Staying Human: An Interview with Phoenix

Tim Lehman talks with Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars about the band’s most recent album, being French, and dancing to Michael Jackson.

A Phoenix concert can feel, at first, like listening to a Phoenix album on high volume while standing among a few hundred strangers. Live, the band retains the same tight, precise studio polish. But then the crowd starts dancing, the impressive-for-a-band-their-size light show kicks into high gear, and you realize that maybe, just maybe, lead singer Thomas Mars’s microphone cable was picked specifically to go with his shirt, which already matches the pink, red, and blue palette of the band’s latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Throughout the show the audience was rapturous — Mars’s voice could barely be heard over the sing-a-long to opening-song “Lisztomania” — and was never more energetic than when he entered the crowd during “1901,” the night’s final song. As the band left the stage to enthusiastic, grateful applause, it was plain to see that they felt much the same. Earlier in the day, while playing an acoustic set at a local record store, the band is said to have remarked that they have been waiting their entire career to play at First Avenue, the club featured in Prince’s Purple Rain. Their exuberance showed; you could feel the band keeping a grasp on their humanity for at least one more night.

I corresponded with Mars by email in the week leading up to their Minneapolis show.

The band live at First Avenue in Minneapolis; photo by Leslie Plesser.

The band live at First Avenue in Minneapolis; photo by Leslie Plesser.

The Bygone Bureau: I read that you wanted Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix to be a futuristic album, but lyrically — from French history to Hungarian composers — it feels very firmly rooted in the past. Was that a conscious decision?

Thomas Mars: Almost nothing is conscious in our songwriting, and since the beginning, we invite contradiction, confusion and luck. I guess we like to talk about things that are very French or unusual — I also like when things are not supposed to get along.

It’s really interesting that you approach songwriting in such an unconscious manner, especially because the album is — measured isn’t the right word, but nothing is out of place. Is that an example of the conflicting nature you mentioned?

We are full of contradictions, but I guess it somehow makes sense.

Songs like “1901″ recall French history very specifically. Was that influenced by your return to France to record, rather than going abroad like you did for It’s Never Been Like That?

There was a big musical genre in the ’60s called yé-yé — French people trying to pronounce “yeah-yeah.” French people were so fascinated by American culture they wouldn’t even bother to write songs; they would just do covers and adapt the lyrics in French. There was nothing French about it, it was just a bad French versions of an American classic songs. We are doing the exact opposite of what French people did in the ’60s. Our music is very French, and it talks about French stuff but it’s done in English.

Frontman Thomas Mars; photo by Leslie Plesser.

Frontman Thomas Marss; photo by Leslie Plesser.

You spent three years working on some of these songs. Do you think the acclaim the new record is receiving will bring new pressures and a higher level of meticulousness to recording your next album, or will you be tempted to return to the loose and fast-paced qualities of the It’s Never Been Like That sessions?

Yes, I think it will bring new pressures. One thing we learned while trying to get our first record deal is that if you want to please everybody, you’re dead. Hopefully, we’ll keep that in mind.

So it’s clearly freeing to be out of your record deal. Does that lack of oversight present its own set of problems in any way?

Yes, you have no deadline but your own pressure to handle. You can lose touch with reality.

You said in a past interview that to record an album you have to go to a dark place, but this album feels light and airy and summery, even if the lyrics themselves are dark. How did you achieve that?

My favorite songs can make me feel either sad or happy depending on the state I’m in. The more I listen to music, the less I can tell the difference. I like when it’s all intertwined. It must be something about growing up — you have experienced many emotions, so they are all triggering each other.

That definitely seems to be the case with “Countdown.” Can you talk at all about the process of writing that song?

This is the only song we wrote in the control room because it was based on a very spheric and powerful sound and we needed to practice it loud. [Producer] Philippe Zdar was there and already thinking how important the mix was going to be— every effect on each instruments had to interfere with each other.

Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz; photo by Leslie Plesser.

Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz; photo by Leslie Plesser.

You’ve been touring for almost half a year straight. Do you have any favorite cities or venues to play in?

One of my favorite shows was the last one in Denver. It was the day Michael Jackson died. Once our show was over we played Michael’s songs through the PA of the venue, and everybody stayed for a few hours and we all danced.

Otherwise, I like to play in Mexico City because the crowd is louder than a plane taking off.

Loud in a good way, obviously?


Does playing a song night after night on tour ever change your perception of it, or its meaning to you?

It does a lot — otherwise you couldn’t play the same song over and over and feel like a human being.

What do you mean?

I guess it’s the same idea that a song can seem happy or sad depending on the state you’re in.

You gave away “1901″ for free prior to the release of the album. Do you think you’ll experiment more with varying modes of distribution in the future?

Yes. What’s great these days is that there is no one in between the musician and the listener. You can really decide how you want people to discover your music.

How would you prefer people discover your music?

There is no perfect situation, but it should hit you by surprise… or at night driving in an empty city.

Would you be open to your music appearing in video games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero?

Yes, I love these games. The problem is that if they keep the same system, in a few years time you’ll have tons of great drummers and no guitar players…

Phoenix is currently on tour. Their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was released last May on V2 Records.

Tim Lehman is a graduate of Macalester College. In his spare time, he attempts to relive the four months he spent studying in Amsterdam by drinking Grolsch and eating sub-standard Minnesota falafel. He may well be missing the point.