For a French band making its first big splash in the U.S., Phoenix had a great 2009: Its fourth full-length, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, spawned two big singles and picked up a Grammy for best alternative album.
The band also earned a dubious reputation for being slow to record new music. Meticulous to the point of obsession, Phoenix labored over its follow-up album. Four years later, it's finally ready for eager ears.
Billboard magazine wrote that the music on Phoenix's new album, Bankrupt! is "overflowing with little nuances, even by Phoenix's audiophile standards." NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with vocalist Thomas Mars and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz about what motivates the band's slow-and-steady working process. Click the audio link on this page to hear the radio version, and read more of their conversation below.
JACKI LYDEN: Your last album won the Grammy for best alternative album and had two huge hits, "Lisztomania" and "1901." And Bankrupt! has been one of the most anticipated releases in rock music in years. So how did your approach to writing and recording change knowing that you had such a force majeure behind your backs with the last album?
LAURENT BRANCOWITZ: We thought maybe it's time to make things that are a bit more elaborate — complicated, maybe — because we knew that we could write songs that would grow on people, at least for maybe three listens. We had this extra chance and it kind of slightly modified our way of thinking about this new record. But that's it, I would say. The rest just we did the same way. When we come into the studio we always have these big ambitions. And after two weeks, reality happens and we realize it's gonna be long and painful.
You do a lot of re-writing, don't you?
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah. We edit. We are editors. Modern musicians, I would say.
Do you sketch out songs? You're writing in English, it seems. So who sketches out the songs first?
THOMAS MARS: It's a group effort. It's still a mystery to us, really. We are not really trying to understand how we write a song. But I think what's maybe specific to us is that we're not really scared of the blank page — we're scared of not choosing the right one. So what we do is we record everything we come up with, and we usually listen back on those small voice recorders — one, two days later. I think our brain wants to do something that's familiar and wants to go in places that are comforting, and what we wanted to achieve was to go in different places. And so usually the first things we come up with are not the ones that end up on the album. What was exciting at first was not exciting after a few days. And things that we were refusing, rejecting — they're the ones that ended up on the album and took time to just accept.
So very layered, very deliberate. I love the track on the new album called "Drakkar Noir," referring to the men's fragrance. I think I've seen it on little carts in India — lots of hotels, airport fragrance bars. It's a big duty-free.
MARS: I don't know why, but it ended up being the symbol of mediocrity — and that song is about mediocrity and the things in the middle. When we grew up, people would wear that in college and it was — it's the antithesis of perfume. Perfume should be unique. The idea that someone — that a group of people are smelling the same and that that smell is to hide some sort of testosterone, it's more camouflage. That seemed fascinating to us. If there's a joke about it, a lot of themes coming out on this record have this sort of weird fascination.
Did I hear you say, "To hide some testosterone?"
MARS: Yes, camouflage.
The lyrics: "Drakkar Noir, cheap fixtures, religious tales / Light a cigarette for two / You're too close to get to / How come everyone knows you before they meet you?" You know, that is absolutely the signature of a bad perfume. Although I confess, by now I've been wearing the same one so often that people say, "Jacki, I could tell you were here." Maybe I need to make a change.
MARS: No, that's a compliment. I wouldn't change that. When you can remember — that's very strong. But if you smell like 2,000 people, that would be an issue to me.
BRANCOWITZ: eBay. Does that count?
Yeah, it works. You're so mysterious that way, Phoenix.
BRANCOWITZ: What's great is that it was available to everybody, you know. It was very expensive in the beginning, like $1 million or whatever. And then the guy couldn't sell it. The whole thing looked like a scam, you know. And so two years [later] we noticed it, and maybe the only little moment of genius we had on this record was when we realized this thing looks so fake that it could only be true. So we did some research and it was actually the piece of equipment that was used for Thriller.
You could tell?
BRANCOWITZ: We couldn't. But the engineers that were involved at the time, they recognized it. And yeah, it was just, we need to buy equipment because it's our job. A lot of times it's a very boring moment, and buying this piece was really poetic and exciting. So yeah, we had a lot of fun.
You paid $17,000 for it eventually — so you got the person down?
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah it was a big bargain.
MARS: When we went back to eBay, that was the price. We didn't want to negotiate it lower. We thought it was already embarrassingly low to pay that much for this piece. It wasn't about saving money, that much. ... We were just wondering why people didn't want something like that. I wouldn't understand why people would buy, you know, a coffee mug that's touched by Eric Clapton. They'll buy it for 300 bucks. [But] a piece of equipment that can do great music and that's unique, no one wants that?
Did you put any Michael Jackson touches into Bankrupt!?
BRANCOWITZ: Actually, we thought about it, but it's maybe the first album we bought, and the one that has kept its mystery. It's a very mysterious forest. And I think we thought about that: What makes this particular piece of music so unique? And I think it's the relationship between tradition — Quincy Jones and this whole tradition of American music — this tension between tradition and the will to do something that's completely modern, that has never been heard before.
