Phoenix got more creative than ever on Alpha Zulu
Thomas Mars, shaggy-haired and momentarily breathless, exudes a slightly harried air on the Zoom screen. The Phoenix singer, who confirms he’s “hectic but good,” has just returned from tour, and is back in New York, where he lives with his filmmaker wife, Sofia Coppola, and two children. He’s home for a mere 12 hours.
"It's fun. It's exciting times. I can't complain that we work. We were in the pandemic for two years not doing anything,” he says.
Mars and the lineup — Deck d'Arcy (bass/keyboards/backing vocals), Christian Mazzalai (guitar/backing vocals) and Laurent Brancowitz (guitar/keyboards/backing vocals) — have been doing plenty since their youthful 1997 inception. The soulfully quirky pop-rockers initially gained major U.S. traction thanks to 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and the irresistibly bouncy single "Lisztomania.” That fourth record won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 2010.
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The group’s seventh release, Alpha Zulu (out now via Loyauté and Glassnote), was created in splendid COVID-19 isolation in Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, part of the Palace of the Louvre. “They let us use the space during the pandemic; a sort of artist residency. It was incredibly eerie and dystopian, but great at the same time,” Mars says. “Napoleon's throne is not my favorite [piece in the collection], but it's the most surreal and ridiculous, and that's the last thing you see before you enter our studio.”
The singer-songwriter’s English arrives with an accent that reveals his nationality. Both Mars and his musical compatriots were raised in an area with another world-renowned historical space: Versailles, the palace in the city of the same name on the Western edge of Paris. That locale, Mars explains, was “hushed. In Versailles, noise is not welcome. Everything you do is disturbing the greatness of the past.”
Not so in Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where Phoenix could rock sans compunction. While the foursome’s smart indie rock has creative rococo-ornate flourishes and an often energetic elasticity and quirkiness, the band are decidedly more self-aware and accessible than much of the art from their home country. On songs like Alpha Zulu’s title track, an under-three-minute gem with an irresistible “Woo ha, singin' hallelujah” chorus, and “Tonight,” a perfectly wrought tune that features Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend, Phoenix sound self-assured, smart, but relatable. Alpha Zulu isn’t inconsistent, but while some tracks, including “Season Two and “The Only One” aren’t attention-grabbers, “After Midnight” is. Boasting an Electric Light Orchestra vibe with nostalgic contrapuntal textures, it’s captivating, like “All Eyes on Me” with its slightly darker musical tones. Overall, there’s aural brightness to the band’s often-danceable quirkiness that’s not unlike Sparks, an American band practically worshiped by the French.
Mars has lived mostly in New York for quite a few years, and is more than conversant on the cultural differences between France and America. As with most pre-internet kids (Mars is 45) radio, records, and word-of-mouth was how music was discovered. Growing up, the musicians had American musical influences, but even more so, British ones.
Mars explains, “There was a really huge void in France, in the early ‘90s especially. There was nothing French that we could relate to. There was no music that was interesting.” That’s not merely Mars’ personal opinion, as the singer explains.
“France had a bit of a trauma because, in the ‘60s, America [and its culture] after World War II was so dominating that the songs that were played [on the radio] in Italy and France were just covers that were translated in French. …We didn't really have our own identity,” he says. "We thought we had an identity, but then people who knew music knew that the songs were not French.”
Phoenix’s own music proved reactive. “We were doing the opposite. We are singing in English, but writing our own songs, and lyrically, we were trying to be somewhat accurate.”
At the start, at least. But now, after years in New York?
“I guess what changed with me is that the more I spend time in the US, the less I care about being accurate and the more I embrace the mistakes.”
He “blames” that quest for accuracy on Americans’ passion for the French language. “I was exotic here … when I would ask [my friends], ‘Is this correct?’ about the lyrics, they’d go, ‘You can say whatever you want.’”
Additionally, there was also a time when lyrics didn't matter as much to him, so Mars “really embraced nonsense." He says, "I saw the charm of this thing [where] you create your own language. Because when we write songs, it's all stream of consciousness, then we try to make sense of everything … I embraced the mistakes and embraced the awkwardness of it.”
It can be hard for any artist to get out of their own way, but Mars notes that during Alpha Zulu, “I was more at ease now with the creative process. I'm less stressed to be correct. I find meaning in different layers.”
The frontman also knows Italian and German, and is somewhat of a linguist. It’s led him to realize that “even with flaws and with awkward mishaps,” intent and emotion is absorbed by the listener. He says, “There’s the French we have, and I’m always coming back to in my mom's German, too. In German, there's no lexicon. You can build your own words. There's not a definitive amount of words: You can just create them as you can add them. You can make a 45-letter word.”
There’s nothing quite that extravagant on Alpha Zulu, but the songs are cool, dramatic and creative, as is the band’s wont. Yet the LP’s inception was sparked by a sad tragedy: the accidental 2019 death of their most profound collaborator and friend, Philippe Zdar.
“It’s linked to our producer passing away,” begins Mars. “We went to his funeral, and three days after, we went in our new studio. There, it felt that whatever [song ideas] we did before had not nearly as much gravitas. All the things which we created before, we erased them.
“Philippe had a very clear path; at the same time it was chaotic, but he had these concepts that always stayed with us. There’s probably 200 small things: what happens when you have the chorus, all these small systems," Mars says, comparing it to producer Brian Eno's recording studio card game called Oblique Strategies, in which artists pull a card with suggestions on how to switch up a track when they're stuck. "He had the same [kind of strategy], so they did stay with us, and we always apply them.
Zdar's influence comes through on the record in even more ways, though. “We do think of Philippe for ‘Identical,’ especially as that was the first [song], so that is very literal about him,” Mars says. “The other ones all have Easter eggs a little bit. Some I wasn't even aware of. I discovered them afterwards, like Ooh, this is really about Philippe.’ So what's nice is that when we write songs, it’s also a little bit of a therapeutic moment for us, too, to that we are not really aware of.”
Reflecting on the occasion of Alpha Zulu’s release, Mars is pleased with Phoenix’s career trajectory. Initially, outside of the States’ later adoption of the band, their growth was “very steady. The second album was a hit in Scandinavia. The first one was a hit in Italy. Then, you go to a place, and all of a sudden, you're the shit, tickets to the show are sold out. But that was always the exception."
“Now, with seven albums, things really evened out,” Mars says. “People know our whole catalog. It's nice, people don't want us to play the hits all the time. It’s quite the opposite. I think we got lucky that it was our fourth album that was the most successful one, and was also not an anomaly. It was a record that we were really proud of.”
“When your success is a song that you crafted and you appreciate and you don't mind playing over and over, it helps a lot,” he says. “I'm glad also [the success] came late. We had time; it's a rare thing. For us, there was no YouTube, no record company craving to sign us; we really had time to get better and grow.”
If Phoenix have a modern sound, they don’t necessarily subscribe to modern media methodology. “The way music is built today; you have to feed the algorithms to have a voice. You have to engage as much as possible. It’s unnatural, it’s not a healthy thing,” Mars believes. “[Phoenix] need a moment to stop and be creative and fill the tank.”