France remains in the national state of emergency it declared following the terrorist attacks of November 2015, an influential far-right candidate is one of the final two who could be declared the new President in this Sunday’s election, and Phoenix have made their most joyful album yet.
The quartet from Versailles rose at the start of the 2000s to join their past collaborators Air and Daft Punk among France’s biggest musical exports. Their fifth album, Bankrupt! from 2013, charted in the top five in the US, Canada and Australia as well as France. The newly announced follow-up, coming in June, is called Ti Amo, which means “I love you” in Italian. It’s heavy on the synths, blissful and summery, a slinky trip to the disco which sounds deliberately oblivious to the Parisian turmoil in which it was made.
“I was excited to be part of your world/To belong, to be lost, to be mostly the two of us,” Manhattan-based frontman Thomas Mars sings on J-Boy, the lead single unveiled last week. It’s a warm, twinkling electronic groove whose title stands for “Just Because Of You” – less Power to the People, more All You Need is Love.
“It’s not that we wanted to make a happy record, but it came out like that and we embraced it,” says bassist Deck d’Arcy, 41. To write and record it, the band locked themselves away on the top floor of an arts centre in the 3rd arrondissement – literally at one point, in the case of guitarist Christian Mazzalai, who had to stay there on the night of the attack on the Bataclan concert hall, a 20 minute walk away, when the police shut down the city.
“We were living it, so we wanted to go somewhere as far as possible from the tension in Paris. We had to do this as our reaction. It was not conscious but we felt it was important for us to follow this path,” says Mazzalai, 41, who along with d’Arcy has popped over to tell me about the new music from a sofa in the hotel adjacent to the Eurostar platform. Mars, 40, phones me later from New York, where he lives with his wife of six years, the film director Sofia Coppola, and their two daughters. Absent guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, 43, completes the tight-knit group. All of them have known each other since primary school times.
Brancowitz is the one who played drums in a band called Darlin’ in the early Nineties alongside his friends Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who were described in a Melody Maker review as making a “daft punky thrash”. Meanwhile, Mars was doing everything he could to launch a music career of his own. “I think I destroyed every possibility from age 10 to 18 that could lead me to do anything else. Any back-up plan was not considered, so I could force myself into doing this,” says the singer. Darlin’ fizzled quickly, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo taking the name of their next project from that damning review, and Brancowitz joined Mars’s band, who at first played as a live backing group for their friends Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel in Air. All clear?
A holy trinity of fantastic French music emerged – Daft Punk’s robotic disco, Air’s movie soundtrack loveliness and the sunny soft rock of Phoenix. The latter succeeded more slowly than the other two. Today the members of Phoenix are simultaneously amused and horrified to hear that I was at their first ever UK concert, an industry showcase in a now closed Piccadilly nightclub called Tokyo Joe’s in 2000. “That was the worst show we’ve ever done,” recalls Mars in a thick French accent with an American twang. “A lot of French music was around then, and I think people got carried away. Where we came from in Versailles, there was nowhere really for us to play, so I think that was the second show we ever did and of course it was a failure.”
Their wonderful early song, Too Young, gave them enough momentum to carry on, though. It went on to be used prominently in the Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black film Shallow Hal and then Lost in Translation, directed by Mars’s eventual wife. The real breakthrough came in 2009 with their boldly titled fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and its fizzing, triumphant singles Lisztomania and 1901. The latter was a platinum seller in America, and if you’re ever in need of cheering up, seek out New York children’s choir the PS22 Chorus doing Lisztomania on YouTube with swaying, passionate glee.
The band enjoyed having a belated hit, which earned them festival headliner status in the US (topping the bill at Coachella in California in 2013, they had the influence and imagination to bring R Kelly on stage for a medley of R&B hits) but it didn’t make them desperate for more. “It’s very important for us to do something new each time, otherwise it’s pointless,” says d’Arcy.
“That’s why we take a new studio every time, new instruments, to be free and go as far as possible,” adds Mazzalai. He says that the dominant instrument on Ti Amo is a new 12-string guitar he was using, though guitars are so often altered electronically on the record that it isn’t obvious. “For us, to be successful is just to follow our instinct. It’s a beautiful pleasure.”
They began by improvising in the studio, keeping recordings of everything for reference, with Mars flying over to join them for 10 days out of every month. “I don’t feel isolated from the others, but I do feel extra pressure, to be honest,” he tells me. “Those 10 days have to be very intense.” For periods in the past he has worked from LA, while Coppola was on location, but doesn’t care for it. “It’s a good work environment but it’s not the most inspirational place somehow. I get why it’s attractive to people but I need the seasons.”
Lyrically as well as musically, he confirms that you shouldn’t be looking to his band for political commentary. He’s written in English from the beginning, not in a bid to appeal to the masses but because he knows his meaning is less clear when he avoids his native tongue. “We use the English language as a tool, we don’t use it to be accurate or honest or authentic. We love the fact that it has the charm of the awkward, distorted reality.”
Mars will vote in the French presidential election at the French consulate in New York, then get on with the business of presenting his band’s uplifting new songs at an array of summer festivals, including Glastonbury, then their biggest London show to date at Alexandra Palace in September. “In the beginning it was an uncomfortable situation, to make this music in full contradiction with the climate in Paris,” he admits. “Why do you keep doing something like that? Why is it so disconnected? Is it still relevant? Then we comforted ourselves with the fact that it was disconnected. To me, that’s not denial or escapism. It’s what music and art are supposed to be: a world of possibilities.”
Sept 30, Alexandra Palace, N22 (0870 444 5556, alexandrapalace.com)
Ti Amo is released on June 9 on Loyaute/Glassnote /Atlantic