Phoenix Follow-Up: An Interview with Thomas Mars
    • FRIDAY, AUGUST 09, 2013

    • Posted by: Matt Howard

    Despite the massive success of Phoenix's 2009 masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, lead singer Thomas Mars and the band are still constantly trying to refine their sound. These days, creating nostalgia-drenched tunes seems to be the norm - just look at Dave Grohl's 70s-themed Sound City project. Despite being recorded with Michael Jackson's original console from Thriller, this year's release, Bankrupt!, is inherently original. Put simply, it sounds like a Phoenix record is supposed to sound. We caught up with Mars to discuss the horror that would be recreating another artist's style, his dislike of covers (except when J Mascis does them), and the ironic fact that everyone and their mother has remixed "Entertainment".

    Now that it's been a few months since the release of the album, how has it felt performing the new songs live?

    I feel like it's very different this time. This is the first time that we started with very big shows. Somehow, the tour so far, we played festivals and didn't really play our own shows. And that's the thing I'm looking forward to the most. We only played two or three I think in the U.S. and they were the best shows we've ever played. And it's frustrating that we have to wait to play these, so I'm just looking forward to doing these.

    Where were these special shows?

    There was one in Atlanta and there was one at the Apollo in New York and there was one in Orlando. Those are the three shows we played since the album came out.

    So, in making Bankrupt!, you guys bought and recorded with the same console used by Michael Jackson in Thriller, right?

    Yeah, yeah, we did.

    This seems to be a common trend with a lot of artists trying to recreate that past sound. What was achieved by avoiding new technology and production equipment on this album?

    We bought it with the idea not to recreate that type of sound. I think we are obsessed with looking for our own sound. I don't think we want to recreate. That's the last thing that's interesting; to recreate the feeling of another time and to think that music was better before. That's something that I have nightmares about. When planning setlists for live shows we have nightmares about only playing old songs. But I think we bought that console because it has a special meaning to us. And it can do things that other consoles can't. I remember when I called the people that worked on Thriller to check if that was the right console, just to make sure, and all these people thought that we wanted to make Thriller again. They thought we were a band that just wanted to cash out on something almost in a way that some Japanese bands recreate the Beatles' albums with the exact same equipment. But that was far from our intention.

    In addition to this passion for Michael Jackson, I noticed in a lot of interviews as well as in commentary for the album, you tend to reference Prince quite a bit. What's the connection to the artist?

    It's a very hardcore connection because we grew up in Versailles and somehow when we were kids and watching Prince on TV, it was a pretty psychedelic experience. It was everything that everybody else disliked, you know, in terms of style. Everyone in my school was against it. So I think I have a special relationship with his music. Each person likes a band in his own way, but I admired the way he used instruments, the way he used technology. Like Stevie Wonder, he used equipment that's a mix between electronic and acoustic instruments, [it] seemed very new, and at the same time, very custom, very unique. That was a fascination. There are few people that express themselves so singularly. The singularity of his music was striking. But we never wanted to copy him, and when we started playing music we wanted to play our own songs. I never really liked the idea of a cover, and I never really understood why people make covers. Very little counterexample, but I always like the original better. And the idea of copying; I think we were obsessed with not trying to copy. But stealing [tricks and techniques] was something interesting. And you can steal things that are really far from you. With someone like Michael Jackson, we could get away with stealing a few tricks here and there.

    On the topic of covers, to support "Entertainment" and the album as a whole, you guys had quite a few remixes of the song put together. How did it feel hearing your music remixed by artists like Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear?

    What we like to do when a song is done...we give out the stems. I think we live in a time these days where you don't really choose who's doing it, you just put it out there and they can do their own version. But there are some people that want to be involved where they bring their own version of it. Dinosaur Jr. [J Mascis] did a cover of "Entertainment" - and covers are the last thing I'd be interested in - but not with him. He did a cover of "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure, which I really loved. With that, he's really done the only two covers that I like.

    I recently listened to the album commentary and I noticed that a lot of chunks of the songs are recorded in varieties of places, not just the studios in New York and Paris. You said that Bankrupt! began in a jungle. What do you think these snippets recorded in different places added to the album?

    The jungle was only for five days. It was very brief but it was surprising how much we used from that. We went there thinking that we were just procrastinating. We ended up using a lot of it. That was a very specific moment because for all of the other songs on this album, I don't think it would have mattered if we were in New York City, or Paris, or anywhere. We were in a small room without windows with the sole purpose of making music. And I like these moments where musicians lock themselves into a room and really have to come up with something without feeling the influence of the outside world.

    You guys have experienced working on film soundtracks. It may have been a subconscious association of my own, but when I listened to Bankrupt!, I sort of heard it as an 80s movie soundtrack. If it were a soundtrack, what would you say the film's theme would be?

    What would it be? That's a good question but I need more time. I'm not sure. Maybe it would be some sort of futuristic version of La Dolce Vita, like if Fellini would make a sci-fi project. That would be something I'd want to watch.

    We're huge fans of Glassnote and Daniel Glass seems to have a nose for finding great up-and-coming European acts like yourselves and Mumford and Sons. What's it like being a part of this successful family?

    You get a different experience with Glassnote. They trust us with whatever we do. They have this leap of faith with us which is very rare because these days it's only about being safe and making money as fast as possible. They are a really artistic label. They make decisions that are meant for future albums. They want to be with the bands as long as possible and you can feel that. I guess that's why all these bands are gravitating towards them.

    Get your copy of Phoenix's Bankrupt! HERE, and watch their latest music video for "Trying To Be Cool" below.

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