Here’s a fact that might make you question the space-time continuum: The French indie-pop band Phoenix has been putting out albums for more than 20 years.
To quote Keanu in The Matrix: “Whoa.” In your mind, it’s possible that Phoenix only dates back to their 2009 commercial breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Or maybe you got on board when the earworms from 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That started sneaking into commercials. You certainly wouldn’t peg Phoenix as a middle-aged indie band by looking at lead singer Thomas Mars, who has scarcely aged a day since the band dropped their 2000 debut United. Back then, he was a boyishly handsome French dude crooning frisky electro-rock tunes in a convincing American accent. And here he is, on the forthcoming Alpha Zulu (due Friday), still sounding like a boyishly handsome French dude, even with his 46th birthday looming later this month.
While Spoon is normally pegged as indie’s requisite “mind-numbingly consistent rock band,” Phoenix is another strong contender for that distinction. Over the course of seven albums, they have perfected a breezy sonic template that is one part sleek Strokes-ian guitar rock and one-part mathematically precise synth-pop, and infused with a thoroughly stylish sensibility that derives from their country of origin.
It’s a sound that seems effortless upon first listen, but clearly is not. As Mars and bandmate Laurent Brancowitz explained during a recent interview, Phoenix albums tend to be as difficult to make as they are easy to enjoy. When asked to do an overview of their discography, the word “pain” came up several times. But as we’ll see, the journey has been worth it.
Thomas Mars: We were struggling to find our place a little bit. It was a tense time because we had so many ideas of how it should sound like, and it’s impossible in reality to make it exactly the way you imagine it. It would be sad if you could exactly imagine how it should be. It never works this way. So it was tense. It was sleepless nights trying to understand how we could keep this under our control. And it was pressure because studios were really expensive. We didn’t have that much money. We were on a budget. Ultimately it was resolved because Philippe Zdar came to the rescue and mixed this album with us.
Laurent Brancowitz: We were swimming upstream at that time. We were fighting the whole universe just to achieve this thing we had in mind. I think nowadays we would know who we could turn to to make it sound the way we wanted to sound. But back then it felt that nobody was doing it and that the whole world would be a kind of conspirator to prohibit us from realizing this dream.
TM: We all watched the same documentary about the making of Sgt. Pepper. That documentary was sort of the ideal version of what a studio life is like. It was not their first record, obviously, but there were at a moment where experimentation turned out to make new classics. So we set the bar a little too high, I think. We didn’t have George Martin.
LB: This one was the hardest to make.
TM: Pure pain.
LB: For a year we were stuck. It became almost crazy working on one or two songs for ages. We were kind of lost in the difficulty of a second album. For a long time we were in a dark cave and at some point it was becoming dangerous. The turning point was when we finished a song that we had recorded in a big studio in Paris, and we realized it was really bad. We threw it away and suddenly things became so much easier. There was this long process of creation and destruction.
TM: The way we work, there’s a lot of entropy. It’s a testament to having something that’s a little bit timeless. You listen to it for a few years to see if it will pass the test of time. I think we figured this out more than ever on Alphabetical because we spent so much time with the songs. It took a long time to just be able to turn this into a record that you can listen to.
Usually we go in the studio and have demos that are the first ideas. The songs are almost there and if you don’t complete them right away, the rest of the task is the tallest mountain to climb. Also, reproducing the charm of the demo is really hard to do, and it took us many years to know what decision to make. Sometimes you keep the first take on certain things.
It’s Never Been Like That (2006)
LB: The Berlin record.
TM: It felt like shooting a movie. We were on location for two or three months, and living in an apartment that was very strange. It was a set for a reality TV show — a cooking show — that didn’t happen. The kitchen was huge and the bedrooms were tiny. We never ate one meal in that kitchen because we were eating at the studio.
LB: We try to record in a space — a physical space but also a mental space. It’s connected in our memories to a specific collection of images. I’m very sad for the Beatles who recorded everything in Abbey Road because I’m sure everything is melted together.
We did it in an old abandoned radio station. The place was very beautiful and very eerie. It was like ghosts walking in there. Also, it was a moment of change in our lives. Thomas was very much in love, I remember. So there was this energy, I think you can hear it in the record. We did it in the smallest amount of time. When we went to Berlin we had zero written and zero music. A few months later, I think it was, the album was finished.
