English music has been in decline for the best part of two-and-a-half decades, say Phoenix. That is a frank provocation from a French band who have spent 18 years artfully melting into the background. Especially given that we are sitting in a Nashville theatre steeped in country and honky-tonk music heritage, where neither Phoenix or the failure of British pop make obvious sense. But, “I have this theory,” says guitarist Laurent Brancowitz. “It happened just before Oasis and Blur, or it was the Radiohead thing; or it could be a combination of the two? But it just destroyed decades of greatness.” Exceptional outliers have come and gone through the sludge of bands that have dominated and limped on since, he adds, “but as a cultural movement that lasted since the early 60s at least …” There is a pause for a very Gallic oosh: “It’s been brutal stuff.”
Phoenix grew up on My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Serge Gainsbourg and Prince. Heady doses of British shoegaze and pervy sex filtered through in fits and starts on each of their last five albums, but have been whipped into frothy potency on Ti Amo. It’s their sixth and easily most optimistic record, underscored with love, hope and hedonism. The band’s obsession with subverting Californian soft rock still stands, as does the Parisian electro of which they were originators, but now it comes with flourishes of Italo-disco and FM pop.
“There was a moment when we wondered what was wrong with us,” says frontman Thomas Mars. “We were writing these carefree, joyful songs and the climate in Paris was the total opposite. It felt really strange and disconnected.” Work on Ti Amo began in the spring of 2014 in a converted opera house in the 3rd arrondissement; they clocked in from 10am to 6pm every weekday for the next two-and-a-half years. Mars would fly in from New York, where he lives, for about 10 days every month, until they wrapped it last Christmas. In that time, the city suffered three major terror attacks and France became a bellwether for debate on immigration, race, religion and national identity.
“It’s not escapism or denial,” insists Mars. “It was there all the time so I’m sure it’s in the music somewhere. When it comes to politics ... being in a band, being artsy, living in big cities, our opinions are pretty predictable. You know where we stand, we don’t have anything unique to bring to that table.” The political tension might have seeped in, but really Ti Amo is prime Phoenix: the soundtrack to what you might imagine Hockney’s pool parties to be like; the teenage abandon of John Hughes-ian summers; the mood of every Sofia Coppola film (literally – Mars married the film-maker in 2011 and Phoenix have featured on every Coppola film from Lost in Translation to The Beguiled.)
“It’s a weird contrast,” says Brancowitz. “But I think it’s a universal rule that when you’re in a world full of tension, the thing you create goes the opposite way.” France’s argument around Islam, for instance, elicits some very French exhaling. “The idea of the purity of French identity is just an illusion; it’s fantasy, it’s never existed, to believe in it is very stupid.” Brancowitz pauses: “I only feel a bit ashamed of saying it because it’s so obvious.”
The band were stuck in an airport waiting for a flight from Miami to LA when the French election results started coming in. Were they ever worried that Marine Le Pen would win?
“We were worried because we could feel there was a moment where the tables were turning,” says Mars.
“It’s a weird thing when the moral compass …” Brancowitz mimes a nosedive: “So the thing that’s supposed to be a bad look for candidates suddenly, in an alternate universe of moral values, becomes a plus.” The discussion moves obliquely around Trump. “For some people it’s a sign of being a cool outsider and it’s the same everywhere in the world. We know a lot of people feeling crushed by the establishment and the extreme crazy people. This is where our reasonable people are, crushed between the two.”
How do they explain the world to their children? Mars has two daughters, Romy and Cosima; bassist Deck D’arcy has a two-year old.
“The weird new feeling is a feeling of shame,” says Christian Mazzalai, guitarist and puppyish baby brother to Brancowitz. “It started with migrants, and you feel the helplessness and embarrassment for humanity, for all the things that happened, the fear.” Mazzalai was in the studio when the Bataclan was attacked in November 2015; he had to stay the night as the city went into lockdown.
The four invested in a studio supercomputer for Ti Amo; everything was recorded, filed and labelled, and put under Mazzalai’s stewardship. “I’m the master of the archive,” he laughs. “We recorded 5,000 pieces of music and it was all in colourful directions,” he says. “It was unpredictable because it was hard times in Paris and what we were doing felt like a selfish process, but it was healing.”
