Thomas Mars kicked a fan once, but the guy totally had it coming. Phoenix were playing a concert in Australia last year when the singer leapt into the audience, capping off the performance, as he often does, with a stage dive. “There was this one guy, a surfer dude, and he was grabbing at my shoe, trying to steal it,” Mars recalls. He writhed and flailed, but the Aussie wouldn’t quit. Finally, Mars lost his patience and — bam! He isn’t sure where his boot landed, but it was a hard kick, and the guy let go in a hurry. “I felt terrible,” Mars says. “We’re a very well-behaved band.”
It’s evening in upstate New York, and Mars, 33, is in Phoenix’s dressing room at Cornell University, where the French band is about to face a sold-out crowd of 5,000 in an airplane-hangar-turned- concert-hall. Mars’ tale of violent boot-justice Down Under is surprising because, as he says, everything about Phoenix seems well-behaved. There’s hardly a hint of unruliness in either their physical presence — they’re artfully scruffy and so skinny they almost look 2-D in profile — or their music, which is overridingly uptempo and restrained, from its watchmaker-precise songwriting to Mars’ clean, boyish phrasing. Their breakthrough 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, runs an emotional spectrum that starts at wistful and stops a few clicks later at bittersweet. “No matter if we’re sad or happy or whatever, the music doesn’t depend on the state we’re in when we write it,” Mars says. “There’s something distant about it.” He calls the ideal recording studio a “chambrefroide” — a walk-in freezer.
A decade ago, Phoenix — Mars, bassist Deck D’Arcy, 34, and guitarists Laurent Brancowitz, 36, and Christian Mazzalai, 34 — were four friends from Versailles trying to make a name on the Paris alternative-music scene. Three days from now, they’ll play Madison Square Garden, crowning a touring cycle that’s barely stopped since Saturday Night Live in April of last year, their first appearance in the mainstream American consciousness. The band’s tendency toward austerity makes Phoenix unlikely candidates for rock stardom, but rock stars are — improbably and almost sneakily — what they’ve become.
Tonight’s gig is a warm-up for MSG, as the band prepares to answer one of the biggest questions it has faced: What the hell are four French boys who shun outsize gestures going to do on the planet’s most famous stage? The question is double-edged. They want to blow the place away, but not at the expense of their cool. “We’ve always been afraid of bands we love getting bigger,” Mazzalai says. “We’ve had to think of how to play Madison Square Garden in a convincing way.” “Not something with fireworks, big lights, that kind of cliche,” Brancowitz adds, scoffing.
Right now, they’re focusing on the task at hand, which in Mars’ case means thief-proofing his footwear. He’s hunched over in a folding chair, wrapping gaffer’s tape around his ankles—binding his weathered desert boots, made by the French brand Sartore, to his legs. He’s taken to doing this before every show. He invites me to test his handiwork, so I grab hold of his right boot and start tugging. Mars smiles. I yank harder, whipping his leg around — his chair skids across the floor, but the boot doesn’t budge. “Try all you want,” Mars says. “It’s not coining off.”
Unless you were the kind of kid who loved 17th-century landscaping and the constant company of tourists, Versailles wasn’t a very exciting place to grow up. For Phoenix, the city wasn’t so much a cultural vacuum as a cultural tomb. In Mars’ adolescence, though, thanks to a lone neighborhood record store and a cable feed of MTV’s 120 Minutes, he decided to be a musician and formed a two-man band with D’Arcy: Mars on a snare drum, D’Arcy on keyboard, bashing out Joy Division-ish tunes. “I wanted to be dark, but I don’t know if deep inside I was dark,” Mars says. He describes playing music in Versailles as “a release. It was a very strict, Catholic city. It was like we were making noise in a museum.”
Mars’ parents were businesspeople, since retired to France’s southeast, where they own a vineyard. The only job the members of the band ever wanted was to be members of a band, but as teenagers, Mazzalai sold ice cream to tourists, Bran-cowitz worked at a fast-food joint, and Mars and D’Arcy were bartenders. Today, they can seem like different parts of the same brain: finishing each other’s sentences, translating unfamiliar English for each other, chuckling about private jokes (after concerts, they assign “Zagat ratings” to their performances). Spend some time with them and faint shadings in personality emerge: Mars is the most immediately outgoing, or perhaps just the most fluent in English. D’Arcy is the most reserved. Brancowitz is, in a group of well-dressed men, the dandy. Mazzalai is the most animated and, by the band’s standards, talkative.
The story of Phoenix’s career—which began in earnest in 2000 with the release of their debut album, United — is of a band homing in closer and closer on a sound. Inspired by their friends in Air and Daft Punk (Brancowitz was in a band called Darlin’ with the guys from the latter), Phoenix started off mining the then-declasse stylings of cheeseball disco, pop metal and Seventies soft rock. United is an uneven juggling act, full of cock-rock riffs, Bee Gees grooves and comically smooth sax solos. “It was, like, a punk-rock thing for us to use a saxophonist, because it was totally forbidden,” Mazzalai says. Over the next three albums, however, their sound grew less louche and slinky and more lightweight and propulsive. Wolfgang, full of little interlocking parts and big, laser-cut hooks, is the culmination of that arc. “We trimmed the fat,” Brancowitz says. The album has sold half a million copies, and it won the Best Alternative Album Grammy. (Their plan after the current tour is to begin album five, but they won’t discuss it: “If we say an idea out loud, it dies,” Mazzalai intones gravely.)
