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Phoenix on New Album ‘Bankrupt!’ and Journey to Rock Superstardom

The French quartet is back with their first album in four years. The band discusses their journey from childhood friends jamming in Versailles to playing packed arenas.

04.22.13 8:45 AM ET

In 1844, German poet Heinrich Heine penned several feuilletons—similar to the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker—that touched on contemporary art, literature, and music. Reviewing that year’s musical season from Paris, he coined the term Lisztomania to describe the insane fits of hysterics directed toward Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt during his performances.

Prior to the release of their fourth studio album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the French rock quartet Phoenix had remained an underground band, despite being around for nine years. Their lead singer, Thomas Mars, helped produce the soundtracks to all of his wife Sofia Coppola’s films, and the song “Too Young,” from their first album, United, was memorably featured in Lost in Translation. But, like so many of their fellow countrymen, they hadn’t “broken” the States. And their previous effort, It’s Never Been Like That, sold just 92,000 copies in the U.S.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a collection of 10 irresistibly catchy tunes—including hits “1901” and “Lisztomania”—made them global superstars. Released in 2009, the album was certified gold in the U.S., denoting sales of more than 500,000 copies (its sold 710,000 so far, according to Nielsen SoundScan), and won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Their live shows expanded from amphitheaters to 20,000-capacity arenas, packed with feverish fans. Their Oct. 20, 2010, sold-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden has since become the stuff of rock legend thanks to a cameo by pals Daft Punk.

“We don’t have a sense of that graduation, or even the Grammy,” says Mars. “Because we tell our parents and they’re like, ‘Eh.’ But if we told them we won the Victoires de la Musique, they’d be like, ‘Oh, my son! You made it!’”

Mars and Phoenix’s guitarist, Laurent Brancowitz—or “Branco,” as he’s called—aren’t your typical affected rock stars. Instead, they come off like humble, quirky, incredibly affable fellows with unkempt hair, like grownup versions of the kids in your high school’s A/V club. The band is in New York to promote their fifth album, Bankrupt!, out April 22, and we’re hanging in the lounge area of The Standard East Village hotel, just a stone’s throw from the sprawling West Village townhouse that Mars shares with his director-wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Cosima.

Even more so than their previous efforts, Bankrupt! is a fascinating sonic mélange that plucks from a variety of different genres. The opening of the album’s debut single, “Entertainment,” sounds like the chiming synths of Bowie’s “China Girl” before exploding into a pop-rock anthem, while the 7-minute title track, “Bankrupt,” is a bizarre pastiche replete with piano, synths, and angular guitar lines. While recording the album, they listened to some French and Italian music (“it’s territory that has not been explored”) and watched YouTube videos of old, late-night variety television shows like Germany’s Musikladen and France’s Cocoboy, for inspiration. But the biggest influence, it seems, was Bowie.

“Bowie is the only one we listened to a lot,” says Mars. “He’s an alchemist who knows the secret.”

“We are like truffle pigs in a big forest, snorting and looking for oak trees,” adds Brancowitz with a chuckle. “There were a lot of times where we preferred the fake to the real. We could have opted for a full orchestra, but we preferred very cheap synthesizers … and some very expensive ones. Nothing in the middle. But yes, it’s a palette. Sometimes you want pleather—leather that imitates leather. And there’s pleather imitating leather, but to make it futuristic, you have leather imitating pleather.”

The album took two years to record—from Jan. 11, 2011, to Jan. 11, 2013—and was laid down over five days in Australia, followed by three months in New York, with the rest done in Paris. In order to tease the album’s release, the band had their website display the cryptic words Pluviôse, Thermidor, and Vendémiaire, over a period of months last year—three months from the Revolutionary Calendar. This, according to Mars, is because the band views this album as a major departure from their previous ones; a revolutionary effort.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he says. “It’s a moment where French people lost their minds, in a good way. They reinvented the calendar.”

