Hours before the show, the cozy backstage area is still very quiet, almost sleepy. It is slowly getting dark outside on this cold November afternoon while warm lights gently flow through the spacious room. Moments later, subtle laughter and lighthearted conversations fill the corridor in the distance. Phoenix arrive – clearly in good spirits. Bienvenue à Berlin!
Getting comfortable on the big sofa, Thomas Mars and Laurent Brancowitz attentively scan the room while quickly throwing the original plan of the interview overboard with Thomas suggesting “We do half of the interview…and you two do the next four hours” directed at Christian Mazzalai and Deck d’Arcy with a twinkle in his eye. The proposal is happily agreed upon while Christian serves hot coffee and remembers our previous conversations on press days many years ago. Meanwhile, Thomas quietly notices the sweets in front of him: “Ah, there is always candy in Germany. And it’s always cold!”. Making it a sweet return for the band indeed.
No funny business
Seven albums into their career, there is no way of talking about Phoenix without acknowledging their still unimpaired artistic integrity guiding them truthfully on their new album Alpha Zulu. No funny business anywhere near the four thoughtful and polite band members who – each individually – kick off our conversation with a disarming nonchalance. Branco admitting:
“Artistic integrity – that was our only goal when we started making this album. We were obsessed with the idea of preserving it” , while Thomas adds: “Our record label is called LOYAUTÉ. So loyalty. It was always all about that from the beginning.”
Perfectly completing each others thoughts while talking, Thomas and Branco continue to share their views on what it means to hold onto their artistic integrity even with the music business becoming more and more fast-paced and predictable these days as Thomas remarks, choosing his words carefully:
“Once people understand what makes a successful recipe, especially record companies, they will try to copy it and I guess these days, the successful recipe is called tiktok. Once they understand what makes a song popular on tiktok, every song will sound the same. I do love when a transition happens and it does feel like we are in a transitioning moment now…the era of the CD and streaming was exciting. Now we are in the middle of streaming and tiktok that are competing with each other.”
What happened to mystique?
Without a doubt, Phoenix have noticed a lot of changes since forming the band in the mid-90s. Adjusting to the latest trends and dynamics on their creative journey has never been in their nature, though. Thankfully. Competing with tiktok statistics couldn’t be further from their idea of making music together, but they certainly don’t take their rather comfortable position for granted as Branco says:
“We have reached a point where our ‘business model’ is sustainable because we play a lot of shows, but for young artists starting out this is all a bit worrying and…hard.”
Mostly because “everything is trying to go against the mystique, you know”, Thomas explains, “as kids when we grew up we never heard Prince’s voice speaking. All the information about him, everything was so mysterious and that was lovely. Today, we are in an age of exposure. An over-exposure of everything…we sound like old men…back in the 18th century!”
The age of algorithms
Pardon? If at all, ‘old’ men with a good taste and love for art. And the firm belief to invite a whole lot of mystique into their makeshift studio that they set up in the Musée des Art Décoratifs to record their latest album Alpha Zulu. Right inside the north-western wing of the Louvre Palace in Paris. Surrounded by famous artworks and incredible collections as far as the eye could see.
“Back in the day, all you had was the newspaper. A way of losing time. It was 24 pages whereas now, you just scroll down on your phone and it is a bottomless feed. Personally, I feel like I’m becoming more stupid with every month”, Branco describes the numbing effect of modern times. Thomas’ mobile phone quietly buzzing in his pocket as we speak – almost as if it was time to protest one more time before being switched off.
In times of algorithms and overabundance, it only felt natural for Phoenix to head the other way on Alpha Zulu. To a place where they could truly focus on their intuition, undeniable chemistry and musicianship rather than worrying about expectations and questionable constructs dictating how music ‘works’. Alpha Zulu is a reminder that spontaneity and a rather simple approach can be the most healthy way to deal with the current circus that is the music business:
“There are 45,000 new songs every day so you can’t – in a lifetime – hear the amount of music that is produced in a single month. I’m sure it does something your mental health. It is not about quality anymore. In the age of algorithms, it is all about curated playlists. You need curators and guides where AI is telling you what you need to listen to. I admit, sometimes, the algorithm is a good one. Sometimes though, I want mistakes to happen”.
When in Berlin … more art!
