Phoenix interview: "We are slaves of this thing that we’re reaching for.” We interrupt the holiday of a member of Phoenix, the masterful Rock band playing Field Day in just over a week, to speak to him about recording plans and airports and other stuff.
Four school friends, Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz formed Phoenix in the sleepy Paris suburb of Versailles, and released ‘United’, their debut album, in 2000. Featuring members of Cassius and Daft Punk, it captured the energy, wit and elegance of French House, and stuck it in the context of purest guitar Rock.
Their connections to club music never went away – there’s an attention to texture, sonics and intensely melancholic rushes that sticks like glue to everything they do. ‘United’ was a terrific record, and their next records, ‘Alphabetical’ and ‘It’s Never Been Like That’ are both really amazing, but it’s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ that was their masterpiece.
Matured is a terrible word, but it’s not that far off – like memory or leather shoes, Phoenix grew into themselves with wear. It was a record that announced them as one of the most famous and interesting bands in the world, because they create perfect, melodic pop songs with grace, heart and charisma and they experiment, experiment, experiment with their sound and vision. It’s experimentation based not on needy sidesteps but perfectionism, crafting and reworking, while staying true to the belief that has fired every great band in their (doubtlessly fantastic) record collections – that popular Rock music is one of the most sincerely perfect and totally awesome creations of mankind. Oh, and they’re really terrific live!
So, a short while ago, I talked to Branco.
Hi Branco! How’s it going?
Yes, it’s fine! We are having a month off now, which is perfect.
Excellent. What are you doing after your month off?
Soon we’re going to go on tour in the US again. We’re working on new elements of the tour. We are always trying to invent new moments and create new details. Right now we are working on the light show.
Oh yes, I think I saw the chap on a video you did recently.
Yes, we are working with somebody very cool. New ideas and new things, it’s exciting. That’s our job, having new ideas!
Wow, what a nice job!
[Cheerfully] Yes, it is!
“I know a lot of people who are very happy about their skills, but we are lucky enough that we don’t have enough.”
You put a lot into your live show.
We consider ourselves as bad musicians, so we know we can improve! I know a lot of people who are very happy about their skills, but we are lucky enough that we don’t have enough. But actually we enjoy this state of mind, it makes it hard to be bored when you have this state of mind where you are trying to improve things. Boredom is the enemy of a human being! So we are happy to avoid it all the time by doing things differently all the time.
Boredom can be amazing though, it makes you do things like read books and play football and stuff, and, well, start bands. Were you bored growing up?
Yes, boredom can be important. We were raised in a very boring city, Versailles.
Really? I thought you were from Versailles?
Yes, Versailles near Paris.
Oh, sorry, I thought you said Marseille! Ha! Which is really nice, isn’t it? Sorry about that.
Ha! No, no Versailles. But for sure, boredom is an important factor when you are a kid. It creates this, uh, desire to go somewhere else and create your own universe, but the boredom when you are just redoing it over again. This is what you must avoid. Being at an airport is boring. But we fight very hard not to have a boring life, you know? We try to avoid waiting, we tour by bus, and you can even make airports fun.
“Boredom is the enemy of a human being!”
Like what? Nick stuff from the duty-free?
You know Music For Airports By Brian Eno?
Yes! It’s very good.
Well, there is always a way to compose your own music for airports when you are in an airport, that’s a kind of thing you can do.
Good answer! One thing that I’ve like about your band is that it’s so … proper. No side projects, no funny business – singles, albums, tours. It has an elegance about it.
Oh, thanks! I think that side-projects dilute the beauty of a career. A career can be something elegant. No-one has ever said that, it’s nice to hear.
Your music has a certain elegance to it. Your sound has always stayed very true to an idea of what your music is.
Oh! Maybe we cannot change, but we always want to be completely different on every record, so to hear that is to hear that we are a failure.
“I hope I am clear when I say this?”
Oh no! God, sorry! I meant more that underlying every surface difference track is a set .. formula almost? You … I don’t know … you don’t fuck about or flounder working out what you sound like. From Too Young to 1901, it sounds like you’re sure what you want to be. Does that make sense?
