When French alt-rockers Phoenix take the stage as the fourth, unofficial, headliners at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival on August 10th, the song parts each band member plays off new album Bankrupt! may not be his own.
“We experimented much more on this album, and we changed instruments many times,” guitarist Christian Mazzalai said recently. “Actually, we don’t remember who played which instrument. I don’t remember who wrote which part, and who played which part.”
It’s been four years since Phoenix broke through the “indie” barrier, finally equaling in sales the critical praise they had for years piled up.
Singer Thomas Mars (Mr. Sofia Coppolla), bassist Deck d’Arcy, Mazzalai and guitarist-keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz had their first gold-certified record with fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009’s Grammy winner in the alternative rock album category. Singles “1901” and “Lisztomania” climbed to the top of charts around the world, Phoenix attained fame and celebrity, and for the first time in its 15 years, the band was facing outside pressure to write a worthy follow-up.
It’s understandable that Phoenix would want to take more time to write new songs. What’s unusual is that Mars and his bandmates spent relatively little time in the recording studio. It was all part of a strategy to avoid ending up with an album full of overproduced songs.
“We have a few little rules; one of the rules is that we always take the first take when we record,” Mazzalai said. “On our first album, United, … our quest was perfection. Our idea of perfection: For every (song), we recorded, like, 90 takes.
“But we discovered that it’s not the only (way),” he said. “We discovered that the first take is always better – at least for us. Because there’s dissension and distention, and there’s something naïve and pure (in the first take). It’s like we were discovering something unreachable.”
Were all 10 songs on the album recorded on the first take? Mazzalai said, “90, 95 percent” of them were. What took the longest amount of time was not recording, but writing and crafting the parts and lyrics to each song.
“We prepare for months and months and when we record it’s just one take – very fast,” he said.
Bankrupt!, released in April and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart, is a departure from the radio-friendly Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which meets the band’s goal to create something new each time.
Phoenix’s highest aim with Bankrupt! was to create an album that was a polar opposite of the “beautiful and big” chef-d’oeuvre that was its predecessor – something subtle and less mainstream.
“We tried to put it in another context so it would become beautiful,” Mazzalai said.
The slick, airy songs address themes of fame, celebrity, wealth and conformity. Second single “Trying to Be Cool” speaks to several themes at once, and its video shows the band members flailing at being cool as they cavort with a baboon, women in bikinis, and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, perform in the middle of a flash mob, dress in tight-fitting clothes and select fashionable mustaches.
When asked if the video is a statement that they are not as cool as their fans make them out to be, Mazzalai coyly responds, “Do you think so?”
Next week Phoenix will play Outside Lands for the second time. Their first appearance, in 2010, was a daytime slot. The rise in the band’s popularity and a headlining slot – they will be closing out the Twin Peaks Stage – presents new challenges.
“When you are playing in the middle of the day, you have nothing to lose; you are a challenger,” Mazzalai said. “When you play headline, you have everything to lose. That’s the beauty of it. It’s more dangerous to be a headliner, more risky. You have to do something different.”
The guitarist said he relishes the nighttime slot because the band gets to control a more expensive light show.
Mazzalai has fond memories of Phoenix’s first appearance at Outside Lands in 2010 – it may be a bit cliché, but many of them revolve around food.
“I remember very good coffee, I remember very good food, and (with) the show we did, we loved the reaction of the crowd,” he said.
“We love the idea that it’s in the city. Usually, festivals are far in the countryside. When we played, we played with Kings of Leon (the same year), and they invited us to a barbecue with one of their chefs from the South. It was very fantastic food. So, yeah, I have many good memories there. (Outside Lands) is about music and food. It’s good.”