Ahead of their Longitude appearance, Phoenix guitarist Christian Mazzalai talks about their fifth album, Bankrupt!, and claims that their recent success hasn’t changed the French band
‘Bankrupt!’ is your fifth album in 14 years. You haven’t been as prolific as other bands, perhaps – is there a reason for that?
I think the reason is because we try to make music without compromises, so if it has to take 10 years, it will take 10 years. The quality is important to us. We would prefer to write songs very fast, but I don’t know why we’re very slow. Maybe it’s because with every album, we try to reinvent ourselves; we try to find a new, rich, appealing formula.
We are like searchers, so it takes time. We do lots of testing and lots of work to find one idea. We’ll throw 1,000 ideas out to find one good idea.
You wrote a lot of material for ‘Bankrupt!’ – was it difficult to distil that into something coherent?
Yeah, it required lots of mixology! It [the writing of] this album was totally subconscious – there was no brain control used at all when we were creating. When it was just the four of us, we were playing music for hours and hours and we recorded everything. And then we had to take all the little sketches of ideas, and develop them. So that’s why it took so long. It was like a big puzzle that you’re trying to put together. We had to be like scientists, figuring out how this little part will become magic and turn into a three-minute song.
Do you enjoy spending time in the studio?
Yeah, yeah. It’s hard, but we love it. We suffer together, because it’s worth it at the end, when you find something that excites the four of you. That’s why we’re in a band.
In-between albums, you also worked on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’.
Working on a soundtrack, for us, was so much easier because you’re working for the director, for the good of someone else. We weren’t working for Phoenix, but for the movie, so that’s a fantastic feeling. It was quite the opposite [from how we usually work]; we did the soundtrack very, very fast. It’s something that we loved doing. We did quite a bit of experimentation on the soundtrack and you can hear that on Bankrupt! – especially the title song.
‘Wolfgang’ really signalled a new era of success for Phoenix, winning Grammys and breaking the US market. How much did that change the band?
Not at all, really. When we came back after two years of touring, it was just the four of us and we closed the door for two years. We were still the same four guys making music and writing albums, so I think we forgot the outside world, totally. We forgot all about the old album, Wolfgang, and we were totally obsessed by the new one. We watched almost no movies and listened to almost no music – we totally forgot the outside world. We wanted to stay as pure as possible, just to think about ourselves.
If you want to try a few things while trying to please a certain kind of audience, I think artistically, you are heading in a bad direction. Our strategy is just to please the four of us. We hope that if it pleases the four of us, then it might please other people, too.
Your style has changed quite a bit since your debut, ‘Untitled’ – do you still consider yourselves an indie band?
If we were in one category, it would be indie rock, I guess. For us, we are still the same band as when we began – but just a band that is growing. Every album will be different until the end, but we’re still the same people.
Do you all still live in France?
We’re travelling all the time, so I don’t really know where we live – but we spend most of our time in Paris. Thomas [Mars, singer] lives in New York and Paris.
What’s the state of the French music scene at the moment? People usually only hear about the big acts like yourselves and Daft Punk.
Sebastian Tellier, you know him? I love him. There are many new bands, but they sing in French. There’s one guy called Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, who released two albums and we love his albums. They’re very romantic French pop songs.
So the days of Johnny Hallyday’s reign are over?
You know Johnny Hallyday? [Laughs]
Who doesn’t? Considering Phoenix’s rising profile in places like the States, what would you like to achieve next as a band?
As long as we are doing exactly what we want, we are happy. It’s not about the numbers or the size of the venues; we are not looking to be a stadium band.
We like playing in front of big audiences, but even a small crowd can be fantastic. In fact, it’s even better, sometimes.
Our only goal is just to continue to experiment and to have the freedom to experiment. We know the luxury we have because of the success of the last album – because of that, we could spend two years in the studio, but we put all of our money into our live shows. As long as we are doing what we want, that’s the goal.
Speaking of your live shows, it’s been a long time since you’ve played in Ireland.
Yeah, we’re so excited to come to Dublin. We put a lot of love into the live show, the lights and the sound – so we hope that you’re gonna love it.
yyy Phoenix headline Longitude Friday, July 19th at 9.45pm