An abridged version of this article was published in the Guardian on October 23, 2009.
Growing up in Versailles, an affluent suburb of Paris, the four boys who would eventually form Phoenix bonded over their love of American pop culture. They adored the movie Risky Business, for its Tangerine Dream soundtrack and Rebecca de Mornay riding the subway. They heard Kenny Rogers on the radio and thought he was cool. Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz carved Simon & Garfunkel’s names into his school desk.
They had no interest in French music at all, considering it unbearably cheesy. While their classmates graduated from Vanessa Paradis to Mylene Farmer, from Johnny Hallyday to Indochine, Phoenix rejected Francophone pop entirely and swapped cassettes of Prince, Lou Reed, Hank Williams and My Bloody Valentine. They paused video tapes of live performances to learn the chords and resolved to write songs in English. Rock stardom would be their ticket out of a cultural backwater that was last fashionable when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette still lived in the chateau.
“The best thing Versailles gave us is that it made us feel different,” says singer Thomas Mars. “Right from the beginning we knew that we didn’t want to please everybody because we couldn’t relate to anybody.” Although they didn’t find out until much later, Daft Punk and Air were feeling alienated on those very middle-class streets. The three most successful French pop exports for a generation are from the same neighbourhood.
“We saw all the American shows, the foreign music, with French eyes,” says Brancowitz. “We had a filtered vision of what was going on. So we filled the rest with our fantasies and it shaped our sound.” Not understanding which acts were hip, they borrowed wholesale, lifting a Cars riffs here, a guitar sound from Hall & Oates there. They tried country chord progressions with disco basslines – anything, so long as it wasn’t French.
This affinity may explain why Phoenix are on the verge of succeeding where so many French bands have failed, in a land where calling their countrymen “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” still gets a laugh. When they played Saturday Night Live, they were invited to perform three songs, a privilege previously granted to Paul McCartney, U2 and Coldplay. Their latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, entered the iTunes chart at number two. At their sold-out gigs in New York’s Central Park, tickets were going for double face value outside.
They have toured the USA five times, but this trip is finally “the real deal” of their teenage imaginings. “Before you go on stage, you feel something. It’s electric,” Mars says. “When we played Las Vegas, someone told us they’d heard one of our songs blasting in Caesar’s Palace. We feel like we’re part of the culture and it wasn’t like that before.” Cadillac, that most American of brands, has licensed a Phoenix track for its latest advertising campaign.
It helps that Mars is not-quite-married to Sofia Coppola. They met when he recorded vocals for Air’s Playground Love, on the soundtrack to her film The Virgin Suicides. They have a two-year-old son, Romy, and live together when he’s not on tour and she’s not on location. As Coppola is often described as his girlfriend, and the new album has an awful lot of lyrics about relationships ending, there’s been speculation that they’re splitting up. “The word is partner, no? She’s just not my wife,” Mars says.
Phoenix are dapper dressers, but no-one would confuse them for matinee idols. Mars, a serpentine indie frontman, is the Bobby Gillespie you’d take home to meet your mother. Brancowitz, with his thick-rimmed glasses and gloriously broken nose, could be the hard luck hero of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Both he and his half-brother, Christian Mazzalai, the second guitarist, were born with a cleft palette and wear the scars of corrective surgery. Only bass player Deck D’Arcy has the polo team good looks to go with his yacht club name.
Their first ever tour was to satellite towns around Paris. “We played in bars. It was the spirit of creperie. We had a romantic vision about how musicians should start, playing in front of drunk people,” says Brancowitz. “We were really bad. ” They performed Forever In My Life, by Prince, because it only uses one chord. Mars gave drumming a try, but it didn’t last. They’ve never had a permanent drummer because they’ve been together so long that they can’t imagine anyone else being part of the group.
Their debut album, United, includes a nine minute electro breakdown called Funky Squaredance, plus a jazzy saxophone interlude that wouldn’t be out of place as incidental music on Moonlighting. There’s a “very punk” track called Party Time that sounds like four young men getting the urge to rock out of their system. If I Ever Feel Better is dominated by its funky, Paradise Garage bassline. Stylistically, it’s all over the place.
