Interview: Phoenix - Thomas Mars on success and learning to write songs again
The French four-piece take album Bankrupt! into the heart of the mainstream
With each new release, Phoenix are getting bigger, bolder and better. David Pollock talks to Thomas Mars about making the right album at the right time
This year in pop music is all about two French groups heading rapidly towards global glory. There’s Daft Punk, of course, who have basically owned 2013, and battling away at a smaller but still unprecedented-for-them level are Phoenix. The Versailles quartet’s fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, catapulted them to substantial levels of college radio success in the US and this year’s follow-up, Bankrupt!, finally gave them the huge breakthrough they deserved after nearly a decade and a half of trying. It reached number four in the States, resulting in wall to wall chat show appearances and some truly massive shows booked for the year.
‘This has all been bigger than we ever thought it would be; we weren't even interested in the first place about playing those big shows,’ says singer Thomas Mars, who’s being ferried by car across London after a press jaunt, bound for a plane back to Paris. ‘We didn't think we could make something out of them or that our music could be relevant in those massive, iconic places, such as Madison Square Garden or Hollywood Bowl. But we did it and we saw the potential. It's very exciting.’
Mars (who also happens to be Mr Sofia Coppola) says that the album’s title was in some ways a challenge to the band themselves, and to the level of success they had already earned. ‘We love the powerful headline aspect of it,’ he says, ‘and the fact it has nothing to do with music but that it makes sense to us and I hope for others. We knew this time we were coming out of success but we wanted to not be threatened by that, so it's a way to protect ourselves. It's a way to control it. The title refers to artistic bankruptcy, but it has an exclamation point at the end so it has a kind of winning mentality.’
Where Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was a bright, breezy, upbeat indie-pop record, there’s little escaping the fact that Bankrupt! has, albeit unintentionally, followed the lead of Daft Punk’s manoeuvre right into the heart of the mainstream. The synths are pristine and the choruses perfect for demanding your attention on daytime radio; everything about these songs is an inoffensive but utterly charming miasma of aural loveliness. The quartet of Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, drummer Christian Mazzalai and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz (who used to be in surf-pop group Darlin’ with a pre-fame Daft Punk) have made the right album at the right time.
‘Each time we go into the studio it's the same,’ says Mars. ‘It doesn't really matter what happened before with the previous record, because you have to learn how to write songs again. I think each time we forget, and we want to forget because each time we get back in the studio we learn how to do it in a different way. I think there are two kinds of groups, there are the ones which repeat themselves – even if they're great at it, like The Ramones or AC/DC – and then you have the ones which are obsessed with change. We fall into that category. Although that means we create more work for ourselves, of course.’
This impulse extends to the live stage as well. ‘I think we were all really surprised after a few big shows, about how conventional things usually are and how easy it is to make things different,’ Mars says. ‘We just played a show in Barcelona at Primavera, working with a contemporary artist called Richard Prince. We designed a zero dollar bill, and threw 50,000 of them in the air for people to grab and to have a memory of the show. We want to make every moment be unique and special, you know? There is nothing more sad than to control this space and just do the exact same thing and give the self-same show: it can be better than that.’
Such attention to detail makes it seem like they have some kind of master plan, but not so. ‘If we knew exactly where we were going, it wouldn't be interesting,’ are Mars’ final words before reaching the terminal. ‘We know we're onto something but we’re still not sure what.’
Phoenix play T in the Park on Fri 12 Jul. Bankrupt! is out now on Glassnote.