Mistakes are part of life. Every day, human decisions fail us to some degree. Human emotions get in the way. Hidden doors open and the element of surprise comes in. Because Phoenix like to be surprised and simply can’t get enough of great art, their recent tour stop in Berlin was the perfect excuse to visit the Gemäldegalerie for a few hours. Also the home of Botticelli’s painting ‘Madonna col Bambino mediante otto angeli’ (1748) that they borrowed for their most recent cover artwork for Alpha Zulu, which Phoenix finally saw right in front of their eyes for the very first time. This trip being another opportunity to fall in love with even more paintings and sculptures with Thomas and Branco both immediately swooning over this shared experience:
“It was a perfect day. It was snowing outside”, says Thomas, while Branco adds that “it really was like falling in love. This Donatello exhibition, we saw. It was crazy. I had goosebumps so many times”. Neurobiologists have confirmed the theory that looking at great art stimulates the brain in the same way as when we fall in love. So why not do it in the comfort of your own home, too? Affectionately looking at Branco, Thomas tells us:
“Branco has a very interesting collection. Every time we talked over zoom during the pandemic, I would discover a few new things in the background. What I like about his art collection is that he only collects things that are of real value to him, but not necessarily to everyone else.”
“Usually, valuable artworks belong to people with money, big institutions or insurance companies. They sort of dictate what art should be. There is so much art that is similar to each other. Like when you drive on Park Avenue in New York, all the buildings there display the same kind of art.” – Thomas Mars
A celebration of friendship
Not in Branco’s home though, as Branco states: “I like Japanese silkscreen prints, the ones where you see modern warships. I like these kind of things and art brut – everything from people that work outside of the regular art world. I would love to have some pieces from the Gemäldegalerie, too. In Paris, all the amazing places are owned by banks, insurance companies or the state…mostly boring people and we always thought, that’s where we should have our studio and we made it happen with this album. We were outside the Louvre looking at this place thinking, we wished we had a studio there.”
What once was only a vague idea soon became the band’s retreat during the pandemic. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs being the perfect refuge for Phoenix to playfully try out ideas, get together and simply take it from there. The true value of their artistic outcome only being rooted in the act of creating something together. A celebration of friendship while the world outside was turned upside down and everything was in limbo. The vast amount of art in such close proximity did not cause the four band members to feel intimidated, but instead, made them feel very much at home as Thomas explains:
“What we loved about working at the Musée des Art Décoratifs was the fact that we met people there that were obsessed about the same things. Doing something they feel they have to make – and not just thinking about the outcome. The concept of value in art, it should be like looking at the holy grail. You should feel humble. Coming back to artistic integrity that we discussed before, I think that is the best way to keep it together as a band for seven albums. Being obsessed about what we do – and about our own music.”
A different flavour
Time does fly by when Phoenix passionately share their perceptions and most recent experiences of working on new music. With Christian and Deck already taking a peek into the room after thirty minutes, they announce it is time for a swift change of who gets to sit on the sofa and do the talking from now on. Casually moving forward with the conversation “now we are about to have a different flavour”, as Christian amusingly puts it.
And it is no empty promise. Eloquently picking up the conversation by telling an ancient story from Chinese history only moments later. A tale about the playfulness of the moment and ultimately, the difficulty of capturing a certain spark. Drawing parallels to the way Phoenix tend to work together to this day:
“We are trying not to understand what are doing because we are afraid to lose the spark and magical creativity. If we try to over-analyze it, if we try to control things, it destroys everything. With every album, we try to have a new set up, especially a new location, or new instruments. We just try to work with our subconscious. We only analyze it later when we actually talk about it.”
An observation that Deck can only agree with: “Exactly. The raw material is a lot of improvisation when we play together. Afterwards, we listen back to what we did, select and make songs. To create properly, we need a bit of chaos and not make too many plans. That is always boring. We realized that after some years. In the beginning, we had a lot of concepts and it was much harder to create.”
A sense of curiosity
A healthy attitude that has proven to work extremely well on Phoenix’ latest album Alpha Zulu. A collection of songs that is bursting with spontaneity, lively moments and the band’s mutual joy of playing together while following their hearts. A true sense of curiosity being thrown in there as well. That is a quality Christian cannot emphasize enough, being as a musician and as a father:
“We have kids now, and for me, the most important thing to teach them is not to play music, but how to listen to music. To enjoy something. Playing music is interesting, but to enjoy listening to music – that is like the cherry on top. Trying to find the emotion is the key to creating.”
