We’ve Got A File On You: Phoenix
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
There’s an old and very widely accepted urban legend that if a shark stops moving, it will die. Not true — it has something to do with water moving over the gills and blood vessels and so on. Too bad, because a shark’s need to be constantly pushing forward in order to merely exist would make a pretty good analogy for Versailles’ very own Phoenix, the world’s finest and possibly most beloved indie pop-rock band.
“I think we were too obsessed with creating something interesting for now,” says frontman Thomas Mars, seated next to his bandmate and lead guitarist Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz, both of whom are quick to put the past behind them in favor of all things new and progressive. No one would blame you for assuming the two were brothers, often finishing each other’s thoughts in between good-natured ribbings and misremembered anecdotes. After all — and this is true — the members of the band have never been apart for more than a few weeks at a time during their quarter-century of playing together.
Of course, that was until the pandemic hit. What was a dark time for the rest of the world didn’t leave Phoenix unscathed either, forcing the quartet to confront mortality and uncertainty in personal and often uncomfortable ways. But out of the darkness came Alpha Zulu, the band’s seventh full-length. We took a trip down memory lane with Mars and Brancowitz — even if it took a little coaxing — talking socialism, sake, their longtime relationship with Daft Punk, and recording in what may be the world’s most priceless studio.
Alpha Zulu (2022)
I should start out mentioning that this is a historic We’ve Got a File On You, because it’s the first one featuring more than one person interviewed simultaneously. Up until now, it’s been a solo interview series. Thomas, you don’t do press unless someone else from the band is with you.
THOMAS MARS: Well, it’s true that a band is an endangered species. We have to protect bands these days [Laughs]. The songwriting, everything that we do is the four of us, so we try to show that at every stage.
Alpha Zulu feels like a big moment for the band. It’s your first record in half a decade, and it falls on the band’s 25th anniversary. What kind of perspective on Phoenix does that afford you?
MARS: We are in a train in the middle of the night, and we don’t really have a sense of perspective of 25 years. We never, ever think in those terms. So it’s hard for us to answer those kind of questions. But there are moments on tour, in the studio, they are like milestones. For instance, where we are playing tonight [the South Side Ballroom in Dallas, TX], right outside the door there is a poster of our show in 2018. So you do remember … you are competing with yourselves a little bit, because when you play the same venues, when there’s a pattern a little bit, you try to evolve and do something different, but at the same time you remember what it was [like] and you hope the show will be as good or better.
So there are these few moments of self-awareness, of being … Remembering that we played here. It’s nice to go to new places. In New York City we played Radio City Music Hall, which we’d never played before. It’s nice to come back to certain places and go to new territories as well. Otherwise it would feel too repetitive. When we repeat ourselves, when we come to the same places, we make sure that it’s different, that it’s a different experience and feeling for everybody, including us, specifically for us.
So you’re not big on nostalgia.
MARS: No, not for us. We are big on nostalgia for let’s say, Bob Dylan? Because it’s kind of counterintuitive. Pure nostalgia doesn’t really work well with creativity for us. There is always a nostalgia and melancholy during the songwriting. For instance … for the [Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix] 10-year anniversary maybe, we only played once a show where we thought, “Oh, we’re going to play Wolfgang for once in its entire order,” and it wasn’t that exciting for us, these moments of celebration, celebrating the past. But we love music, so we are big on nostalgia for other people.
This album came together after the pandemic had slowed enough for you all to get back into the studio together, because you didn’t want to share ideas remotely. I heard that before pandemic lockdowns, the band had never been separated for longer than three weeks at a time, since you were in your teens. What was the experience like getting the band back together, literally?
MARS: Creatively it was great, because all the frustration was released within the two weeks of studio, so we did a lot of recording and came up with a lot of material in a short period of time. So I guess it helped in a way … we took it for granted that we couldn’t see each other all the time. I think it helped us put a little more gravitas in the songs, more depth and a little more intensity. Usually, when we are working on an album, we spend maybe 80% [of the time] talking about other things. So this time we were focused, and it was very efficient in terms of creativity.
You recorded Alpha Zulu at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, which is part of the Louvre palace. How did that come to fruition?
MARS: We’ve always been looking for unusual, interesting places to record our music. We don’t like the music studios that are too professional, with a few exceptions, but in general, they are kind of sterile. So for a long time, we’ve been looking for spaces, and by coincidence the museum was opening for artist residencies. And they really didn’t expect musicians to be interested, but we are used to transforming any kind of room into a recording studio. Even as teenagers, we would record in our basement. Any space could work. And now this place was really special because it’s in the heart of Paris, symbolically. And also, the light. Everything was really beautiful.
