FEATURE: Phoenix Remains a Band Apart

FEATURE: Phoenix Remains a Band Apart

Photographer Anna Bauer
September 28, 2009

When Thomas Mars, singer of Phoenix—the only French rock band the world has ever cared about and rightly so—offers you a bottle of wine from his father’s vineyard as you sit in the kitchen of his parents’ beautiful house in Versailles, literally across the street from the palace grounds of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, where the band has written and rehearsed every song in its nearly 10-year history and probably before that when it was just 13-year-old Thomas and his friend Deck “banging two notes back and forth,” and you think about all the times you listened to a Phoenix song and wondered what they were like (Are they jerks? Do they party with Daft Punk? What do they eat?)—it becomes very, very difficult to think objectively. It’s not that he and the other members of the band—the aforementioned Deck D’Arcy and brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz—are overwhelmingly chic and make you swoon to their constant romance (you do that, too), but that they are just genuinely nice people. It catches you off-guard. If this is what it’s really like to be around famous artists, why not move into the guest room, paint watercolors and sip champagne while they play the best songs you have ever heard in the basement? Maybe something magical will happen. This benevolent seduction is the whole plot behind Phoenix’s music: It is so undeniably cool but so effortlessly engaging that, once you drop your preconceived notions of what is French and what is rock & roll and what is acceptable as a responsible journalist, you kind of just want to forget everything else.

The band is in Versailles preparing for the first live shows for their new album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, since conquering Saturday Night Live in April of this year. They seem anxious but focused, going over, again and again, the crescendo of “Armistice,” which builds from a simple, tumbling harpsichord to a surge of guitars, keyboards and pounding drums. They are having a difficult time finding a way for one person to play live what was recorded on several overdubbed tracks. Each of them plays the harpsichord notes in question on the keyboard and then explains himself to the others. Mazzalai counts off each take—Un, deux, trois, quatre!—and plucks the rising guitar line of the part. D’Arcy and Branco join in on bass and keyboard, respectively, while Mars sits against the wall. All four trade looks as if reading each other’s minds. Maybe they are.

The next day in Paris, over Cokes and charcuterie, Mars and Mazzalai explain the unusual bond the band has developed since growing up together in Versailles, a conservative small town with great historical significance but little else. “Branco and Chris are brothers, but we have the same bond,” says Mars. “It’s exactly the same link between all of us.” Mazzalai backs him up. “We are more than brothers,” he says. “What we are doing is such an odyssey, to be together 12 hours a day for one year and a half, there are moments when we are so down—everyone—that when we achieve it, the more we are growing, the more we are a team.” Brancowitz puts it more colorfully. “When we first played music together, it was like the pact that terrorists make with their first crime.”

Even now, in the same Saint Germain neighborhood in Paris where Picasso and Sartre and Hemingway held court in cafés decades ago and where the four members of Phoenix currently live, they have chosen apartments within blocks of each other. Just as they grew in isolation within the static beauty of Versailles as youngsters—as Brancowitz says, “like animals in the Galapagos”—they now exist comfortably in Paris, at once fully connected with its history of artists and icons and apart from it, by design, as rock stars in a city that doesn’t really listen to rock & roll. “They just want life to continue as it is,” says Phillipe Zdar, one half of house duo Cassius, who served as a sort of conspiratorial production mentor to the band (they produce themselves, always) during the recording of Wolfgang. “To do the music they are doing now and be the most successful possible, but continue to buy cheese at the same shop down the street. Paris is very good for this, people really don’t care.” This is readily apparent as Phoenix walk through bustling Sunday streets on a sunny spring afternoon in Saint Germain. Not one person stops them or looks at them until they reach the crest of Pont Neuf, a touristy bridge near the Louvre, where a few kids say hello. Then again, Shoichi is here.

Shoichi is Phoenix’s biggest fan. They met him while touring Japan several years ago. He knew all their songs by heart and shared his encyclopedic knowledge of French pop. Shoichi recently married his Japanese girlfriend in Paris. Shoichi was at the house in Versailles the day before. Shoichi seems mildly obsessed with France. Whether he is or not, the guys in Phoenix like him, so he is always welcome. He is also a fitting representative of Phoenix’s fanbase, which is large and varied—they’ve sold a fair amount of records and sell out concerts worldwide—but still feels a strong personal connection to the band. “When we write music we expect a revolution,” says Mars, speaking of fans’ reactions at shows. “You see what you create, and it’s sometimes scary. You see couples making out, fights. You can’t really control what’s going on. People put their lives in our stuff.”


