bondage gear. And Barthel, herself, sports a pop star makeover: Platinum blonde, leather and latex, harnesses...for some reason. She looks more like Lady Gaga than Karen O, and if you're going to commit to breaking into the mainstream, I suppose it doesn't hurt to actually look like a pop star.

If it sounds like I'm accusing Phantogram of selling out, well, that's kind of a crass way to put it, I suppose. But that would imply that Phantogram betrayed any sort of underground ethic that they held in the first place. While they didn't necessarily have the kind of songs that would make them huge stars when they first began releasing music, that doesn't mean they weren't always aiming to get to this point. And in this age of poptimism, really, why wouldn't everybody want to become as huge as possible? It's hard enough to make money as a musician; if a few silly video cliches and extras dressed as gimps help you get there, more power to you.

Besides, Phantogram already sold rights to one of their songs for use in a Gillette commercial, so while adapting to a mainstream audience's tastes might have taken some time, finding a way to market themselves didn't. In hindsight, it might have been that commercial that ended up getting them noticed on a wider scale. Shortly thereafter, Portishead producer Geoff Barrow accused them of using an uncleared sample of his music (which they've denied), and the duo made a friend in Outkast emcee Big Boi, who recorded an album with them as Big Grams.

Indeed, Phantogram's career has been one of ladder climbing and strategic business decisions, the likes of which have resulted in their seeming ubiquity on the radio at the moment. And truth be told, I'm actually pretty OK with that. While "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" isn't by any stretch my favorite song this year, it's really hard not to like. It's the kind of slick, albeit edgy fun that's been weirdly elusive on "alternative" formats since the '90s, and though it sounds contemporary, I can't help but think that the band spent as much time listening to the same Garbage and Nine Inch Nails records that I did. It remains to be seen whether Phantogram actually makes the pop crossover their new single suggests, but it seems plausible at this point. There's something curiously endearing about hearing a band that seems to want to be the biggest in the world.

Phantogram play October 1 at Observatory North Park

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