Easier said than done for sure, but Thomas, Christian, Deck and Branco are still very much driven by curiosity to this day which becomes very obvious as we speak and is – in fact – a real gift. Dating back to their own childhood, Deck remembers:
“We have been listening to the Beatles since we were kids – constantly. Since then, we have been discovering new music all the time, but listening to a band like the Beatles almost feels endless in a way because every time, you hear their songs in a slightly different way. There are so many things we haven’t explored yet. Also in our own music. What we know is just a drop in the ocean yet. It’s part of our lives, I guess. We are embracing it.” Christian then adds confidently: “We are not scared of the ocean’s depth.”
“Some of my earliest musical memories are really three records: bossa nova Getz/Gilberto from my father, the Beatles of course and an Italian choir. My cousin and my father would start playing the guitar and sing. Everyone would get crazy. Quite early, the power of someone playing was always magical for us.” – Christian Mazzalai
When everything is possible
With Alpha Zulu having being released only a few weeks ago, the pure joy of now being able to bring these new songs to live audiences across the globe is tangible when you spent a few moments in the band’s presence before a show. Gratitude and humbleness are two more nuances becoming clearly visible whenever all four band members speak about their work. Once again, when Phoenix get onstage a few hours later and their faces light up looking around the venue that is filled with an ecstatic and equally happy crowd.
The most rewarding moment of it all might actually be a more intimate one though, as Deck reveals: “My favourite moment is always the little sketch we have of a song in the very beginning. We work on it for hours and suddenly it clicks. It is very hard to beat this feeling, even playing a show and seeing people react to your songs – which is a great feeling for every artist – is not quite the same. When everything comes together musically, it is just the best, isn’t it Christian? Especially, if it is still just an idea and not a finished song yet. Everything is still possible.”
It is certainly hard to argue with that. So Christian simply adds:
“It is true. We are the kings of the world for one minute (laughs). On this album, there are many songs where we just edited the first idea that we had. We particularly wanted to capture this first ecstatic moment where we found the purity and first glimpse of the idea.”
Never truly gone
Serving as a spiritual guide during the making of Alpha Zulu was the late Philippe Zdar, the band’s close collaborator and friend for many years and who tragically passed away shortly before Phoenix started working on their new album. However, his presence can be felt all across the new songs which only emphasizes the strong bond that continues to influence the band’s creative output on their seventh album. Christian and Deck alike speak highly of their friend when addressing the process of making Alpha Zulu without Philippe:
“We didn’t even try to do it in a special way. That would have been impossible. Philippe was such a strong personality and character. Not only for us, but for everyone who knew him…the baker, the neighbours…at his funeral everyone he knew was there”, says Deck. Meanwhile Christian assures me:
“If you had met Philippe for only five minutes, you would probably have had the same experience as we had. His presence was super intense in a really good way.”
Let the music do the talking
Christian continues: “As the opening band for this tour, we chose Sons of Raphael which was the last album Philippe produced like the day before he passed away. Philippe is with us more than ever. He is all around us. The first song we wrote for this album was ‘Identical’ – that happened two days after the funeral. We didn’t plan to go into the studio, but instead of talking, the best thing we could do was play music. It is a fantastic tool for any kind of emotion, especially when you have too many emotions at the same time. Up until this day, we talk about Philippe a lot, almost every day.”
It is a bittersweet moment that all of a sudden becomes a celebration of their friend when Christian hints to what Phoenix have planned for their evening in Berlin: “We are doing a sake tasting at 6:30pm and a wine tasting at 11:00pm backstage. In memory of Philippe because that would be typical Philippe kind of stuff.”
Toasting to their friend, it is also a moment to express their sincere appreciation. Deep in thought, Christian shares how they all feel about doing what they love so much:
“We take nothing for granted these days. We enjoy what we are doing even more. The luxury of being able to play? We don’t take it for granted at all. For us, after ten seconds of playing together, we felt like being at home again.”
Inviting us all into the comfort of their musical home on Alpha Zulu, Phoenix continue to delight their audience in the most charming and authentic way in 2022. May this level of friendship, curiosity and shared joy of playing together remain to be the key element of their journey. Serving as a vivid reminder that valuable experiences like that should never be taken for granted – ever.
Alpha Zulu is out now on LOYAUTÉ/Glassnote Entertainment Group.