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Big Grams Gets the Formula Right 

Wednesday, Aug 3 2016
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Big Grams might not sound familiar, but surely the names of the individual artists who make up the eclectic hip-hop trio do. Consisting of rapper Big Boi (André 3000's other half in OutKast) and Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel of the electronic rock duo Phantogram, Big Grams — does the name make sense now? — combines Carter's spacey, inventive productions with Barthel's crystalline vocals and Big Boi's laidback Southern drawl.

You could say the band is an experiment in opposites, a merging of disparate genres and musical styles into one coherent sound, but that's only part of its appeal. Collaborative acts made up of artists from other bands are, in fact, de rigueur at the moment. There's the duo Banks and Steelz, consisting of rapper RZA from Wu-Tang Clan and Interpol leadman Paul Banks; El Vy, the side project of singer Matt Berninger of The National and Brent Knopf of Menomena; and Broken Bells, the indie rock duo made up of The Shins vocalist James Mercer and Gnarles Barkley producer Danger Mouse.

But what differentiates Big Grams from these other acts is its ethos. The point of the band is not to make money or churn out albums, but rather to have fun.

"We have good times, man," Big Boi tells SF Weekly. "This was organically created. We were just kind of hanging out as strangers from two different places, but when we got in the same room together, we just couldn't stop laughing and cracking jokes and all kinds of shit. We had a natural chemistry."

The harmony between each member's zodiac sign also plays a role, or so says Big Boi. "Sarah and Josh are Aquariuses and Geminis, just like me and André 3000 were. So you end up having two Aquariuses and a Gemini in a room together, and there's a lot of positive results."

Big Boi first learned of Phantogram through a pop-up ad on his computer that showed up while he was watching "big booty Latinas on U Porn or Porn Hub" in 2010. He used Shazam to find out the name of the song — "Mouthful of Diamonds" — and then posted it on his website as the "Jam of the Week." Barthel saw the post and reached out to Big Boi, who was working on his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. Big Boi already had a number of non-hip-hop artists as guests on the album — Little Dragon, Wavves, and Sleepy Brown — and Phantogram was soon added. But instead of showing up on one song, like the other artists, Phantogram appeared on three.

The idea to form an offshoot band and release an album came about shortly thereafter while the three artists were hanging out at Stankonia Studios in Atlanta, "just chilling and smoking or whatever in the back lounge area," Carter says. Due to each of their touring and album schedules, a number of years passed before they were able to get in the studio and seriously work on their self-titled debut, but in September 2015 it finally saw the light of day.

Because their goal was to "make music where there are no boundaries," each member was encouraged to take chances and try new things in the seven-track EP, especially Barthel, who, for her first time ever, tried rapping.

"I obviously never thought about doing it for Phantogram, but it was fucking awesome," Barthel says. "And I think that's the coolest part of this record and Big Grams: It opens up opportunities to not think too hard and just have fun."

On Saturday, Big Grams performs at the Lands End stage at Outside Lands, marking a pivotal moment for the trio because that's where they first met in 2011.

"It's like a snake eating it's own tail," Carter says. "We're coming full circle."

"It's meant to be," Big Boi adds.

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Jessie Schiewe

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