From the Funky Mofo archives: March 2004. Phoenix releases the follow-up to United, Alphabetical.
May 2004. Phoenix headlines a British tour. They previously supported Scissor Sisters in the UK last April. Now is their turn to shine. We met Laurent Brancowitz, aka Branco, and Deck D’Arcy before their Bristol gig for a chat and much more than that!
Céline: You are French and I know a lot of French artists get a lot of stick for using the English language, I don’t care personally as I am an ex-pat, but why do you use English to sing, why not French? It’s a bit of boring question, I’m sorry…
Deck: Yes actually, yes! (He laughs.)
C: Ok, next! Have you lived abroad, is that something that you’ve done that could explain the use of another language?
D: No, but no one, except me, in the band is really French. Everybody is half-German or half-Italian, sometimes Italian and German and I am the only one who is French so why not English, why not French, why not? It’s one of the reason and because also English is easier to work with, with the music.
C: It’s fair enough! Who writes the lyrics?
D: Everybody’s supposed to write them.
Branco: It’s a team effort.
C: Where do you get your inspiration from? (Pause. The guys are thinking about the question.) Another boring question…
B: No, it’s not boring but it’s tough! It’s more a texture for life rather than a specific event, it’s what we’re able to express. Be as close as possible to these little vibes.
C: When we were preparing for this interview, listening to the album, we were thinking “Alphabetical” is a very pop-like record, but unfortunately this term has been stigmatised, it is now generally used to describe music that is very bland, very “menthe à l’eau” and you don’t do that sort of music! I’m tempted to say the album is very structured, it seems there has been a lot of thought behind the production, the construction of the music, the construction of the vocals. It’s very refreshing to have that sort of angle to pop music.
D & B: You got it! To us Pop is a four-letter word, no actually it’s three, but it’s an insult (Branco chuckles), because to us it means something that’s like “No Peace” but if you take Pop as a section, Popular Music, then we fit into that, into a bigger picture like popular music of the 20th century. But we don’t want to do Pop like Dido or…
C: Britney Spears?
B: Like who?
C: Yes, exactly!
B: She’s not my cup of tea but she has good producers, she’s a puppet on a string and sometimes the puppeteers are talented, but they are puppeteers.
C: I think we lost what Popular music is really about, like the music that was created in the Sixties and the Seventies and we started to lose sight of it in the Eighties, not saying that 80’s music is shit…
B: We do!
C: No, there was some good stuff about, remember A-Ha? Seriously the mood in the music then was a reaction against the Pop of that time, hence a music that was very cold, very dark, very anything really but Pop! Phoenix is sort of going back from that. Whenever I listen to the album I think Jacques Dutronc…
C: Serge Gainsbourg sometimes…
B: Strange but interesting!
D: We love Serge Gainsbourg, I don’t think it’s a direct inspiration, or that you can feel it directly in the music but if you really know Serge Gainsbourg you can find something. It’s not obvious.
C: It depends who you talk to really, to the English Gainsbourg is the guy who wrote “Je t’aime moi non plus”, it doesn’t go pass that, “a French womaniser type guy”, “Yeah, yeah, sexy French guy, cool!”. I always find myself saying “Well, no, it’s not actually like that!”. Anyway, do you hope for Phoenix to follow a similar career (as Serge’s in terms of lyrical and musical ideas)?
B: Serge Gainsbourg had a good career, he had always made sense in what he did except for the last ten years maybe. Everybody seemed to have lost something in the Eighties, I don’t know what it is, it’s like they have forgotten everything, the rules of good songs…
Jo: Just doing it for money I guess, the Eighties were money-driven!
B: That’s right!
The conversation then moves on to the visual side of music, that is videos and soundtracks. We mentioned the recent Daft Punk work for Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555 and whether Phoenix would be considering working on a similar project…
B: Not really! The problem with videos is that it puts something very specific, very obvious on the music. I like it when there is space to be filled by the audience, by me as a listener, I like when it’s not that clear. So much so that, when we do videos, we try to be abstract.
C: The duration of the album is quite short, about 40 minutes.
D: We’re not the kind of guys that estimate an album according to its length. Some of the albums out there are sometimes 20 minutes too long. We’d rather cut that out and be 100% satisfied with our work.
C: And it seems to work. I get to the end of Alphabetical and my reaction is always “Right, let’s play it again then!”
B: We like it when it’s concise, no useless blah blah. Every single part of each song has to have a meaning, but it’s very easy to make it last. We find pleasure only when we’re able to grab the listeners and bring them straight to the point.
C: Alphabetical was recorded partly in a basement in Paris and partly in a studio in Los Angeles. Why?
D: We went to L.A. because we wanted to work with Tony Hoffer and he lives there!
C: You fancied a bit of a holiday under the California sun?
D: No, it wasn’t like that at all! It was real hard work actually. That way we also avoided last year’s european Heatwave. (Clever insertion of their first single here! Ndr.) We met Tony a few years ago and we talked to him about our problems to find a mixer, it is hard for us to let go of our work. We are four guys with strong views and opinions about our music, we know what we want and we know how we want it done. So it’s always difficult to know before you work with someone whether you have found the right person but Tony understood what we wanted.
B: Even though he only joined us for the very last step that is mixing tracks.
C: You’ve also collaborated with Roman Coppola on two videos (Funky Squaredance and Everything is Everything). How did it happen?
D: Well, Air worked with his sister Sofia for the “Virgin Suicides” soundtrack and introduced us to her. The rest is history!
B: It was one of these things that Life throws at you, you meet the people you are meant to meet.
Thereafter follows an exchange about whether the future exists and family ties, and throughout this “highly spiritual” debate we find out that the band named themselves after a chinese restaurant. The discovery was sparked when Jo mentioned being in a band at school called Phoenix. And the interviewers became the interviewees!
D: So why did you choose that name?
J: We were in a History lesson and we were looking at the atlas, so nothing mythological here. Going through names of places and we saw Phoenix and thought “That has another meaning too, let’s call ourselves that!” and then you guys came along!
The sound on Alphabetical manages to combine both artificial and organic production, with electronic beats on most of the tracks, as it happened on United, and very natural vocals, sometimes layered for extra depth. Deck tells us that there is no strong concept on how songs are being created, most of them are the results of “happy accidents” in the studio. Which is what brings the interest for them in being in a band, they enjoy the discovery process as much as the performing process. For Phoenix ideas spring and let themselves being moulded at will, without seemingly following any rules. Branco confesses that “there are rules but we don’t know them, although we do have strong rules, it isn’t like total chaos within the band, we care about proportions, about not knowing why it’s working but somehow it is.” Thomas, Christian, Branco and Deck have known each other for a long time. They met at primary school and developed a strong intimacy over the years which enables them to understand their needs and desire and transcribe it into Phoenix’s music without even having to word it out. They know their limits, their ability within the band and the areas they do not wish to explore. And it feels like that knowledge results to a very happy marriage or maybe that their four brains all melted into one. It makes very little surprise then that their first album was titled “United”! So if you wonder where to start with Phoenix, “I can tell you the order’s Alphabetical”!
C.B Lux & Jo Whitby