"Making music was always a joyous thing that we were happy to do, and it stayed that way," Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars says of recording Ti Amo, the group's bright new record, at a time when their native France was in turmoil. "You see things that are evolving and changing around you, and then there's something dark, but somehow you keep in mind that there is a value and a quality in just keeping your mind. That's not to say it's disconnected and it's apolitical; it's just that it seems joyous and therefore it doesn't mean it's in denial [of what's happened]."
The synth-pop group started work on the LP in September 2014, and the following year, at the time of the terrorist attack on the city's Bataclan venue, some band members were in a Paris theater where they were recording. Ultimately, they made an uplifting-sounding record with lighthearted, sometimes jokey lyrics about love, heavily atmospheric synthesizers and Italo-disco influenced drumbeats. The bouncy title track even contains the couplet "I don't like it as it is, a disaster scenario/So don't look at what you did, this melted gelato" before Mars sings, "I love you" in English, Italian, French and Spanish. The singer says the track isn't meant as escapism, but what he doesn't say explicitly is that perhaps it's more an act of defiance to the state of the world.
"We were the first ones surprised that it was something very light, joyful, hedonistic," Mars tells Rolling Stone, speaking in fractured English. "It's something detached from what's going on."
Nevertheless, he doesn't feel entirely comfortable discussing the album in the context of current events. "It's hard to talk about this without creating a sort of universe around it that invites empathy," he says at one point during our interview. "We never really wanted to talk politics or have politics involved in what we do," he says later, "but it felt at some point that we were questioning the fact that we were still doing this while there seemed to be more important things happening right outside the studio."
The buoyant nature of the music, in his opinion, is a way to "force your destiny." "It's like writing the same way as when you go through a heartbreak," he says. "You create a world of possibilities that's not what the world is experiencing. You create something else that is a possibility, a fuel to creation."
Moreover, they never second-guessed taking a more fantastical approach to the music. "We embraced it, because it felt like its own thing," Mars says. "If we were trying to do something else, it wasn't really who we are."
They ultimately created what the singer calls Phoenix's own language, a world unto itself influenced by their own "distorted visions" of Italian disco from the Seventies. "Tuttifrutti" and lead single "J-Boy" contain light-stepping four-on-the-floor beats, and throughout the album, the group brings synthesizers to the forefront of its sound, as Mars drifts between English and Italian. He calls Phoenix's Italian influence subliminal – "Sometimes a song would come from a mumble, and I don't know why, but it was often in Italian" – though he says the group was listening to a lot of Italian music and that the father of the band's brothers, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai, came from Italy. "That's maybe an explanation, but I'm not sure why it came out like that," Mars says.
What he is sure of is that Phoenix's interpretation of Italian disco isn't too far removed from the original, aesthetically. "We used Italy as a prism, in the same way that Italian disco was a copy of American disco, but slightly off," he says with a laugh. "It was really charming."
Mars adds that drawing inspiration from Italian disco wasn't meant in a "winky" ironic way. "It's genuine," he says. "It's not meant to be authentic, true or respectful. It's meant to be a distorted French version of this.
"We've always found a charm in those distorted visions," he continues. "We didn't want to re-create an accurate version of Italy, the same way that we're French and sing in English. Sometimes when we play in France, French people think we want to copy American music. But the point is to keep those mistakes and those misunderstandings, so it creates its own thing, its own language. We use the English language with a French brain, so I hope to keep the mistakes and the phrases that are awkward, so that the rhythm is strange and the accent is off."
Now that the record is out, Phoenix will be presenting their distortions around North America on a limited U.S. tour and around the world with a giant production that has a giant mirror above the stage and lights beneath the musicians' feet, rather than a traditional light show. "I'm proud of how we spent the money in the production," Mars says. "It has a sense and meaning. It adds an extra dimension to the songs," Mars says. "A lot of other concerts feature less and les instruments and more pyrotechnics, and it's a cliché thing. So we're bringing instruments back with sort of an embellishment, fantasy and aura, in a Kraftwerk sort of way. It's not diminishing the power of the instruments."
He's hoping Phoenix's upcoming shows, which will prominently feature Ti Amo songs, will be an overwhelming experience for concertgoers. "It should be a spectacular setup that is almost too ambitious to become true, something on the verge of collapsing," Mars says in all earnestness. "We're not sure if it will be possible, but at least they'll see something that will be successful and something that will just collapse in front of their eyes."