And Napoleon’s gold throne is just around the corner from the studio.
MARS: [Laughs] That was the last thing we’d see before entering the studio, his throne.
What was it like writing and recording amidst all that art and history and opulence?
MARS: It was definitely even better because the museum was asleep. Because of the pandemic, it was closed. It was eerie and a little bit dystopian, but also … nothing was curated. The exhibits were a mess. Our studio would be the storage space for the museum at some point, and certain things were under white cloths, things were in crates. It sort of felt like the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark a little. It was more inspiring because it was less conformist. It reminded us all the time that we were going through a very unusual moment in time, and maybe putting things in perspective.
Because there was the pandemic, there was only one entry to the museum, and that entry was at the opposite of our studio, so it would take us 10 minutes to walk to the studio. And that 10-minute walk was a sort of very fresh cultural shower, where you could choose your path, and go through whichever medieval time or Memphis Design or whatever you wanted to see before. It was really interesting, yeah. I think the combo of pandemic plus the place made it very unique.
The themes on this album aren’t necessarily light — tragedy, fear of aging, uncertainty about the future — but musically, it’s pure technicolor, despite those trademark twinges of melancholy sprinkled throughout —
MARS: You should’ve written our bio! Because that’s exactly what… these last few sentences sum it up exactly. It’s true. It’s technicolor, and at the same time it’s about death and aging and a lot of … it was a very dark time, so yeah.
What do you find interesting about those juxtapositions?
MARS: That it’s slightly off. I think when we went to Japan, we were working on — I’m not trying to do product placement — but when we worked on our sake —
We’re gonna get to that, don’t worry.
MARS:: We discovered that the difference between art and artisan — how do you say, artisanal, artisanship? In Japan it seems as if there so good at reproducing, and are so loyal and so respectful of traditions that … it’s craftsmanship, it’s really reproducing it exactly. But it seems that art is more about the flaw in the reproduction, the thing that’s slightly off. To talk about the pandemic, almost like the RNA vaccine, when there’s a duplication of cells and something’s off?
LAURENT “BRANCO” BRANCOWITZ: I don’t know where he’s going with this [Laughs]. RNA? Craftsmanship? And?
MARS: When there’s a mistake, we’re always looking for when those two things are not perfectly aligned. And it’s the same when we write a song. There’s a major chord with sad lyrics, that a cliché example, but a juxtaposition of things that shouldn’t match, that shouldn’t be together. And so this album was specifically a bit more of a Frankenstein album because we tried to spread the spectrum as wide as possible and put things that really shouldn’t coexist together. And we embraced the flaws, we embrace a lot of the mistakes and first takes and stuff like that.
I was listening to NPR the other day and they had an old interview with Tom Waits, and he mentioned something about how his favorite kind of music was having beautiful melodies tell him terrible things, or something to that effect.
MARS: Serge Gainsbourg is also from that school.
This is the first self-produced Phoenix album, correct?
MARS: Long pause [Laughs]. It doesn’t really feel like we had a real producer before, we had Philippe Zdar and we had people that were involved, but we were always producing in a way. But fully? The mixer played an important part on this one. And Thomas [Bangalter] from Daft Punk came a few times to help us out, just to play the role of Philippe, who was this charismatic force that knew who we were and could give us advice because he knows where we want to go, he knows where we come from, he’s a friend. Thomas played a little bit of the same role. He knows the potential of a song; he knows what a demo could sound like. He would help us choose a little bit. So it’s not fully 100% us, but it feels like it’s almost always us producing every album, even though sometimes it says “co-producing,” I’d say — not to brag! — it’s mostly us [Both laugh].
I was sorry to hear about Philippe’s passing. If you don’t mind me asking, what has the coping process been like, and what was it like making a record without his input?
BRANCOWITZ: Philippe had a really strong personality, and in a way, he’s stronger than death, because his influence is still felt. For us it was particular because we would work very intensively with him for a few months and then we would go on tour and do our thing, and we wouldn’t see each other for a long time sometimes. So in a way, we live under the impression that he’s doing something somewhere else. It’s a bit like that.
And in the studio, he wasn’t there, but we could feel what he would’ve said, we could protect ourselves imagining. It’s a weird thing where maybe the process isn’t finished, but I don’t feel it. It’s not like he’s dead, you know? I don’t know if it makes sense, but it’s very weird. And cool, because he’s the kind of guy… you’re less afraid of the afterworld knowing he’s there already. We went to his funeral, and the number of people and the diversity — there was the barista, crying. The butcher. He was such a strong, loving character that … he defied death, in a way.