Phoenix has grown up quite a bit since their early days jamming out in Mars’s parents’ house in Versailles. The band is made up of Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, and brothers Laurent Brancowitz and Chris Mazzalai. According to Mars, Chris and Deck became friends at age 6, and then Mars met Deck when he was 10, and the two began making music together. Mars was a percussionist back then, so he had a bass drum, a snare drum, and a hi-hat, but he was lacking in coordination so only played the snare drum and hi-hat, while d’Arcy would play a small keyboard that they plugged into Mars’s parents’ stereo.

“It was terrible music,” says Mars with a laugh. “When we first started playing, we played for five minutes and the stereo broke.”

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Mars met Mazzalai when he was 14, and by then, they all knew each other. In 1995, after the collapse of Darlin’—a project between Brancowitz, Thomas Bangalter, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo—Brancowitz came to check out the band with an eye to produce.

“It sort of collapsed and I knew that Branco wanted to be a producer, like Phil Spector, so he came to see us as the older brother with the ambition that he was going to produce,” says Mars. “He saw that there were a lot of producers in us too, so he joined the band.”

Bangalter and De Homem-Christo would later go on to form the electronic duo Daft Punk.

The band, meanwhile, would often go to their local record store in Versailles to look for potential sources of inspiration. Since, according to Mars, the record store owner wasn’t too knowledgeable, they’d go and pick albums by the cover—“like Electric Wire or weird stuff… like the Shaft soundtrack.”

Mars and Brancowitz still don’t really remember how they came up with the band’s name, Phoenix.

“We lied so much that we don’t know the truth anymore!” says Mars. “The thing I remember is that it had stuff that we liked. It worked very well graphically, with fonts, but at the same time it was empty enough that it wasn’t too literal. It wasn’t The Rolling Stones.”

Phoenix formed a label, Ghettoblaster, before even releasing any music—but eventually pressed 500 copies of their first single. (They still own their own label as well as their publishing, and are currently licensed to Glassnote.) Shortly thereafter, they were signed to the Paris label Source Records.

“They were the only one way out in France—the only label that would sign acts that weren’t just for French people,” says Mars. “They signed Daft Punk, Air. We had some people come to see us and try to convince us to sing in French or change our sound.”

They didn’t give in and continued to perform in English. For about two months, prior to the release of their 2000 debut, United, Phoenix served as the backing band for their labelmates, Air, on U.K. television, including several BBC spots. The thought of it makes Mars chuckle.

“It was like an apprenticeship,” he says. “But we learned a lot.”

United received heaps of critical acclaim stateside and Phoenix became a favorite among the modish indie crowd. The album was so thrillingly diverse that many had a tough time coming to grips with who Phoenix was, and what exactly they were trying to accomplish.

“What we liked about that album is that growing up, kids would listen to one specific style, and I think that album broke those rules a little,” says Mars. “I remember when we finished it and we played it to people, they were confused because one song was electronic [“Definitive Breaks”], one song was country [“Funky Squaredance”], one was heavy metal [“Party Time”], one was like a Beach Boys tune [“Summer Days”].” He pauses. “In some countries, they’re still confused how to classify us. I would go to the record store in Versailles to try to find our CD and one day it would be in Pop/Rock, another it would be in International, and another it would be under Electronic. It would move all over so you could never find it!”

After the release of their sophomore album, Alphabetical, the group embarked on a massive world tour, playing 150 concert dates. All of the performing really helped sharpen the group’s sound, and improved their chemistry.

“After all that work, we reached a point where we were almost semi-professional,” says a chuckling Brancowitz. “That’s where we are now.”

It’s April 5, and a long line has formed outside of the Music Hall of Williamsburg—a 550-capacity concert venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They’re queued up for an intimate performance by Phoenix. A little after 6 p.m., the band takes the stage, bursting into a spirited rendition of lead single “Entertainment,” off Bankrupt! The band is firing on all cylinders—especially Mars, who ascends speakers, saunters across the stage, and jumps into the crowd. The crowd loses its collective shit. For Phoenix, it seems, Lisztomania wasn’t so much a clever reference or semi-ironic jab. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.