"OK, our conferencing system tends to be a little quiet, so it helps if you speak up a bit."
"OK, COOL." Man, I'm loud.
I'm bent over a laptop mic, Garageband running and my mobile on loudspeaker. My neck hurts. I am about to enter into conversation with Thomas Mars, frontman of pop behemoth Phoenix, to find out some things about their new record Bankrupt!, which will find its way to stores six days after our interview takes place. It's a tricky beast, Bankrupt!, packed with the sugary-sweet monoliths we've come to expect from the Versaillais band, but constructed with a distinct respect for long-playing format, the idea of the album as a self-contained entity, and rammed with enough ideas for a record twice its run time. The PR blurb that accompanies my advance copy of Bankrupt! says that 'the songs shouldn't be altered from this order'. After asking what Mars is up to ("Uh, not much. I'm in Tucson. We're playing a show tonight and then ah, we are going to Los Angeles for Coachella.") I ask him about that line, whether this is a definite statement, whether he sees the album as an immovable body of work or as something less prescriptive.
"Well, it's both?" he says, his inflection rising. "But it has to work when the songs aren't being moved around. We're still making records in a selfish way – we're still thinking there's a possibility that people will listen to the whole thing at once. Which is happening less and less these days, but we are still doing it that way because that's how we've enjoyed music, that's how we discovered it and that's how we appreciate it. So the album's a bit of storytelling, you know, some songs just go with each other. The fact is, the album is what's gonna stay, what's gonna last, so there are details there which would not be there otherwise."
He stops and I come to, hunched over the mic, grinning. There's no value judgment on my part or, I think, on Thomas' – songs are just as important as the larger body that they can coalesce into, but there's something about the sustained craftsmanship of a finely-honed long player that I'm still unabashedly stuck on. Bankrupt! is one such full-length. It's stuffed to the gills with exuberant pop songs, but they're songs that are all inextricably part of a larger whole. I ask Thomas about the pentatonic riff that makes its debut on 'Entertainment', and gets revisited throughout the record, notably on 'The Real Thing' and 'Drakkar Noir'.
"Do you mean like the Asian theme?"
"On this record, we started working on the sounds three or four months before writing songs, we were just messing around with tones more than chords. There is a compilation called Ethiopiques, Ethiopian music that we were really fascinated by, and then when we were messing around with the keyboards we were getting closer to Asian, almost Chinese pentatonic scales. All these things seemed pretty exotic to us and they seemed like," Thomas considers here, feeling out what he's going to say next, "contradictions, like worlds colliding, you know, our music and that universe. And we thought it was irresistible, that we had no other choice but to keep those elements. It's something like continental shifts, but I've got no explanation why it's that theme, instead of something else."
I love seeing motifs revisited in pop records, a mirror of the compositional reprise. It's like watching a toddler imitate surrounding adults, cute on the surface, but really more powerful than that, imbued with all the weight of future potential. So we come to talk about Phoenix's influences, in particular one from the band's press kit bio that I'll bet most of my fellow hacks decided to pick up on.
"I think the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one thing that ended up on the bio because of one interview that I did for 'American Songwriter'," says Thomas, "and they asked about the lyrics because they were really confused, they weren't sure how cryptic it was, how intentional, and the only thing I could up with for how to describe the lyrics was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"You know, they're renaissance… ninja… turtles, they don't mean anything but they are graphic, and that's how I described the lyrics, but there's no real comparison." Thomas laughs. "It's easier when you're in the studio to be influenced by things or music that's really far from you. We listened to a lot of early Italian polyphony, things that are so far from this century or even pop music in general. It's easy to be influenced by other things like movies because you can steal from them. You don't copy, you just steal! There's a lot of French themes on this record," – said bio also lists French punk Jacno, as well as filmmakers like Rohmer and Truffaut, as influences – "I'm not sure why, but there was a lot of things we grew up with that we rediscovered on this record."
Mars' lyrics do require listeners to fill in the gaps, if they're interested, inviting interpretation rather than ramming meaning down the lugholes. I've come to love 'Entertainment' as much as I do precisely because of its words and the meaning I've ascribed to them, the invincibility of pop music in the face of sensible advice. So I ask Thomas how much meaning he puts into a song's words, English not being his mother tongue.
