Seeing Phoenix in concert is intoxicating. Fizzy melodies and half-heard lyrics mingle in the air, setting a tender mood; you hear "Lisztomania" or "Everything Is Everything" and you're carried away to a land of romantic dreams, far from your concerns. It's a lot of fun — for you. For the French musicians onstage, it's a little different.
"Every show is a potential heart attack," lead singer Thomas Mars says.
Sitting in a sleek Manhattan workspace with bassist/guitarist Deck D'Arcy a few weeks before the June 9 release of Phoenix's sixth album, Ti Amo, Mars tries to explain his statement. He shows me some photos on his iPhone of the band's stage design for its summer 2017 tour: There's an enormous mirror suspended above and behind them, and a light-up floor reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever beneath their feet. This creates an extremely cool double-vision effect, but it also presents certain technical challenges and, Mars says, "the fear of death, if the thing collapses."
But he's not complaining. "It's good," he adds. "If there's no fear, if you're too comfortable, it's hard to find the energy. Somehow our energy comes from high stress."
"We must be very creative, then," D'Arcy says with a smirk.
Phoenix have always been a tricky band to classify, dating back to their earliest days in the French rock scene of the late 1990s. "When we chose to sing in English, we couldn't find anyone to put out our record," Mars says. "Everyone wanted to sign us if we would sing in French. But we knew that we would come out with something that was more original and had more depth, because we were tapping into something that didn't really exist. We were trying to create our own language."
It took the band about a decade from that point to break through to an international pop audience. The singles from their fourth album, 2009's gold-certified Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, reverberated all that year through American radio playlists and luxury car ads. Some acts might have immediately knocked out a similar-sounding follow-up, but Phoenix chose to go at their own pace — spending the next four years touring, recording, scoring a film by Mars's wife, Sofia Coppola, and giving new fans time to go back and discover the gems in their back catalogue — before returning with 2013's Bankrupt!, a charming meditation on the twin themes of luxury and boredom.
In 2014, after finishing a world tour for Bankrupt!, Phoenix reconvened in downtown Paris, renting studio space in a former opera theater that now houses a museum, a concert venue, and a start-up incubator. "It had this campus vibe that we really liked — lots of dreams that were just about to be crushed by reality," Phoenix's wry, professorial guitarist Laurent Brancowitz tells me when I meet him for coffee apart from the others. "We brought our equipment and then we stayed there for two years."
Phoenix's members realized long ago that they share an intense distaste for traditional recording studios. "We've worked with people who try to create an atmosphere," D'Arcy says. "That's our idea of hell." ("Scented candles," Mars adds with a shudder. "The worst.") The Paris space — essentially a brightly lit, modern office — suited their needs much better, even if visiting friends and family were often perplexed by the austere setting. The band loved that it had a large conference table where Mars, D'Arcy, Brancowitz, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai could plug in and improvise to their hearts' content, without any plan or structure. Only later would they listen back to the day's or week's recordings and decide if they had anything like a song.
"We've learned that we have to disconnect the moment of pure creation from any logical or judgmental process," Brancowitz says. "And it's hard for us, because we are very judgmental people." He compares the band's goal in these sessions to the French philosopher Roland Barthes's concept of the punctum — the sharp, painful detail in a work of art that makes it resonate. When I tell him I can't imagine many other musicians describing their process in quite this way, he is unfazed. "That's because musicians are really stupid people in general," he notes.
Through trial and error, they found a distinct tone for Ti Amo — an upbeat, danceable, faintly surreal feeling, like an ambassador from Alpha Centauri trying to describe the disco era. On "Fior di Latte," Mars rapturously compares a love interest to a fine gelato, and because it's Phoenix, this comes across as sweet and even sexy instead of “Weird Al”–ish. The singer recalls clicking through old Italian pop hits and "pre-Berlusconi–era TV shows" on YouTube for inspiration: "It's a goldmine," Mars says. "Sometimes the music is awful, but you just love the logo in the back. Or sometimes you're surprised at how deep the music is, and the twist in the lyrics. And because the references are so far [off] in time and space, you don't feel like you're stealing."
For Brancowitz and Mazzalai, who are brothers and spent substantial time in their father's native Italy as kids, these stylistic nods are particularly evocative. "We were thinking about pure emotions, like the ones you experience when you're a teenager during the summer holidays," Brancowitz says. In retrospect, he thinks the move toward nostalgia had to do with "a survival instinct — to go back to some kind of lost paradise, when things used to be more simple."
When I meet him, it's just a few days before the French presidential runoff between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right racist Marine Le Pen. Brancowitz tells me he's anxious about the possible outcome. "People are losing their senses," he says sadly. (Macron went on to win by a comfortable margin, despite a tacit endorsement for his rival from America's own extremist president.)
The rising tides of violence and hate in France and beyond left a mark on Phoenix as they made Ti Amo. The complex where the band recorded the album is about a 20-minute walk from the Bataclan theater, where terrorists killed dozens of concertgoers in November 2015, and Mazzalai was working at the studio on the night of the attack. "We couldn't avoid noticing that there was a contrast between what we were reading on the news feeds and the music we were creating," Brancowitz says. "The general geopolitical tension was so strong. We thought about it pretty often. There was this weird feeling, at night, when you switch off the light and you feel suddenly very lonesome."
What good is a Phoenix album in times like these? The band's music is rarely described as political, but perhaps the warm internationalism of their sound carries its own message. Listen to Ti Amo at the right time, in the right mood, and it might start to sound like a symbol of a better world, or at least a welcome respite from the worst parts of this one.
"It's more sun than moon," Brancowitz reflects. "But always with a bit of melancholy, because we're talking about a place that doesn't exist. That gives it the Phoenix touch."