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  • Interview: Phoenix

    Thu, 27 Aug 2009 08:28:56

    Interview: Phoenix - Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars discusses <i>Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix</i>, what movies influenced their writing process and <i>The Hangover</i>...

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    Phoenix are about to rise to the top of pop.

    However, unlike most of their indie brethren that ascend quickly through the ranks from the clubs to the covers of magazines, Phoenix truly deserve it. Ever since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix dropped in late May, the French foursome has gotten all kinds of attention way beyond the blog-o-sphere and hipster headlines. They've been selling out shows in America, and everyone seems to love their melodic, ethereal pop. Basketball players like Paul Shirley cop to bumping "1901," while The Hangover stars Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha professed their love for the Frenchmen [in an ARTISTdirect.com video interview].

    It's a damn good thing too, because quality "indie" figureheads are hard to find…you know, the "scene" icons that lack the pretense and snobbery of being overly "indie." Zooey Deschanel is a fine example and, musically, Phoenix is too.

    Vocalist Thomas Mars is pretty stoked about all of this—as he should be. Thomas sat down with ARTISTdirect.com to discuss Phoenix's success through going against the grain, classic films that influenced the new album and much more in this exclusive interview.

    Did you have a singular vision for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix when you went in to record it? Were you following one theme for the whole record?

    No, we didn't have any overarching ideas. We learned that lesson from our previous records. On the other albums, we had some concepts, and it seems that the records ended up having their own lives. So any the ideas that come before always end up in the trash and they never make it. We didn't have a record company, and we didn't want to have one until the record was finished. That was really different for us. We really wanted to make everything on our own—almost like it was our very first record all over again. It's funny because this is our most successful record. However, we made this album intentionally forgetting to please anyone. We really made this record for us. When you want to please everyone you're dead almost. We really wanted to do something only for us.

    Well why wouldn't everyone just love you for who you are?

    Thank you [Laughs]. We did the previous records for us too, but we would always put ourselves in the listeners' position. We wanted the world to understand it. At some points, this record sounds like it might almost come off as suicide for us because we're talking about stuff that's so obscure. We have some friends that aren't really into music and when they typically came to the studio they didn't really care. But we knew something was happening with Wolfgang because those same friends would come to the studio more often and they'd ask for us to play new songs—which is something they never did before. It was a great feeling.

    The songs have a traditional pop structure for the most part, but then you go off into outer space on tracks like "Love Like A Sunset."

    We've never been able to make a record without a song like "Love Like A Sunset." We want to go somewhere we've never been before on each record. That's an aspect of our creative process. We want to experiment, and that song was the first one we started and the last that we finished. It was the song of the record. We knew when it was done the record was done.

    So "Love Like a Sunset" was the moment you finished the album?

    Yeah, exactly!

    What's the story behind "Fences?" That really stands out.

    "Fences" exists because of Phillipe Zdar who produced the record with us. He's a producer but not in the traditional sense. He's not the guy who's the first at the studio and the last to leave. He comes five or six hours late and stays for ten minutes [Laughs]. We'd play him demos and he'd always give us feedback. "Fences" was one of his favorite songs. We weren't sure about it. He went on a holiday for three weeks, and he still had a strong link to that song. He insisted so much that we included it, but we tried to bend it so it would please us as well as him. It's really far from us in a way. It wasn't a natural process for us and we changed the shape of it so much. It was three small demos that we combined together, and it didn't really make sense until the moment that we found the bridge. That seemed to glue the whole thing together.

    It's a really dreamy song.

    It is! We like that it sets up counterpoints. All of the chords are played by different instruments. There's not really one specific thing that you can identify. That's what I like about it. It's hard to identify what's going on, and that's where the dreamy feeling comes from.

    Do you guys watch a lot of movies while you're writing and recording?

    When we were making the record, we were watching American Gigolo and Dressed to Kill. We watched movies that really inspired us visually more than they did thematically or conceptually. It's very visual music. There was this attraction to those movies. Those films are probably the best to score. Looking at the picture, you can create a whole different soundtrack if you mute the sound.

    How do you traditionally come up with lyrics? Do you read a lot?

    When I was a kid, I discovered lyrics by thinking that the musicians were writing the songs just for me [Laughs]. I would listen to the lyrics and I was learning English at the same time. At the same time, I was misunderstanding them [Laughs]. I thought they were talking about my life. So I try to keep this element that was really emblematic but is empty enough so that you can feel it within you no matter what. I love that about writing lyrics. They start with a melody or a word and they glue together. My favorite thing is when two things that aren't supposed to be together come together—a minor chord and something happy or a major chord and something sad. Then I create something around it. It always starts with a simple thing like one line that dictates the whole thing.

    Where did "Lisztomania" come from?

    I can't remember the movie, but I watched it three years ago and it made me discover the term. I'm not such a fan of the movie, but I love the fact that there are so many inspiring things in Franz Liszt's life, and it was taking the song somewhere else. That's what we wanted. It's something very pop in a way. It's also a mash-up of a lot of different things I liked when I wrote the song.

    Do you enjoy playing in America?

    It's my favorite! You want to play in places where you have the most excitement. We feel that something's happening in America right now which is the best. On top of the hits they want to hear the new record the most which is the best gift they can give us. We keep doing music because of it. Playing new stuff is vital. You have to do this all the time. The worst thing that could happen to us would be to become a "greatest-hits" band or something. America makes us feel contemporary which is very nice. We want to take things to the next level on the tour. We get more attention now, and we have more toys to play with—a bigger light show, etc. It's nice to take the music somewhere else. We try to make it bigger but at the same time not lose sight of the songs. It's a very good challenge. People give us a chance to make something interesting and we don't want to miss that chance.

    We've got video of The Hangover guys saying how much they love you…

    That's so cool! When a record is doing well you have crazy stuff like this happening. The other day someone sent me a link with these NBA stars saying, "I always play '1901' before every game." You get cool stuff like this—it's really a dream. I'll tell my friends about The Hangover guys. We watched The Hangover when we were in the weirdest place in Indiana on a day off with nothing to do. We all saw it together and loved it!

    —Rick Florino

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