Interview

Q&A: Phoenix On Bankrupt! And The Perks Of Being A Semi-Late-In-Life Success Story

At a time when so many new bands explode out of the gate on the strength of a debut EP and a wave of Internet buzz, only to fizzle into the painful obscurity of no longer being the hot new thing by the time they get around to making a sophomore album, the success of Phoenix is a ray of hope. Though they’d achieved a fair amount of success and fair to favorable reviews for most of their nearly decade-long career, the band didn’t properly blow up until they released album number four, 2009’s monster hit Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. After spending the better part of two years touring and promoting that record, the band then spent another two years huddling in various studios around the world working on what has become a feverishly anticipated follow-up. Despite bearing what might seem like a pretty epic weight of expectation, the band assure me that they made the new record at their own pace in the only way they know how — by simply locking themselves away from the world and waiting to see what would happen. I sat down with the band’s vocalist Thomas Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai to chat about how Brankrupt! came to be.

STEREOGUM: I first interviewed you guys around the time that Alphabetical was released — sometime back in 2004 — which seems like a lifetime ago. I remember thinking that you guys were just on the cusp of kind of breaking big right at that moment … little did anyone know that it would be another five years or so before that actually happened. Were you surprised when Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix ultimately blew up?

CHRISTIAN: Oh yes. We operated at the same level for a very long time. Many years of playing not-very-big venues. Eventually the venues started to get slightly bigger, but it took a really long time. We played Bowery Ballroom a lot, which is actually very nice — you get to know the security guys on a first-name basis — but you start to wonder if that is as good as things will get. We really needed something to happen, so the success of Wolfgang was really a gift. It allowed us to do all these other things. After 10 years of so, it was a nice thing to finally have happen to us.

STEREOGUM: If that record hadn’t been such a success, what might have happened to the band?

CHRISTIAN: Oh, probably we still would have been happy. We’d probably still have made another record and it would be the same as this one we’re here talking about. We might have had a little more pressure this time knowing that maybe more people were gonna be interested in what we did next, but when we entered the studio last December we kind of just forgot everything and closed all the doors for the next two years. During that time it was still just the four of us in a room working … not that different from how we approached things in the past. Still, you can’t deny that success does change things.

STEREOGUM: If nothing else, the increased weight of expectation must lingering in your mind somewhere …

CHRISTIAN: Oh yes. I was just reading a biography of Prince and it was interesting to think about how every album he made after Purple Rain was basically considered a failure because they only sold a few million copies or something. It’s crazy to think about it in that way because he made so many great records after that and they have all aged really well … except maybe for Batman. Maybe not that one.

STEREOGUM: That idea is so prevalent in the music industry now though. If you don’t at least match the sales of your previous record, if you don’t at least get the same rating, if not better, from Pitchfork, then it’s a disappointment somehow. It’s such a dumb way to think about art.

THOMAS: It reminds me of when we made our second record. It’s like, ok, we have one record done now, so let’s really go crazy this time. Let’s go big! So we hired the Paris Philharmonic to play on this one song — it wasn’t even the finished song, it was basically the demo — and that consumed our entire budget. For a seven-minute song with totally crazy arrangements. It became totally out of control and eventually we had to scrap it from the record, which was a really hard thing to do since we had already spent so much money on it. It was ridiculous.

STEREOGUM: Ha! Whatever happened to it?

THOMAS: It’s saved somewhere on … I don’t even know what we were using then — a floppy disc?

CHRISTIAN: A true lost classic.

STEREOGUM: So when the four of you do finally get locked away in a room together to make songs, has your way of working changed radically over the years or is the dynamic still pretty much the same?

CHRISTIAN: The same, but deeper.

THOMAS: Oh, the same.

STEREOGUM: How are songs usually born? Are you guys jammers?

THOMAS: We really grew up hating the whole jamming kind of situation. We thought it was really lucky that we didn’t have a drummer, it kept us out of having to work in what was a very traditional band context.

CHRISTIAN: Bands that jammed were all about showing off their skills, which we didn’t have so much in the beginning. We grew up, just the four of us, and learned how to write a song together at the same time. We truly didn’t know what we were doing, so we kind of learned together just doing it. We’d record things onto a shitty 4-track and sometimes, you know, we wouldn’t even know the name for a chord so we’d just hum it into the 4-track. It’s a very weird combination that exists between the four of us. I don’t think any of us would be able to work very well with someone else … it’s like we only really know how to write songs when it’s the four of us together. Me alone? I’d write a very boring song. So would Thomas.

