Deck D’Arcy has a theory. The Phoenix bassist thinks that, on the band’s fifth album, 2013’s Bankrupt!, they “lost the groove”. The French four-piece were at the height of their fame: 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix had bridged the gap between skinny-jeaned indie pop and festival tent EDM, vaulting d’Arcy and his bandmates – lead singer Thomas Mars and guitarist brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz, or Branco – to festival headliner status; their single 1901 was ubiquitous for what felt like years.
And yet, something had faltered; the groove, that alchemy, had dissipated. With a few years of touring and hard work, d’Arcy slowly started to feel it return. “We had it back on [2017’s] Ti Amo,” he says. “Nile Rodgers says you have to optimise the groove, and I think on this album” – Alpha Zulu, released yesterday – “we’re getting close.”
The proof is in the pudding. The simple, stupefyingly catchy bassline on Tonight, the band’s shimmering new collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, says Mars, is one of the best riffs ever: “I can say that, because I didn’t come up with it.”
He knows it’s good, in fact, because as with many of Phoenix’s best moments in the studio, the vibe was less like Bohemian Rhapsody (Mars singles out the scene in the Queen biopic where John Deacon is playing the bass “and Mercury’s like, ‘What is that!?’ – this is not reality”) and more like the Beatles’ Get Back documentary, in which some of the greatest hooks and lyrics of all time are met with apathy, boredom and, most importantly, yawns. “I yawn every 20 seconds when there’s a good idea,” says Mars, “because something in my body is rejecting the good idea.”
Phoenix have been making peerless pop for more than 20 years, which gives Mars and his brothers some serious authority on the realities of the creative process. Huddled together in the sterile control room of a studio in London, Mars, d’Arcy, Mazzalai and Brancowitz are the picture of a functioning family unit, communicating in gestures and nods, finishing each other’s sentences and jumping in to add detail to each other’s points. Although few of them live in the same city any more – d’Arcy and Mazzalai live in Paris, while Branco lives in Rome and Mars lives in New York with his wife, the director Sofia Coppola – they still seem to have a truly tight bond; they may not be the same twentysomethings they were on their early tours, cramming four beds together in a single hotel room to create a kind of clubhouse, but they’re clearly just as close. Sitting with the quartet, it is tempting to just lean back and listen to them digress into in-jokes and riffs – about French radio stations, British accents and their coverage in the press. (A common title for Phoenix profiles: “Phoenix rises from the flames,” says Branco.)
They are ultra-polite and great company – Mazzalai effusive and cartoonishly wide-eyed; d’Arcy quiet and wry; the witty, weary Branco, clad in a Phoenix-branded work jacket; Mars erudite, sweet and a little acidic. All four members balance a bookish sense of humour with the kind of jokes you’d expect from a bunch of middle-aged dads. Hours after our interview, I run into Mazzalai, d’Arcy and Branco at central London’s St Pancras station, buying crisps and packaged poké bowls in a rush-hour-busy Marks & Spencer; at least two of the three crack some kind of joke about stowing me in their suitcases.
This affability and shared sense of humour is perhaps why, more than two decades in, Phoenix are making some of the most dizzyingly fabulous music of their career. Alpha Zulu, the band’s seventh album, is an eccentric career highlight that serves as a vivid reminder of what made them one of the most in-demand bands in the world in the early 2010s. It is a sad record – it was made soon after the passing of producer, and member of the pioneering house duo Cassius, Philippe Zdar, one of the band’s closest collaborators and friends – and a euphoric one, the tactility of EDM and dance-punk adding heft to the album’s most memorable moments.
Every Phoenix record, says Mars, is a reaction to the previous one – Bankrupt!, a cynical, satirical response to the success of the Grammy-winning Wolfgang; the gooey, romantic Ti Amo, a softly lit counterpoint to its disenchanted predecessor. But “the motive,” says d’Arcy, “has always been to be free and independent.” That central tenet was instilled in them in the 90s: friends in the French dance scene were signing to labels and quickly finding success; at the same time, Mars notes, “it was exactly when Prince was writing ‘slave’ on his face”.
“Daft Punk, they gave us the keys, because they released one album before us,” says Mazzalai. The father of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter was in the industry; he had advised his son’s ascendant duo on how to maintain integrity, and did the same for Phoenix. “We had a meeting with him and he told us to protect your copyright, to protect yourself, all these concrete details and tips not to be a slave of your label.”
That advice has helped the band amass a body of work that is uniquely, distinctly Phoenix. Wolfgang – which featured the singles Lisztomania and 1901, the latter of which went platinum in the US – dramatically changed the trajectory of the band’s career, but not their sound. Even as those songs became ubiquitous and Phoenix began to skirt the edges of household-name recognition, the band still stuck to their tried-and-tested process of meeting up, assembling some kind of makeshift studio, and chipping away at their ideas until they’d sculpted something resembling an album. They did it that way in the early years, when they were recording in a basement in Mars’s parents’ house in Versailles, and they did it that way in 2020 when, under lockdown in Paris, they decamped to the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs to record Alpha Zulu.
It has always been in Phoenix’s sights, says Branco, to record somewhere so rich in cultural history. “When we walk in the street and we see a nice building, I always personally think it’s unfair – we should be there,” he says with a joking smile. “We avoid recording studios, because they’re always very, very” – he gestures around the cold, blankly designed studio we’re currently speaking in – “boring.”
