Phoenix On Making “Sinful, Joyful” Music In Dark Times

Phoenix have been making great records for so long that it’s pretty hard to envision the landscape of alternative rock without defaulting to some of the incredible music they’ve created over the years.

Although the French outfit released their first album almost two decades ago, it was via their fourth LP, the Grammy-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix that they really cracked the overseas market, with the record going gold in both North America and Australia.

It was with this album, in 2009, that Phoenix really found their top gear, and ever since their music has continued to penetrate global markets. They’ve become notorious for ensuring that each new record they write explores its own unique sound palette and subject material. It’s no surprise then, that ‘J-Boy’ and ‘Ti Amo’, two early release singles from the forthcoming album that shares the name of the latter, have already created serious hype down under.

We caught up with Phoenix singer Thomas Mars to chat about the importance of a unique sound for each new record, the darkness in the world that formed their new album Ti Amo, and the chance of a return to Australia in 2018.

Music Feeds: Ti Amo is your sixth record, and you guys have been making must for the best part of 20 years now. Does writing songs come easier now or is making an album just as much of a challenge as it always has been?

Thomas Mars: It’s harder. It’s hard because you know what it’s like. You know when you make a record you’re sort of in denial because you think it’s going to be six months, but the more you make records the more you know it’s not going to be six months it’s going to be two years, and that you’re going to see two summers and two winters. So it’s harder, but at the same time, we treat every record as our first record, so that makes it a little bit easier. That way it’s easier to come up with new material, and we always look for new sounds and new ways to tell stories. I think that other bands write the same song over and over because they are great at doing it – like AC/DC and The Ramones – but that makes it harder to write new records. When you try to change everything and find new inspiration and motivation; that’s what keeps us going and writing new records.

MF: Sonically it’s quite an interesting and different album. It almost feels like you’ve taken raw melodies and dipped them in sunlight, and a lot of the tracks have this glittery, dancey quality. How hard is it to create a new feeling and vibe like this and write a whole record around it?

TM: In the beginning, we surround ourselves with a certain palette of sounds. We choose a few instruments, we choose the things we’re going to play with – and then there’s a certain amount of luck. You know, the keyboard might be one inch further from the guitar, or just a small thing that creates and influences the sound of the record. No matter what we do we try to put ourselves in a position where we know it’s going to be new and where I’m going to see my band mates’ eyes sparkle and I’m looking for that moment where we can all agree that this is something – and you build from there. Once a record has been done in some way we know that it’s been done and it’s not that exciting anymore.

MF: We’ve heard that this album was born out of some darkness in the world, and some of the tracks do feel quite reflective. Is there much truth to that?

TM: I think so. It was a bit strange because when we were in the studio we felt quite disconnected from things that were happening in the world, whether it was the attacks in Paris or the high security where people didn’t want to go out anymore. You could see how the world was changing and there was this dark cloud over people’s lives, but somehow we felt quite disconnected because we were writing this very hedonistic, sinful, joyful music, which makes sense to me now. I get it now. Back then we were confused and there was a slight sense of guilt about doing this when there were other things going on around us. It felt shallow, but I think it creates a world of possibilities and a new direction of music, that can guide you through, and to help make sense of the world. It wasn’t healing, but it was comforting and it was coping with something.

I do feel now that there are complex parts of the songs that help deal with things, but all of our albums and all of our songs have had something in it where you can listen to it and you’re excited to listen because that song has a certain meaning. One of my favourite songs is ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ [by The Beach Boys] because it has this feeling that would make me switch from thinking that it is the saddest song to the happiest song, and I was confused, but your mood dictates what the song does.

MF: Have you been able to reflect back on the past 20 or so years and think about how far Phoenix has come as a band?

TM: Not really because when we started music we had extremely high ambitions. To be honest, we thought we were the next Beatles, that’s how cocky we were as teenagers. We thought that our record would come out and everything would change the next day. Things didn’t change, they gradually changed, so then we learnt that it didn’t really matter how much things changed around you. We just take a lot of pleasure in doing things together. Of course, it’s better if people connect with your songs, but we don’t really take that into consideration very much anymore, we just try to make something for the four of us and think that if it’s good for us it will be good for somebody else.

MF: You guys are playing some festivals and headline shows soon. Is tour life just as fun as ever after all this time?

TM: It’s our favourite thing; because that’s when you see the new songs come to life. That’s when you see the impact on people, and when you realise what you’ve done and how it’s an extension of the album. Whenever we play the new songs, the old songs have a different glow and they change a little bit. They have the personality of the new songs, and the old personality fades, and it feels like everything changes with a new tour. Then if we get bored when we’re touring and we feel like we can’t improve anymore then we tend to stop and play fewer shows to appreciate those few.

MF: The new singles have been really well received here in Australia. Can we expect to see Phoenix coming back here for shows anytime in the next year or so?

TM: Yeah, I think definitely. It’s always a treat to play there. I think early next year. It’s a long time [away], but the good thing is we’ll be ready. It takes a while, because we’ve got an idea about how the new songs should be live, and it will come with a whole new set and a whole new stage design.

Ti Amo’ is out today. Listen here.

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