They’re nervous about the album and how the tour will pan out. “It looks simple but it adds up to a big headache and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves because we control everything,” says D’Arcy. A giant kaleidoscope stage mirror that has to assemble, mount and come down in minutes at festivals is one worry. Their portable merch vending machine that “we probably won’t make any money from” is another.
There has always been resistance to Phoenix in the UK, an unwarranted tendency to mark them down as twee or boring because they’re clever and down-to-earth and nice. And they are nice to everyone: the lady from the coach company managing their tour bus. The guy from YouTube. The executive from Spotify. The journalist from the Guardian, haranguing them at 2am post-show as to whether they want to be as big as, say, Nashville’s Kings of Leon. (“When we first started, maybe,” says Mars, “but look what happened to them.”)
“Rock stars are usually very stupid,” says Brancowitz before the show (sold out, with the setlist only written and decided 30 minutes before they went on stage). “Noel Gallagher is not a cliche rock star because he’s clever.” It’s safe to say Phoenix have never gone in for rock stardom of the dumb, drunk, lads-on-tour kind. Lairy obnoxiousness doesn’t sit well with them. “In England, you have these Academy venues where, as soon as you arrive, there is beer everywhere,” says Mars. “They want you to get wasted. Beyond the fact that it’s not even in our interests, it’s so corporate.”
What’s their idea of fun? “I really respect the magic of fermented wheat,” deadpans Brancowitz. “We have our own kind of hedonism, it’s different, probably more weird.”
On paper, they’re probably too cerebral for their own good. How, for example, to explain their 15-minute digression into Descarte’s theory of existence or the role of the artist to create space of freedom in people’s minds?
When Phoenix first arrived with their album United in 2000, they were lauded by style mag the Face and decreed a shambles by pretty much everyone else. “We got zero stars!” says Mars, of their early reviews, “which is much better than five or even 10 because it means you’re really disturbing someone.” D’arcy recalls one interview describing their music as chemotherapy. Which, at least, I suppose, is healing.
United was great, though: a bizarre mashup of genres from four schoolmates who grew up together in Versailles and, between them, are friends and onetime bandmates with Air and Daft Punk. Phoenix have never really got the credit they have deserved for the quiet impact they’ve had on the pop landscape. They have a tendency to release a buzzy album, follow it with something a bit stranger, get better, come back and go off-beam again. They are consistent only in the sense that their sound is still so signature.
It was their fourth album – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – that gave them a breakthrough and won them a Grammy and Coachella headliner status and made them the most blogged-about band of 2009. A classroom video of schoolkids singing Lizstomania went viral, magazine covers and US talkshow slots followed and suddenly it seemed that Phoenix had made it. “That fame lasts a day! If you’re on TV, you’ll be famous for a day in the street,” says Mars.
“Yes, I would say it was pretty manageable, we can still go buy bread in the boulangerie,” says Brancowitz, only mildly taking the piss. To have kept on that trajectory, Ti Amo is the album critics would have expected them to come up with next. Instead, Phoenix decided to test the goodwill invested in Wolfgang with Bankrupt! (2013), a harder, cynical commentary on moving from cult to commercial success. “Every one of our albums is a reaction to the last one,” says D’Arcy. “It’s the love of novelty ... I guess it’s childish.” Still, it got them an audience with one of their heroes, R Kelly, and the band had him on stage when they headlined Coachella in 2013. “Trapped in the Closet is a masterpiece. He’s a genius.” Problematic, though. “For sure, he pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable and sometimes went too far,” says Brancowitz. “But he has so many ideas in one song, some artists don’t have one idea – he has thousands. He talks about music and it’s like a tap comes on. For us, it would be like a year of work to just pick up what the sound of what he does in …” Brancowitz flips his hand. “He works constantly.”
The fans in Nashville later on are enthusiastic but restricted: there is no dancing in the aisles, and staff at the seated auditorium are searching everyone. “It would never be like this in Europe,” says D’arcy, “but then there are more weapons floating around here than there are birds.” Their performance, however, is undimmed; Phoenix are a band at the peak of their powers.