It also features Too Young, though, a sublime pop single best known as the soundtrack to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson bouncing around Tokyo in Coppola’s Lost In Translation. For all their experimental impulses and desire to create “something with more aesthetic structure” Phoenix have written at least two memorable FM hooks per album.
This has enabled them to return to the United States again and again, to build a fanbase the old-fashioned way, in half-empty clubs and on college radio. They’ve never performed in Phoenix, Arizona, but they’ve played its twin city, Scottsdale, many times. In Lawrence, Kansas, two girls begged to get on the bus, complaining tearfully that they’d never seen the ocean.
“In America, there is a culture of welcoming musicians,” says Brancowitz. “In France, if you play music you are a gypsy – they check your ID and your belongings. Even in the Midwest, if you say to Grandma that you are playing a gig, she wants to hug you. In France she will be afraid.”
For this latest trip, he says, they brought “many French movies from the 1970s, which encapsulate the French vibe that we love – friendship and saucisson.” “Friendship between 40-year-old men that is sad but a bit funny at the same time,” Mazzalai adds. “That’s very French. It’s when we’ll be at our peak.”
It took them a decade to be accepted back home. Writing in English inevitably led to accusations of selling out and made it harder to get airplay, due to the Toubon Law, which mandates a certain percentage of French-language songs on the radio. Gigs were such shambolic affairs they were accused of hiring session musicians to play on their discs. But finally, with their fourth album, they have become part of their own culture, too.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, despite the intentional hubris of its name, is an unlikely breakthrough record. The opening track, Lisztomania, is about the hysteria that pianist Franz Liszt caused at his recitals, previously the subject of a Ken Russell film starring Roger Daltrey. The big radio hit, 1901, apparently concerns the art nouveau movement in Paris, but Mars won’t confirm it. What is certain is that it has an utterly shameless chorus – “it’s 20 minutes ‘til last call, you’re going hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey” – that has ruled university dancefloors all summer. Live, it’s their final encore.
The album is their first since the end of a major label deal, coming out on their own imprint, Loyaute, in Europe, and on a tiny independent called Glassnote in the USA. Astralwerks must be kicking themselves. It was written, according to band custom, in a series of unusual locations. For their second record, It’s Never Been Like That, they decamped to Berlin. “The frame is important,” says D’Arcy.
“We had no contract, so we could do things that no record company would agree to,” Mazzalai says. “We liked the idea of spending all our money in two months, just for the beauty of it. We thought, even if we fail, it’s a poetic failure, a beautiful souvenir.” This time, they chose New York’s Bowery Hotel “because Francois Truffaut wrote his best films in hotels” and a barge moored on the Seine, directly below the Eiffel Tower. “We wrote almost nothing there, but it had beautiful light,” says Mars.
In the gap between albums, Phoenix made a compilation of some of their favourite artists called Kitsune Tabloid. It’s got songs by Dusty Springfield, Chris Bell, The 13th Floor Elevators, Dennis Wilson, The Impressions, Roxy Music and Elvis Costello – a superb selection that betrays an obsessive study of, and affection for, British and American popular music. There isn’t a single French track on it. “We were looking for songs that had a certain mystique,” Brancowitz shrugs. “It’s not in the French genes.”
It is a French word, though, that has entered the English lexicon, and it describes what elevates Phoenix above their soft-rocking contemporaries pretty well. Their lyrics benefit from the unpredictability of being written in a second language, as well as the licence to be vague that comes with that territory. No matter how many moves they lift from The Strokes, new wave still means Godard and Truffaut to them, not Blondie and Television.
There are at least three towns called Versailles in the United States: in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. They all pronounce it Ver-Sales. Despite their enthusiastic embrace of all things American and disdain for their own pop culture, Phoenix are as exotic here as foie gras and socialised medicine. “If we came from Versailles, Kentucky, we would not like bluegrass,” says Brancowitz. “We would think it was backwards music, sung by racists. But we love bluegrass. For us it has very mysterious harmonies.”