Phoenix: “We’ve had fun breaking the rules throughout our career”

The French indie legends’ expansive seventh album was recorded amidst decadent splendour at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris’ Louvre Palace. NME heads into the artists’ studio to get the full picture

Given Phoenix’s 20-plus year career, one where they’ve meshed indie, soft-rock, pop, electro and beyond over seven stylish albums, it feels apt to meet them at the Palais du Louvre – a cultural crossroads of stunning artefacts. Here at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in one of the palace’s many wings, history and pop culture are smashed together like a gloriously messy collage: items once belonging to John Lennon and Marie Atoinette compete for attention with rococo architecture and lavish oil paintings. If you peek out the windows of the third floor where we are shooting the band’s first NME cover, a corner of the Jardin des Tuileries has been colonised by a garish playground: a ferris wheel turns and bumper cars bleep, but there’s all the fun of the fair in here, too.

It’s a balmy late-August day when NME heads to Paris, and while most of the locals have escaped the city in the summer months, Thomas Mars (vocals), Deck D’Arcy (bass) Christian Mazzalai (rhythm guitar) and his older brother Laurent Brancowitz (lead guitar) have been served their marching orders. The lease on their custom-built studio space, nestled in the private area of the museum, is expiring and they’re to clear out before a run of US dates.

For the past few years, this has been the band’s home and where they recorded their upcoming album ‘Alpha Zulu’ during the pandemic. In the modest-sized room, vinyl copies of their debut album ‘United’ (2000) and 2019 biography Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix! are strewn across the desks. A phone-box sized vocal booth stands in the corner, squeezed in amidst various keyboards and synthesisers. It’s like a living, breathing installation.

Deck D'arcy of Phoenix
Deck D’arcy. Credit: Nic Bezzina

It comes as little surprise that ‘Alpha Zulu’ (out November 4) is daringly ambitious and packs a most-welcome disruptive streak. They speak longingly of being able to relive a scene from the late director Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1964 Bande à part, where three petty criminals sprint through the Louvre in record time. Except this time it’s as if Phoenix have run their hands along all the paintings while doing so, leaving priceless artefacts wobbling on their plinths and shaking in their cabinets.

“This whole process has been a bit unsettling and disarming to me, because it feels like we’re part of the institution now which we shouldn’t be,” Mars tells NME. It’s as if he’s offering a belated defence of the fact we’re conducting a portion of the interview in front of a 20-foot wide painting by baroque master Jean-Marc Nattier. “We’ve always liked to take up residency in a place where there’s a little more mystique; something that doesn’t have gold records on the wall. This was perfect for that.”

There’s been push and pull: they’ve nodded to and been imbued by their surroundings, but not stood on ceremony. The title track and lead single’s music video uses specially-designed visual technology to reanimate classic portraiture by Rembrandt and William Hogarth, whose subjects now sing and shimmy to their tune. The record’s artwork borrows four cherubs from a Sandro Botticelli painting, and has them gazing at a neon screen; this is digital vandalism at its most playful.

“We’re from Versailles – we grew up in a museum” – Thomas Mars

On the 10-track album, flashes of techno (‘All Eyes On Me’) and peppy electro beats (‘Alpha Zulu’, ‘The Only One’) pull from a gloriously textured palette. ‘Tonight’, a joyous duet with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, hits the spot for end-of-the-noughties indie nostalgia, while ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Artefact’ share the same jangly threads as their breakout album, 2009’s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’.

In many ways, it feels as much a tribute to their surroundings as it does a greatest hits retrospective. “We realised at this late point of making ‘Alpha Zulu’ that it was very broad in sound and we should emphasise this spread,” Mars says. “Some albums you want to focus on something specific, but, like our first one [‘United’, 2000’], we wanted to embrace that diversity in a place like this.”

Christian Mazzalai of Phoenix
Christian Mazzalai. Credit: Nic Bezzina

As Mars escorts NME to their studio following our shoot – they know every shortcut – he becomes an impromptu guide to the space. He flashes his security pass at the now familiar and friendly guards and regales the secrets they’ve divulged: the haunted spirits that allegedly stalk the halls at the night, the 180,000 bees making honey on the roof of the building, and rumours that a Picasso painting was inches away from being ruined in a recent flood. The final artefact he points out before we enter the studio is a garish golden throne that once housed the seat of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is preposterous in every sense.

The band recorded much of the album while the museum was closed during the pandemic: visitors were nonexistent, with many of the marble statues hooded in protective material. Most of the band remained in Paris during lockdowns, with Mars living in New York with his wife, acclaimed director Sofia Coppola [Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides] and their two children. Even so, the months-long estrangement was the longest the band had been apart since becoming friends as teenagers.

When Mars was able to make it to Paris and get in the room they would be hit by bursts of creativity, running with threads of songs and sounds. He remembers flying into the city late, catching a cab and walking through an empty space by torch light and not seeing another soul – likening it to some kind of “dystopian simulation”.

