Life is finally sweeter for Paris’ all-conquering indie favourites…
Asked by Uncut to account for the runaway success of their Grammy-winning 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix after close to a decade of diminishing returns, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars scratched his head and put it down to “some collective hallucination”. Mars is a man who should be used to pinching himself for a reality check – in August 2011 he married Sofia Coppola, director of Lost In Translation and daughter of Francis – but even by his standards, the story of the struggling Paris indie quartet who went on to sell two million albums and conquer the US, as relayed in the title of their feelgood documentary From A Mess To The Masses, is akin to that of the golden bird from Greek mythology that rises from the ashes.
To the casual observer, Phoenix look to have led a charmed existence. Youthful contemporaries and labelmates of Daft Punk and Air, they scampered like Andrex puppies out of Paris’ late-’90s ‘French Touch’ dance boom, a preppy blend of West Coast ’70s pop and ’80s European disco. They had a bit of form, too: in the early ’90s, guitarist Christian Mazzalai was in a short-lived indie outfit called Darlin’ with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who were dismissed in a Melody Maker live review as “daft punk”. That act soon ditched guitars for synths and drum machines and changed their name, while Mazzalai joined his brother Laurent Brancowitz in Phoenix alongside Mars and bassist Deck D’Arcy. Their first British shows came in 1998 when they performed as Air’s backing band. But while we embraced Homework and Moon Safari, the UK, traditionally resistant to Anglophile French pop, found the band’s debut album United rather générique. We weren’t alone.
Still, in its singles “If I Ever Feel Better” and “Too Young”, Phoenix minted a template for dreamy FM college rock that would just about see them though the fallow years of Alphabetical and the one nobody bought, It’s Never Been Like That (it hadn’t). Labelless and without management or little else to lose, they began recording its follow-up in the Montmartre studio of their friend Philippe Zdar, who’d handled most of United. Zdar’s passionate approach to production galvanised the band – he’s effectively their fifth member in the studio – and breathed life into the artful powerpop of what would become Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. With it, they’d slowly seduce the States, starting with appearances on the late-night TV chat show circuit.
Oddly for a group due to headline Coachella this month, much of Phoenix’s fifth album Bankrupt! seems framed around Mars’ usual sheepishness or lack of confidence, his preoccupation with surface – that is, where his lyrics are decipherable. It’s as if, perhaps, he feels he doesn’t deserve the wife, the lifestyle, the acclaim, like the numbed actor installed in the Chateau Marmont in his partner’s last film Somewhere. “And you can’t cross the line but you can’t stop trying”, he repeats on “S.O.S. In Bel Air” before the chorus of “Alone, alone, alone”. In “Drakkar Noir”, a reference to the cheap cologne French teenagers would splash on in the ’80s, he mentions “a better standard of mediocrity” and you can’t help but think of Phoenix, essentially a very good band but seldom outrageously excellent.
As with parts of Wolfgang…, you tend to notice the craft, the effort that goes into the songwrting, because it often sounds as if this doesn’t come naturally to them. “Entertainment”, “Chloroform” and “Trying To Be Cool” roll out with fixed grins and stuck-on melody. On the other hand, “Bourgeois” and “Don’t” surprise and sparkle as they unravel, the latter this Sigue Sigue Sputnik rumble that erupts into a swooning Dinosaur Jr chorus.
If Wolfgang… was the album that gave Phoenix everything they’d always strived for, Bankrupt! is the record that finds them trying to come to terms with it all. They’re not celebrating – at least not yet.
Can you explain the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix?
It felt like the planets were aligned and there was some common hallucination where there’s a gap and something can happen and it becomes a big success. With this album the pressure was from outside. Friends would say, “Good luck with that one” in a jokey way, but the amount of them wishing us luck started to build. There was this feeling of being observed, whereas before we were in our own world and we thought people didn’t even listen to our music anymore.
Why the title Bankrupt!?
It’s to do with this idea of starting from scratch, the fear of being a greatest hits band, the fear of accumulation. When you accumulate things it goes against creation: it means comfort, bigger live shows, more songs, more hits, and you want to be free of that. At some point, when you have success, it’s a weight. Bankrupt! is getting rid of that – it’s a good bankrupt.
You recently bought the Thriller mixing desk. Did you use it?
Here and there, but there’s so much going on on this record that you can’t hear the console breathe. There’s a piece attached to it called ‘the producer’s desk’ and the seller was asking if we wanted it, as it’s heavy, or would we just want the machine. I asked him what it was for and he said, “Well, it’s where Michael Jackson would eat his hamburgers.” I said ship it!
INTERVIEW: PIERS MARTIN