Phoenix are engaged with heavy rehearsals at the moment, gearing up for some live dates to showcase their beefy new record. According to lead singer Thomas, who has been listening to ‘white voodoo’ for inspiration, the drumming on this one is robotic. “We wanted this hybrid thing,” he says. Looks like it will make some interesting listening…
The Parisian four are fresh outta Berlin, having recorded their third LP in a factory building in a very secluded part of town. They chose it for its isolation precisely – “That’s what we liked – being there, just having to face the day and having to, in a short period of time, make a whole record,” says Thomas Mars, of their up-and-go strategy. They left for Berlin trawling only their instruments and a head-full of ideas. No songs were planned. “We loved the idea of putting ourselves in a dangerous position!”
For ‘It’s Never Been Like That’, they have, indeed, done it differently. They abandoned their safe haven of a studio that they’ve used up until now in their home town of Versailles; “we were tired of going there all the time,” says Thomas, although he admits, that the reassuring studio in their basement will always be their ‘original space’. This is where the band as adolescents first started playing music at the age of ten. This time they chose a building that was owned by the East German radio state as their studio. “With no special comforts, no temptation of having a normal life. It was like if someone would close and lock the doors and leave us behind.”
Phoenix sprang to life as a band with a short tour of France performing Prince and Hank Williams covers. “It was more to practice basically. We played in front of a lot of drunk people and people who didn’t know us. And didn’t care about us.” And up until recently, the French audience were still alien to Phoenix. “I think it’s changed,” says Thomas, hopefully, “we don’t have to explain all the time what kind of music we’re doing, and they are more familiar with us. Before we were taken as a foreign band for the French people, now I think they know that we’re a French band.”
Thomas recalls being unappreciated teenagers, with posters of Teenage Fanclub in their bedrooms, on the gig circuit. But, still beat the boredom of Versailles, which can only drive people to start making babies or search for means to escape the city. They escaped. But until they did, playing music was a nice diversion, he remembers the thrill of being able to produce anything that ‘sounded like a record’ was enough to know that he never wanted to do anything else. “I think we were all destroying any other thing that wouldn’t lead us to do music.”
As soon as they turned 18 an involuntary commitment to the French government actually gave them a free ticket to Paris. They had to enter university; “I remember we had to choose the subject to go to Paris,” he says, “I chose the most boring thing which was math and economy. But it was only to go to Paris. Because if you do something interesting like French Literature or History or anything, you would have to stay in Versailles. That was part of the French law – so we didn’t choose them!” Though, a month later the boys dropped out of university and invested all their time into making music.
That’s what we liked – being there, just having to face the day and having to, in a short period of time, make a whole record
Phoenix’s first LP ‘United’ hatched a surprise hit with ‘Too Young’ after Sofia Coppola chose it to star in her now cult film ‘Lost In Translation’. Although the boys had already met one of the Coppola clan in the shape of Sofia’s brother Roman, who had directed a lot of their videos. The upcoming Coppola film Marie Antoinette features Phoenix playing as an 18th century band entertaining the queen. Thomas wrote a piece of 18th century-style classical music for the film in only a day, and declared proudly “I sing in it too.”
Thomas never wrote his music in French and describes with glee his fascination for bands such as The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Yet he refused to idolise any particular artist for fear of creating something that wasn’t unique – “It was very clear from the beginning that we wouldn’t suffer from the French tradition of copying American classics, American bands.” France was invaded by a movement called ‘ye-ye pop’ in the 1960s. French crooners copied American classics by translating famous songs such as Elvis or Sinatra. “In fact we didn’t have any culture in French, it was just stolen from the Americans. Some of them [the songs] are very well adapted but still there is a lack of creation – people are more famous for being interpreters than songwriters. We needed more people involved in the creation of songs more than puppets.” Phoenix have injected creativity into their motherland that is different from anything their other modern compatriots – Daft Punk and Air – have done to date. Not to mention everywhere else.