Where do you go once you’ve reached the top? Phoenix are about to find out. Following the runaway success of their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the French rockers have crafted Bankrupt!, which will be released April 23. For Thomas Mars (vocals), Christian Mazzalai (guitar), Laurent Brancowitz (guitar/keys), and Deck D’Arcy (bass/keys), the stakes have never been higher. Phoenix has steadily built a following since first coming together in 1999, but Wolfgang pushed them fully into the spotlight, winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Just as importantly, it represented the band truly finding its identity, casting off its excesses to create something purer and more powerful than ever.
I meet Mazzalai and D’Arcy in the penthouse of The Standard East Village, which offers a panoramic view of lower Manhattan that makes it easy for Mazzalai to gesture là-bas when he mentions the band’s time recording in Chinatown. They’re sporting nearly matching red pullovers, and Mazzalai wears a dark wool blazer that he’s lined with his old VIP stickers. Two in particular stand out: the Grammys and Madison Square Garden. Straight from the arena, the quartet spent three months holed up in the late Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories to begin work on what would become Bankrupt!.
“In New York, it was more experimentation and the starting of the process,” D’Arcy recalls. “We didn’t record proper songs, we kind of collected stuff. We didn’t have a song ready yet.” To go big, they had to go home.
“Even at the end of the tour, we were already a bit homesick,” says Mazzalai. “We were listening to French music from our childhood, which we totally forgot. France came back to us.”
And so, they came back to France. After returning to Paris, the band spent a year and a half in the studio. “By the time we go back to the studio after we tour, we totally forget how to make a song and how to make music,” D’Arcy says. “It takes us months to go back to the process. Which is very annoying for productivity, but at the same time, very important for creativity. We start from scratch, which is easier.”
Mazzalai echoes that sentiment. “Every time we do an album, we lose everything,” he says. “The four of us have to rebuild everything. It’s very hard, but it’s fantastic.”
When they say things like that, the "Phoenix rising" metaphors are just too obvious to make. But, true to form, the band hid away while plotting their resurrection.
“It’s weird, we almost didn’t read a newspaper for two years,” Mazzalai says. “It’s like we’re beginning to discover the world again.”
In the studio, they rediscovered their music, and themselves. Growing up together in the Parisian suburb of Versailles gave the members of Phoenix an unmistakable bond–Mazzalai is quick to refer to D’Arcy as his brother, though Brancowitz is his actual sibling–but inevitably, it was time to regroup.
“Sound-wise, we’d done the record we dreamed of on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” says Mazzalai. “So on this one, now that we already had the sound, we wanted to go more into songwriting.”
They found that identity with the help of Parisian producer and longtime collaborator Philippe Zdar, who’s also polished albums by Chromeo, Cut Copy, and Two Door Cinema Club. “He’s really more like a member of Phoenix, so his role a producer is a bit blurred,” says Mazzalai. “He mixed a bit less and produced less than our last producer, but he was more involved throughout the process and the songwriting. He’s really part of the family.”
Zdar’s hand is crucial in guiding the band’s long, frustrating recording process. “It’s very annoying when we’re doing it,” D’Arcy says. “We are already pissed off at ourselves. When we won a Grammy, we were like, ‘What? This is really how a Grammy-winning group works?’ But, it’s probably for the best.”
They spent two years gathering the pieces that would become Bankrupt!; the deluxe edition of the album will include a whopping 71 tracks of bonus material.
“At the beginning, all the songs on the record were totally irrational,” Mazzalai describes. “If you control the beginning, the song is bad, at least for us. Every beginning of a song, we don’t know where it comes from, and we don’t want to control it. It has to come from somewhere else.”
For all of the challenges involved, Phoenix functions like a well-oiled machine, albeit one that’s fuelled by a patchwork of sounds that must be fit together into individual tracks. “After, we are like scientists—we think about what we recorded and we analyze it,” D’Arcy adds.
If Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix represented the band distilled to its purest form, Bankrupt! sees them at their most textured and experimental. It’s just as obviously crafted as a full album experience, something that begs to be bought on vinyl, but the feel has turned darker and more densely layered.
“For us, it’s like it could have been made by a different band,” D’Arcy says.
While it’s not immediately obvious, there are more than a few glances toward the band members’ ‘80s upbringing, particularly in the use of vintage keyboards. More notably, they joined forces with another headline from summer 2009 after purchasing the mixing console used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “There’s real magic in it,” says Mazzalai. This may be what makes the new material sound familiar upon first listen, but don’t expect any overt homages to Jackson.
“Your mind as a musician is shaped when you’re a teenager,” D’Arcy says. “You have some traumas or musical shocks when you’re a kid, and then you start to produce this thing you had all of your career long. It’s expressed in different ways each time.”
The band may all be in their late 30s now, but their enduring youthfulness becomes even more clear as Mazzalai talks about their updated sound.
“I picture myself when I was 10 years old, on the west coast of France, on the beach with an ice cream,” he says. “When you listen back to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it’s very dry compared to Bankrupt!, and more austere.”
While there’s plenty that mines from the past, there are also glances forward. Simmering synths woven throughout the album serve as reminder that these guys hang out with Daft Punk, and frontman Mars has cited the classic 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as an influence on the new material. He sang of “past and present” on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix hit “1901,” but now the tension is found between past and future in a way that’s both unmistakable and impossible to completely pin down.
“The goal is to lose something, looking for an emotion we don’t understand,” Mazzalai describes. “That’s what we are happy about in songwriting. Now we have to explain it, and it’s very hard. Why those words? Why those chords? It’s emotion, it can’t be explained. We don’t know, and we love it. We love the fact that we don’t know, it’s still a mystery.”
They’ve always had a tone of lingering discomfort, but the sense of isolation comes through more powerfully on these new songs, particularly on the wistful “The Real Thing” and standout track “SOS in Bel Air.”
This may be the result of willfully ignoring their success. “My Grammy is actually at my mum’s place, on the piano where I learned to play,” D’Arcy says. “We’re really happy about getting all of this, but at the same time, it’s good to know you have it.”
The same goes for Mazzalai. “I had it in my living room for a day, and it didn’t feel it right,” he says. “It’s not for me, it’s for my mum. I don’t really want to see it.”
In some ways, it’s easy for them to overlook their own accomplishments. Though Phoenix may be the most prominent ambassadors of French rock in the States, they’ve never made quite the same splash in their own country, where homegrown talent is frequently pushed aside in favor of imported chart-toppers from the UK and US. (At the time of this writing, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” is France’s number one hit.)
“France is like a bubble,” D’Arcy describes. “For many people, it’s the third world of music. It’s kind of good, we still feel a bit special.”
For a band that’s spent more than a decade earning its high profile, it’s mind-boggling that they have territory left to conquer. Still, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s too much to have success right away,” Mazzalai says. “The flavor would be a bit bitter, it would be too easy. We love to suffer. It was a long process, so we enjoy every moment. In France, it’s the same. We are becoming bigger and bigger, but with no compromises.”
Humble beginnings are hard to forget, and these former suburban boys are no exception. “When we were teenagers in Versailles, a town with no venues, we played just for ourselves,” Mazzalai says. “That’s why we created, the four of us, with no pressure from the outside. We are still like that. We cherish it, on chérit. It’s important for us, gives us more freedom.”
At this turning point, upon the release of Bankrupt!, it’s never been more important that Phoenix do things their own way. They’ve embraced the chaos of creation while picking up the pieces and arranging them in perfect harmony. They know themselves, but are willing to let instinct take over. As listeners process the rebirth of Phoenix, so will the band itself.
“Every day, I have a new vision of the album,” says D’Arcy. “It’s evolving.”
[Photos by the author.]