Today we herald the arrival of a new album by one of our secret favorite bands in the whole intergalactic star system, Phoenix. It’s Never Been Like That takes up where the French sensations' second album, Alphabetical, left off: the lite jazz qualities have been put on the sidelines (erm, for the most part), and a harder, rockish bent finds its way onto more than a handful of the new tunes. Yes, we just used the word “hard” in conjunction with the band “Phoenix,” but shit is relative, yahmean? Phoenix rolled thru town a week or so ago and played a bang up set at the Bowery Ballroom, but we were too generally geeked and throwing our hands up for rarely heard songs from The Virgin Suicides soundtrack to pull it together and snap any photos. Lucky for us, singer Thomas Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai took some time to sit down and speak with us about the purity of truth and the well-behaved citizens of Berlin.
So what have you guys been up to?
Thomas Mars: We’re on tour until Christmas. So far we’ve done three shows in France, but it’s good now. Things have changed. I’m not sure, I’ll have to wait for the release of the album, but I think that [the French audience] is finally accepting us. You need to suffer to be accepted—that’s the French way. [Usually with] the first album, you can’t succeed. In France, they’re not familiar with bands that sing in English, unless they’re from Sweden or countries [where that’s the norm]. In France, for the two first albums, there was only small crowd that liked us.
There wasn’t pressure for you to sing in English?
TM: No, never. People wanted us to sing in French—record companies and so forth. It was a marketing thing. So the more you meet people who say you should sing in French, the more you stick to your own opinions and you go with English.
What’s going on with the French scene these days? We’ve been following some of the music from over there, like TTC and Justice. Is there more of a scene happening in Paris than in the last few years?
TM: Yeah maybe, but it’s so chaotic in Paris, and it seems all those bands are having problems. It’s more their quest to find something independent with integrity [that unites them], than it is the actual sound of their records. There’s definitely a struggle to make your own path in French music, because you’re surrounded by so many ugly things that you have to do everything yourself. That’s an amateur thing that everyone wants to stick to.
Do you mean ugly politically or socially?
TM: No, in music. I’m not the right person to speak socially about my country. I don’t feel that because we’re outside of France, we have more of a reason to make statements about French things.
Christian Mazzalai: Yeah, we’re very [much] outsiders in France. Like Air and Daft Punk.
Apart from being outsiders, is there something that unites all of you?
CM: Yeah of course, it’s the style!
TM: We’re always surrounded by friends, too. All the managers from Air and Daft Punk, they are our best friends.
So why’d you go to East Germany to record the new album?
CM: Because we wanted something really new. Something under construction. And Berlin is perfect for that—it’s always under construction. In terms of ideas, we needed to build something. We needed fresh air to find inspiration. If we had stayed in Paris with our same recipes…Berlin was perfectly romantic.
TM: We like the city, that’s why we went there. We didn’t feel like tourists—there was something we could relate to.
CM: [The Berliners] are perfect citizens. We went down with no songs, just a challenge—a frightening challenge. Really wanting to feel like kids, to write music with no roots.
Are you happy with the results?
CM: Yeah—we delivered something so fast that we couldn’t really control it. [We were looking for] the truth. The purity of truth. We didn’t control it at all. There are lots of mistakes, but they are authentic. We put aside our egos.
And you think this is the album that is will break you in Paris?
TM: I don’t think it has anything to do with this specific album. I think it’s just the right time. The French are slow.
CM: Yeah, we’re slow.
TM: We knew that [one day we would make it]. We don’t even know it [for sure] yet, it just feels like there’s something in the air that is giving us more opportunity.
Can you talk a bit more what influenced you during the recording process?
CM: I think it’s the year we spent before we went to Berlin [that influenced us]. We stayed in a post-Bauhaus factory house in Berlin for three months. So there weren’t really influences then—we didn’t listen to any music—we were just really focused. But during that one year we took inspiration from around the world. We traveled. We didn’t go to Australia or Africa, but we toured everywhere else. The album is the resolution of that tour.
How did you get together as a band?
TM: We’ve known each other since the schoolyard in Versailles.
CM: There was no one else doing music. In five minutes we knew we would be friends. It was natural.
CM: We loved music together, it was a long journey. First we were in an indie English band, sort of like My Bloody Valentine, then we discovered music from the past. I met Thomas when I was six.
What about the pop element of your music? There seem to be layers to what you’re doing—but it’s sort of immediately accessible.
TM: That’s something that we love because, for us, if something is very strong it can reach anyone, and at the same [it can reach] people who are specialists.
CM: We like purity in form. To create something simple that has something more complicated behind it.
What about the title - It’s Never Been Like That. It has a very ’70s sex-rock kind of thing going on, no?
TM: We didn’t want any kind of statement that would overshadow the record. We even thought about not putting on a title. Because for us this record was very straightforward. The production—there is no production. It’s very naked. And most of the songs are like that. So to us it was something honest.
CM: There is nothing to explain, really. We are very explicit, very direct, very autobiographical. Thomas wrote the lyrics.
TM: I wrote them on a typewriter.