Since the release of their breakthrough album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix have gone from marked success to marked success.
In 2009, arguably France’s most notable musical export since Daft Punk found themselves in a world of celebrity elites and Hollywood dynasties. Newly crowned darlings of the American ‘alternative’ music scene Phoenix watched as their stock rose to unrecognisable heights. Something which came as something as a surprise to a band who had never really expected to have fans.
Speaking to State, bass player Deck D’Arcy explains that “being from Versailles, which is a very aristocratic place and very wealthy … we felt marginalised in so many ways. And that came from feeling like we had absolutely no audience to play to.” The response to the albums two lead singles, ‘Lisztomania’ and ‘1901’, made sure that was not to remain the case.
Despite Wolfgang being the band’s fourth studio release, success had always been slow to build for the four-piece. But it had been incrementally showing itself nonetheless, “it is really hard to be definitive about success, but I think we have always looked at any success we have had as progressive rather than sudden, do you know what I mean? After the first album, we moved up a step and had some success, then repeated that with Alphabetical.”
When asked if the slow rate of recognition and lack of audiences was a reflection of the incumbent local music scene, D’Arcy is quick to point out that it wasn’t necessarily a problem for them either way. “I don’t think it had much to do with the people or society we lived in. This was because our music was not what most people expected to find in a place like Versailles. We grew up in this mindset of writing music we wanted to hear and we have been making music like that since then.” Equally as quick to distance the band from any talk of developing an esoteric whim or hiding their music in plain sight, he adds “our music is for us but that is not to say it is not for other people too, yeah? Obviously we want people to hear it and hope people that they enjoy it, otherwise we probably wouldn’t bother.”
Clearly not derailed by what was ostensibly an overnight jump into the sphere of arena-grade bands – and the engine of the inevitable superstar bandwagon turning over – Phoenix have stayed true to their ethos of making music that they find interesting.
Having won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix the band now face an expectant public for perhaps the first time. Can their adherence to making music they want hold out while still maintaining momentum? Well, it would appear so. Over the last few months snippets of information regarding the impending release of Bankrupt!, their fifth album proper, have been appearing on their website along with other social media outlets. Comments from their label owner Daniel Glass have added to the intrigue as Glass has publically heralded the arrival of the album as a potentially a career-defining moment, “It is very hard to beat Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but this could be revolutionary.”
And this theme of revolution can be found coming from the band themselves too. Terms synonymous with the French Revolution appeared on their website over the last year. Not that this seems to hold and value for D’arcy or the rest of the band, his reply when asked about the revolutionary element, “Well… we are from a revolutionary place but it is about something else.” Departure? “Yes, maybe departure. Maybe just different, and we take different as a compliment.” The band and their label claim that the album makes no attempt to right the world’s ills or even comment on the state of the first world’s finances. Something which might be a bit hard to believe with track names such as ‘Bourgeois’, ‘SOS in Bel Air’ and ‘Bankrupt!’. But, musically speaking at least, if different is what D’Arcy and his bandmates Tomas Mars, Laurent Brancowtz and Christian Mazzalai were after they certainly achieved it.
Having made the video for their first single taken from Bankrupt! available online last month, ‘Entertainment’ may seem to take up where Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix left off. But the similarities end there. The rest of the album is, as was the band’s mission for it, an exercise in colour, texture and sound. The band decamped to New York’s Oscilloscope Laboratory in late 2010, straight after the last gig of their tour, the band set out reinventing their sound and the resulting work is possibly the most assured and interesting of their albums to date. When asked about their approach to writing the material the band has a very systematic and rigid methodology. “We try to keep songwriting pure and without the effects of touring”, explains D’Arcy, “we were quite slow though [writing the album], for sure. We had nothing written during the last tour and even if, like our first ever tour, we have some parts or ideas, we want to fully develop them in order to hear what the whole song is like. At least, that is the feeling we have.”
Does that explain the four year gap between albums? “Yes but we were busy in that four years, it was half touring, half writing and recording. We never write on tour; we try to keep the two separate as much as possible.” Does this approach ever present a risk of burnout? “Not at all, we did take some time off after touring but it wasn’t a four-year writing process or a four-year break or anything. But we were quite slow though, for sure.” Asked what they feel are the benefits of such a demarcated system of working, D’Arcy explains that “when you give people a chance to discover your music it actually brings something new to us in terms of how we work. This is not always about success or awards, it is about us seeing the response to the music before we create even more.” Surely winning a Grammy counts as a response? “Yes, it was nice, for sure. But winning it didn’t really change anything. We still wanted to go and make something different then. Recently we have been working it out live and have really been pushing things and we are very happy with it. We knew it was a challenge and wanted to be challenged also, that is never a problem. But we have just worked on the lines and the sounds we aim to create something that shows that effort. We are looking forward to playing it live and it will be nice to come back to Dublin after five years away”.
Bankrupt! is out on Glassnote Records on 23rd April, and Phoenix will be headlining Dublin’s Longitude Festival on Friday, 19th July.