Ah, OK. There are some unsaid rules maybe, some sense of balance, they do not change. Even if you change the arrangements, there is always a set idea of how a song should be constructed and what it should sound like. These things did not change since we were a teenager, which is sad in some ways! [Laughs] It’s like a circle – a snare drum is just a snare drum, it’s either right or it’s wrong, there’s no … We are slaves of this, slaves of this thing that is reaching. I hope I am clear when I say this?
You’re playing at Field Day. Tell me about you live live setup.
Yes, we haven’t played before, but we’ve heard it’s very good … So yeah, we’re going to give you everything. A total offering of ourselves.
How is playing a festival different to playing a normal gig?
Yeah it’s different, it’s a different kind of pleasure, it’s harder! We had to learn how to master it. The main change is day time or night time – playing daytime takes away some of the mystique, but playing under the stars there’s something that’s very pagan about this gathering of people.
What about new music? Are you recording at the moment?
When we are touring we never record anything so we have zerp secodns of music but at moment something is happening inside, so the moment is coming. It’s not something you can explain, it’s a feeling that new things thaty you’re gonna explore later. It’s right now a pjhase of watching a lot of movies and having different desires. We do not share these desires around in the band, we just keep them to ourselves. But we have a rule to not make music when we are touring.
We try a couple of times, but it always sounds like something you record in the tourbus. There’s a quality of something that is made on the road. THere’s a state of mind that’s not good for us – you know I can really trell an album written on tour, I don’t know what it is – when you are on tour your mind is on a frequency when your are trying to align with a lot of people, with the audience, so it’s like you are in a state of mind where you are trying to work out what you have in common with a lot of people, and when you are writing you really have to work on the aspects that make you different to the world. It’s not a theory, it’s just something I’ve thought now, but on the road it’s not a good state of mind for creating new things.
Tell me about when you are in the ‘right place’?
We always spend like a couple of months trying to find the right place – it’s always a long process until you have found the right frequency when you can feel detached enough from the world to be in this state of mind. We have always had to be in this state of mind, usually it’s a very rough place, somewhere like a simple room with a chair, nothing else to do. It takes a long time to dive deep enough.
Ha! So, it’s like you can’t give your brain an easy way out?
Well, it’s just you have to face yourself and no exits lined up. With just the four of us in a room, eventually your brain understands that there is no other way but to write songs that are good enough to go to the next phase.
“There is a religious element to being far from the world. We spend most of the time joking though…”
Very ascetic. I’m impressed!
We would love it to be different but there is no other way but to do it like this. Strict is not the right word but there is a religious element to being far from the world. We spend most of the time joking though, all day long we are cracking jokes – if we were not friends I am not sure we would have lasted because it’s very frustrating and it gets very tense sometimes, but the fact that we like each other makes it fun.
Is this friendship thing why you rarely collaborate with people you don’t know?
It’s very hard for us to collaborate with people. We always work with friends. We have to feel a very high level of confidence to work with someone, we never take “the best video designer” or “the best graphic designer”, we could not just find someone and trust them. It is better to work with people who know us. So, correct!
This interview is fun! I feel like I’m getting questions right or wrong. Everything with Phoenix is either perfect or wrong!
So, I’d like to ask you about your involvement with dance music.
What we like in dance music is that the sound is very important, that production is a tool, that the way that it sound move the air is very important, the fact that it makes people dance makes this aspect of the music crucial. The way a kick drum sounds, the way, it’s weak, it’s not correct, people aren’t going to dance to it. That’s what we love, this attention to the sonic quality of music. Another thing we love is the robotic feeling, the repetitive patterns. We love this aspect of dance music – this trance aspect, trance in an old school way, trance like African dance way. And we love this machine quality to the music! When we play our intruments we always try to make them sound like a machine. And when we play a machine we try to make it sound like a human being. But we really never dance, so it’s strange.
What else are you getting up to on holiday?
I love Rome so I rented a flat in Rome. We are very bad at organising holidays actually – this time I did something, but usually I get bored when I have nothing to do. I really envy people who can go to the beach – they look so relaxed, happy. I could never do that. I also have to have something, a process. So I am really bad at holidays! Now I am trying new things, learning new musical intruments. I try to have new ideas, that’s my passion.