BAND OF OUTSIDERS
With Bankrupt!, Phoenix look failure in the face, and then eat a peach.
In the vast, croissant- and silver-coffee-urn-appointed penthouse of The Standard, East Village, the Versailles-raised, Paris-based rock quartet Phoenix appear ready for a relaxed Sunday brunch. Bassist Deck d'Arcy and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, both 36, peruse the pastries as vocalist Thomas Mars, 36, and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, 39, head to the left wing, a natural-light-filled room equipped with four separate, equally inviting seating areas and a curtained-off bathtub. Mars, in a heather-blue sweater, navy pants, and boots, settles in next to Brancowitz on a plush couch, lightly scuffing his bandmate's pressed royal blue jeans in the process. "Pardon," he whispers and laughs, lightly brushing the spot away.
The conversation quickly turns to dust. Literally. "What is dust?" Brancowitz asks, apropos of nothing, sparking a nearly 15-minute conversation on meteorology, photographic memory, and Jean-Luc Godard's typography. It's the kind of pleasant, bizarre chatter that almost makes one forget to ask a single question about Bankrupt!, the band's fifth album and long-awaited follow-up to 2009's Grammy-winning, gold-certified blockbuster, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But eventually, we get there.
"t's just right...there," Mars says quietly, gesturing toward an indeterminate cluster of buildings visible from our glassy perch above the Bowery. He's referring to Oscilloscope Laboratories, the independent film distribution company and recording studio where the band, invited by the Lab's late co-founder Adam Yauch, initiated the sound and color experiments that laid the groundwork for the new album. "We were looking for never-before-seen colors," Brancowitz offers straight-faced, before melting into muted, self-conscious laughter. "It's pretty hard to do."
It's also hard to follow up a nearly perfect record, but that was the task at hand. "We knew for sure that we could fail miserably," Brancowitz says matter-of-factly. "And this feeling was actually pretty joyful. I don't know why—we're always attracted to this element of...failing in a very ridiculous way. Even in live shows, we love those moments when we know it can really fall apart." He's quick to add: "Hopefully it doesn't happen too often, but the fact that it can is very full of joy."
Mars concurs. "When we played Saturday Night Live, five minutes before we went on, nothing was working," he recalls. "So we saw ourselves failing at our first TV appearance." At the 2010 Grammys, where Phoenix won for Best Alternative Album, Mars savored the heart-wrenching moment just before the announcement. "You picture someone saying, 'The winner is...Yeah Yeah Yeahs.' And you're like, 'it's OK.'" He laughs, then leans in closer. "There's this alternate universe. It exists."
The band captures this surreality especially well in Bankrupt!'s title track, a nearly seven-minute, almost entirely instrumental "intermission." Think of it as a trippy, vertiginous mash-up of "Love Like a Sunset Part I" and "Part II" off Wolfgang. Or, the group's Dark Side of the Moon moment. "We never listen to Pink Floyd," Brancowitz swears, but it's not the first time the comparison has come up. He has a bet with Phoenix's touring keyboardist, Robin Coudert: "If he sees 10 articles with Pink Floyd mentioned, I must treat him to dinner." Rob: one down. You're welcome.
But it's impossible to ignore the epic, iconic, sticky feeling that coats the album, from the first single, "Entertainment," which after five listens will lodge itself behind a lime-stained pipe in your sonic memory, to the cover art, a pixelated peach that smacks of clip art—not in a kitschy way, but more like a painfully contemporary piece of pop art. The album actually begs for a more optimistic nickname—La Pêche Mode, perhaps? “There’s a power in it,” Brancowitz says, describing the image. “It’s very trivial, very mundane, but also very poetic. And it’s fruit. We love fruit... vitamins, sugar [laughs]. We were looking for a fruit cover for a long time, and the peach came at the very last moment as a gift from above.”
Near the end of the Wolfgang tour but before the New York Lab sessions (and before Mars’s 2011 wedding to longtime partner Sofia Coppola, with whom he has two daughters), the band was feeling nostalgic. “I had a playlist called ‘Mal à la France,’” Mars says, which loosely translates to “homesick for France.” It was filled with songs he and his bandmates had listened to as children: wacky electro from Jacno, a founding member of the Parisian punk band The Stinky Toys, and swoony pop by Christophe. “It was all very... French,” Mars says. They listened to the mix on repeat, longing for home. “We can see the beauty of it now,” Brancowitz adds. “We couldn’t before, but now we are very sensitive to its particular charm. Now we drink it like...like something that would have this shape.” He reaches toward the sky, pulling his fingers to a point, forming what looks a bit like a champagne flute.
With these songs in mind and heart, the band reconvened in Paris in the spring of 2011 for recording, followed by mixing with producer Philippe Zdar in Montmartre. Brancowitz describes the songwriting process as akin to sculpture; that is, you begin with a large chunk and then chip away at it with increasingly smaller tools until you achieve the desired result. Which isn’t to say that’s how Phoenix do it. “We do the whole thing with sandpaper,” Brancowitz says, laughing. “Which is not a good idea. But we are very good at sandpaper, very bad at the bigger instruments that people should use.”
While most of the songs on Bankrupt!, from the driving synths and bouncy melody of “Entertainment” to the downbeat groove of “Chloroform” to the dancing-alone party vibe of “Trying to Be Cool,” feel instantly comforting and familiar, the real rewards come with repeated listening, and that’s due in part to this meticulous sandpapering. “We always love when you cannot see the work, the evidence,” Brancowitz says. “We work a lot on everything, but it has to feel easy."
Since the band wanted each song to have several layers, to feel like multiple, growing waves, the technique turned out to be quite time-consuming. “Nothing was really finished until the very last moment,” says Brancowitz. “We were hoping it would come together sooner, but it happened very late, very close to the deadline. It was the most nerve-racking moment of my life.” Mars rubs his forehead and adds, “This was the hardest record.”
But fans need not worry that Phoenix have lost their stride. Au contraire, they appear to be huffing along at a steady pace, ignoring the tempting shortcuts that often lead to ho-hum mediocrity and simply taking their time, enjoying the scenery. Success or failure? It’s all entertainment. Like the bird that inspired their name, they know there’s only one direction to fly from a pile of ash and dust, no matter what it’s composed of, and that’s up.