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The conversation in Saratoga Springs, New York, is mostly about turf conditions at the local racetrack, the winners of the last big race and the other finer points of horse racing. It's been nicknamed "Spa City" for its abundance of natural mineral springs, which help make it a favorite tourist destination for retired couples and senior citizens.
And although Don McLean is said to have written "American Pie" at a downtown bar, Saratoga's music scene isn't exactly raging. What's more, it's more than three hours removed from any of the happenings in Brooklyn or Manhattan. That this is the town that spawned Phantogram, the electro-dream-pop duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, who earlier this year released the critically acclaimed Eyelid Movies on Barsuk Records, is distinctly out of character.
"When you go out at night in a place like Saratoga Springs, people just want to hear 'Free Bird' covers, Journey covers, at the bar all night," says Carter. "We had to set up the community ourselves by doing DIY shows."
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Carter, a guitarist, and keyboardist Barthel have been friends since junior high. When Barthel finished college in Vermont and Carter quit the band he played with in New York City to work on his solo material, both wandered back to Saratoga Springs and rekindled their friendship over trips around town scanning the dollar bins for records. They shared a mutual love for Motown classics, drony indie rock and '60s French pop, like Serge Gainsbourg.
"It's funky rhythms," Carter points out, "but underneath, it's real pretty music." He's speaking of Gainsbourg, but he could just as well be describing the songs on Eyelid Movies: Introduced with strong synth and bass lines that gradually dissolve into smooth, lush melodies, they easily evoke the hazy dream state suggested by the title. "We would picture different scenarios that might be in a film," Carter says of the record's atmosphere. "When we were writing 'Running From the Cops,' we were thinking it sounded kind of like the opening scene in Vertigo, where they're running from rooftop to rooftop."
Inspiration didn't stop at art and film. The vibrating beats under an achingly sliding melody on "When I'm Small," the record's standout track, were based on a rat infestation in the band's house. "We named this one imaginary rat Lucy," Carter explains, "and the lyrics are 'Lucy's in the ground/She's got a mouth to feed.'"
The song still sticks with the dream theme, though, and that's what gives it an otherworldly feel. "When we're about to fall asleep, all of a sudden the world seems to shrink," Carter concludes. "That's 'when I'm small.'"