Part of the reason for Phoenix’s breakthrough success is that they wrote the two best songs of their career — “Lisztomania” and “1901.” Part of it is that they signed with an independent label, Glassnote, that paid them closer attention (and lent them more business-side muscle) than their previous label, EMI, had. And part of it is that the band made its peace with selling out. Phoenix licensed “1901” for use in a Cadillac commercial, and “Lisztomania” figured prominently in a trailer for the rom-com Valentine’s Day and in an Entourage season finale. “We said ‘no’ to everything forever,” Brancowitz recalls. They’d turned down L’Oreal and Dannon endorsements and scrutinized movie scripts before allowing songs on soundtracks. (Mars’ girlfriend, Sofia Coppola, whom he doesn’t like to talk about except to say that their meet-cute was playing an Asteroids arcade game in her brother Roman’s backyard bar, has used Phoenix songs in several movies, and the band scored her forthcoming Somewhere.) Explaining the loosening of their licensing policy, Brancowitz says something hard to follow about “the poetic beauty of being part of the texture, the fabric of time.” Mazzalai says that the band grew interested in the idea that its songs “don’t belong to us.”
Still, the band’s relationship to fame is ambivalent. “I try to do everything I can so that I’m not the ‘frontman,'” Mars says. “Onstage, we are four in a line, never one in the middle.” For a while, Phoenix had no singer, because no one wanted the job. They insist on dressing the same way onstage as they do on the street — to this end, a Parisian tailor made Mars “about 60” versions of a blue button-down he liked. “And I almost always wear the original,” he adds.
Of course, this is its own sort of anti-pose. When Phoenix play MSG, they hit the stage with a careening, swaggering force their records only hint at, matching their OCD precision with surprising brawn. (Daft Punk make an unannounced appearance, jamming with the band on an extended, set-closing “1901.”) Live, Mars is magnetic, even as he folds his body inward and blushes at his hair self-consciously—and as his crowd-surfing habit attests, he’s not above busting out classic frontnian tricks to stir up an audience. But for him, it’s a methodically thought-out ritual, from the gaffer’s tape to the timing: He likes to dive at the end of his sets, then return to the stage and smash his mic into the floor. Even this serves a practical purpose. “It’s a signal, like, ‘This is the end,'” he says. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than being backstage and people want more and you don’t have more.”
On a chilly afternoon two weeks before the MSG show, Mars is sitting on a patio at the Bowery Hotel in downtown Manhattan, drinking a Peroni. For the past few years, Mars has shared an apartment nearby with Coppola and their two daughters, Roiny, 3, and Cosima, born in June. (Bran-cowitz, Mazzalai and DArcylive in Paris.) “I love Manhattan,” Mars says. “Even midtown I find exciting. I imagine I’m in a scene from Tootsie.” When it came time to work on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band holed up in various locales — a houseboat on the Seine, a rented Paris flat, a palatial suite here at the hotel. “We got a big room with a terrace where we could make some noise,” Mars says.
We’re joined by a friend of Mars’, a music-video cinematographer named Francisco Soriano. The two scrounge together cash for cigarettes — “I’ve got $11,” says Soriano; “I’ve got $3,” says Mars — and have a smoke. Soriano shot the clip for “Lisztomania” and, recently, worked on Kanye West’s short film, Runaway.
“I heard Kanye screened it in Paris,” Mars says. “My friend told me Kanye came out, gave a little talk and cried.”
“I could see that,” Soriano says.
“Kanye interned at Louis Vuitton,” Mars says. “Sofia was designing a bag for them, and was like, ‘How’s it going?’ And the guy was like, ‘Ugh, Kanye’s here. He’s an intern, but we have to give him VIP treatment.’ He was slowing down the creative process, because he would ask, ‘How do you make this? What material is this logo?'”
Hip-hop on the brain, Mars mentions the time Jay-Z, Beyonce and her sister Solange watched Phoenix’s set at Coachella. “We’re about to go on, and suddenly these black Escalades pull into the artists’ area, and they get out,” Mars recalls. “I looked down and Solange was singing along. I was so stunned, I messed up the next three lines.”
Telling these anecdotes, Mars’ demeanor is wide-eyed, but also a bit sidelong, like he’s discussing members of a club he respects but isn’t much interested in joining. This is clearest when he brings up a story that the Strokes’ Fabrizio Mnrotti and Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill told him about how, on tour years ago, they met a legendary drummer, who eagerly offered them cocaine. “Like, ‘This is what you do, boys — play a show and do coke,” says Mars, who doesn’t do drugs and barely drinks. “‘It’s the rock & roll life!'”
While we’re talking, a pretty girl conies over to our table. She works in textiles and knows Soriano from around town. Mars asks her to name the best place for fabric in the garment district. She mentions a store “where you can buy monkey fur.” Then, realizing who I am, she apologizes and asks Mars if he’s done with his interview.
“Yes,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette and standing up. “I’m going to the bathroom to do some cocaine now.”