In the past year Phoenix have conquered the world, even cracking America with their fourth album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Yet they have managed to do it without toning down their distinctly European personality. “Not just European — continental European,” guitarist Laurent Brancowitz says. “Our approach is very continental. The lyrics are all about Paris and dead people.”
But there’s one thing about the French guitar flâneurs that never changes — they attract a very female crowd. As one friend puts it, they are the very definition of “hot girl music.” “Yes, I’ve noticed,” Brancowitz admits. “For sure, we are not doing music especially for men. When we were in the studio, we were talking about this consciously: ‘We must do an album that women will like.’ ” The female fan base has its benefits. As singer Thomas Mars says, “That’s why we don’t have trouble finding people to work for us on the road. We asked our sound engineer, ‘Why don’t you tour with some larger band?’ He said, ‘Are you joking? Your show has beautiful women every night.’ ”
One stereotypically European thing about Phoenix is their cerebral and analytical approach to things that most American bands would pretend to be totally unselfconscious about. Brancowitz and Mars are two of the most articulate and intelligent rock stars imaginable, so naturally they have lofty ideas about the aesthetics of playing for women. “Women are a more interesting audience,” Brancowitz says. “They are more open to a pure form of pleasure. Men are more interested in demonstration, the technical virtuosity. Women have their arms open to celebration.” Phoenix especially notice it in the live show. “When we played Williamsburg last year, I could see all these guys who were standing and folding their arms. That’s how I am at a show, too — when I’m having a good time, I stand and fold my arms. It’s the women who start dancing. But it’s good to have both kinds of audience — and it’s especially good if they end up having sex together after the show. That’s our goal.”
The four men of Phoenix grew up together in Versailles, a city steeped in French history. As Brancowitz explains, “The king built Versailles as an imaginary city for the nobles. He built this castle, and put the nobility there, so he would have complete control over his environment. So it’s a city that doesn’t really exist. What is existing there now is the ghosts of this past, this glorious past. The perfect symmetry of the architecture became part of our imaginations.” The antique atmosphere of Versailles shaped the way they experienced music. “It was like growing up in a museum,” says Mars. “Everything great was in the past. So we had this obsession with music that sounded new. A drum machine was much more important than a real drum.”
The band members (Mars, Brancowitz, his younger brother Chris Mazzalai on guitar and Deck D’Arcy on bass) met at the only record store in town, where they recognized each other as regulars. They became friends with the local boys in Daft Punk (“Thomas from Daft Punk sold us our first eight-track recorder”), though not Air (“They were three years older than us, so we didn’t know they existed until we moved to Paris”). As far as they knew, they were the only music scene in town. Says Mars, “We saw music as a very selfish thing. It wasn’t to get girls, because there weren’t any girls to get in that town, and it wasn’t to please people, because there weren’t any clubs or audiences to play for. So it was just for us.”
Each of their first three albums was about 10 times as good as the previous one, but nobody could have predicted the musical and commercial breakthrough of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. No French band has ever come close to this kind of worldwide impact. As befits their Daft Punk connection, they’ve always been a guitar band that operates more like a dance act — hits like “1901” and “Lisztomania” thrive on minimal guitar grooves that emphasize rhythm above all else. “We love the aesthetics of minimalism,” Brancowitz explains. “Partly that is the influence of the architecture of Versailles. And partly it is because we cannot really play.”
Phoenix have just recorded soundtrack music for Somewhere, the upcoming film from Mars’ girlfriend, director Sofia Coppola, who lives with Mars and their child in Paris. According to Brancowitz, “It’s very minimal — really it’s not even music, more like sounds. But the movie is brilliant and the soundtrack was fun to do.” They are spending the rest of this summer on the road, touring the U.S. and Europe in what’s basically a victory lap for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, hitting festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.
But one last mystery: If they’re so European, why does they sing in English? Mars has a typically thoughtful and elaborate answer. “One record company told us nothing would happen if we didn’t sing in French, but we didn’t care,” Mars says. “French lyrics are wordy, because of the grammatical structures. Our lyrics are very cryptic, and we love nonsense. That’s a luxury we don’t have in French, because every word belongs to the phrase, so everything has to make sense. You can only do those lyrics in English. Hank Williams singing ‘My heart is full of tears’ — that’s not possible in French. You would have to say ‘My heart is full of blood, and the blood is wet, and therefore the blood is like tears’ — and that’s not a song. That’s why there’s no French Hank Williams.”