What happens when you throw out all convention and ambition for an
album? Well, if you're Phoenix you get Wolfgang Amadeus
Phoenix, an album that has been nominated for a Grammy, gathered
enough fans to sell out shows all over the U.S. and abroad, and receiving
multiple festival invitations. Was there an unfair advantage for the
French natives or was it simply the literal definition of an "overnight
success" (for a previously known band)?
In the attempt to get to the bottom of these ever pressing questions,
I managed to track down Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars while
the band passed through the area. His answers were pleasantly informative,
though at times semi-difficult to understand (oh those French accents
- attractive in wooing, not so much in interviewing).
Hybrid Magazine: Let's start from the beginning: tell me the
history of the band. You started in 1995, correct? Doing Prince
Thomas: We don't really know when we started, because we met
in school when we were between 10 and 15 years old. But we always
did music, so there was never an official start to the band. In the
beginning there was this dilemma where you would create your own songs
and not do covers, but at the same time when you wanted to play live
you'd feel like your own material wasn't ready so you would do other
songs. I can't remember exactly when we started, but it was a long
time ago. I think '98 is when we got a record deal and when we put
out a small 7" vinyl and then someone liked it.
HM: What kind of effect do you think music from another country
(in your case France) has had on the American music scene?
TM: I'm sure it has affected it. Where I grew up, it was such
a small place that music from Paris would seem like music from a different
country. I think it gives you some sort of freedom that you can take
anything you like and you don't have to belong to some scene. And
you can be inspired by many different styles. I'm not sure what it
affects, but what's beautiful about music is that it does. You can't
control where it's going. Now, especially with the internet, it can
reach anywhere. You don't need a record deal or to be on the radio
for people to hear you. I'm sure it influences American music.
HM: What happened between 2006 and 2009?
TM: We toured overseas. And for 2 years we were in the studio.
HM: Some sources claimed that you were "back" in
2009. Was there ever really a separation?
TM: What happened in the middle of the recording process was
that suddenly we felt that with the internet and everything that it
would be easier to present our music the way we wanted to. So that
was the starting point of us putting the teasers on the website and
coming back to the surface. And to me that's so important, because
you lose touch with reality in the studio. So that moment was a very
important for us.
HM: I've seen you referred to as "French Rock" -
what is that?
TM: I don't think it exists. I think if you're in a band,
you never want to be under one specific label. Because while we love
rock music, we love R&B and every style of jazz, too. When you
think of music you don't want to think of one style. On my iTunes
I erased all those styles (genres). I'd see - rock, rock, rock - and
I can't connect with that.
HM: So if you're in the mood for something specific, how do
you find it?
TM: Two things can happen: 1 - you discover something that
you had no idea what it was or 2 - you just know the music and you
find it. Like if I want to hear rock I listen to The Black Crowes.
But when I hear them I then hear Otis Redding, because they're
highly influenced by him. And Otis isn't rock. So it's nice that styles
are nothing to each other.
HM: Do you think you guys have any kind of advantage over
other "newer" bands on the scene, being from another country?
Kind of an "ooo shiny!" type of thing?
TM: In the end I hope that it's only about music and it's
only the song that matters. That's a good song and that's the song
I like the most. Since the beginning we've done music in a very selfish
way, kind of. We always try to put the music first instead of ourselves.
So I guess in that sense, we don't try to benefit in the advantage.
Instead of it being about being a foreigner or exotic, it's about
being rare. Like the fact that this is only the second time here,
HM: What is it about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix that
seems to be working out just right? The sold out shows, the Grammy
nomination, and the festival invites
TM: Yeah, I think it's the fact that there is no strategy.
When you're a kid you think you're going to put out an album and overnight
it's going to change the world. And it never happens. And with this
record I think we were more mature, I think we forgot about that.
But it happened! It's the only time we didn't have that ambition.
We gave "1901" on our website for free and overnight something
happened. People started downloading it and it became a world phenomenon.
It was more spontaneous this time.
HM: The music writing, was that part done any differently?
TM: Nope, it's the same. The studio has always been something
very painful for us. It's always only been like 5 minutes here and
there, and really weak. It's a very hostile environment. But it's
always been that way and it doesn't seem like we have very many options
on how to write a song.
HM: Normally I wouldn't ask such a common question, but where
did this album's name come from?
TM: The title was inspired by many things that we liked. There
was a book called Mozart In The Jungle... I like where it gave
an input about how you crawl on the things that are history, but you
can make it your own and do it in very pop way. Almost like you're
Andy Warhol. I think it's something that comes from the fact
that everything great was in the past. There are things that are great
about Europe and there are things that are great about America and
the thing I love the most about America is the fact that because there's
not as much history, there's a lot more possibility. When we named
our title I think it's that same idea that you take something very
iconic from the past, but you want to make it your own. You're tired
of history, you just want to take over the future.
HM: What is Banque De France??
TM: That's a thing we created for our friends that wanted
to listen to the record before it was done. So it was like a streaming
thing. But then they liked it so much that we made it accessible for
everyone. It was done instead of making CDs that were watermarked,
like I would put your name and give you an access code. It was more
like an ATM machine that instead of taking cash you'd take music.
HM: So is it still active, even though your album is out?
TM: Yeah, now we use it for demos or separate tracks or stems.
Sometimes we close it if there are things that might be on the next
record and we want to keep them secret. Or if it's just a demo, we'll
HM: Are you working on the next album?
TM: No, I wish. I think in September or October we'll start
Half an hour later and I'm left with a little more insight into a
music psyche not previously riddled with American influence. A benefit
of having acts like this gain popularity is the opportunities to look
at music through a completely different mind. Thomas was a great resource;
our chat was truly enlightening and highly enjoyable. Then for an
act so "rare" to these parts, they put on a perfect set.
For selling out a 2,000 person venue one would not expect the band
to be so involved with the audience. But within the first 3 songs,
Thomas promptly jumped off the stage and gave a bit more intimate
performance for the front row fans. The accenting light effects simply
emphasize the energy that's found in their sound. The band from France
left their audience pleased and exhausted, and this writer eager for
their return and little more international insight.
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