Phoenix
Phoenix on the cover of NME

No wonder album highlight ‘Winter Solstice’, the first song Mars had written without his bandmates in their extensive career, is achingly melancholic: “Now it’s hard to connect/but the world’s unchained”, he sighs.

Although constrained by recording in a “world in marble”, the private audience they had with the museum’s collection proved rife for inspiration. “Museums are very curated, and you see it through the eyes of the curator that’s presented things to you,” Mars says. “But when we came in, the collection was in a joyous mess: different eras and styles next to each other. When we make music, we do it in the same way. We’re not cautious in the way that we use our influences. We use drum samples and pieces of [Claudio] Monteverdi. This album was a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster of putting pieces together.”

For many bands, the idea of recording in a place as austere and opulent as the Louvre would make for sterile songwriting. Not so for a band that grew up in Versailles, a town 12 miles outside of Paris which is synonymous with the Palace built by King Louis XIV in the late 1600s. “Elitism is something we have a very different relationship to. We grew up in a museum, almost,” Mars says. Bandmate Brancowitz agrees: “In Versailles it can be very hostile. Here we’ve just felt so welcome.”

Thomas Mars of Phoenix
Thomas Mars. Credit: Nic Bezzina

There were further hurdles to overcome. Philippe Zdar, Cassius producer and French house pioneer, died in an accidental fall from a Parisian rooftop in summer 2019. Zdar had played a crucial role throughout Phoenix’s career; either mixing, producing or advising on every record that precedes this. His passionate production style brought a joie de vivre to proceedings, but they lost much more than just a colleague.

“He was here in a way, more than ever on this album,” Mazzalai says. “The first song we wrote for the album, ‘Identical’ [first released in 2020 for Coppola’s Off The Rocks], was written just days after he passed. From the beginning to the end, it was impossible to not feel Philippe.” On their last album ‘Ti Amo’, he was with the band for just two days of the process, but that time was so “crucial” to the success of realising a vision.

Mars concurs: “He was joy and chaos; a whirlwind. A producer that you dream of working with. I’m sure that any band that worked with Phillippe came out of it stronger. You can not split after you work with Philippe: he’s a great producer and therapist.”

“The collection during lockdown was in a joyous mess. When we make music, we do it the same way” – Thomas Mars

Even the record’s most upbeat songs are tinged with melancholy. ‘Tonight’, sharing shades of their indie-disco classics ‘1901’ and ‘Lisztomania’, is based around a pair of star-crossed lovers trying to tempt the other back out after prolonged periods in isolation. The track ended up being a duet between Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Mars, the two trading lines despite Brancowitz’s initial hesitancy: “I was saying ‘show me one classic song that’s a duet’”, he laughs. “I was resisting, and then Thomas came back with a list of duets that were classics and I had to admit I was wrong.”

Beyond the alarmingly similar tonality of Koenig and Mars’ vocals, they liken themselves to transatlantic “cousins”, their careers and fortunes mirroring one another. “There’s always been a synchronicity with us and Vampire Weekend,” Mars says. “A couple years ago, Laurent [Brancowitz] brought a sample of [Japanese cult star Haruomi] Hosono to us, and then two weeks later we heard the same sample on their song ‘2021’ [from 2019’s ‘Father of The Bride’]. We’re curious about the same things and we’re reaching for the same sounds and inspirations.”

Though it’s hard to paint a band that have headlined festivals all around the globe (including Coachella in 2013, and most recently, Primavera Sound in June), won a Grammy and just months ago topped a Billboard Music chart as underdogs, but they’ve been a quietly revelatory force in the past two decades.

They laid the blueprint for how to mature gracefully in a scene that disposes of musicians quicker than ever. Acts like Tame Impala, The 1975 and even Harry Styles can thank the band for their fearless embrace of multiple genres all at once. By meshing room-filling pop drums, slinky R&B basslines, disco-infused guitars and whopping sax solos amidst the backdrop of loutish lad rock and Britpop in the late ‘90s, they became one of the first to make the cheesier side of their parents’ record collection sound cool again. The genre-less approach that’s rife with bands today, arguably, has its roots with these guys.

Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix
Laurent Brancowitz. Credit: Nic Bezzina

The liberation began as teenagers in Versailles. The group found hope in record shops, flicking through racks and plucking albums out where the artwork – not sound – spoke to them and offered them a lifeline out of an austere, conservative town. To love and channel influences like The Beatles and Kraftwerk, Italo disco and US R&B, simultaneously proved a gleeful challenge.

“Nowadays it’s pretty normal, but back then it was impossible,” Mazzalai says. “You had the rules of what you could do as a band… and it exciting for us as teenagers to destroy these stupid rules.” To have a saxophone solo on a song, as they would do on ‘United’s ‘On Fire’, felt like a “punk rock move” to break the “taboo”, Brancowitz adds.

