Finding renewed focus with the highly creative continentals...

The St Pancras hotel works as a meeting place with French band Phoenix on many different levels.

In practical terms, it is the closest hotel for Paris-based bassist Deck D’Arcy and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, after hopping off the Eurostar. Those of us who think in more elegant and esoteric ways, could say the grandeur of the gothic Victorian building matches the bands knack for massive indie dance floor fillers combined with historical references from everything to 80s fragrances (‘Drakkar Noir’), diminutive Emperors (‘Napoleon Says’) and nineteenth century Hungarian composers (‘Lisztomania’).

Fun fact: the video for Spice Girls’ 'Wannabe' was filmed in the staircase and entrance of the building. Maybe, just maybe, Phoenix picked it out because of it’s place in poplore, hoping that they’re new album could also lay claim to this pantheon of pop greatness.

‘Ti Amo’ is set for release on June 9th and is a bright, bold explosion of romantic pop. It’s been four years since Phoenix’s last album, ‘Bankrupt!’, and Mazzalai and D’Arcy are in London to promote their new one while singer Thomas Mars and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz are elsewhere. Phoenix are a democratic process regardless. “Everything comes from the four of us one room,” Mazzalai says. “Since the beginning almost nothing has been written outside.”

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The album has taken so long precisely because the band work as one. “We’ve never really made an album quicker than this except once,” says D’Arcy on the three years it took for the band to make ‘Ti Amo’. “The thing is we toured [‘Bankrupt!’] a lot and we don’t write on tour. We need to focus when we do a new album so we prefer to know that we have quite a while ahead of us to get really into it.”

The four band-mates holed themselves up in a studio above concert venue, La Gaîté Lyrique, Paris making an unholy mess of synths and guitars. “We build a sound palette and then play around,” says D’Arcy. “It’s usually two phases. One stage of chaos and just free-wheeling and the second one is more sorting out everything we did in this totally unconscious process and make some music out of it.”

From the first stage the band come out with what they call “sketches”, which could be anything from three chords to the sound of a snare drum. Then comes the second, “trickier” stage, which is where the band started to see the Italian theme come through the music. “It’s our vision of Italian culture,” says Mazzalai. “It’s not really the actual Italian culture. It is more like the lost paradise of Italian summers. We wanted to explore very simple and candid emotions. All about the big lights and the Italian sun with all the sexual and creative parts around it.”

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If you think of Phoenix soundtracking a modern adaptation of a Frederico Fellini film you wouldn’t be too far away. It has the same exuberance and bounce of Phoenix’s breakout album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’, just, sexier. If ‘Wolfgang’ soundtracked the sun setting than ‘Ti Amo’ would play as the clock hits midnight. The album’s key is in it’s balanced approach. The band members grew up in the 1980s with the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. It’s that soft-loud dynamic that makes the songs shine.

The first track released from the album, ‘J-Boy’, is buoyant without being sickly while ‘Fior Di Latte’ is a hazy cacophony of shoe gaze-like sounds. Who’d have thought a song named after a type of mozzarella could be so dreamy.

But it’s the title track that is the real jewel in this album's crown. It sees singer Thomas Mars purr “Don't tell me, don't tell me...” over a pulsating, exotic synth line that cuts through an almighty wall of whirring guitars. If it soundtracked that creepy Peter Parker trying to be sexy dance in Spiderman 3 than we may have had one less superhero movie flop on our hands. The band were pleased with the physical reactions to the new songs when they performed the first shows of what will be a massive world tour, two weeks ago in Antwerp, Belgium. “The crowd doesn't cheat,” says D’Arcy. “You see the reaction right away. This album is definitely more body-orientated. So it worked in that way.”

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This album is definitely more body-orientated.

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Some may think it strange that with all the activity and political turmoil in France’s capital city over the past three years, the Paris-based band should look to Italy for inspiration. “We would never have written about that,” says D’Arcy shaking his head. “There’s not really anything for the kind of people like us to say anything about that. It’s true at some point we were feeling guilty doing this kind of happy music but we realised the the best way to fight the darkness is to actually celebrate hedonism and life in general. Love is life. ‘Ti Amo’. We’re not going to start making statements. First, it’s not our role and second, we’d feel really uncomfortable.”

