story / Anne Walls + Noelia Estrada
photos / Michael Donovan
shot @ The Standard Hotel NYC
We’ve all been there: it’s Friday night, you’re getting ready to go out, first beer cracked, eyeliner going on, and you need some serious JAMZ to get you in the mood. Who do you turn to? Luckily, your favorite pop-alt-rock-electro-awesome band Phoenix is here to entertain you – literally – with their rollicking new album, Bankrupt! Their first single off the album, “Entertainment,” instantly shot to the top of everyone’s playlists, iPods, and brains, proving that these Gallic gods are here to stay.
Phoenix’s fifth full-length album more than demonstrates that the legendary band is definitely not creatively bankrupt. Each song provides the perfect background for summer BBQs, running free on the beach, or dancing in warehouses, skin against skin. Almost every song has a tempo change that commands attention, shifting the focus and emotional flow of the music. This isn’t passive listening- you can’t help but be swept up in it.
Since bursting onto the scene with their hit record Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 2009 and winning a slew of Grammys for their endeavor, the four Frenchmen who make up this powerhouse band have created soundtracks, been featured in countless commercials, and even provided the tunes for a Dior runway show. Their epic tours to support each album and festival lineup would make most ordinary bands shake in their ankle boots, but Phoenix rises from the ashes and reinvents its sound and look again and again.
LADYGUNN sat down with guitarist/keyboardist Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz and guitarist Christian Mazzalai to discuss Vespas, Michael Jackson, and their newfound obsession with peaches.
LADYGUNN: Since this is the Legends Issue and you’re considered legends by many, it’s only fair to ask which musicians you think are legends in their own right?
CHRISTIAN: Someone I trust told me Bob Dylan is a prophet of Biblical caliber. That would make him a good candidate.
Were you concerned with maintaining freshness and showmanship during the super-tour following Wolfgang?
BRANCO: What’s exciting is that when you start it’s never where you wanted to be, so there’s always this tension to art, a goal of some kind of perfection that you never reach. But at some point you reach your pinnacle. We did everything we could do and that’s when you have to stop. Fortunately it happened very late, we did it a lot of times to perfect the formula.
Where did the album title Bankrupt! come from? I like that there’s an exclamation point at the end. Feels like it’s kind of a celebration of the word. What did it mean to you?
B: Yeah, exactly. You know how in African rituals, where you dress up with very fancy clothes and in the end you burn your clothes? This is what the exclamation point means. We also liked the fact that it looked like an Andy Warhol headline. We didn’t really think about the meaning but we knew it was right.
Did you guys feel pressure to put out something unexpected or similarly accessible to Wolfgang?
C: No, because that’s no way to do it. It’s not a possibility. We just think about the four of us. That’s the only way we can write songs. We just need to focus on ourselves in a very selfish way. The only goal is that the four of us love what we are doing. That’s the only goal.
Is there anything you guys were listening to while making the album? Feels like there’s shift towards more New Wave sounds. Were you guys fans of New Wave and post-punk growing up?
B: Yeah, actually you’re right but it was more the European continental version of all those things. We tried to forget it all our lives but it’s more like Italian kind of New Wave, French vibes of this era. It’s true that was an influence.
C: But we never listened to it, apart from when we were kids. So we had totally forgotten it, but it came back to us after two years of touring. We felt homesick. After the shows we’d watch YouTube videos of things from France or Italy.
Was the working title of Bankrupt! really Alternative Thriller? Speaking of, what can you tell us about buying the Thriller console to mix your new album on? [Ed note: the band actually bought the sound-mixing console that Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was mixed on and used it for Bankrupt!]
B: The title was more of a joke, but it came before this whole console thing. It was more that we had this goal of achieving the same thing they did.
C: Artistically speaking, of course.
B: Artistically, yeah. But with distortion, you know. We love Thriller.
N: Thriller is one of the best-known records of all time but also one of the most mysterious. People never really talk about it because…
C: Because it’s so big.
B: But we realized if we wanted to do that, the worst thing would be to copy Jackson’s aesthetics, because what made it special was that it created a new world. So trying to copy certain elements would be just totally misunderstanding what they created. But [the console thing] was more of a joke than anything. We needed some equipment and by coincidence we found this particular console for sale on eBay. It had been on sale for a long time because it was very expensive, but then the price dropped in a bizarre way, so everybody thought it was a fake. But it wasn’t.
What can you tell us about the album artwork?
C: [points at Branco] He found it.
B: It was a long process. We struggled to find the right art. For us artwork and title should work in tandem. So there were a lot of moments where we were very miserable because we couldn’t get it right.
How did you search?
B: We had some vague desires for fruit. [Laughs] Fruit conveys a very pure emotion. So we were looking for them, mostly coconuts in the beginning. In the process, we found this particular peach. It was this .gif on an old school MySpace page of a girl, but she wasn’t the creator of it. Then we couldn’t find who did it. Fell in love with it, couldn’t find it. Then the day before we were supposed to give everything finished, a guy on our team found this guy who did this particular peach. He’s an illustrator, a commercial illustrator for fruit juice, jams, and compotes. And we knew it was right. So Andy Warhol-ish. It made sense in a bizarre way. We must admit, we don’t really understand what attracts us. It’s a bit scary. It’s bizarre but it’s right.
What did your songwriting process entail for your new album – and how much did the process change between Wolfgang and Bankrupt!? Did you guys write it together?
C: Yes, we have to be together. Our system is based on our connection.
B: What we do separately is very bad.
C: It’s semi-pro but…
B: …has no charm, no mystery.
You’ve recorded at a bunch of pretty interesting locations, including a houseboat for Wolfgang. Got anything that tops that for Bankrupt!?
B: We were in [recently deceased Beastie Boy] Adam Yauch’s studio. He invited us and it was really, really great. It was better than a houseboat. So much better.
C: We did record in Australia in a little classroom in the middle of a junkyard in a school. In Byron Bay in a little village. We recorded some percussions and ballads.
How did you pick that space?
C: We loved the work of the dad of a friend of ours. He’s a great percussionist in Australia. On our last tour we decided to record in Australia while we were there.
B: That’s what we do on our days off: record percussionists in the jungle.
You guys seem to start your albums with big strong singles, [“Lisztomania,” “Everything is Everything”]. Is that intentional? When you wrote “Entertainment,” did you know it would be a single?
C: No, and we still don’t feel that way. For me there are seven for real singles or even nine.
B: We’re very bad at that. We’re like a mother who thinks all her children are gonna be the best surgeons or whatever. We don’t realize that they’re really just up to no good. Like one of them will be a drug dealer.
You guys also seem to be attracted to instrumentals. What is it about them? Is it the freedom?
C: Yeah exactly. It’s where we can express our fantasies in a very straightforward way, but it demands the most work. I remember on the last album, “Love like a Sunset” was a bit like this one [instrumental track “Bankrupt”]. Both songs are the center of the album.
Do you know those will end up that way when you’re writing them or do you just let them go where they want?
B: We let it go, but those things that are free form demand a lot of work. They’re not a random collage. It’s so much. harder because popular music has a formula. You have a frame. Here you have to create something out of the blue.
C: There’s so much freedom that it’s hard.
B: We love the rules because it’s so much easier just to break a few of them. Rules are great for art. Those free form things are very demanding for us.
What’s the most legendary vacation you’ve ever been on?
B: Rome + Vespa + summertime = legendary.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind – musically? Personally?
C: Our favorite artists don’t leave anything behind but burned bridges!