As it happened, he knew someone who worked at the Louvre. “A long time ago, I was in a yoga class – and I was the worst yogi in the world, because I’m not that flexible,” Branco recalls. In the class, he struck up a friendship with the woman who would later become a director of the Louvre’s decorative arts wing. When the band were looking for a studio, he called her up, and it turned out that she was looking for artists to take up residencies in the museum. “In yoga, you know – it’s eternal, the friendship.”
Recording in the museum provided “the right kind of pressure”, says Mars. During recording breaks, they would wander the museum, gazing at Napoleon’s giant gold throne and eavesdropping on the staff’s union gossip; they were given tours of restoration studios and demonstrations on the minutiae of preserving artefacts. “We witnessed all the people working on very tiny details of restoring things – using wood from this area, [giving] attention to detail on a thing that almost nobody will see,” says Branco. “The world was collapsing, and some people were trying to find the exact pigment to do retouching on paintings, spending, like, one month on it. We could see that it was the right thing to do, even if it was absurd. It was very inspiring.”
Decamping to the Louvre to record an album is, perhaps, an almost cartoonishly French thing to do. From an English-speaking perspective, Phoenix do seem to provide a kind of shorthand for modern French culture, given their proclivity for skintight trousers and sweaters and fondness for lyrics that combine the sensual and the gastronomic. I ask about whether they feel there’s any truth in the debate, propagated by writers like Michel Houellebecq, that French culture is in decline – and whether they believe a French band would still be able to break through in the way that Phoenix and Daft Punk did in the 2000s.
“Every political cycle, France has an existential crisis – I’m gonna get political, it’s OK,” Mars says, looking over at Mazzalai, who has slumped down in his seat. “He’s worried.”
Anything that tries to stoke a fear of French culture’s decline, Mars says, is “clickbait”. “I think Houellebecq is just going for a very easy route that will make him sell books,” he says. For Phoenix, a band largely operating outside France, their Frenchness is constantly being affirmed. “In Arkansas, where we were four days ago, you’re constantly reminded of your [being] French, because they hear your accent and sometimes people have never seen a European.”
Adds Branco: “We are in pop music, and France has always been a kind of third-world country, if I may say so, on this level. In the level of literature, theatre, France used to be on top – but [in pop] we are in a different world where we are kind of outsiders, not losing power. I’m sure that if someone great comes from France, it will have a big echo – like, who could have imagined Korean music to be popular worldwide; like, 10 years ago it was impossible to imagine. Now everything is possible, which is great.”
Although the songs on Alpha Zulu still fizz and sparkle, the pandemic seems to have made Phoenix a more introspective band. Mars has always been an unassumingly incisive lyricist, but his words have never been as deftly affecting as they are on Alpha Zulu. Here, he contemplates the passing of time and the fracturing of intimate relationships with a gaze that’s alternately cryptic and poetic. On Winter Solstice, the record’s aching centrepiece, fragments of an argument rise through a pulsating neon glow: “I’m trying to make a living / Is that something you don’t mind? / Fine / Do you ever think it could have been in our lifetime?”
“That’s my speciality – I would need a few hours in therapy to explain,” Mars says, when I ask about this record’s preoccupation with the passing of time.
“He’s obsessed about this – he’s a Proustian,” says Branco fondly. “I remember when his first daughter was born, one of the first things he said [was that] he was imagining when she would be like 17 and leaving home. She wasn’t even there [and] he was already thinking about the future.”
Adding to that preoccupation, of course, was Zdar’s recent death. Alpha Zulu is one of only three Phoenix albums to not feature Zdar’s touch, and the first since 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That. Still, his spirit was there, guiding the band through difficulties, his voice ringing in their heads whenever they needed advice. “When we were trying to convince one another that an idea was good, [we would say] ‘But he would have said that too,’” says Branco. “It’s very hard for us to grasp the fact that he passed, and in a way he didn’t for us. His personality was very strong, and he leaves a legacy of a lot of people who are kind of his disciples – so he’s always there. I think he’s stronger than death.”
Towards the end of recording, the band felt they needed someone who knew Zdar to listen to the album – to drift in the way Zdar himself would have, and provide the all-too-necessary fifth opinion – so they asked Daft Punk’s Bangalter, an old friend, to come in and hear what they had been working on. “I think he realised that it was his duty,” says Branco.
Bangalter himself speaks of it as an honour. “I must admit it was deeply moving for me when they asked me to come and listen to all the songs and share my opinion,” he tells me via email. “They told me they needed an extra set of ears they could trust, from the outside. I accepted, as I love them, but deep inside my thoughts were with Philippe. It was his role – not mine.
“When I arrived to their studio, it seemed to me all of us intimately tried our best to transform the sorrow of his absence into a joyful afternoon. It was a constructive discussion and laughter between (almost) lifelong friends listening to great music. We had the best time that day.”
You can hear Zdar’s influence all over Alpha Zulu – which, in many ways, feels like a tribute to the sound he helped Phoenix perfect on Wolfgang – not least in the album’s closer, Identical, which seems to echo the kind of advice he might have given the band: “I’m no prophet, I’m your friend / Take my advice, make your mistakes.”
“Zdar would have the strength to fight against the four of us for hours and hours,” says Mazzalai.
“It’s hard for one man to fight the machine,” Branco adds, before his brother interjects: “The four-headed monster.”
Alpha Zulu is out now. Phoenix play 02 Academy Brixton, London, on 16 November.