Phoenix Congratulate AOC (2019)
Congratulations on being the youngest woman ever being elected to Congress!
— Phoenix (@wearephoenix) January 4, 2019
Ten years before she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a student at Boston University, doing what every other college student was doing in 2009, which was dancing to “Lisztomania.” A video of her doing as much was released by right-wingers in hopes of it embarrassing her, which clearly backfired. What were your impressions of that whole thing? You even reached out publicly on Twitter to congratulate her.
BRANCOWITZ: We were really happy, you know; we don’t know the subtleties of American politics.
It’s not very subtle.
BRANCOWITZ: That we figured. But yeah, it was a great moment. I remember we were super supportive — I don’t remember what we said — there were a lot of very negative comments which I remember, which is kind of rare. “I’m going to stop listening to your music now,” you know? We could feel the subject was very divisive, but for us it was very hard to understand why. For a European, politically, she would be like in the center, or even a bit right [Laughs].
MARS: Maybe center, center-left.
MARS: Center, center.
BRANCOWITZ: It’s very hard for us to perceive…
MARS: Socialist is not a — I’m hoping now in the US it’s less of a bad term than it was five years ago. But socialism in Europe is not a bad term, so there were a lot of red flags. But what was fun was that I think there was more love towards her, and the music, and the fact that people bonded with those moments. Like you said, a lot of college students were dancing to that song at the time. That this pushed some sort of Republican, evil plan — it’s a messed-up plan — to bring her down, this was really joyful to see that the plan was totally failing, and the response was just a very spontaneous amount of sheer love and music. That’s pretty satisfying.
The Phoenix Sake Collection (2017)
Musicians have made for good bedfellows with the booze industry for a long time now. You mentioned Dylan earlier, he has his own whiskey. But you guys are the first band I know of to have produced three different kinds of your own Japanese sake. It was inspired by the band’s 20th anniversary, and as a tribute to your late friend and restauranteur Toshiro Kuroda. Are you all fans of sake?
MARS: Yeah, but his [Brancowitz’s] brother is the biggest in the band. Chris [Brancowitz] was a disciple of Mr. Kuroda. He’s the force behind this. He’s really into it. And our relationship with Mr. Kuroda goes back a few years, and we had this idea to make sake together, and then he passed away. So we kept the idea and we did it with his wife and a few of the people who worked with him. We would go to Japan and visit the breweries, some of them are four centuries [old]. One was like 1485 or something. Not only to see those traditions but to be part of it somehow. And that was great, really fun. We met the right people. It’s not a great business for us, either [Laughs]. It’s something that goes to charity. It’s really how we discovered Japan.
BRANCOWITZ: We love Japan. Chris’ neighbor was Mr. Kuroda who was an importer of sake. He took us under his wing, and we did tasting — he was a really, really fascinating guy. He left Japan because during the late ’60s, he burned a train station. I remember he wrote a play, and he was looking for a guy to commit suicide on stage [Laughs].
MARS: That was his play.
BRANCOWITZ: That was his play. It didn’t happen, I don’t think. [Our friendship] was more a connection of human … actually, as a band, we only work this way, which is through friendship and connection. We rarely meet people through our management or things like that. So it’s very organic. And the sake thing was like that.
What were some of the tasting notes, if you had to describe it to someone?
MARS: Our sake? I wish Chris were here, but it’s all about the water. It’s not about the rice. The rice can be imported from different places, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the source of water, which is very similar to Italy when you make pasta.
BRANCOWITZ: In Japan, the vocabulary they use is very different. It’s not at all like “this is very tangy” or “fruity.” Mr. Kuroda would say, “It’s like the spirit of water.”
MARS: It’s very poetic.
BRANCOWITZ: He’d say, “It’s very vertical, with a slight angle.”
A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
You guys appeared in Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas Netflix special, which was directed and co-written by Thomas’ wife Sofia Coppola, playing an unreleased Beach Boys tune, “Alone On Christmas Day.” How’d you settle on that song?
MARS: I typed “Christmas” in my iTunes library. I was really obsessed with Beach Boys rarities; I have a lot of them. And this song is very rare. Even the Beach Boys had forgotten about it when we asked them if we could, you know. They did some research because they had forgotten about it. They were fighting for copyrights, and it turned out it was a Mike Love song.
BRANCOWITZ: According to him, at least [Laughs].
MARS: “A Mike Love song according to Mike Love.” And the crazy thing was, knowing we would do the thing, he re-recorded, just before our version, he re-released it.
That is textbook Mike Love.
MARS: Exactly! This is Mike Love. And when you analyze the chords and everything … I don’t know, it could be Mike Love.
