The talents behind the French band Phoenix first formed a group when they were in grade school, but they didn’t choose the name Phoenix until 1996, and it took another four years for them to release their seductively varied debut, United. The record established the Versailles quartet as having a mercurial sound defined by its melding of rock and dance, and by the smooth vocals of singer Thomas Mars. Phoenix has recorded a spare three albums since, often taking time to seek out unique recording circumstances. The band went to Berlin for 2007’s grittier It’s Never Been Like That, and for its latest, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it tried several locations—including a houseboat on the River Seine—before settling into the studio of an old friend, Philippe Zdar of house duo Cassius. Wolfgang, released in the U.S. by indie label Glassnote, finds Phoenix without the backing of Astralwerks/EMI for the first time. The A.V. Club recently talked to Mars about Phoenix’s status as France’s only “un-French” band, and how making records can really affect someone’s joie de vivre.
The A.V. Club: What made it so difficult to get this record off the ground?
Thomas Mars: Well, we really wanted something futuristic. Also, we wanted songs that wouldn’t make sense together, except that they were played by the same band. We had in mind something really daring, like a perfume that has an awful smell in it… We wanted that in our sound, because we knew that with time, things tend to become polished. It took a while to build a certain craziness.
AVC: That diversity of songs is something Wolfgang has in common with United. Do you see similarities between your first record and your latest?
TM: Definitely. I think it’s because we had the same naïve approach. Also, Philippe was involved on the first record, and even more so for this one. He helped us build something more like a Frankenstein’s monster, something that was a little scary at first. It didn’t sound like us at the beginning, but the more we were familiar with it, the more we liked it.
AVC: Didn’t all that moving around get expensive for a band that just lost its label?
TM: Yes, but… This may not be the best thing to say in recession times, but I think unconsciously, we were trying to get rid of the money so we could be free. It was almost like hyperventilating before a dive. We knew that to make a record, we had to go to a very dark place, so we first went to all these places that had beautiful light, like the boat on the river next to the Eiffel Tower—places we would miss later.
AVC: How did working with Philippe help you finish this record?
TM: He made it a lot faster. He’s so opinionated and passionate about music. It’s either black or white. We wouldn’t spend a lot of time talking at all when we were working with him—he was just saying “Yes” or “No.” He was like a mirror, where you looked at him and knew right away if it was right or not.
AVC: This record has been described as your first working with an outside producer, but didn’t Tony Hoffer co-produce 2004’s Alphabetical?
TM: Well, the album says that, but in real life, Tony happened to just mix it. This is really the first time someone has been truly involved in the creative process.
AVC: You recently described Wolfgang as being more “passionate.” How so?
TM: Well, when we started making records, we would take four or five years if we needed to; we were in no hurry. For this, we were totally devoted. You know, you’d think that when you go home, you could escape the record, but this one was following us all the time. It really changed our mood. Philippe was creating this atmosphere too. If he loved a song, he would come to the studio that night with champagne, but if he disliked a song, he would be so sad that we would try to change it so he would be happy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Phoenix albums often include atmospheric or purely instrumental passages. What’s the inspiration behind a song like “Love Like A Sunset Part 1,” for instance?
TM: I remember we were driving from Versailles to Paris in this tunnel, and we were listening to Steve Reich. The road really felt like it had a strong rhythm to it, the lights in the tunnel too, and it became this whole experience we wanted to recreate on record. The idea was to do a 25-minute song that happened to be only seven minutes in reality. [Laughs.] I also love songs where you forget that hearing a voice is even a possibility, and then suddenly one comes in.
AVC: 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That was a considerable departure from the clean production of Alphabetical. Do you see a progression from those to Wolfgang?
TM: We see records like photo albums; once we’ve done something, we can turn the page and do something else. Alphabetical was very clinical. We built up this room that was very dead-sounding so we would have a dead record—people would have to play it really loud so it could breathe. After that, all we wanted to do was play live on It’s Never Been Like That, to use mistakes and first takes. We were also listening to a lot of stuff that was dirty and out of tune, like Buddy Lee and Bryan Ferry. This new one… I still don’t know. Because when you do something, you usually don’t discover what it was you meant to do until you’re talking about it afterward. I think the idea was to go for something so far-out that we would have a nice surprise in the end.
AVC: Did recording It’s Never Been Like That in Berlin offer a fresh perspective?
TM: Yes, it was the feeling of exile that we liked. I remember we had this great book about The Rolling Stones making Exile On Main St. in a castle in the south of France, and just looking at the pictures made us want to have an experience like that, where you just leave your hometown, go someplace that’s a little abandoned, and make it your own. It helped us to make a record faster, because that feeling of being abroad gives everybody a sense of why they are there.
AVC: Is there a reason every Phoenix album is under 40 minutes long?
TM: I think every artist needs a rule that’s stupid but that helps him, like a deadline would. We use this like a frame. To have 10 tracks, we know it’s gonna be short and dense. My favorite albums are really short. I’m a lazy guy. I can’t focus for too long. I’d rather hear a record that has no filler.
AVC: American critics often use soft rock as a point of comparison when discussing Phoenix. Were you at all influenced by groups like, say, Hall & Oates?
TM: Not at all, no. It’s funny… It’s different in every country. We’re used to it. Since the beginning, we were in every section at the French Virgin Megastore, which makes it so you don’t really exist, in a sense. We like music from every style, but we grew up more with bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Clash, and a love for club culture, too. Also, when were living in Versailles, we discovered Prince. Purple Rain in Versailles was about the most psychedelic experience you could have at age 7. It was amazing.
AVC: There are conflicting reports of when Phoenix was founded. How old were you guys when you first came together?
TM: We were school friends, so it’s hard to be precise. Some of us met when we were 4, lost each other, and then met again at 8. But we all came together when we were about 13, and Christian [Mazzalai]’s older brother [Laurent Brancowitz, a.k.a. Branco] joined a year later.
AVC: Did you imagine that the four of you would be together 18 years on?
TM: I think we were naïve when we started. We thought music was going to be our main thing, and we did everything we could to make it happen. Even so, we had no idea Phoenix would take us so many places.
AVC: Has it been difficult to stay together though the years?
TM: No, very easy. It’s like a brotherhood.
AVC: Are things more difficult now that you don’t have EMI behind you?
TM: It’s easier because there is no one in between now. For the first time, we can present our music the way we want to. You know, we can give out a song online for free if we choose to. It’s our decision, and it’s more spontaneous. Before, when the label was handling it, it felt like they were just shooting off fireworks in the daytime. Now people can discover our music the way we want them to.
AVC: You recently said that the French often don’t consider Phoenix a “French band” because you sing in English. Why risk that rejection?
TM: There was never a choice, that’s the thing. We started a band and sang right away in English. You reproduce the thing you like, and most of the bands we liked were coming from England or the U.S. We also came to cherish the fact that there was no one in France singing in English—we were so happy to be the first. Even if we are traitors to our country, which I’ll never understand, because we talk about things that are very French.
AVC: But you said you enjoy playing France these days. What’s changed?
TM: People have started to like us. We were not welcome there before, and at a point, we started to feel like masochists for trying. Why would you play somewhere where people don’t want you? But the crowds in France are really good now. It’s a big change.