TM: We couldn’t go back home and not think of the record. We were all with each other all the time. I think that’s why the record was done so quickly. We had to figure out the puzzle day and night and we never took a break from it.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
TM: We changed management, record companies, everything. We started this record with no one holding our hand. There were these four songs that we had — “1901,” “Lisztomania,” “Lasso,” and “Armistice,” I think — and we would play them for managers. We saw that these four songs had something special right away. If they didn’t want to sign us on their label, we knew they had no taste.
It was exciting but it was also painful, because the brothers were losing their dad at the time. It was the beginning of adult life in a way, with responsibilities and losses coming into our lives.
LB: It was both painful and joyful. When you are a musician, every song is like a puzzle. Those songs, I think, we served them in an elegant way.
TM: We were really confident. I was convinced that “Lisztomania” would be the way bigger song than “1901.” But it was really “1901” that caught people’s attention, especially in the U.S. And “Lisztomania” became a hit after.
LB: It was a moment where the world was changing and with the internet and blogs. The power came back to the people and all those gatekeepers, the big radio stations that rule the world, they were kind the disappearing. It felt good.
TM: As soon as there’s a recipe, we get rid of it. At some point we talked about Bankrupt! being “Ludwig Von Phoenix” — that was the thing that we should not do, “Ludwig Von Phoenix.” So we were going as far as possible from that.
LB: It’s a bit cynical. There’s more acid. We knew people would listen to it, so we felt a responsibility to be as demanding as possible. I don’t know why. It’s a strange psychological move. But those songs are really dense and with lots of layers.
TM: Yeah, there’s many, many layers.
LB: Deck was always arguing, “It’s too complicated guys.” And we were resisting but I think in the end he was right. Even we have trouble remembering every song.
TM: I was in the U.S. and I missed the first three days of mixing. When I came I was like, “I should have never missed the beginning of this.” It seemed clear that Phillippe was going one way and Deck was going one other way and that it was hard to reconcile both their opinions. So yeah, it’s an album we didn’t enjoy making as much.
Ti Amo (2017)
TM: Our first concept album. It had a theme and it had a very strong visual cue. It’s one of our most playful records. I have good memories of being at the center of Paris and the museum making this album.
LB: It’s a very sweet record and very nostalgic.
TM: It was also tainted because when we were there, the terrorist attack happened in Paris. There was a slight pause where we thought about whether making music was worth it. We’re not essential workers so it felt like it wasn’t the time for music. Then we realized it’s the only thing we know how to contribute. If you are not an essential worker, you either become one or you might as well be an epicurean.
Alpha Zulu (2022)
TM: Every album we make is a reaction to previous one. As we were digging into this one, we realized that we were putting the songs that had the least in common together. We tried to open the spectrum as much as possible and make a little bit of a Frankenstein. It’s similar to United because we played with all musical styles and genres on the record. It has this playfulness and this idea that you stretch the fabric as much as you can. Also, the pandemic gave us time to be inspired again because we didn’t see each other for a long time. It just hit the reset button a little bit more than with the previous albums.
LB: I resisted bringing in Ezra Koenig. I resisted a lot. It’s not because I don’t love this guy. Tell me one classic song that is a duet.
TM: The idea that two people coming together will make a song better is not necessarily true.
LB: Thomas always wants to invite someone to just change the timbre. And we are always resisting.
TM: He is a friend that’s intimate enough that he can say no. That was the key thing. That’s the reason why we didn’t involve anyone before. I know him enough so that he doesn’t have to say yes.
LB: We try to avoid studios because they are very vanilla. We are always looking for something a bit special. I look at buildings and I always think, That would be a nice studio. But some old insurance company owns it. I always feel that it’s very unfair that all those great buildings are just filled with the boring institutions. But the Louvre, in the center of Paris, it’s amazing. So that was the ultimate spot in Paris. When I looked for an apartment to rent, I wanted to be in working distance of the Louvre. So when this opportunity appeared to record, it was too good to be true almost.
TM: If you’d open a window, there would be someone coming in the studio five seconds later to make sure that no one was coming to steal anything. But they let us build a studio inside the museum. And not only we were living a dream that we pictured as teenagers, but then the pandemic hits. So all of a sudden we were on our own in this place. It was very surreal.