French band Phoenix rises in Manila: the interview (and, yes, there are Sofia Coppola questions)

Phoenix are Christian Mazzalai (guitar), Laurent Brankowitz (guitar), Thomas Mars (vocals) and Deck D'Arcy (bass). (Photo by Steven Taylor)

It’s the last question of a quick but pleasant interview.

Deck D’Arcy, bassist of Phoenix, is somewhere in Eugene, Oregon, and it probably skipped his mind that he is on the phone with someone from the Philippines.

Asked about his expectations regarding the band’s Manila gig on January 21, he replies, “You’re Filipino?”

The French accent is thick but charming. “Actually we’ve never been, aaahhh…”

He pauses, his tone shifting to one of concern. “How are you by the way? Is it okay there?”

An edgy situation

He is referring, of course, to the tragedy of super typhoon Yolanda. This from a band that decided to call the new album “Bankrupt!” because of a headline they saw.

“We watch a lot of things, and the exclamation mark… it looked edgy and bankruptcy is an edgy situation, and we are feeling that.”

 

Hailing from Versailles, France, Phoenix are currently on tour to support their fifth album “Bankrupt!” (which includes the song "Trying to Be Cool').

New wave influenced

Since their debut album “United” was released in 2000, the band has gained increasing critical acclaim for its bright new wave-influenced yet “youthful” tunes anchored by Thomas Mars’s distinctive vocals.

“Too Young,” the band’s first single to chart, was featured in two movies: “Shallow Hal” and, perhaps more importantly, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation.” (Mars eventually wed Coppola).

By 2009, the band had a gold record and a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album with “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” which features “1901” and “Lisztomania.”

 

‘Success and honor are very random’

D’Arcy insists that the Grammy and commercial success did not put additional pressure on “Bankrupt!”

“The Grammy and everything, it was really nice to get but… we made non-Grammy winning albums before and we made them with as much passion as the last one,” he stells me.

“Success and honor are very random so we can’t really relate on that. But making good songs that you’re proud of… you know, that people are going to waste time listening, it has to be good! So we are pressured always, yeah.”

Making music all day

D’Arcy describes the band's writing process. “We try to put ourselves in a random situation… that we don’t predict, where randomness is helping us and we connect all the stuff and take what great emotions work.”

He adds, “We make a lot of music all day, 3,000 little bits, but we don’t really know what we do, we just know what we like, and what makes us, you know…” He chuckles.

“We try not to sound like what we did before… Well, Thomas’s voice is the same, I hope it won’t change,” he laughs, “but we try do do something totally different. Every (Phoenix) album, I think, sounds like a different band.”

Musical heroes

D’Arcy calls David Bowie, French composer Serge Gainsbourg and “even” Bob Dylan as the band’s musical heroes.

“Those people made very different kind of albums along their career and this is what we like, chameleon-style,” he explains.

“We really respect a lot of people who do the same album all the time too but, for us, making music is about constantly trying to make something different, no matter what. At least, that’s the goal.”

‘Hot girl’ music

Rolling Stone magazine has described the band as making “hot girl music,” I tell him. D’Arcy stops, trying to understand. “Yeah well… why not?" He laughs.

“Maybe because the French can charm girls?” he suggests.

Laughing again, he adds, “Probably helps… I don’t know, that’s Rolling Stones’ point of view, not mine. But, why not, yeah.”

‘Actually, we hate 80s music’

As for the band’s purported 80s feel in their music, D’Arcy explains it is not by design.

”Actually we hate 80s music but the reality is that we were born in the late 70s and grew up in the 80s,” he says.

“We are from that era like a lot of people, that environment. That’s kind of unconscious.”

Okay, we get to the Sofia Coppola questions

 

Director Sofia Coppola, an Oscar winner, championed the band and married Thomas. Does she offer any input?

“No, actually she stays very, very far… but yeah you know sometimes we would ask her for advice on lyrics and stuff. ‘Is it correct?’”

But questions on English grammar aside, she lets the band be.

“Even when it doesn’t make any sense, she’s like, ‘No, no, no. Keep it like that, it’s cool.’ I think she wants to keep the idea fresh. She doesn’t want to interfere.”

Growing up hip hop and Lou Reed

Why do they sing in English instead of French?

“Well we started the band when we were 12, and we were listening to Americans… we hated French music back then like it was the worst music ever,” he says.

“We discovered the good stuff in French music later on when we grew up, but when we were kids we were into hip hop and Lou Reed and Bowie, so we had to sing in English and it stayed.”

 

Their attempts to write in French haven’t worked out. “It’s too close,” he tries to explain. “We don’t write about ‘realistic’ but more vibe, more abstract, cryptic… every album we try to write a French song but it never works out. We have some that start in French but never manage to finish them.”

Air and Daft Punk

I point out that as with other French bands like Air and Daft Punk, the romantic “vibe” aspect seems to be a unifying characteristic, even if each band sounds different from the other.

“We are old friends (with Daft Punk; Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz had a band called Darlin’ with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of DP), and we’ve known each other a long time with not exactly the same tastes but pretty much similar.

“I think our generation grew up with home studios and making recordings with just what you have… working in a weird way. The generation before us were into proper studios, but we only had four tracks and using stuff in a bit of a fucked-up way. They also work in a kind of random way so maybe it’s about keeping what you feel good.”

A French music revolution

So, will there be a French Revolution in music?

Phoenix and Daft Punk seem to be ready to start it but D’Arcy is more modest.

“I don’t think it will ever happen; for a ‘revolution’ you need much more elements,” he says.

 

Phoenix Live in Manila happens on January 21, 2014, 8 p.m. at the World Trade Center, Pasay City. Ticket Prices: P5170 (reserved) and P3620 (standing). Tickets now available at SM Ticket Outlets or visit smtickets.com. Phoenix Live in Manila is presented by Karpos Multimedia.

 

 

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