Phoenix: This Post “Lisztomania” Life
There is a sense of darkness in the world right now, but Phoenix’s new album, Ti Amo, resonates with light. Written and recorded over the course of three years, the album contrasts with the social and political circumstances that surrounded its creation, with each song reflecting a sense of levity and joy.
“There’s a Serge Gainsbourg quote that says he wrote optimistic music in sad times,” singer Thomas Mars says, calling from Paris where the band has been rehearsing for their upcoming world tour. “He was talking about breakups. He said he makes joyful songs when he is heartbroken, and the opposite. So maybe it’s the fact that you can create some sort of near future that you hope is coming. You force your destiny.”
“We realized very early that we were doing music that was very light,” guitarist Christian Mazzalai adds. “It was the idea of a fanaticized, perfect summer. It was a healer for us. Maybe it’s because of the hard times of the world nowadays. Music was helping us escape a bit.”
It’s been over four years since Phoenix, which also includes bassist/keyboardist Deck d’Arcy and guitarist/ keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz, unveiled their last album, Bankrupt!, on Glassnote in the spring of 2013. In many ways, that effort was a response to the critical and popular success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band’s Grammy-winning fourth album, and its singles “1901” and “Lisztomania.” Bankrupt! was a complex, mood-driven collection of songs, which they recorded with longtime collaborator Philippe Zdar. It spawned several hits, including “Trying to Be Cool,” but there was a sense of reaction against their recent success embedded within the tracks. On Ti Amo, Phoenix once again worked in response to the music that came before.
“There was no vision,” Mars admits. “Every time we go into the studio, it’s the work of the unconscious and the chemistry between the four of us that’s keeping us interested. There’s never a master plan when we start over. It starts with the negative. It starts with knowing what you don’t want to do, which is really hard because it can be destructive. It starts by canceling all the paths you’re not interested in and then, somehow, with the unconscious and the work of our chemistry—and also with time—it comes together.”
That process, he notes, is an exhausting one, even though the actual creation of the music is pleasurable for the band. “I don’t recommend it,” he laughs. “But it is also a very empirical process because it’s something we do more as time goes on with each record.”
There was little discussion going into Ti Amo. After finishing touring behind Bankrupt! in 2014, Phoenix rented a room on the top floor of the Paris theater La Gaîté Lyrique, which is notably located a short distance from the Bataclan. The theater had shows in production when the band members set up computers, wires and gear in the room, and they spent nearly every day for three years locked inside. The quartet enlisted engineer Pierrick Devin to co-produce the album with them. Initially, Phoenix had hoped to work with an outside producer and, as Mars put it, “bring someone else into the circle.” But in the end, it made more sense for the four musicians to helm the sessions themselves.
“We just know what we like,” Mars explains. “We are control freaks, too, so I think it gives us satisfaction to do everything ourselves. We’d rather learn and not do it the most professional way, but it has character when you do everything yourselves sometimes.”
“Maybe less professional, but more true,” Mazzalai agrees. “It could have sounded a bit more pro, but not in a good way. When it’s too pro, it loses innocence. And on this album, innocence was the key word for us.”
The members of Phoenix, who grew up together and have been working together officially as a band since 1999, prefer not to enter into an album with too many expectations. But they do have some stipulations for how they work. For instance, the musicians often elect to shut out the outside world while creating, refusing to watch TV or listen any other music. They want the process to feel genuine and essential to only the four of them. This time, though, the world felt somewhat inescapable, mostly because both Europe and the U.S. began feeling the push of conservative movements and the rise of terror threats. The attack at the Bataclan took place in 2015 while Phoenix was in the process of writing and recording Ti Amo. It was no longer possible for the group to ignore the atmosphere around them.
“Usually, when we record, we are like hermits,” Mazzalai says. “We close all the doors for months or years, and we don’t watch TV. Nothing. We’re kept from the outside world. But, for the first time, we were writing in the middle of Paris in this theater where people were still working, so I think it influenced us. It’s a little soon for me to see how, but I would say yes.” He adds, “The whole world has this crazy tension. Right in the center of Paris we could feel the tension.”
That may explain the lightness on Ti Amo, which has a buoyancy to its songs. Bankrupt!’s lukewarm reception may also have contributed. For Mars, these two albums are contrasting companions, which you can hear when you listen to soaring, synth-laced numbers like “Fleur de Lys” and first single “J-Boy.” The title of the album is an homage to the sort of romantic graffiti you see on the walls of Italy. There is one that reads, “io, te, 1 moto, la velocità, 1 sogno, il mio sogno, ti amo,” which translates to “me, you, a motorcycle, speed, a dream, my dream, I love you.” It made sense to name this collection of music after the idea of love, especially since the band almost called the last album “Je T’Aime” at an early recording stage.