“From the beginning to the end, it was impossible to not feel Philippe Zdar’s presence” – Christian Mazzalai

This approach would be shared with collaborators from the period. The band would perform live with influential electronic duo Air in the late ‘90s, and Phoenix bassist Deck D’Arcy still considers them “the best band in the world”. They felt a similar kinship with Daft Punk, the duo composed of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who blazed one of the biggest trails across 21st century pop music. Brancowitz first played with the duo in a band called Darlin’ in the late ‘90s, but they would disband after just six months. What does he make of Daft Punk’s sudden split last year? “I didn’t like the move,” he shrugs, a smirk creeping across his face.

Despite the kinship, Phoenix wouldn’t share the same stratospheric rise as their robotic pals. Their varied approach was misunderstood, they felt, by British and American listeners who couldn’t comprehend the diversity in sounds, or wouldn’t take them seriously if they had the wrong gear or clothes on. “We were a bit of a black sheep – no-one could really grab what we were doing. We were responsible for that and we were looking for that in a way,” Mazzalai says. D’Arcy adds: “We were trying to be so subversive, but perhaps less so now.”

Phoenix
Credit: Nic Bezzina

The decade period that would follow would continue to strengthen the ties within the band. Seldom do you see a group with such respect, camaraderie and fondness for each other as Phoenix. There is no leader and no sole voice that seeks to rise above the others. During our chat in the studio, where they tinker away with guitars and synths, they bat around thoughts, waiting for the other to finish the sentence, not perturbed with who gets to drive home the punchline or pull-quote. “We’ve been able to keep some kind of purity and something genuine in our music and friendship. That’s what we’re most proud of,” Brancowitz says.

Critical and commercial success would finally come with 2009’s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’. It’s by far their most approachable and immediate work, building on the zippy songwriting that was once caked in dense instrumentation on 2004’s ‘Alphabetical’ and follow-up ‘Long Distance Call’. The record’s shimmering hit single ‘1901’ would become synonymous with sports montages and PlayStation adverts.

Thomas Mars of Phoenix
Thomas Mars. Credit: Nic Bezzina

The sequel, 2013’s abrasive ‘Bankrupt’, had a whiff of self-sabotage in ditching catchy hooks for more polished, beefier sounds. Meanwhile, 2017’s ‘Ti Amo’ paid homage to the Italian pop the foursome grew up admiring from afar, a wonderfully self-involved record full of sweet treats, name checking luxurious desserts (‘Fior Di Latte’) and posing important existential questions: “I’ll be standing by the jukebox/Champagne or Prossecco?

Despite the success, the band shy away from eulogising this part of their career as a thumping triumph. Having grown-up in the ‘80s, they’d become turned off by the idea that commercial success equaled satisfaction. “It was fulfilling because we were really ready: anything could happen to us and we could embrace it,” Mazzalai says of the delayed triumph. “But it’s like a holiday with friends when you’re wrong: you remember and are fond of the moments of disaster and calamity. It’s not the successes that you want to talk about again and laugh at.”

“There’s still purity in our music and friendship. That’s what we’re most proud of” – Laurent Brancowitz

They’re self-effacing about the highs and lows. They laugh about playing to six people in a football stadium in Mallorca, or the fact they followed-up their gigantic Coachella headline set in 2013 with a show in Dijon, France, a place best known for its mustard. It’s a line they tow with self-awareness.

“That contrast between success and failure, it’s fantastic,” Mazzalai says. “That’s what life is like. One day is lived in total luxury, and then the next as a total loser… it just feels so good,” he says, shaking his head in laughter.

There’ll be plenty of opportunities for mishaps on their upcoming world tour. The 2017 ‘Ti Amo’ tour featured jaw-dropping visuals, manipulating mirrors and a light-up floor to mess with audiences’ perception. That set-up pushed their touring team to the brink, but this time they’ve aimed to go one step further likening the show to a “digital opera”.

Phoenix
Credit: Nic Bezzina

“Our lighting designer is on the verge of a breakdown for real,” Mars laughs. The rig – which mimics the same tools used in theatres to ascribe depth to a scene – is expansive: colours and patterns rush towards the audience. One visual places the audience in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, chandeliers twinkling, and a masked Phantom haunts the show. “We’re playing with the same tools that have worked for centuries. You can open the curtain to different environments and mess with people’s perceptions. In a live show, everything is possible.”

By the time you read this, Phoenix’s home in the museum will be no more. The studio will be bare, the kit packed down and taken on tour, the songs they crafted in unprecedented circumstances coming to life in rooms full of people, not inanimate objects. Now not only are they a part of the Louvre’s shared, vast history, it’s now a part of theirs: “It felt like the more time we spent here, the more we felt like the museum was talking to us and impacting us and our work, says Mars. “It’s like we were becoming part of a painting, frozen in time.”

Phoenix release ‘Alpha Zulu’ on November 4

Photos taken at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris France