Sitting alongside Daft Punk and Air, Phoenix are one of France’s finest contemporary musical exports. Since forming in Versailles back in 1999, the quartet has headlined festivals like Coachella, Primavera Sound and Lollapalooza; topped critics’ end-of-year lists album-in, album-out; and played a defining and influential role in the development of modern music.
In April last year the group released a fifth studio album, Bankrupt!, which saw them further diversify their penchant for synth-laden indie rock through aural experimentation. Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz shares his thoughts in a thick French accent. “When we wrote Wolfgang [Amadeus Phoenix, their critically acclaimed fourth LP from 2009] we were pretty sure it was an album that was going to be too weird to appeal to a lot of people… that it would reach very few people as it was too weird for a mainstream audience. When it dropped and it was so successful it was a very big surprise. When we began working on Bankrupt! we thought the best thing to do would be to use the exact same method, to write something without the aim of pleasing people but to create something that we’d be proud of. Something that would be weird and interesting to us. It was quite simple; we just followed the exact same strategy. We are trying to create emotion when we’re writing. We did a lot of different things. We did a lot of things that we’d never done before, which is what we’re always looking for, new adventures.”
While Bankrupt!, like its predecessor, has been lauded by critics worldwide, Brancowitz notes that the reception of Phoenix’s music plays a minute role in the creative process, and that the group pays little attention to critical reception. “For a very long time we found ourselves being compared to bands that we’ve never even heard of. Some of our best reviews have quite often been our negative ones, ones that are creative and make us think – that’s what we prefer, that’s what we like. I don’t think that critics’ reviews have any relationship [with] the quality of our work. I remember when I was 16, I was reading negative reviews of some albums [when] I realised they were just all wrong, that they missed it.”
Returning to Australia for the first time since 2011, when they performed as part of the now defunct Good Vibrations festival, Phoenix will embark on a run of headline performances at Future Music Festival alongside a pair of sideshows. “In the past year we’ve put in a lot of energy to enhance our performances. Our live shows are almost good enough,” laughs Brancowitz. “We have very high expectations of ourselves. We work very hard, and some of the best moments for us are when you’re almost there, and that’s where I think we’re at right now. Hopefully it’ll be perfect when we come to Australia. It’s more than just performing some songs, it’s more about generating emotion.”
“I don’t think that the goal has changed,” Brancowitz continues.“But I think that now we have higher expectations. We’re trying to give a really full performance, you know? It’s not just about the music. When we began touring Wolfgang we wanted to merge some of the ideas that we liked from other contemporary acts. It took us a few years to really figure out how to implement some of the ideas that we wanted to use. It took a lot of effort and time to merge those worlds together.”
One destination on Phoenix’s world map, however, has remained a highlight. “We’ve always loved performing in Australia. It was one of the first places in the world that really understood us. Not even just after touring our last album, but even the very first time that we toured, around 2005, we could feel that there was no misunderstanding, that people understood what we were trying to do. It was really not the case everywhere else in the world. We have a special bond with the audiences in Australia. When we visit next month I think that we will be at the peak of our creative forces. Visiting during the end of the Australian summer, leaving winter in Europe, everything about it should be great.”
Looking towards the future, Brancowitz sees the band returning to the studio a lot swifter than the four-year gap between Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and the latest album. “I think we’ll be getting back to work soon, maybe in the late spring; we want to start working on new material. We can feel that it’s now the right time to begin writing some new songs, to begin creating some new art. Right now we’re thinking about what kind of art we want to create, we’re thinking about what kind of studio we want to work in. I think it’s still maybe a little bit vague, but we’re getting some ideas and in a few months’ time I think we’ll be ready.”
FOUR THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT PHOENIX
1. While French is their first language, Phoenix only ever write and sing in English. This originally saw the band shunned from playing in its home country.
2. Before Laurent Brancowitz joined the band, he was in a group named Darlin’ with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who went on to become Daft Punk. The bands remain close friends and have made surprise performances together.
3. Lead singer Thomas Mars is married to Sofia Coppola, and the group provided music for her films Lost In Translation and Marie Antoinette.
4. On the band’s debut album United, bassist Deck d’Arcy’s mother and her choral society provide backing vocals for the track ‘Funky Squaredance’. The album also features contributions from Philippe Zdar of Cassius fame and Thomas Bangalter.
Phoenix play at Future Music Festival 2014 with Deadmau5, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Pharrell Williams, Hardwell, Eric Prydz and many more, at the Royal Randwick Racecourse on Saturday March 8. They also appear with World’s End Press at the Hordern Pavilion on Wednesday March 5. Bankrupt! out now through Glassnote/Liberator.