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AU58: Phoenix feature

July 1, 2009

This was a three-page feature in the mag, including the sidebar which I have included at the end of the post. Deck was really cool to talk to, and it was a thrill because I’m a massive fan of the latest album.

Phoenix

10 years in, these achingly cool Parisians have made the best album of their career in the Technicolor explosion of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Bassist Deck D’Arcy (far left) tells AU how a “random” recording process and the vagaries of the internet have resulted in an album that makes them more relevant than ever.

Note: Deck D’Arcy’s words were transcribed as faithfully as possible, but there are occasions where we had to edit them a bit for clarification. It might help if you read them in a French accent…

Phoenix have always been an interesting, occasionally quite brilliant band, but one whose talents have often been overshadowed by the circus surrounding them. The Versailles foursome started life as Air’s backing group and guitarist Christian Mazzalai was once in a band with both members of Daft Punk, while frontman Thomas Mars is the long-term boyfriend of director and cinema A-lister Sofia Coppola, who used their song ‘Too Young’ in Lost In Translation. Meanwhile, the well-connected band’s music has also provided the soundtrack for hip fashion shows, as they developed a reputation for stellar singles and slick, if superficial, albums. The style over substance charge that plagued (the rather excellent) United [2000] and (the rather dull) Alphabetical [2004] began to subside with 2007’s extremely solid It’s Never Been Like That, and in new album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they might just have cracked it.

The record hits guitar pop paydirt from start to finish, and in singles ‘1901’ and ‘Lisztomania’ – written about composer and pianist Franz Liszt and named after the term used to describe his rock star-esque life – they’ve produced two more solid gold oughta-be hits to add to ‘Too Young’, ‘If I Ever Feel Better’, ‘Everything Is Everything’ and ‘Long Distance Call’. So in the first song and the album title, the band have invoked two of the biggest names in classical music – are they taking the piss or is this some kind of concept album?

“The idea was to create an emotion, whatever it is,” says bassist Deck D’Arcy of the album title. “It can be love, or it can be disgust, or it can be provocative, we don’t care, but just to create something. This was just like a childish idea, to ruin the biggest icon in European music by putting our name close to it. It’s a bit pretentious to say it, but with art the only purpose is to create emotions, and I think this creates one. Some people have this notion that it’s a bit pretentious and it’s quite obvious that it’s not. When people like this title, it’s a pact with the audience. Once they are into it, they are really into it.”

The record was co-produced by the returning Philippe Zdar, who made his name with French house act Cassius before working on United back in 2000. Zdar’s involvement seems to have been a bit of an accident after the band began recording in his studio in Paris.

“He was passing by quite often, just to pick up his records or microphones or something like this, and always listening to what we were doing, and naturally he gave his opinion on everything,” says D’Arcy. “After a while we noticed that he was really helping us and [finding] solutions to problems we had, so we kind of officially asked him if he wanted to be the producer.”

The album harks back to vibrancy and slick sonics of United, while staying in touch with the breezy garage rock of It’s Never Been Like That, and though it’s tempting to give Zdar most of the credit in terms of how the record sounds, his influence was more abstract than that. “He made us focus on what was important, and be ourselves in a very modern way. To get the best of Phoenix, because for example he would save songs that we would throw away, like [the excellent] ‘Fences’. It’s good that someone makes you step a little bit backward, because we are too much into it. We produce everything and we’ve been producing everything since the beginning, but it’s good to have someone who has an overall vision.”

When It’s Never Been Like That was released, the Strokes-esque sound and relative lack of synthesisers came as a shock from a band that had been pegged as Eighties-style soft rock merchants – Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren and Fleetwood Mac were frequently cited in their early days. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, though, finds the middle ground between the two sides of the band, and it suits them perfectly.

“With It’s Never Been Like That, the purpose was to make something very quickly and release it as soon as possible. The second album [Alphabetical] was so painful to make and so long and we stayed two years and a half in the studio, so we wanted the third one to be very fresh and to do it very quickly. But now we were ready to go back to the studio for a longer time and to take the time to produce it more, you know? It’s not that there are more layers, but it’s a little bit more tricked out and, yes, more synthesisers.”

Phoenix’s best songs – and we include the majority of the new record in this – sound precision-tooled. They burst with hooks and melodies, firing off in different directions but hanging together in such a way that you imagine that their songs are meticulously constructed in some kind of alt.pop laboratory. According to the self-deprecating D’Arcy, though, the results are often born more of luck than judgement.

“We don’t really control anything,” he says. “We always want to, you know, and it never happens. Never. It always ends up in a different way. It’s actually bizarre, because we realised that [with] the human brain, or at least our brain, it’s not possible to create something really original, you need a bit of something superior. I suppose you call it random, or just accidents.” Or inspiration, even? Luck? “Yeah, you need both, you know? But definitely, you need something exterior.”

So it isn’t quite as controlled as it might seem from the outside?

“No, but we can’t control these kind of things. We are not musically educated. We never really learned how to play, or musical theory. You know, Enrico Morricone could write music just with a pen, and that’s perfect, but that’s something we could never be able to do, even for two seconds.”