BRANCOWITZ: I don’t think so. I really don’t think it’s Mike Love [Both laugh]. Mike Love is two four-letter words: Mike. Love.
MARS: It’s a great song. It’s always fun to dig up a song that’s been forgotten. It also has the same relationship of simplicity and complexity that [1967’s] “Darlin’” [has] — it has the same charm. We pictured Bill [Murray] and what he could sing, and it was very satisfying, because we didn’t have any time to rehearse. We had those two takes on set, and right away, Bill being a tornado and out of control, he makes everything his. He comforted us in our choice when were playing it with him.
Phoenix Get Punk-ed (2010)
During the encore of your 2010 show at Madison Square Garden, you brought Daft Punk out to do “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” I know you have a long history with them, but how did that particular moment come together?
BRANCOWITZ: I love this interview, it makes it sound like our life is filled with stellar moments! Thank you, let’s do it again.
MARS: They came to see us at the Hollywood Bowl. I know Johnny Hallyday was there, which made it really strange.
BRANCOWITZ: You know Johnny Hallyday? The French singer?
MARS: JOHNNY HALLYDAY.
Oh, Johnny Hallyday. I’m not super familiar, but I know who he is.
MARS: For French people it makes it every situation very funny and surreal, him being involved. Johnny Hallyday and Daft Punk, for French culture, that’s the North and the South. It’s a shock to see these two in the same [room]. I sat Guy-Manuel [of Daft Punk] next to Johnny Hallyday [laughs]. I was vicious enough, I knew they were both coming to the show so I was going to sit them next to each other. There’s going to be interesting conversations [Both laugh]. So [Daft Punk] came backstage, and we all thought, “Let’s do something,” but not quite sure what.
BRANCOWITZ: Like I told you before, very organically. Send an email. “Let’s do this.” So then we were all excited about this plan. And we did it, it was beautiful. For me it was really fun because they were the first band I ever played with in my life.
That’s right. And your brother [Chris] too, correct?
MARS: Mmm no.
BRANCOWITZ: It’s all about ME! [Both laugh]. We did a kind of mashup up of things that was satisfying on a musical level, and we had this trump card that they would come out at the end of the show and make the whole set special. We had a good hand.
MARS: It’s fun to see the set list and then to see “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” “1901.” That was a really fun memory. And to keep the secret was also really fun. We had to pull out big drapes so that the staff of the Madison Square Garden wouldn’t see them because they had to rehearse as robots to make sure they would see what they were playing. We kept it a secret even from people in the crew or from people that work for us because they’re going to tell all the record companies that tonight something special is going to happen and then it’s going to leak. So we kept it secret and that was really fun.
Best Alternative Album Grammy (2010)
We have to talk about winning the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. What was that night like?
MARS: It was a thrill and it was also very humbling; a glorious moment and a very cheap moment at the same time. Because it’s in the convention center! It’s not the real Grammys, you know. Alternative Album is not an event that’s on TV. So you’re with the community; you’re with the Best Polka Album. And that’s great. You see communities there that are music lovers. It’s more deep, in a way, than the real ceremony. It’s less bullshit than the ceremony, even though the ceremony had its good moments, but there are other things that are put together that didn’t really appeal to us.
BRANCOWITZ: The Cirque du Soleil vibe. Pink was playing.
With all the acrobatic stuff.
BRANCOWITZ: [Laughs]. I remember Neil Young won his first Grammy. It was for Best Booklet. So we know those things are fine, but are they reflecting the justice of, you know? So we took it as a very fun night. We were together. We were very happy to be a band because we can go through anything untouched. At this point of our life we were ready to live this kind of experience and make the best out of it. I remember seeing David Guetta — David Guetta is the nicest person on earth. So nice! I don’t really listen to his music. And he saw us on the red carpet, and he turned at us and said, “So? Did you win?” He was really sincere [Laughs]. And we said, “Yeah!” And he was profoundly happy. And it was beautiful to see this.
3-peat On SNL (2009)
Over the years, only a handful of artists have played three songs on Saturday Night Live. The ’90s saw Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Springsteen, Paul McCartney do three songs during the broadcast. Just the other week, Kendrick Lamar did three. That’s a pretty impressive. When you guys made your SNL debut in 2009, you also joined the three-song club. How’d you manage to pull that off?
BRANCOWITZ: I don’t know. They asked us, “Could you play a third song?”
MARS: We said no [Laughs]. We didn’t know it was an honor!
