French alt-pop band Phoenix have become something of an indomitable force in the music industry. From their Grammy award-winning album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ that was released all the way back in 2009, to starring as a Beach Boys cover band in Sofia Coppola’s ‘A Very Murray Christmas’, to now, with their sixth album ‘Ti Amo’.
On their new album, the band find themselves returning to a familiar sound, but taking inspiration from different experiences. They’ve said the album is about "our European, Latin roots, a fantasized version of Italy,” with lead single ‘J-Boy’ offering references to Picasso and Michelangelo, and ‘Ti Amo’ telling a tragic story of unreciprocated love and desire - but at the same time paired with Phoenix’s distinctive upbeat joyousness.
A much beloved heritage band (they’ve been a band for 18 years now), they also are strong supporters of up-and-coming and newer artists - something Thomas Mars finds hugely important, and one of the fun parts about touring - “We just toured with a band called Whitney, and Mac DeMarco is going to play a show with us soon. There’s another band called The Lemon Twigs that we love. I’ve never seen them live, so I’m really excited. So we get to see bands that we really like!”
We spoke to Phoenix’s frontman Thomas Mars about the new record, inspiration, and songwriting…
COUP DE MAIN: Hi Thomas! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. How’s your day going?
PHOENIX - THOMAS MARS: I’m good, I’m good. I’m in New York City, and it’s the end of the day and it’s a nice day.
CDM: Will 2017 be the year that Phoenix finally come to New Zealand for the very first time? We’ve been waiting very patiently, for 18 years.
THOMAS: Yeah, I can’t promise, but we will try our best. We are trying to see if we can come early 2018. So yeah. It’s definitely something we want to do because it’s strange, we’ve never played there! It should be a really fun show [if we do].
CDM: On the album’s lead single ‘J-Boy’, you sing, “I was excited to be part of your world / To belong, to be lost, to be mostly the two of us.” Do you think the hardest part of any relationship is for two people’s worlds to be able to align? Maybe when the worlds don’t align, that’s what causes a relationship to fail.
THOMAS: I always loved the... one of my favourite books when I was a kid, it’s kind of one of the books that they force you to read at school, is Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. I remember liking it when I was 14 because there was a sense of humour. Growing up in Versaille, it was rare that they would make you read things that weren’t so serious, you know. It had a light quality to it, and it was really pleasant, and it was from this point of view that’s... he’s extremely naive, obviously he’s candid. But he was an outsider, and that’s sort of the point of view that I can relate to the most. So I think it’s more in that sense. Later on when I read ‘The Great Gatsby’, I felt like I was a witness in the same way that I could relate to it. I think that maybe there’s a little bit of both in those lyrics that it’s both in the position of the outsider and the witness. But then I don’t think it’s that autobiographical. I think it’s more the idea of fantasy and how the world I’m talking about doesn’t need to be especially glitzy, it’s just different. You feel like an outsider and you can’t really relate. You try to cope and defend it, and it’s a position I’m comfortable in… I mean, when we go on tour, we’re always in that position. We try to relate, and you always feel like you’re witnessing something, but you’re not totally a part of it.
CDM: Everyone is kind of living in their own world, and we’re just parts of each other’s worlds when you think about it.
THOMAS: Yeah! What we wanted to achieve on this record, is especially to create our own language. It’s always helpful when you distance yourself a little bit with the world you live in, to be able to do that.
CDM: So much of the album is a homage to Italy - from the song names and album title, to the inspiration behind the album cover. What was it about Italy that led to it being such an important part of the record?
THOMAS: I’m not sure I’m answering the question, but I think what we liked on this record is the idea that we used all these languages to create as our own. Everything we surround ourselves with was just a tool to find a way to tell the same story in a different way, because every time we work on a record, we try to think about it like it’s our first record. It’s always a challenge to find a new way to tell things, and I think that’s what keeps us interested in making music. But it’s really hard to know exactly what we’ve done. I think to analyse, to go back and try to comprehend what we’ve done is always something that’s a little counterintuitive. It goes against what we’ve done. I read recently an old interview of Mike Nichols who was talking about his movies, and he quoted someone else in the interview, he was saying, “I’m a bird, not an ornithologist.” I could really relate to it because I think when you’re creating something, you overanalyse it, which is really hard to do if you’re the one analysing it. You can get lost sometimes, you can lose your spontaneity. It goes against the process sometimes. It’s hard because it’s all so fresh too - we’ve done a record, and in the end we were really surprised about what we’ve done. We thought it was hedonistic, naive and joyful, which going against the times that Paris was going through, so it was a weird… In the end we were like, “What have we done?”, and we didn’t really try to comprehend it because we were just in the process of finishing it and going through this thing.
CDM: ‘Ti Amo’ deals with a lot of different emotions - what do you think is the strongest human emotion of all?
THOMAS: I don’t know about the strongest emotion, but I know that humans want to... I think ultimately, even though they are in denial of this, they want to feel the same thing. I don’t know many people that, you know, would want to live on an island by themselves, I think after a while they’d just go insane. To me, that’s the strongest link, and that’s the thing I relate to the most because being in a band, if I didn’t share all the emotions I go through with my bandmates, it would be a nightmare. It wouldn’t be fun. I think love is the same principle; it’s sharing a friendship, it’s sharing. So I think all these emotions, when you go to a live show, ultimately what you want to experience is the same thing. I think there’s a lot of people that... To me, one of the issues, is today when you look at a YouTube video, what’s a little disturbing is that you can see the amount of people that are watching it, and a lot of people are watching this because they don’t want to miss out on something - but also because they want to see it because a lot of other people have been watching it. It goes against quality. I think it’s just because people want to connect and relate to other people. It’s just human nature, it’s survival instinct. You want to be aware of things. That would be my answer.
CDM: The next question was specially submitted by Warren Fu - who directed your ‘J-Boy’ music video, and did art direction on the album. He asks: Do you ever get demoitis when you guys work on your rough sketches for songs? (Demoitis: What happens when you listen to one version of something so much that when it's properly recorded it's difficult to accept).
THOMAS: Yeah, it’s a strange thing because when you were obsessed with the first take, and we’re obsessed with keeping something genuine-- you know when you have an idea, we’re really scared of losing it and not recording it. So when we’re in the studio, we created this system where we had to record every single thing and we had to make sure we didn’t lose the first take. But then at the same time, at some point, a demo is just a demo. It has to be enhanced, you know, it has to... you have to overcome something and you have to be able to transcend it and take the simple idea into another world. The same way that if you find something very precious - if you find a diamond, you have to carve it, it’s just raw material that’s really good, but you want to be able to shape it, and to make it even more. So I think in that process you can get lost, I know, but that’s the biggest challenge for us. That’s why we spent so much time in the studio because we have to balance these two things. We worked a lot with Philippe Zdar - he came a few times only on this record - who produced some of our records, and he loves a demo. He loves the challenge - if you play him a demo, then he goes away. He goes with his wife and kids on holiday, listens to it, has memories with it. Then when he comes back, he’ll just say, “If you change anything, I won’t talk to you anymore.” Once he creates memories with it, you can’t change it. And it’s the same if we play it to our families, when you’re still vulnerable, people bond with things and they don’t want it to change. It’s like if you love someone and suddenly they have plastic surgery, then you’re like, “Where did this person go?” It’s the same idea, I think. They love the flaws and they love the qualities - they get really attached. You always have to be careful in how when you play something to someone, because you know that you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
Phoenix’s album ‘Ti Amo’ is out now - click here to purchase via iTunes.
Watch the ‘J-Boy’ music video below…