In the early ’00s, when Phoenix was mixed up with Paris’ pop avant garde—Air, Daft Punk, Sebastien Tellier—you could imagine them reveling in this mania. But they are a bit older and wiser now and seem very happy with the family life. Mars, as is well known, lives with his girlfriend Sofia Coppola and their three-year-old daughter Romy, named after her brother Roman. Brancowitz is now married, and Mazzalai and D’Arcy are or have recently been in long-term relationships. They are all in their early 30s and are becoming legitimate adults. And yet, it still feels like they are the same inseparable boys who met in school. “They’re really genuine, great guys and they’re that way with their work, their personal lives and even their performances—it’s just them,” says Roman Coppola. He first met the band in 2001 when they approached him to do a video for “Funky Squaredance,” a genre-hopping oddity from their album United, which Coppola subsequently translated into a nine-minute stream of consciousness multimedia meditation on the meaning of life and art that includes a photo of himself wearing a sweatshirt that says “I Love My Family.” At the time, it seemed indulgent, a young hip artist getting meta over a very meta-getting song. In retrospect, it was the only appropriate response to a first encounter with Phoenix’s music—I Love Something. This is their gift: making rapturous pop that coaxes unbridled displays of emotion. Their hooks are hypnotherapeutic.

Several months ago, I spent the best Christmas in Paris with the girl I love, walking through the mazed Tulerie Gardens during the day and down the Champs Élysée at night eating crêpes, drinking insanely great wine and whisky at cafés in Saint Germain as late as they would let us and smoking Gauloises in the windowsill of our little suite while jazz floated from nearby buildings where young Parisians celebrated the holidays. This was, of course, a total cliché but also totally, endlessly satisfying and romantic. We saw Wes Anderson in a restaurant off Boulevard Saint Germain one night and probably could have sold him the diary of our week for his next screenplay. It was like that. We listened to a couple of Phoenix’s older albums—Alphabetical and It’s Never Been Like That—while we were there because those albums are perfect for carving hearted initials into the old ceiling timbers in your hotel room and skipping through rain-slicked alleyways, half-drunk and completely enamored. “Rally” and “Second to None” and “Everything is Everything” jangled along while the City of Lights sparkled in her eyes. It was incredible.

And then we broke up—the kind of sudden yet inevitable break-up that makes you dive into deep self-analysis. So I did what any fool would do and went back to Paris in the spring, when the entire city blooms in pastel and people of every age start making out all over the place. The same sparkling streets that held so much promise a few months earlier now seemed lined with dark corners. The same golden brasseries where we nestled like natives now felt like private societies. And those kissing couples—assholes! I drank wine and whisky and smoked Gauloises in windowsills, like before, but mainly wanted to jump from them when the glass was empty and the fire went out. I listened to Phoenix’s new album constantly during all of this and it didn’t do much to cheer me up.

She and I hadn’t listened to a single second of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix together, but I could only see her face during the escalating instrumental heartbeat of “Love Like A Sunset, Pt. 1” or “Lasso”’s Where would you go with a lasso/ Could you go and run to me or the entirety of “Lisztomania” or the previously mentioned crescendo of “Armistice,” which is pinned to Mars’ desperate wails of For lovers in a rush/ For lovers always/ Foreign lovers in a rush/ Keeping promises. It was a joke. I was losing it. Even “1901,” quite possibly the most ecstatic single of the year, a song that absolutely begs you to be in dumb love, has the lyric You know your girlfriend’s drifting away. I walked around Paris with this on my headphones, going the long way to avoid any place that might trigger some kind of pitiful breakdown but always ended up taking a wrong turn and walking straight into the heart of breakdown city with Phoenix blaring.

I actually tell Phoenix about all of this—minus the jumping out of windows part—and of course, they are really nice about it. D’Arcy and I discuss the astrological shifts that must have precipitated his and my recent respective breakups. Brancowitz seems almost sheepish about his marital status. They buy me a glass of Brouilly because it’s the thing to drink in Paris now, fresh and rich and ruby red. I feel better for their sympathy and start thinking again about moving into the neighborhood, painting those watercolors and hanging with Shoichi. I ask them if they think this album is more melancholy than their previous efforts because it sure seems like it. “We never think in terms of happy or sad because the two are so much together in our lives,” says Mars. “They are always intertwined. I think in our music it’s the same—it’s always the two sides, and depending on how vulnerable you are, you see the sad or the happy.”

Think about the last time you considered misery as a necessary part of life. Not on some masochistic, pain is life type shit, but on an existential, “all good things must come to an end” level. The best times of your life won’t last forever but at least they will have happened. And when they are over, you will need friends who won’t let you down. They will have to be more than friends, more than family. They will have chosen to be there and you will want to repay them for it. Friends of that quality are nearly impossible to find. Phoenix got lucky. They not only found their friendship out in lifeless Versailles, but continue to protect each other and their music by only making it when, where and with whom they want. As a result, we get songs as malleable as our memories. They can make us jam around the apartment or party our balls off. They can make us kiss each other on the lips or punch each other in the face. They can make us fly all the way to Paris from Tokyo to snap a few photos or they can make us want to stay at home just to watch how someone holds a glass of wine. They can make us think about someone we don’t really want to think about anymore, or, because we know we’ll be listening to them forever, they can make us wait until we see someone else’s face when the songs come on.

FEATURE: Phoenix Remains a Band Apart