Evolution, Connection, And Grief: Phoenix Interviewed

Thomas Mars and Laurent Brancowitz in conversation...

Like the mythological creature they share their name with, Phoenix is immortal. They’re an incendiary French fireball, a clashing but somehow entirely harmonious cassoulet of gritty garage rock, bouncy dance tracks, indie sincerity, and that French je ne sais quoi that’s made–and has kept them indelible heroes of 20th-century music. Their origin solidifies the palpable feeling of comradery which continues to make them so extraordinary: Phoenix is two brothers and their friends, who met early on in boyhood and have been inseparable ever since. They’re merged souls with a telepathic understanding of one another’s sonic quirks and the brotherly closeness to be cutthroat about their music when it counts, two of the many components which have led to their stature as a band that unequivocally shaped this century’s musical identity. 

Even at the noon of their second decade together, Phoenix is embracing the chaos and perpetual novelty of bandhood. Since their debut release in 2000, they’ve become France’s most diverting musical export. With six well-loved records, one that earned a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, and a seventh, recently released record to add to their roster of aural gold, their future looks just as harmonious and evergreen as their masterworks of ages past. It would be easy to get comfortable–to, as Thomas says later in our interview, fall victim to their own chemistry. But the band has never abandoned innovation or sincerity in pursuit of commercial appeal–in fact, they’ve embraced the unfamiliar on their newest record, ‘Alpha Zulu’, more than ever before. For them, it’s all about music, fraternité, and making their wives happy. More on that last one later.

2022’s ‘Alpha Zulu’ is the ultimate manifestation of Phoenix’s simultaneous mastery and devotion to keeping things interesting. It boasts the same lovable buoyancy, lighthearted groove, and lush production that makes them so singular, but also marks their first foray into vocal collaboration, their most unconventional recording space, and the most theatrical live show they’ve ever put on.

Clash sat down, virtually, with Thomas Mars and Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix to talk about the ebbs and flows of touring, ‘Easter eggs’ in Alpha Zulu, and the true meaning of ‘happy wife, happy life’.

Thomas, Branco, how is Brussels treating you guys?

Thomas: We were in Berlin and we just arrived in Brussels! And I’m surprised how much light you have in your room, Branco, I don’t have this much. Is there a special button? I didn’t find it.

It’s gloomy in Belgium?

Thomas: November in Europe, it’s a vibe!

Is that vibe helpful to the creative process or does it make you want to do nothing all day?

Branco: No, no, no, it’s not good. But we’re gonna survive!

You just did a bunch of dates in the US and are now heading into a sold-out leg of shows in Europe. How does it feel to know people are responding so well to the new record?

Thomas: It’s really fun! I had an issue at the beginning of the tour, I was so looking forward to the shows that I couldn’t sleep. I would sleep like three hours a night for three, four nights in a row. And I was a mess because I was so looking forward to the show and then I was so exhausted that it became an issue. There’s one thing that was nice with the pandemic, we are not taking anything for granted now. We know a lot of bands that are even struggling to put a tour together, or like they can’t sell their tours and so to play shows, with the fact that they’re sold out and people are loving the record, it’s great.

What’s been your favorite show on the tour so far?

Branco: I enjoyed the Milan show we did a few days ago because, for the first time, we played the songs from ‘Ti Amo’, where there are parts in Italian and the crowd really was prepared for this moment! We didn’t have any disasters so far, which is rare because we are used to the rollercoaster of triumph and disaster. We know it’s gonna happen pretty soon, statistically!

So you’re riding the wave of smooth sailing and waiting for impending doom! Are you settled into this life of playing these huge sold-out shows to people who just adore you, or does it still feel surreal considering you’ve been making music since you were children?

Thomas: Well, there are a few things that changed recently that keep it from feeling like Groundhog Day. Shows are very different now because it feels like we have multiple generations coming to our show! There are older people and there are young kids and sometimes it’s parents and their kids, and sometimes the kids are in the first row and the parents are in the back. But there is stuff that’s changing all the time. Like, with cell phones. There are people holding their cell phones through the entire show, asking for you to interact with them or asking for a specific song.

There are things that are different than on the Ti Amo tour for sure. The fact that we’ve played so many shows, I think we’re embracing any form of chaos. You know, any accident, anything that’s happening, we welcome them. It’s impossible to get bored at this stage. It’s like everything’s too new and the songs that we’re playing from the new album, they’re too fresh that it’s not possible to be bored!

Have there been any particularly memorable fan experiences on this tour?

Thomas: I had one in Mexico City. I saw a guy with a cell phone who had a message on his phone that said, ‘My brother passed away, but I’m here for him’. It changed my whole show for me, watching this guy. It was very moving. I mean, also… Philippe Zdar, who was our producer and a friend that passed away three years ago. A lot of the songs on the album are written around him. So the theme of loss, when those things happen in the show is it makes the show even more meaningful. 

That’s really powerful, and so special that your music was a way for him to connect with his brother.  I wanna shift gears and talk about your new record, ‘Alpha Zulu’. It was recorded in the Louvre! How did you come about that space?

Branco: We’ve always been looking for those kinds of spaces. Every record is a new adventure in terms of location, so that’s maybe the only creative street strategy we have. So we are always looking for a place, and at some point, we get this offer.

Usually, musicians need a proper studio, but we were a bit different because we used to do our music in our bedrooms, in our basement, so we can transform any room into a recording studio. When we heard about this residency for artists in this museum, we were interested. It’s the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Palace of the Louvre and they were opening residencies for writers or cinematographers, and they didn’t really expect musicians to apply, but we were ready for this opportunity!

Were they strict with rules to protect the artifacts or did they give you lots of freedom to roam?

