Phoenix Gets Better and Better
By Kyle Eustice
When the French band Phoenix played at Red Rocks in Colorado during 2009’s Monolith Festival with Mars Volta and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, their set was nearly flawless. There was no indication that just a few hours before, all hell had broken loose.
“I remember that day because we lost all of our equipment so we had to go to Guitar Center in Omaha and buy everything,” front man Thomas Mars says through his thick French accent. “We needed drum kits, guitars—everything. So that gave the show a little extra tension, which was good actually.”
It was a good day for Guitar Center. (“They were really happy,” he recalls.) And, surprisingly, it was a good day for Phoenix. Despite the hiccup, the foursome played before a nearly sold out crowd and had “arrived” in America. Phoenix’s fourth studio album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was on the shelves and receiving a slew of positive accolades. After years of working tirelessly to gain some sort of relevance outside of their hometown of Versailles, Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz and guitarist Christian Mazzalai were on their way to substantial notoriety in the States.
“To me, there’s 2 Americas; one that is curious and one that isn’t,” he says. “Coming from France was pretty exotic for people I guess. It felt pretty strange at first. I think the people that came to our shows gave us the attention in the U.S. It was almost like you didn’t want it to end. It could go on forever. We never had a bad experience really.”
For them, it’s been a long time coming. In 1995, Mazzalai’s older brother, Brancowitz, joined the band after splitting from another project that was comprised of the future members of Daft Punk. With the lineup complete, they put out 2000’s United, which yielded the singles “Too Young” and “If I Ever Feel Better.” While the album was a solid effort, it failed to get them the attention they deserved. According to Mars, the recent success has been worth the wait.
“I’m really happy how things turned out,” he admits. “At the same time, we are used to getting attention here and then, then losing it, then getting attention somewhere else, then losing it. So I think now we get a feeling how much random things happen and what luck has to do with things. I think we worked as much from the beginning as we did on this record. We’re more, I can’t find the English word [laughs], um, sometimes the planets are aligned.”
They must be. After the Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix triumph and a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, Mars married director Sofia Coppola in 2011. Mars now lives in New York City, where he’s been for four years.
“It’s very different from Paris, but I like different so I’m happy,” he says. “New York is just the world. It’s every culture. I think everybody can find what they like and what they don’t like. Paris is also everything, but then to be away from it, you miss some things, but at the same time, you’re happy to be far from it because you feel like you’re gravitating towards something else, which is nice. It will always be there. Paris has this quality that you can always come back to it and it will never change.”
Fresh on the heels of their fifth album release, Bankrupt, it’s a little too early to asses how this one will be received. Phoenix took a different approach with this album than the last.
“We set some rules with Wolfgang and we wanted to change these rules with this one,” he explains. “We wanted to go somewhere else. We wanted to change how the songs would sound. From the content to the wrapping paper, it was important to us. It didn’t matter if people would follow us or not. It was too exciting and too interesting to change everything. We worked mostly in Paris, but the process was very different. On Wolfgang, every song came little by little. It would all exist one after the other one because we had no choice. We didn’t have a record company. We didn’t have management. We had to have a few songs to play for people just to reach them. This time, we worked on all of the songs together so nobody could hear anything until the last 4 or 5 days of the mixing process.
“You have friends and family that want to hear something, but you can’t play them a single note,” he adds. “We had to believe we were on to something and it would reveal itself at the very end. I feel like it’s something you can only do when you know each other very well.”
This time around, one thing will remain the same— the type of shirt Mars wears on stage. Rumor has it he only has four blue button-up shirts, but there’s a very good reason for that.
“It’s simple,” he explains. “Everything we did since we were teenagers, and I have to go back quite a ways, where we grew up, there wasn’t a crowd to play music for at the time. It was just us in the studio making albums. There wasn’t anyone that wanted to hear music. In fact, there wasn’t really anyone who liked playing music. So everything we did was just for the music. It wasn’t for the look. It wasn’t for appearance. It wasn’t for anything that could distract you. The fact that I wear the same thing every night is not to distract from the music. The idea is you don’t have to think about it.”
With Mars on tour and Coppola busy with her new movie, The Bling Ring, it’s incredible they ever see each other at all.
“It’s hard to answer this question without sounding like I’m in US Weekly Magazine or something,” he says with a laugh. “When you talk about love and family and all these things, it’s another thing that distracts from the music. To answer briefly, it’s not so hard. It takes a bit of effort, but it works and if it doesn’t, then you’d have to change things, but so far it works.”
Phoenix with Icky Blossoms, August 6, at Omaha Music Hall, 455 N. 10th St., 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices vary. Visit www.omahacivic.com for more information.