"We never had a meeting where one of us was like 'let's sing in English', it just came like that," he says. I ask how.
"I think because of two things. First, there was more music that was inspiring us coming from outside of France."
What about the other?
"The other thing is that pretty much everything… for example, Serge Gainsbourg, he mastered the French language to the extent that he's almost like Napoleon. He burned all the bridges, and no one could write any song in French after this guy, there was fifteen years of nothing after that. And still today, everybody's struggling because you had such a genius, but like Wagnerian genius, not light and inspiring, something heavy and dead that's choking you. No one can breathe after that. And I think for us, singing in English, everything was possible suddenly. The fact that we are French, I think we come up with things that are very awkward and very wrong, in an interesting way."
There's been a distinct sense of the weight of time to Mars' conversation so far – he's mentioned Italian polyphony, Gainsbourg, Wagner. Phoenix named their last record, the near-flawless Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, as a cheeky nod to Mozart. But there's a strong modernity to Bankrupt!, the way the buildup in 'Entertainment' sounds sidechained, a gumdrop-bright nod to dubstep's popularization, or 'Chloroform's tip of the cap – intentional or unintentional – to R&B's renewed time in the sun. How much influence to Phoenix take from contemporary music?
"I think in the recording studio it's a very selfish process," says Thomas, "so I think there's not as much new influence as at other times. When you're in the studio you're not up to date, you want to be disconnected, because making an album is bigger than contemporary, it has to last."
So how about afterwards?
"Yes, when you're on tour like we are now, that's when you listen to music a lot, I think. When the album's done, the pleasure is being contemporary. Right now, I feel like we're part of 2013. That's the fun of it is, that when you play festivals you see bands who are kind of… from the same graduate school? There's this sense of very specific time in music. For instance, right now we're touring with Mac Demarco, a guy from Canada who makes great music, and that's one of the nice things, having your favourite musicians on tour with you."
I'm told I have time for one more question before Thomas has to strike out into the Arizona afternoon. Which is good, because I only have one more. 'Entertainment' was recently… ah …'remixed', by slack-rock superheroes Dinosaur Jr. Mascis and co. have been one of my favourite bands since childhood, so I ask Thomas for his take on the band and their reworking of his song.
"It's a childhood fantasy, he's my teenage hero."
I can hear the man grinning five thousand miles away.
"I remember seeing shows of him in Paris, my older brother would take me, and since then every two or three years I see a J. Mascis show and it never ages, it's never boring, and that's very rare, I think. So that was something we asked him to do, but we didn't think he would do it."
But done it he has, and the results are as singular as you'd expect. Somehow, Mascis took a song with a sense of elation that reaches all the way from the Orient to Versailles, and turned it into a creaking, bittersweet nugget of distorted country-rock. But that kind of division is one that suits Phoenix and the songs on Bankrupt!, their jumps in time and place and mood, and it's a division that Mascis is a part of, too.
"He wanted to keep the word remix," Thomas says, "I think for him it was a bit exotic, because for everyone it seemed like it was a cover, but he wanted to keep it as a remix. And whatever he wanted to do, I just said 'yes'. I'm hoping that we play shows together."
That would be good.
Bankrupt! is out now on Loyaute / Glassnote / Atlantic Records UK. You can visit the band by heading to their official site.
- Tour Dates
- 07/06 – Nuremburg, Germany @ Rock Im Park
- 08/06 – Nürburgring, Germany @ Rock Am Ring
- 13/06 – Hultsfred, Sweden @ Hultsfred Festival [Headlining]
- 28-30/06 – Pilton, UK @ Glastonbury Festival
- 04/07 – Arendal, Norway @ Hove Festival
- 05/07 – Werchter, Belgium @ Rock Werchter
- 12/07 – Kinross, Scotland, UK @ T in The Park
- 13/07 – Aix-les-Bains, France @ Musilac [Headlining]
- 14/07 – Lisbon, Portugal @ Optimus Alive
- 23/08 – Leeds, UK @ Leeds Festival
- 24/08 – Paris, France @ Rock En Seine [Headlining]
- 25/08 – Reading, UK @ Reading Festival