French four piece Phoenix, featuring Thomas Mars on vocals, Deck D’Arcy on bass, and Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai on guitars, have dabbled in many different musical genres over the course of four albums, including pop, disco, synth-pop and funk. Their most recent effort, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was warmly received, especially in Australia where it climbed to number 13 on the ARIA chart. We here at Webcuts also found it more than agreeable, calling it “one of the finest pop albums of 2009” [Webcuts Review].
During an all too short two city run across the country they chatted to Sydney’s Mr Music, Chris Berkley from 2SER, about the evolution of the band, including their stint as a covers band, the infinite number of Phoenix remixes, the Kitsuné Tabloid compilation and Lord Byron.
And joining us on the phone on Static this evening it is a great pleasure to have tracked down Thomas Mars from Phoenix. Are you feeling alright?
Yes, very good.
Excellent, how was last night for you guys?
It was amazing, I mean we didn’t expect people to know the songs so well and when you go on stage you are feeling overwhelmed. I think people could see that, and the response got even bigger. It’s such a nice treat for us to play here.
It’s great to hear that you’re almost moved to tears there Thomas, it’s a dazzling show, you guys owe me some new retinas from all the lighting that you put on.
Yeah yeah! It’s really hard to describe, when we do a show we really see every face in the crowd and [last night] I could only see smiles and everything, you know. It was great.
It’s heartening to see how far Phoenix have come — you’re such a well-oiled machine these days. Was it always like that, or did you start out with a lot less serious intentions?
Our intentions were always very serious, but then I think at some point we forgot about the idea that we wanted to please everyone. In a way I think when you start music you kind of want to please everyone and then at some point you just drop that idea, and maybe it’s because of the climate, how it works in France, and how people were reacting to our music.
Because back in the day you guys in Phoenix started out as a covers band, right? You were playing other peoples’ songs?
We did just one tour where we wanted to see what peoples’ reactions were: we would go to the countryside in France and play with very unknown bands and be in a very hostile environment, it was just to learn, it was just to see what we could really do live. But it was a very short time, it was maybe only five or six shows that we did like that.
Okay, and because we never saw the early tours where you guys were playing around for the first album — for United — were you as tight or did it take you guys a while to learn how to play?
Ha, no we were really bad. I think we still do a lot of mistakes but we manage to [be] more comfortable with them. An old friend sent me demos of our first recording and it’s charming but it’s indescribable how technically unprofessional it is.
Okay yeah, charming’s a good word!
We were a little traumatized by the professional side of music in France so we’ve always liked that amateur side of music best, so we were looking for mistakes in a way sometimes.
I mean it seems that the second album — Alphabetical — was a bit more of a stab at ‘studied’ music making, I mean you sort of slowed things down somewhat, did you guys start taking it a bit more seriously around the second record?
Not seriously but it’s such a studio record, it’s very clinical in a way, you know — it’s almost a record we could have done in an asylum or something. We built this special room for this record and it’s the smallest room — it’s almost like a closet. It’s really dead sounding and we recorded every instrument on its own. No one plays together, so it was very frustrating, very long. The only regrets we have is that we didn’t put something on the CD saying like you should play this very loud because it’s so dead sounding that it’s only a record that comes alive when you play it really loud.
Okay, or music to be listened to in asylums.
I guess that’s why you guys then released the live album after that — to show that the songs had a bit more life about them.
Exactly, the opposite of Alphabetical because something breathing and something just the opposite [of it] was the idea.
There always seems to have been a fearlessness in Phoenix to try out different song styles and genres, I mean even on the new album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix there’s a song like “Love Like A Sunset (Part 1)” which is an atmospheric instrumental mood piece. Do you guys have to make that effort? You seem to embrace that idea of not necessarily having every song sound the same on each record.
Yeah, I think it comes from the fact that we grew up in Versailles, [which is] really far from any musical scene. You could pick up any influence, there was no preconception, you were not trying to belong to one particular style. But then it takes a while to find your own identity in a way because it’s all over the place. We like this confusion in a way but I think it takes a while for people to understand what you were really looking for and the first record is all over the place and this one is a little of the same, yeah.
Yeah yeah, It sounds like you were all raised on a variety of music as well, Thomas. The best insight into that would probably be the Kitsuné Tabloid compilation that you guys assembled earlier in the year. Was that the hardest of all the Phoenix albums to put together? Did you guys all argue a lot over the track-listing and what you would include?
No, it was very easy because it’s something we always do for the live shows — when people get in the venue we always put [on] a selection of songs we like before we go on. So we just picked up maybe the less famous songs we had because we wanted people to discover them and all those songs they are cornerstones, they are all the possibilities for us: they all represent something that really changed our way of writing a song. All those songs are very important for us.
Well there are a few cornerstones on there like Roxy Music and Lou Reed and Dusty Springfield and I guess you could even draw a direct link between something like the Tangerine Dream song that’s on there and “Love Like A Sunset (Part 1)”, I mean it seems like some of those songs have really influenced Phoenix’s sound.
Yeah, “Love Like a Sunset”, is Tangerine Dream, and “Street Hassle” from Lou Reed especially. And Steve Reich was a big influence on this song. It takes us a long time to do a record because the influences are coming from everywhere and they take a long time to digest. It takes a long time but there is one week of pleasure in the end where you can really enjoy your creation at least. (laughs)
When you realise it’s finally done.
You guys in Phoenix have already done the live album, you’ve now done this Kitsuné compilation; are there other things you want to tick off or avenues to explore? You did “Playground Love” for The Virgin Suicides but you guys have never scored a full film, do you have a few things like that you still want to accomplish?
Yeah of course. We tend not to think about it because we want it to happen in a natural way and even more we want to challenge ourselves when we do music.
So you haven’t had a word in the wife’s ear then about doing a film or anything yet?
Ah, we might do something, but now that I’m enjoying touring so much we need to find out what we really want to do — we have many options.
Well in terms of other options as well you’ve had a lot of great remixes done of the songs off of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and I guess continuing the classical style or name of the album we might have a listen now to the Symphonic Remix that’s been done by a guy called Pete Herrs.
I don’t know that one. I think the problem is when we gave “1901” [away] for free on the internet , we also gave all the stems — all the separate tracks so people can remix it, but there are so many remixes that we can’t even…
I think it was Lord Byron who said at some point that there were too many books for a human being to read. You know it’s the same now: there are too many remixes! There’s no time to hear them, technically in a lifetime. We’ve reached a level of remixes that’s very flattering.
It belongs to the people now this song, but if people want to track this version down it is on the Phoenix blog, so it’s not too hard to find. But this is beautiful, it’s “1901” reimagined through a symphonic orchestra, so we might have a listen to this version now.
Yeah, okay, great!
Please come back again Thomas. When will we see Phoenix again?
Thank you, yeah we really want to so it’s gonna happen, we want to come back this summer.
Thank you for the talk and you have a great rest of the time in Sydney.
Thank you very much.
First broadcast on Static on 6/08/09. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).
Transcription: Chris Butler