THOMAS: We are really dependent on each other in that way.

STEREOGUM: Four years is a pretty healthy gap between records, did you spend all of that time working?

THOMAS: We didn’t plan on taking so long, but we also wanted to deliver something really pure and good. I feel like we kept saying things like, “In two months we’ll be done with this … ” And then we wouldn’t be.

STEREOGUM: What took so long?

THOMAS: You know, there are so many records coming out so quickly … it’s kind of embarrassing. Like, if you are successful you have to immediately turn out another one while people still care about you. We didn’t want to be a part of that. Also, with so much music constantly being released out into the world we felt a kind of responsibility … like, it’s almost irresponsible to put another record out there unless it’s something ambitious and actually has something to say. The whole process is very selfish, but we felt like we needed time to make something good. I’m amazed when I think about how people in the ’60s and ’70s were putting out two or three records a year sometimes. I just don’t know how you would do that. I could see it if we were living back in 1700 and most people died by the age of 28, then you needed to be prolific by the age of 16 because you probably weren’t gonna have a lot of time to make things. But as for us, we’re pretty healthy … and we need a lot of time to make something we feel good about. Also, we don’t own a studio, which would allow us, maybe, to waste even more time. When we get together and go into a studio it really requires us to focus on making something good. You have to make something with the belief that on the day it comes out it’s somehow going to change everything. It’s a very naïve way to think, but you have to be able to believe in it that strongly even though ….

CHRISTIAN: Even though in reality nothing changes. I remember we put out our first album expecting that our lives were really gonna change … and then nothing changed. Still, we always have that fantasy when we finish a record.

STEREOGUM: It’s important to make music that excites you that much, otherwise why do it? It’s kind of a cliché that bands will often say “This is the best thing we’ve ever done!” even when you suspect that maybe it isn’t, but honestly, if you don’t really feel that way about what you make, why put it out? It should always feel like your best work … or you are doing something wrong.

THOMAS: I think that often when a band makes a terrible album it’s because they’ve basically made it as an excuse to go back on tour. At the same time, I understand that nightmare feeling of going out on tour and looking at your setlist and it’s only old songs … that isn’t satisfying either.

STEREOGUM: You guys toured for nearly two years on the back of Wolfgang — which is another reason why it took so long for another album to happen. Were you totally burned out?

CHRISTIAN: We were very tired. Still, we got back together and started working on new stuff about two days after the tour ended. We actually couldn’t wait to do that.

THOMAS: We also have a rule that we don’t write songs while on tour. It’s maybe a stupid rule, but we’ve always had it.

STEREOGUM: Why?

CHRISTIAN: I think it’s important for all of your energy to go into playing good shows when you are on tour. Your focus should be on that.

THOMAS: We’ve written things on tour, but it’s mostly been little things — pieces of music to be used in film scores, stuff like that.

STEREOGUM: You guys are working with Philippe Zdar again for this record. I’ve heard him referred to as an unofficial member of the band in the past.

CHRISTIAN: We’ve known him forever. More than anything, he’s a friend. He’s part of the family.

STEREOGUM: How does it usually work? Does he hang out in the studio with you while you record and sort of direct things or is he more hands off?

THOMAS: Oh no, he would just pop in every couple of months and see what we were doing and give us his input. He has this amazing way of judging things and giving his opinion. He could judge this bottle of ketchup on the table and give you a very serious opinion of why it’s good or bad without even needing to think about it. He can listen to a song once and within two seconds give you his opinion of why it’s good or bad and what is working or isn’t … and that’s it. He doesn’t change his mind. Even if the four of us are opposed to his idea, he never changes his opinion. It’s very good for us to have someone so decisive.

CHRISTIAN: At some point during the recording process we tend to gravitate towards one song that really represents this big idea of what we are trying to do. Philippe always has this fantasy in his head of the record he wants to hear and he comes into the studio and tells us. He is extremely positive and affirmative too, which is good for us because we can really be like a bunch of children. If someone says maybe the drums are too loud on one song, we’ll be like “Oh no! What have we done with the drums! Everything is ruined!” And he is very calming … he understands our references and always seems to understand what we are trying to achieve. He can usually see the bigger picture when we are too stuck in the details. We always know that there will be 10 songs on the record, but sometimes that’s all we know … He can visualize the bigger thing and help us see it too.