Branco: They were very welcoming! We came during the pandemic, so the museum was closed. We created some kind of energy that was welcome during this period. It’s a big castle, you know, The Louvre. So we were pretty independent in this huge and amazing space. It was really cool. And we had a key that opened every door and it was perfect.

Did the history around you influence the way that you went about creating the record? 

Branco: We grew up in Versailles next to the Castle. It sounds like the most posh thing, but f you can live next to a castle, I suggest you do! There’s a French musician called Camille Saint-Saëns and his parents bought him toys that had perfect pitch. His toys all were like in the right pitch. And so at a super early age when he was like three, he had perfect pitch. And I feel it’s the same when you surround yourself with great art and great proportions and great symmetry.

Growing up next to Versailles and the garden, it gives you a sense of like aesthetics and that’s really helpful, and so being in the museum was an extension of this. We ended up embracing the surroundings and not being suffocated under the weight of greatness and art and it was only inspiring. 

What are your favorite tracks on the record?

Thomas: There’s one that’s very unusual, which is ‘Winter Solstice’, because we did it remotely. Branco and myself, we fought really hard for that song. The other two didn’t like it. They did not, not a little bit. That was Dr. Seuss! It’s hard because we didn’t write it together, but I’m so glad it made it. And the vocal take is the first take. It’s an original take that we did remotely and I’m really proud of the song.

It opens up a lot of doors for us because the more music we make, the more we realise that we don’t need to be working late at night to make a successful record because ‘Wolfgang’ was done at bank hours. We don’t even need to be in the same room, even if that’s not as fun, because ‘Winter Solstice’ was a great song and it worked. We don’t need a real music studio because we could make ‘United’ in our bedroom. So all the hurdles are starting to fall and it’s nice that we are able to make music together, but without any preconceived ideas.

When you start music, you are obsessed, like, ‘I need to sing. I need this microphone, I need this preamp, I need this condition. I need the candles to be lit here. I need this amp’. So all these preconceived ideas, they’re starting to fall. 

What’s yours, Branco?

Thomas: I know your wife’s favorite track is ‘Artifact’ because she fought for it!

Branco: Yeah, that one is nice! The most important thing is to please the lady in our lives. It’s a thing that Philippe taught us. A studio can be a very technical space, you know, with a lot of men. And, he would always remember who we were doing it for. If there was a song that his girlfriend loved, it became sacred. You couldn’t touch it and modify it. So, this is a lesson we learned from him. And actually, they are the real producers of our records, and if there’s a song that they don’t like, it’s not gonna be released.

Were there any hard decisions, where you really wanted a song but there was pushback?

Branco: It happens all the time, cause we write hundreds of fragments, maybe thousands. So the process of natural selection is very cruel. We’re used to throwing out some songs that we, at some point thought were great and sometimes, after hundreds of hours of work, we realized they are not. But it’s a thing. It’s also a reason why we do not really collaborate a lot with people, because we know that this process is very violent. You know, some people who write songs are really precious about their little creations. And we are not like that anymore. So we crash-test every song. And we are very cruel with our creations. Cruel parents!

Evolution, Connection, And Grief: Phoenix Interviewed

Speaking of collaborators, you brought on Ezra Koenig as your first-ever guest vocalist on ‘Tonight’. What made him the right person for the job?

Branco: We were close enough to know that he wouldn’t feel offended if these kinds of things happen. We felt he was part of the family and he wouldn’t take it personally!

Thomas: Also, I was emulating him in the studio. There was one part that sounded like Ezra to me. So I wrote down ‘Ezra’ as the name of that part, and I thought, well, I’m emulating him, so I might as well call him. I’m a little bored of my own voice, so I either go in places with effects or sometimes, you emulate other people to go to other places, and then you erase the sketch of that person that you are copying. For Ezra, it was easy. I was emulating him, I know him, let me text him. Also, the song really needed the duet aspect. I think it needed this playfulness, and the lyrics, they’re all about the nemesis. In the end, I sing, ‘Oh, I wish I could be someone like you, be someone else’. So they needed this question-and-answer type of structure.

I have a burning question… in the title track, you sing, ‘I must have died at 51 in 1953’. Is this a callback to 1901?

Thomas: Really well spotted! Usually, we don’t reveal anything, but because you spotted it, I’m gonna reveal it. It is, but the problem is I wanted it to be 1952. But whenever we do something with Phoenix, It’s never a perfect sphere, there’s always something that’s slightly off, and it’s kind of the charm that it’s not perfect, that there’s something. I tried to switch back to 1952. If I died at 51 in 1952, it would mean that we’d go back to 1901, but 1953 just sounded better.

In another interview, you said you were trying to do more new things and go beyond what’s normal. What does that look like for you guys right now?

Thomas: The pandemic did that for us because it created a situation that was never seen before for everyone! To quote Boris, Branco’s favorite writer, I’m not looking for the theme, it’s the theme that comes to us. We don’t think of where the album should be or what it should do before we make it. We’re already a victim of our own chemistry. The four of us write and then we realize what we’ve done later on. But when the context is so unique and radical as the pandemic, then there’s the inspiration. We were very creative and very prolific, but it’s also naturally deep and heavy. So we just embraced this, it was unusual and so far everything we’ve done on this tour has been unusual cuz um, You know, the shows are, the shows are unusual. The tour we are doing now is something we’ve never really done before. We’re embracing the opera vibe of this album with the set and the production, it’s getting a bit more dramatic and theatrical, which, brings us a lot of joy.

‘Alpha Zulu’ is out now. For all Phoenix live shows keep in touch on social media.

Words: Bella Savignano
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

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