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If you were searching for somewhere outside of your comfort zone, Paris or New York hardly seem the sort of places you could channel your creative energies free from distractions. Yet that’s exactly what drew Phoenix there when they decided to leave their hometown of Versailles to write and record new album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’, although to listen to vocalist Thomas Mars the sessions were nowhere near as glamorous as their settings.
“We were like accountants!” he laughs. “We kept business hours in the studio every day so it really didn’t matter where we were. But we were totally dedicated to finding new ideas. You begin to realise that you have certain reflex things that you fall back on; so we tried to make music that made us feel uncomfortable or sounded distant from us. It was deliberately choosing the path of most resistance but I think it’s the most different and futuristic-sounding thing we’ve done.”
Recorded with Cassius Phillipe Zdar, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix might have been a struggle for Thomas and bandmates Laurent Brancowitz, Christian Mazzalai and Deck D’Arcy themselves, but Phoenix’s fourth album isn’t too difficult for anyone already familiar with their previous output. It’s more intricate than 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That LP, where Phoenix tried to reposition themselves as the Gallic Strokes rather than fey French indie-popsters, but the slick pop sensibilities of earlier Phoenix favourites like If I Ever Feel Better are still present amidst the layered synths and guitars of Girlfriend or Rome. Songs which may also contain clues as to quite why it’s taken them so long to release something new, with lines like ‘Who’s the boy you like the most / is he teasing you with underage?’ seeming to concern communication breaking down in relationships. Which, when you’re famously dating Hollywood director Sofia Coppola – who has incorporated Phoenix songs into many of her films – inevitably leads to speculation that these songs are directly about recent upheavals in Thomas’ world, especially following the birth of the couple’s son Romy in 2006.
“Your life changes so completely when you become a father that it becomes something you can’t escape from, like your DNA,” Thomas says. “So the lyrics are very autobiographical but also very abstract too. I like that because I remember listening to Prince when I was young and being convinced that he was talking about me when really it was about something completely different. I’m the only one who really knows what they’re about, but the autobiography also melted into inspirations from movies I was watching and the fact that I was reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ to create this whole hermetic universe.”
F Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel isn’t the only reference on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix somewhat more sophisticated than the adolescent preoccupations of other bands. 1901 alludes to the Parisian art nouveau movement for example, whilst Lisztomania is a tribute to Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Then of course there’s the album title, with its sense of classical grandeur and tinge of hubris Thomas maintains is definitely tongue-in-cheek.
“The title’s a really childish thing, like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa,” he explains. “It’s the most iconic thing we could think of, but it’s now so iconic that it’s almost empty. In a way it’s like Versailles; it’s this thing that we grew up with but you become so used to it that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. People there always believed that the best things were in the past so you try to mess with it and make it your own. As for Lisztomania I became utterly obsessed with him after reading his biography. He was like the rock star of his day and got a lot of criticism because he always got the girls.”
Not that you’ll find Phoenix emulating Mozart or Liszt’s hell-raising lifestyles, with Thomas freely confessing that “we never go out.” Yet despite their preference for early nights, Phoenix have had a close if tangential relationship with the French club scene ever since forming in 1996. Early associates of both Air and Daft Punk – with guitarist Laurent once one third of the group Darlin’ alongside Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo – Phoenix were first lumped in with the original ‘French touch’ scene in the late 1990s, despite the fact that their debut album United was clearly inspired more by summery Californian rock than Chicago jack tracks. And Phoenix are once again on the fringes of the current French scene centred around the Ed Banger and Kitsune imprints, compiling the recent Kitsune Tabloid selection for a label more renowned for cutting-edge electro than classic rock and soul.
“Kitsune kept pestering us to hear the new record but we didn’t want to play it to them because we felt too vulnerable,” Thomas reveals. “So we did this compilation instead, which is a collection of songs we love and think people should hear. But the only time we feel part of a French ‘scene’ is when we see these other bands at festivals. Otherwise we don’t embrace it, because ever since we started we were determined not to fit in anywhere.”
Indeed, with tracks from Elvis Costello , Lou Reed and Dusty Springfield amongst others, there’s very little distinctly ‘French’ about Kitsune Tabloid. Quite the opposite in fact, as there’s not a single song in their native tongue on the whole compilation, reflecting the Anglophilia also apparent in Thomas’ decision to sing in English on Phoenix’s own records.
“Maybe 1% of our record collection is French music,” Thomas admits. “English is the language of pop music to us. So we made a conscious decision to sing in English from the very beginning, but then people in France began to act like we’d betrayed them or something. But I think we couldn’t be more French! We think in French but there are very few French singers who actually sing in English so this seemed like a great opportunity to talk about France in a way more people would understand.”
Phoenix: still talking our language.