Every Phoenix single so far has been gloriously pristine, radio-ready fare – smooth almost to the point of being sickly at times, but surely made for cruisin’. Plus, they are a formidable live band and, cleverly, the albums have all been released in spring/summer, when sunshine pop can melt the hardest of hearts. So why isn’t this band massive yet? “We don’t really think in terms of success,” says D’Arcy. “It’s good when your music is being spread around to as many people as possible and people listen to it. We are really satisfied. Maybe this album has had more reactions than the previous one, so I don’t know what’s going on.”

Do you get a sense of that?

“A little bit, yeah. Actually, I have. But it doesn’t really change anything. You know, it’s been 10 years we are doing this, and we’ve had ups and downs in many different countries with all our albums. We’ve had hits in some countries and the next album was a big flop, but in another country it was a hit! [laughs] We expect this with Phoenix, it’s ups and downs depending on the country. I really think an album is like a bet – you roll the dice and you don’t know where it’s going. It’s good, because it means that it’s something new.”

As the man says, things could be about to change. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the best album of their decade-long career, and the best-received by the critics since United. The internet buzz around it has been deafening, and D’Arcy readily admits that the band are enjoying themselves more than ever since leaving EMI and starting to work with small labels. One tangible result of this has been the advance release of ‘1901’ as a free download from the band’s website back in February. That set the bloggers chattering until the record leaked, and since then there’s scarcely been a bad word said about the band.

“We didn’t even know there was blogs and everything,” says D’Arcy. “It was for our website so people could download it and yeah there was kind of a spread around. It was a good surprise. Some people said, ‘Yeah, it’s the best marketing plan ever!’ and things like this and it’s really funny because it was really not on purpose, but it turned out quite good so far.”

Phoenix are by no means the first band to try giving away their music, but it’s inconceivable that it won’t become the norm in years to come. “I think it’s good, you know – it’s directly to the music and it’s not a matter of marketing or money or advertisement or things like this, it’s just tracks that are spread around. You listen to it and you like it or you don’t like it. You don’t have to go to radio people and things. The key people are kind of disappearing now, which is good because there was a handful of people that were really powerful and could say yes or no to anything, and it’s not very good for creativity and for alternative bands. And since the industry is going down, I think more and more good music is coming up. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a feeling I have because there are more and more bands that I like, contemporary bands, and that was not the case before. So in a way, I think there are many positive sides to this situation.”

Apart from ‘1901’, the other viral success of the new album is a fan-made video for ‘Lisztomania’, set to clips from Brat Pack classic The Breakfast Club, which has received almost as many Youtube views as the official video (watch it at http://www.tinyurl.com/phoenixbratpack). “Ah, we loved it,” says D’Arcy. “We like those kind of Brat Pack things, the Eighties. We watch them on the tourbus, actually. So, yeah, it’s great. We wrote to the girl that made it, just to congratulate her. The video is really cool.”

The video, which is exclusively made up of clips of the young characters dancing goofily, gets to the heart of what this new album is all about – youthful exuberance and a healthy nod towards the decade that will not die. After a decade together and four albums, the band has finally arrived at a sound that pretty much defines the zeitgeist of alternative pop music – big songs, big melodies and lots of synths. But more than that, this strange guitar band that grew out of late-Nineties French electronica now feels more at home than ever in its own skin.

“Back then, the rock scene, the electronic scene, all of this was really separated. You couldn’t really mix the techno kids with the indie ones, and now it’s all mixed together and I think it’s cool. There’s really exciting music now. Maybe this is what is new from what it was 10 years ago. We have the feeling that it’s random again, [and] this album is more in phase with what’s going on.”

OLD (AND NEW) FLAMES

SOME OF THE SLEBS THAT HAVE CROSSED PHOENIX’S PATH

SOFIA COPPOLA
Director of Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and Thomas Mars’ girlfriend. They met on the set of The Virgin Suicides – Air’s Playground Love was featured on the soundtrack and Thomas Mars had a cameo in the film. Subsequently, ‘Too Young’ appeared in Lost In Translation, while the band themselves played musicians in Marie Antoinette.

ROMAN COPPOLA
His sister and Thomas Mars named their son Romy after him, while he has directed two videos for the band – ‘Funky Squaredance’ and ‘Long Distance Call’.

AIR
The band started out as the backing group for a remix of the ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ single, while Thomas Mars later provided vocals for their single ‘Playground Love’.

DAFT PUNK
Phoenix guitarist Christian Mazzalai formed indie band Darlin’ with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as a youngster. An early review described their music as “a bunch of daft punk”, this naming Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s future electro-house act. Bangalter also contributed synths to a track on United.

PHILIPPE ZDAR
Co-produced both United and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. He’s also one half of French house duo Cassius, who had a hit in 1999 with the album, er, 1999.

HEDI SLIMANE
The fashion designer commissioned a remix of the Alphabetical track ‘Victim of the Crime’ for a Dior Homme catwalk show.

PINO PALLADINO
Legendary bass player has played with Gary Numan, Eric Clapton, The Who, David Gilmour, Erykah Badu, Tears for Fears, Don Henley, Joan Armatrading, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, Richard Ashcroft, D’Angelo and Phoenix, on three tracks from Alphabetical.

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