All Essentials: Phoenix Try To Experiment Their Way To The Top

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Courtesy of Glassnote Records

Courtesy of Glassnote Records

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No one would blame Phoenix if they decided to stick with the same crowd-pleasing sound that worked so well for them on their breakthrough album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But the French foursome definitely weren’t interested in continuing right where they left off in 2009. With their latest record, Bankrupt!, the band wanted to play around with their sound and maybe even force a few people to question whether they were even the same group of guys that made “1901.”

Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz said in our latest Essentials profile (below) that experimenting is nothing new for Phoenix.

“We really want each album to sound like a different band even though we know that’s not possible,” he explained. “But we try every time to find new forms and with this album even more than others.”

Take, the record’s first single “Entertainment,” which uses the Asian riff (a nod to David Bowie’s “China Girl”) to explore the idea of those massive demonstrations in North Korea.

“Imagine one individual that is a part of those huge choreographies with over 30,000 participants… and the sadness and melancholy of the fake smile,” Brancowitz said. “That was the idea that we were trying to transcribe.”

As for whether the song is political statement, Brancowitz simply noted with a smile: “It’s not all political, but everything poetic equals political.”‘s own Jillian Mapes believes that even though “Entertainment” is different from  “1901,” a pure pop gem that found its way into a Cadillac commercial and won over the Saturday Night Live crowd, it’s a sleeper hit that will become bigger as the guys continue to make the festival circuit rounds.

“I thought ‘Entertainment’ was actually really bizarre when I first heard it and part of it is how strong the Asian influence is,” she said. “[But] the more I listened to it, the more it grew on me. I think it will be this thing that kind of just grows, and grows and grows and explodes a little bit.”

Phoenix isn’t a band that’s concerned with the hype. They took four years to release the follow-up to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which is like an eternity in pop music years. But in that time they soundtracked two films directed by frontman Thomas Mars’ wife Sofia Coppola (2010’s Somewhere and this summer’s Bling Ring), which helped set their latest album in motion. 

“There was a code word representing what we didn’t want to do,” Brancowitz said. “We had done Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and we didn’t want to do Ludwig Von Phoenix, even if it was very tempting… we had to resist that temptation. We had no choice but to push it to the furthest point possible.”

Not that the time away didn’t cause a little panic for the four band members, Brancowitz, Mars, Deck d’Arcy and Christian Mazzalai. Instead of letting the pressure of making another hit record get to them, though, they used the idea of failing as a driving force. “We could feel the possibility of total failure,” Brancowitz said. “And it was actually really exciting, this feeling.”

When Phoenix call Bankrupt! their experimental album, they’re referring to much more than its sound. The recording process, which took place in France with Wolfgang producer Phillipe Zdar, included constant switching of instruments between band members ( “To hide the fact that we are individually very bad,” Brancowitz said), working with the mixing console that made Michael Jackson’s Thrillerand a trek to Australia where they recorded with a team of drummers.

Glassnote Records

D’Arcy explained that the recording session happened by accident after they finished a tour in Australia. A friend of the band’s dad was a famous percussionist so they went to his village in the jungle and ended up getting a demo from some drummers in some empty schoolhouse. The demos ended up being used on “Entertainment,” as well as the album’s title track.

Although Phoenix are more than willing to experiment, they’re perfectionists at heart. From the album’s title and cover art (they were channeling Andy Warhol) to the order of the songs, everything element is agonized over. Mars said that when it comes to figuring out the tracklist, they think of it as A-side and B-side, like a cassette tape. “We tried to write an equation so we could choose what the best order would be,” he said. They knew “Entertainment” would always be the first track on the album, while “Oblique City” would end the record since the two echo this notion of loneliness comparing the final track to French satirist Voltaire’s Candide.

It is yet to be seen how fans will react to Bankrupt!, but Phoenix has prepared themselves for the inevitable Pink Floyd comparisons they assume will start piling up to describe this experimental album. Brancowitz, who, like the rest of the band, doesn’t listen to Floyd, even has a bet going with their keyboardist that at least ten people will associate the album’s sprawling title track with the classic rockers.

“If I lose,” Brancowitz said, “I owe him a tray of oysters.”

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