“The previous one had some negativity that I liked, but it felt like that had been expressed in Bankrupt!,” Mars says. “At some point, we had to embrace the negative aspect or the positive aspect. It was very black and white with these two records, in terms of the feel and everything. From the sounds to the lyrics to the art to the live shows, they’re strangely complementary.”
Ti Amo has a purposeful sense of fantasy—or, at least, as purposeful as a band like Phoenix, who claim to channel something far more unconscious in their process, can make it. Mars knows that the band’s classic songs will fit in with these new tracks live, but he isn’t exactly certain of the forthcoming reaction to the album itself. It sounds resolutely like Phoenix, but the airy lightness means that these songs don’t hit as hard as some of their previous numbers. The hooks are gentler and it’s more of a summertime record than anything they’ve made in the past.
“When you see a band play live, suddenly, everything makes sense and you see where all their songs come from and how it works,” Mars reflects. “An album is more intricate. It’s its own thing, which is good because it’s a new version of you. When we started making the album, I felt like I was bored with myself personally. I was bored with my voice. I was bored with my ideas. I had to create some sort of fanaticized version of myself with music.”
Both “J-Boy” and “Fior Di Latte,” a charming, mid-tempo pop number, reflect this idea. The latter, with its Mediterranean beats and dulcet melody, has a real romantic sensibility to it. For Mars, there’s also an element of scifi in the song. “It’s something I always wanted to achieve,” he says. “It has some sort of uniqueness and singularity to the song, to the lyrics, to the world it creates. It has a strange mix of English and Italian, but with a French brain. That’s what I like the most—when it’s a singular thing.”
At this point—six albums in and with nearly two decades behind them—the members of Phoenix still force themselves outside the box. The musicians don’t want to find a formula or follow a pattern. They took so much time on Ti Amo because they wanted to get it right. Ultimately, Phoenix pulled the 10 songs from thousands of hours of music they’d created over three years. They wanted to ensure that anything that could become a strong song had time to develop and that they had enough space on each track to reflect on it with some perspective.
“That’s a tough question because that’s what we are trying to avoid when we write,” Mazzalai says thoughtfully when asked to describe what constitutes a Phoenix song. “But what you can’t avoid is the four of us.” He pauses, realizing there might be something that unifies the band’s entire discography. “Maybe,” he says, “especially on this album, the emotions are always mixed. You start to think they are happy songs, but there’s always a little melancholy behind the chords. It’s bittersweet. I think it’s the best emotion. When you’re between pure sadness and pure happiness, you know? When you confront these two feelings, there’s a complexity that is there. It’s a neverending emotion for me and, I think, for all human beings.”
Both Mars and Mazzalai (who mentions early on in the conversation that this is his first interview for the new album) feel that they can’t know yet exactly what Ti Amo is. They know it feels lighter and that making it felt like a healing process for them. They know it sounds unlike anything they’ve done in the past. But they aren’t totally sure what it all means. “For us, it takes time to realize what we’ve done,” Mars says. “When the record is done, it’s only halfway into the middle of the tour that I realize what we wanted to express. It’s such an unconscious process. It’s almost like a psychoanalysis. It takes that playing for people and the record being out to realize it.”
That tour, which will have launched by the time this article runs, will mark Phoenix’s first time on the road in several years. The band didn’t play a live show while making Ti Amo, and the only thing they did outside the studio was collaborate on the soundtrack to The Beguiled, the new film by Mars’ wife Sofia Coppola. At the time of this interview, in late April, the musicians are itching to get back on the road. Phoenix didn’t think at all about the live show while writing Ti Amo, so now they are working on the best way to present the music onstage. That will hopefully involve an elaborate visual experience, which the musicians are designing themselves.
“We’re too ambitious at this level,” Mars says. “We may have to tame it down. You will know by the time this runs if we failed miserably or if we did it. But we have a vision for the live show.” He laughs, adding, “I’m pretty certain it will happen, but I may regret saying that.”
“We want it to be special,” Mazzalai notes. “We hope it’s going to be very unique. We wanted to stay as pure as possible while recording. We don’t want to restrict anything. There’s this danger if you think about the live show. So we’re putting it all together now that the album is done.”
The musicians may admit to some nerves about the forthcoming response to the album and its accompanying concerts but, ultimately, they aren’t making music to please other people. They wrote Ti Amo because they felt a tension in the air and wanted to create a force for healing. They wrote it because they wanted to try something new after making Bankrupt! They wrote it because the four of them went into a room, began to play and something arrived, mostly unconsciously and unexpectedly. Ti Amo may ease your own sense of the darkness, too, but that’s not necessarily the point.
“It’s for us,” Mazzalai says. “When we do music, it’s a very selfish process at the beginning. If you try to please people, you’re artistically dead. That’s what we think. Maybe the album will be healing for other people, but we’ll never know.”