Mazzalai agrees, describing the making of the album as a “healing process” from the tensions within Paris. Phoenix have always been about escapism anyway. The band grew up in Versailles, 11 miles outside of the centre of Paris. “In a way, it’s a blessing,” says D’Arcy on the band’s formative years spent in Versailles, “because the blandness of the suburbs are the perfect place to force imagination to go further. And we took it as a gift.”

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Despite Versailles’ relative isolation, a fair few bands came out of the city in the 1990s. You had Phoenix but also Air, who achieved international recognition with their 1998 hit ‘Sexy Boy’. The band are friends with Air, as well as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk fame.

“Our very first concert was with Darlin’,” D’Arcy reveals, “the first band of Daft Punk, when Chris’ brother Branco [Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz] was playing with them.”

Chris continues the story (they often end up finishing each others sentences), “The gig was at Fête de la Musique. It’s a day on the 21 June in France where everyone can play their music in the streets very loud. It’s been a tradition since the Eighties in France. It was 1991 and we were very young. We played with Darlin’, in the streets of Versailles, and my father shot it with a camera. It is quite a fun video. Darlin’ were good. When we watched it again. They were very unique at the time. A punk band covering The Beach Boys. At that time, no one was listening to The Beach Boys. You couldn’t listen to The Beach Boys and play punk music.”

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It was a new punk version because it was do-it-yourself...

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From these modest beginnings playing guerrilla gigs on the streets of Versailles, the band started to slowly pick up a following. As with Air and Daft Punk, the band explored electronic music as opposed to the more traditional electric guitar sounds that would be expected of four boys in the the mid-1990s. “It was a big revolution,” Mazzalai says of this period. “It was a new punk version because it was do-it-yourself. You could record a proper album without going to the big studios. Electronic music in general in Paris has been much bigger than electric music. It is because in Paris you have no space. It’s very practical.”

“We were a band but we were using the tools like compression and samples. Tools of electronic music which opened so many doors for us. What we love is that it's not only about songwriting. It's also a lot about producing, arrangement and the sound is very important. There are no French rock bands that we love. Apart from Serge Gainsbourg. In France he is a monolithic. We only have one god you know.”

Phoenix released their first album, ‘United’ in 2000, with commercial success slow in coming. It wasn’t until their Grammy winning fourth, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, released in 2009, that the band’s status started to be talked about in the same ball park as the “monolithic” Gainsbourg. “On Wolfgang we played big arenas and then the day after we would play a tiny show and it would not even be full,” D’Arcy discloses. “You know that success is not reliable.”

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We saw so many bands where the success came with the first album and they couldn't handle it.

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Even at this stage in their career as the band have become elder statesman of indie rock, do they feel the success of the new album is unpredictable? “Yes, otherwise I don't think we would make the album as we do,” says D’Arcy. “We are an indie band in the way, indie means freedom. The goal with every album is to keep the freedom we had when we were teenagers. We started when we were really young and we try to keep the same attitude we had when we were 15. Exploring a very naked landscape. The success came many years after. We cherish that. We saw so many bands where the success came with the first album and they couldn't handle it.”

Although the gradual success does mean that now when the band tour the world promoting their new album they are able to stay in grand, old hotels like the St. Pancras. You have to give them credit, they’ve deserved it. “When we came here this morning it reminded us of when we were very young and we took the Eurostar to play Top of the Pops,” reveals Mazzalai. “I remember we were taking all these drum machines and had no back-up at all. It was pretty risky but in a very good way.”

The band can now afford such luxuries as a drummer. It’s a testament to how far they’ve come. If the new album is anything to go by then maybe, just maybe, they’ll join Serge Gainsbourg and the Spice Girls in that pantheon of pop greatness.

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'Ti Amo' will be released on June 9th.

Words: Richard Jones

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