STEREOGUM: That’s what makes a great producer great. It’s about helping you realize your vision — or like someone leading you out of a maze.

THOMAS: It’s interesting. He understands our references even when they are obscure. We actually only talk about music about 10% of the time, the rest is EVERYTHING else … totally random Seinfeld conversations that somehow make sense at the time.

STEREOGUM: Bankrupt! has a serious ’80s vibe … at least in terms of production. It reminded me of early OMD records or something. That kind of production can sound really dated or thin when it’s done wrong, but in this case it sounds fantastic … especially when played really loud.

THOMAS: Thank you. When we first started making records in our bedrooms — you know, when you record track by track — it sounds really dry. Maybe because you have only one good mic and everything has to be done piece by piece. I think that has stayed with us and influenced the way we like things to sound. There’s a lot of reverb and stuff on this record, but it still has that kind of — I call it a dryness, where you hear everything, all the parts — and I think that comes from the way we made records in the beginning. I remember when we made our second album we built this special little room — we shrank the room down, like, four times — in order to get the driest sounds possible. It drives you crazy after a while because there is no sense of space in the music, everything is very isolated. As a result, I think that’s a record that only sounds good if it’s played really loud.

CHRISTIAN: The second one? Yeah.

THOMAS: That’s the one record that, if I hear it played somewhere, I always think it doesn’t sound right. I think we actually put something on the record advising people that they needed to play it loudly.

STEREOGUM: Ha! I always loved that the Cure’s albums always had something in the credits that said “This music is mixed to be played loud so turn it up!” It was advice that my teenage self really took to heart.

THOMAS: We are always so loud in the studio. I’m not sure how this record will sound when played at lower volumes.

STEREOGUM: In what ways did the runaway success of the last record influence the making of this one? Were there certain ideas or experiences that specifically informed what this record is about?

THOMAS: For some reason I think we were really drawn to themes that seemed really unusual or overlooked somehow. There was a real fascination for things that were unused or mediocre or cheap. There was this fantasy to give beauty to things that might not usually be celebrated. I became interested in the distinction between things that are either very beautiful or very trashy … and everything in the middle. I remember being on tour and trying to, you know, watch good movies — going through all of the Ingmar Bergman movies while reading Borges or something — while also being unable to stop watching trashy YouTube videos constantly. Being constantly inundated with both the high and the low … a lot of the lyrics for this record came out of that idea I guess.

STEREOGUM: I find it amazing how many things in popular culture are simply unavoidable now. You can’t NOT see it, even if you want to. Like, I kind of resent the fact that I know all of the Kardashians names, even though I’ve actively tried to avoid ever seeing that show. My brain can’t seem to hang on to things that I actively studied in college, but somehow I know all about the Teen Moms and the Kardashian sisters without even trying. I hate that.

THOMAS: Yes! I actually had to start watching the Kardashian show now that Kanye is involved. I wanted to know what it was all about. In a way, a show like that says so much about the culture, which makes it kind of interesting … but then you are stuck with that information in your life.

CHRISTIAN: I don’t know the names of the Kardashians, but I know what they are.

THOMAS: You don’t know Kim? Come on. They all have names with a K.

STEREOGUM: Will you tour this record as exhaustively as you did the last one?

THOMAS: No, we’ll do it the more French way … two weeks on, two weeks off.

STEREOGUM: Are you excited to play these new songs?

THOMAS: Oh yes, that was something we were thinking about when we were making them.

CHRISTIAN: I wanted these to be songs that I could play even if I was just alone with a keyboard. I wanted them to be solid in that way. We are also really happy with how excited people seem to be about hearing the songs. It’s hard to play a bad show when the audience is so excited, when even the roadies seem excited. I find it really amazing.

STEREOGUM: How do you think things might have been different if you’d achieved this kind of success with your first or second record?

THOMAS: I’m glad that we didn’t, honestly. And I’m glad YouTube didn’t exist back then.

CHRISTIAN: We love it. We cherish those early years. Our first shows were very bad, but we were having a good time and we really learned in our own way on our own time how to be a band and how to get better. We can be very uncompromising about certain things now because we had those years. We were able to take our time.

Phoenix’s Bankrupt! is out 4/23 via Glassnote. They play SNL this weekend.

Tags: Phoenix