On a sweltering summer day in Manhattan, the kind that compels beads of sweat to schuss down the slope of your back, the boys of Phoenix are in high spirits. For starters, they’re nestled away in the air-conditioned confines of NeueHouse, an ultramodern workspace infested with would-be entrepreneurs and screenwriters brainstorming over helpings of green juice and kale (the irony of the scruffy French rockers hanging here is not lost on the fellas), but moreover, they’re celebrating twin victories: the heavy defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, and the release of Ti Amo, the band’s sixth studio album.
“We’re very happy about both,” offers frontman Thomas Mars, a grin creeping up the left side of his mouth.
Ti Amo is a departure of sorts for the French rock quartet—a collection of 10 summery tunes that present “a fantasized version of Italy.” Mars says it was inspired both by the group’s pair of Italian guitarists/brothers, Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai, who often played music hailing from lo stivale during the recording of previous albums Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bankrupt!, as well as the gang’s love of “far-out” Italian surrealist cinema.
Songs like “Ti Amo” and “Tuttifrutti” feel destined for sun-soaked drives down the Italian coast or drunken revelry at Euro-tinged discotheques (and for the less fortunate among us, visions of such). Other tracks, such as standout ballad “Fior de Latte,” are a bit more… risqué.
“It’s about being a mama’s boy,” Mars confesses in his airy Gallic lisp. “Italians have this fantasy that’s a little perverted about the mother as a sexual goddess. This is about never growing up and having these weird sexual fantasies and being a mama’s boy, which is very Italian—and very distant from me, by the way.”
Phoenix is a rarity in the rock arena: a French band that’s managed to find even more success in America. Their biggest triumph was undoubtedly 2009’s Wolfgang, which rode its trio of relentlessly catchy singles—“1901,” “Lisztomania,” and “Lasso”—to a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album and a headlining show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden that, with its go-for-broke performances and Daft Punk cameo, fans of theirs still boast about to this day.
For Ti Amo, the guys began recording in 2014 at Paris’ La Gaîté Lyrique, a converted opera house that once played host to operas from Jacques Offenbach and Jules Massenet, and the ballets of Igor Stravinsky. But then, in the midst of creating the album, tragedy struck.
“Charlie Hebdo happened, and then the Bataclan happened,” says bassist Deck d’Arcy. “It was weird for everyone. How do you go back to work?”
According to Mars and d’Arcy, on the night of November 13, 2015, the rest of the group had went home while Mazzalai remained in their studio space, putting the finishing touches on his guitar line. When all hell broke loose—with ISIS-orchestrated terrorist attacks beginning at the Stade de France and carrying over to restaurants, cafés, the Bataclan theatre, where jihadists transformed an Eagles of Death Metal concert into a terrifying hostage situation— La Gaîté Lyrique went into lockdown mode, with Mazzalai and a host of others left trapped inside. Approximately 130 people lost their lives over the course of that chaotic evening, and Mazzalai, who fielded frantic texts from friends, family, and his bandmates, was finally allowed to leave the premises at around 4 a.m.
But soon thereafter, the band returned to the studio and continued work on Ti Amo. They concede that instead of leaning into the darkness that surrounded them, they embraced the light, producing a cheery elixir of sorts.
“We were the most surprised ones,” says Mars. “The climate in Paris was not friendly at all—it was scary—and it was a year where we lost so many musical icons that we loved. Somehow we were freed of something. I don’t know. It was strange to make carefree music in this time. We questioned ourselves and wondered what was wrong with us.”
“But at the same time,” he adds, “when something is joyful, you see it with a sad eye, and when the atmosphere is very happy, you can listen to a sad song and don’t see the sadness in it. One of my favorite songs is Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais,’ and he wrote that in the happiest moment of his life. There is a natural balance in the universe.”
During the recording of Ti Amo, Phoenix did receive one helluva pick-me-up: performing alongside the inimitable Bill Murray in A Very Murray Christmas, a holiday special helmed by Mars’ wife, renowned filmmaker Sofia Coppola.
In the Netflix film, the band play a team of bumbling French chefs at the Carlyle Hotel who break into a rendition of “Alone on Christmas Day”—with backing vocals provided by Murray.
“It felt like it didn’t happen,” says Mars. “But it was really cool. We were the puppets of Bill Murray. We’re control freaks, but when it comes to him, everything is gone. We were ready to be puppeted.”
“We’re not used to having backup singers,” adds d’Arcy. “I think he will remain our only backup singer ever. Oh, and you know Bill has a 1-800 number, right? That’s the way to get ahold of him.”
Mars’ union with Coppola has no doubt reaped rewards for the band, whose songs have been memorably featured in several of her films, from Lost in Translation (“Too Young”) to recent historical thriller The Beguiled, with the lads composing the eerie soundtrack, basing it off of Monteverdi’s “Manificat.”
Looking back on the last few years spent making Ti Amo—the tragedies, the recording, the Bill Murray, The Beguiled—and the world they’re releasing it into, with Donald Trump and (almost) Marine Le Pen, brings the Frenchmen considerable pause.
“Imagine if the whole world turns? I’m relieved, but still worried. There are many reasons to be worried,” says Mars. “But somehow, our music isn’t worried.”