Phoenix are having one hell of a year: first 5* album 'Ti Amo', next: one of London's biggest venues.
Thomas Mars is an hour away from leading Phoenix into a first, and firsts for Phoenix are continually dwindling. Whether it’s sell-out shows around the globe, headline sets at festivals or the fact they’ve carved out a genre and style of their very own - Phoenix have reached the stage where merely the utterance of their name conjures a world of joyous moments. Tonight marks the Parisians’ very first show in Thailand, another country to tick off on their spanning map of dominance that simmers and croons with the sounds of electro-pop royalty. Not even thunderstorms can stop this party.
“It’s really satisfying,” explains Thomas, taking in the final moments before he steps out on a stage with a new live show full of shimmering displays and wall to wall hits. “When you release a record you want it to be a surprise each time, you want unexpected things to happen, and we really don’t expect much. When we come back, we expect nothing or close to nothing.”
‘Ti Amo’ isn’t just another Phoenix record. It’s an album that only they could produce, one that infuses Euro-soaked cosmopolitan juices, a touch of dazzling synth sugar and a twist of carefree abandon that when shaken and served, makes for one refreshing cocktail. Embracing the stunning views that came with the runaway success of ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ and then ‘Bankrupt’, ‘Ti Amo’ is a record that firms itself as a statement - opening a new chapter for a band whose key focus since the very beginning, was making the sounds and moments that they thrive in.
For Thomas, looking back now is a warming tale of closeness and constant reinvention. “In the beginning, it was a primal scream,” he notes. “I went with Deck [D’arcy] down into my basement, and we started playing because we needed to. As the four of us, we built this confidence, like we were so pretentious - we all thought we were going to be the next Beatles. I think that feeling lasted for about a year, just the one pretentious year, where we were just really confident.”
Alongside brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz, Phoenix had every reason to be confident. Debut album ‘United’ was a jolt in the arm for a world still coming to terms with a new millennium, breathing life to a force that took the idea of cool and made it taste ever so sweet. Its impact could be felt at every turning, from ‘Too Young’ appearing in Hollywood films to even, as Thomas later found out, ‘If I Ever Feel Better’ being played in Norwegian mental health institutes. For each swooning indie-pop glimmer over the past 17 years, it’s easy to point to Phoenix as a shining influence no matter what flavour hook they turn to next.
“We have to reinvent ourselves to keep things interesting,” points out Thomas. “Every record for us is like a first record. Separately, I’m not sure we’d be as good at it all, but together there’s an unconscious feeling as the four of us. We come up with things that are weird and their own thing, y’know? We’ve found our way to make music, and the one conscious decision we probably make going into each record is to start with a negative from the album before. We’ve done five albums, we know we’re not going to repeat them, so those are the directions that we’re not interested in pursuing, and that’s about it.
“We like to disappear for a few years, so it’s just us four in a room. It can take a lot of time, and usually, we’re exhausted when the album is done, but it’s all about creating something that we’re confident in and that in a few years we won’t look back on and be ashamed of!”
Unfaltering in their creativity and drive, it’s that exact ethos that has taken them to the very top of the bill at the likes of Coachella amongst others. Finding the path to head down next, ‘Ti Amo’ found Phoenix setting up camp in an apartment on the outskirts of Paris - experimenting in more Italian-Disco sounds and with sumptuous results. ‘J-Boy’ is a swaggered strut across the dance floor, ‘Fior De Latte’ glides across yearning synth-lines for hands in the air devotion, while the likes of ‘Tuttifrutti’ and ‘Fleur De Lys’ get bright lights and turns them up to technicolour heights. Free, unabashed and sweet, it wears its smile firmly on its sleeve - unlike the year in which it was created.
“We made this record as a very joyful album not because we thought the world needed it,” explains Thomas, “but for us, we were in a gloomy Parisian city, and it was a way to do something light and important. Not to be in denial about what was going on either. I don’t think it would have been the same record if the atmosphere in Paris wasn't that dark. It’s a reaction that we did as the four of us, and we found something that we wanted to be simple, hedonistic and a result from that.”
It’s a record that has found itself at home with Phoenix on the road, playing to thousands devoted to the rainbow of sounds and sights that flow out of their stage show. Every note and flavour of Phoenix’s repertoire comes to the fore, always looking for a new way to shatter any doubt that may flow through people’s minds when walking up to a Phoenix show. Glam neon-lights, constantly changing yet packing that memorable punch on every track - there’s a pursuit of uniqueness that defines who Phoenix are as a band, and Thomas as not just a frontman, but someone enamoured in the power of music.
That must be an odd experience, stepping out to a sea of adoring fans every night? “It feels surreal,” comments Thomas, “we go from these small shows to huge festival shows in front of tens of thousands, and we do that deliberately whenever we tour. I think it’s to realise what’s going on, to appreciate that feeling of a club show and then that feeling of those giant concerts too - where there’s this epic sort-of-biblical quality - and both are really different.
“For me, if we can play a venue that nobody has ever played before, or is a little bit weird, that’s exciting to us. Even when I was a teenager, I would go to shows and be excited if I could see something weird or unusual or that I’d never seen before, and that’s always something I wanted to do. At the same time, it’s amazing to feel a part of this musical legacy where you’ve gone to see and heard people play at these amazing venues, and now we get to play there too. When you can say ‘Oh, Johnny Cash played here’ - you feel like you belong to some sort of tradition.”
“Like, there’s a venue in Paris,” Thomas continues, “called L’Olympia, and when we played it, our parents understood that we were doing something after all those years of making music. It validated something that we were trying to make for such a long time.”
Phoenix had their legacy in the band from the very start, yet by never retreating, never settling for the easy route and never bowing in the face of expectation, they’ve singled themselves out as a band in their own feat of influence. Four friends from Paris, finding a home in the spirit of music and pushing every corner to its fullest, there’s joy and love to be found in the most celebratory of sweet pop tones. That’s why Phoenix are so important, and why they always will be.
“Everything we do is about putting the music forward,” elaborates Thomas, as showtime continues to count down. “It has become this thing that has glued us together and allows us to do all these amazing things together. It all comes from this carefree spirit around music that’s just not there with any other form of art, and it’s something we really appreciate. It feels so different, and so exciting.”
Taken from the October issue of Dork, out now. Phoenix play Alexandra Palace in London on 30th September.