Success is not projectable. Although some might try hard to do it there’s no universal answer to it. It’s a mixture of different aspects and it looks like French pop band PHOENIX experienced each and every aspect of it when they finally made their breakthrough a few years ago. It was the right time, the right songs and they’ve already worked ten years to come that far. With this year’s long awaited fifth longplayer Bankrupt! the French guys celebrate success. And they clearly deserve it.
Right before their euphoric concert in Berlin NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION talked with guitarist Christian Mazzalai about the burden of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band’s very unique work ethics and a few more things.
So, I recently re-watched “Lost In Translation.” Due to Thomas’ marriage with Sofia Coppola it’s obvious why PHOENIX landed on the soundtrack for all of her movies. I wonder – do you have any plans or ambitions to do a full movie score as a band one day?
Yeah. We have many ideas but it has to come naturally. I mean we got a book full of memories, sketches and ideas. We trust the karma.
Any favourite movie genre you would love to score?
I would love to do music for an animal documentary. When we grew up we watched Jacques Cousteau and we were very fascinated by the TV show he had. And the music in it was really good so I could imagine us doing such an aquatic movie score.
It took PHOENIX almost ten years to finally breakthrough internationally. Quite fascinating about it is the fact that you never really changed your sound much over the years. Do you already have an explanation for the sudden success?
Hmmm, success is something that is very hard to understand. It’s quite unpredictable which makes it also somehow beautiful. What helped is that it was not about certain songs but the sound in general. We played so many small venues and they just got bigger and bigger each time we played.
Was there a specific moment when you thought: “Damn, we made it.”?
(laughs) I can’t really tell ’cause it happened a lot. Even when we played our first show ever as band in a small club. Or even when we recorded our first album we were like “We made it.” Once we invited J Masics from DINOSAUR JR. to play with us and this clearly was one of the moments where I thought, we made it.
But it feels a bit like justice in the end?
Maybe but again, not really. It’s not our motor. It’s about progress and experiencing new things. But the good thing is that we now have the cards in our hands and we are free to do whatever we want to. And having achieved something like this is quite cool.
What has mainly changed for you since the success of “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”?
Less time probably. (laughs) It’s true, the schedule is pretty tight and it’s really crazy. And we have more tools to play with. On this tour we have a huge screen, for example, which allows us to project videos and visuals. Very expansive but very good – a pure luxury for us. All the money we earn on this tour we put it directly into lights. But we really don’t care since it is something we had in our minds ever since we wrote the album.
PHOENIX: “Having a boring routine is something that traumatizes us”
You as a band had your time to grow naturally over the years. And you clearly must have felt a bit pressure with “Bankrupt!” Do you agree that it’s harder for new bands these days? They can’t dare a flop without getting dropped by their label.
All the great artists I like – DYLAN or BOWIE – they had flopped records in their career and I really love these records too. We’re cool with it; we can live with the pressure. We’re not afraid but I agree that it became harder for new bands.
I read somewhere that you guys have a very unique form of composing. A very natural way that only works between the four of you. Can you explain it to us?
Songwriting is a process. And the more we grow up the more mysterious it gets between us. For every album we try to find a new formula. It’s about finding the perfect equation. And once it’s found and the album is done we get bored of it and try out new things. Usually it takes us one year to find the right way to write a new album. A very slow and long process. Twelve hours a day, the four of us in a room. And what we normally do is – we don’t really play, we talk a lot. We’ve been friends since we were kids and with friends you can talk about everything. (laughs)
Yes, and it has to do with luck as well. Many of our favourite songs came by luck. Our first ideas are always a bit predictable and so we try to avoid this. We basically record everything on a shitty recorder and listen to it again after a certain break and then we work on it.
You just mentioned these specific writing strategies for each album. What was the strategy behind the latest album?
I would say we did a crazy ‘collage-jigsaw-puzzle’-concept for it. We had categories for certain verses and parts. We wrote them all separately. In the end every track is basically consisting of five or six different ideas. Probably one reason why the songs are so complex.
I can imagine there’s plenty of material left from these sessions.
Oh yes, hours and hours.
Any plans on releasing it?
We’re planning to release a deluxe version of Bankrupt! where you have over one hour of extra material. More than seventy tracks, or better said, sketches.
Are you one of those bands who are already recording new material on tour?
We might try it on this tour. But usually we’re not good in it. Because if you want to write songs you need to – I don’t know – take the subway, enjoy normal life and everything. At least, that’s our theory. But for the first time we’re trying it ’cause we never done it. So, we have our little studio backstage and see what will come out of it.
We’re ending with our question about hope and passion. What are the moments in your musical life in which passion becomes sensible?
Passion is to be always there. It’s the key thing for us. And believe me; we saw so many bands live on tour who weren’t passionate at all. Having a boring routine is something that traumatizes us. When it comes to feel it I would say there are two intense moments. One is when we play live. Sometimes this is beyond the music and too good to be true. And the other one is in the studio. When we find a new sound and idea after hours, weeks or months without inspiration. Within the two or three minutes this happens we feel like the kings of the world. And after that it’s back to reality. (laughs)