BRANCOWITZ: They wanted us to play “Too Young,” but we didn’t have the synths we use on “Too Young.” “We cannot play it.” And they said, “Then we will find it!” And it’s a very rare synth. And then one hour after, they had it. So we were in the dressing room trying to remember how to play this song we haven’t played for a few years. And we were more stressed with, “Fuck, how does it go?” We didn’t realize it was such an honor, we were more into trying not make a fool out of ourselves with this song we had forgotten how to play.
On The Runway (2004-)
Phoenix have always felt like a pretty fashionable band to me. In 2004, you guys did a remix of “Victim Of The Crime” from your sophomore album Alphabetical for a Dior runway show. In 2009, you guys curated a special mixtape for Maison Kitsune, which has its own fashion line. What would you say Phoenix’s relationship is to fashion, back then and today?
MARS: Hedi Slimane did the cover … we are friends with him for a long time, and he did the cover for Alphabetical. That’s when we met him. So he was the reason why we did the soundtrack for his show because he heard the song and thought we could do an extended version.
BRANCOWITZ: We did it for a friend, basically.
MARS: And the Kitsune thing was the same, as that one guy who worked with Daft Punk started Kitsune, and then asked us to do …
BRANCOWITZ: We don’t have a very close relationship with fashion.
MARS: With Hedi we do, throughout the years he would always help us out.
BRANCOWITZ: We have a few friends who are really good at it. But I’m not even sure they like it themselves [Laughs].
A self-loathing kind of thing.
BRANCOWITZ: If you think about it, fashion should not exist. There are a few options for clothes; you know how they should be designed, more or less. So the fact of recreating every three months, it’s just stupid [Laughs]. And people in the industry, I think they know it deep in their hearts. They know it’s a shitty business model.
The Coppola Connection (2000-)
Your first video was directed by Thomas’ future brother-in-law Roman Coppola for the track “Funky Squaredance” in 2000. It’s a very bizarre sort of meta thing where the making of the video is the actual video. Can you describe how you decided to go in the direction you eventually did with it?
BRANCOWITZ: We sent him an email asking, “We love you, we are four guys from France, from Paris.” I think we sent a fax back in the day. “We would love to do a video for the song, it’s a weird song.”
MARS: “It’s nine minutes and we have no budget” [Laughs]. And so he wrote down, “I love the song, and zero budget is even better.” Because with less budget, you make better things.
Thomas, I think I read you first met Sofia when you were working on The Virgin Suicides soundtrack with Air. I never knew that was your vocal on “Playground Love” under a pseudonym.
MARS: Yeah, we were playing with Air a few shows in England as a backing band. I was the drummer, and we knew Phoenix was going to be releasing an album, so we wanted to be ready, and we had a few months to kill. So we went with them, and while we were rehearsing, they were writing the whole soundtrack [for The Virgin Suicides], but they had this song. I think they wanted David Bowie to sing it. But I did the temp, and I wrote the lyrics, because they only had like four lines. I never asked them if they liked it enough that they didn’t ask David Bowie or if David Bowie said no, but they kept the version.
What has it been like collaborating with Sofia, and the extended Coppola family for all these years?
MARS: Sofia was the one to introduce us to Roman, and we worked with Roman quite a bit before meeting Sofia again, for things like Marie Antoinette, for example. Now it’s like every project that she’s working on, we’re somehow involved. Just because of practicality things. For instance, when she writes a script, she needs music to be inspired, or sometimes she’ll write a scene on a specific piece of music that is hard to replace. And so whenever we exchange things in the band or play things I share this with her, songs that are there that she wants us to do variations, or she hears our music and then she writes a scene with our music. So it’s more about time, because we spend so much time together that throughout all this process, it doesn’t really feel like we’re working on a soundtrack until the end of the project, where it does feel like work. Because then you really have to put things together. But the beginning is very organic.
Are you working on her new film about Priscilla Presley?
MARS: Yes and no. I’m sure eventually yes. It’s never clear if we’re music supervisors or we make the score; in the end we do a little bit of everything.
BRANCOWITZ: We are always here to help. We’re a Swiss Army knife.
Air Suppliers (1998)
There’s a great clip from 1998 where you guys are the backing band for Air doing “Sexy Boy” at a London TV studio, but I think we kinda agreed upfront that we’re not gonna do the nostalgia thing, so I’m gonna let you off the hook.
MARS: No! I mean these were super fun for us because it was not our band, so the pressure was not higher.
BRANCOWITZ: We like all the memories, we just don’t feel the need to relive them, you know? We shared a lot of moments and we’re always together, so we always think about — especially the lows, they are more fun. I don’t know why. We love the lows.
MARS: We are nostalgic, but we’re not when we’re in the studio, I think. That’s because it’s not productive.
Alpha Zulu is out 11/4 via Loyaute/Glassnote Records.