As I went about our building today and talked to people who have been really excited that we're speaking with you, people have said, "You know, it's taken them a long time because they're very meticulous and they often discard weeks of recording sessions and start over and over again." It sounds like you went through a lot to finish each individual track.
BRANCOWITZ: We are very humble in the studio. We can really spend six months, and then a year, and then suddenly you realize it's a bad idea. And I think part of the process is to tire our egos. So we are just apostles and we are just trying to convey our little personal gospel.
Your little personal gospel? It makes me want to ask which kind of apostle you are?
BRANCOWITZ: I would be St. Paul, of course. I wasn't a believer in the beginning and suddenly I was touched. I was blinded by the light.
Which track on this album took the longest to make?
MARS: It's a very different album from all the previous ones because we started all the songs at the same time and we finished them in two weeks; they all grew up together. It was very exhausting and very frustrating for us because everything would rely on the fact that the four of us were on the same wavelength — that we would know exactly what the other people were thinking and where this was going. And also if a friend or family would come in the studio and after two years wanted to hear something, we couldn't play anything. We had to believe in the process. We knew we were on to something but we couldn't verify the information, you know? We couldn't ...
That's a really frightening feeling!
BRANCOWITZ: Terrifying. Terrifying would be the word. [When we started playing] in the United States, it was comfortable. There was no sense of fear. And as soon as we got to play in the United States, [we] went out on Saturday Night Live. It was the first time that we'd played the songs off the album and it was live on TV. Here was this idea that we could fail. And it got us to do way better, I think. It got us to play better and just to enjoy the experience a lot more.
You spend a lot of time in the studio, but then you turn around and you tour like crazy. So clearly, you really like engaging your audiences.
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah, we spend so much time in a cave that when they open the door, we can't stop running. And we enjoy it a lot. And also I think this record, it's very important that people hear it played by real people because there are so many layers, I think people could just believe it's just the work of a computer program. But when they see us perform it and they see we play every single note with our fingers and our vocal cords, they realize that the goal is to be humans trying to sound like robots. But they need to see it, you know, to perceive this tension.
I understand there's a deluxe version of Bankrupt! that's 71 tracks long? Is that true?
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah, that's correct.
MARS: It sounds generous but it's pretty selfish. We got rid of everything so the next album can start without any foundation.
I've heard your producer, Philippe Zdar, described as the French Phil Spector, and not necessarily in a good way. That sounds a little scary.
MARS: No, no. He's lovely.
BRANCOWITZ: He's a sweet, sweet version of Phil Spector.
So how did he work with you? What was his secret?
BRANCOWITZ: The secret is that he loves our music more than we love our music. So when we are in the studio for so long, we kind of lose touch with reality and he's always there to push us and to love and cherish the songs that after a while we kind of begin to hate, you know. He's always there with pure, positive energy. And he's also a very good technician but with us, for some reason, he never touches any equipment. He's more a creative adviser and like a positive force.
That's so important.
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah, it's very important, especially for us, because we know each other very well and it's very hard for a fifth member to interfere with the process. He's the only one who could find [an appropriate] role.
I understand that he's also a connoisseur of champagne? No?
BRANCOWITZ: His studio is really the opposite of the typical recording studio — which is usually a place we try to avoid because it's very clinical ... which I never understood. But anyway, his studio is the opposite. It's really beautiful. Every piece of furniture is chosen with the most exquisite taste and the fridge is filled only with the champagne. There's no water.
I want to ask you about this other track, "Bourgeois." There's a section that goes, "Darling, you never know / It started years ago / When you're less than kind of done." And then it goes to say, "They give you almost everything / You believed almost anything / And you'll learn from all of us / When your time is up."
MARS: I think it's a song that we could only write for this album. It took us time to go far from where we grew up, which was Versailles, and to have a very honest song about it. Just to sing the word "bourgeois," for us is really traumatizing. We [haven't played the song] in France yet, and I'm not sure how people will respond to it. I'm not sure if they will embrace it or if they will, how do you say, tilt their heads down, just be ashamed.
It will have a lot of political meaning there, of course.
MARS: You know, growing up in Versailles is like growing up in a museum, and the people living there are almost the security. You know, everything great was in the past and there is no room for anything else; any kind of [new] music is noise. At the same time, it's where the revolution came to with this idea. So when we sing, "You'll learn from all of us when your time's up," that's sort of the 2013 sans-culottes.
I've heard Parisians who've grown up there sometimes say, "Oh, it's one big museum." But at the same time, in your lyrics and in your music, nothing could be more modern. There's nothing, I think, comfortable. In fact, it's searching. It's restless.
BRANCOWITZ: I think you're right. I mean, "bourgeois" is kind of a forbidden word in rock 'n' roll, you know? And the way we sing it as a chorus is something that is very magnetic for us. The things that you are not supposed to do — we are always attracted to that. And so I guess, yeah, lyrically and even sonically, you can feel this tension and the wish to cross this frontier land to find new territories. That's what makes it all interesting. We work so hard in the studio; it's so painful for us. The only way to make it worthwhile is the fact that maybe behind the mountain there's some kind of new tropical fruit we don't know the taste of. That's what keeps us going.