“We’ve been doing our own thing for a long time,” says Laurent Brancowitz, his vowels drawn out by a thick French accent. “We didn’t really follow the trend or fashion, and at some point the world aligned with our conception of music and we felt, suddenly, we were at the right place, right time.”
Brancowitz, who introduces himself as Branco, is referring to the year 2009, when Phoenix, the band that he formed 20 years ago with his brother Christian Mazzalai [Brancowitz’s original surname], as well as bassist Deck d’Arcy and singer Thomas Mars, released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and its massive singles ‘1901’ and ‘Lizstomania’. “Everything suddenly was very easy, people would get what we are doing and we had a big fanbase who understood where we were coming from,” he says.
“Sometimes (with) success there’s a misunderstanding or something that is lost in translation that can bring a lot of problems in the future for the artist. But for us, the songs that were very successful were songs that we like a lot and we feel they represent our style. So it was a success that was pretty coherent.”
Phoenix began around 1997 after Brancowitz’s previous band, Darlin’, came to a conclusion and his former bandmates decided to continue as an electronic duo under the name Daft Punk. Thinking internationally from the very start, Phoenix have always sung in English, adding disco and synth pop flavours to their mix of indie rock along the way. “When we started, if we had sang in French our lives would have been very sad,” says Brancowitz, pausing, as he often does mid-sentence, deciding on a word that better translates what he is trying to elucidate.
“Very small. We needed to speak the international language of communication to reach people, transcend borders. And also the fact that it’s not our mother tongue – it makes it easier for us to create some kind of poetic language, disconnected from ordinary life. We use it as a tool to create something that, at least for us, has a poetic value.”
Currently on a world tour that will lead them to Australia in February, the band are balancing stadium shows, involving a giant mirror and lighting production, with smaller theatres and a minimal setting. This is indicative of their mission to achieve what is interesting for the audience and themselves. “Our goal in life is to entertain, you know? So all of our decisions are based on the fact that we wanna have adventures that are exciting for us,” says Brancowitz.
“We are very selfish – we do something that we already know how to do, it’s for us, very boring. So we are like children getting tired very quickly of our toys and now we try to have new ones. So that’s the only conscious decision – to try to keep being excited.”
This restlessness directly feeds into their modus operandi, which relies largely on improvisation when creating new music, as was the case with their latest album, Ti Amo, which was released in June. “When we create, is almost 100 percent playing, with zero preconceived ideas,” says Brancowitz.
“We just sit together and we play for hours. Now we know that it’s the way we create the most interesting things, so we do not even try to do it differently. There’s not one guy coming with a song he wrote in his bedroom – we know that if we want it to be exciting for us, it has to happen when there were four of us together in the same room, and suddenly there’s a little magic. The best moments are those where we create something without knowing how it happened. Then there’s long days of trying to use this raw material and turn it into an album.”
Despite their adherence to the ‘zero preconceived ideas’ notion, there were certain elements that affected the recording by happenstance. “Chris had a 12-string guitar just there, and he used it for the whole process,” says Brancowitz.
“I realise now that I almost didn’t play any guitar on this album because I think the guitar amp was a bit too far from my position in the studio, a few meters too far, so I would turn towards a keyboard (instead). So those decisions are very important, where exactly are you sitting, it’s stupid but it’s crucial.”
Culled from approximately two years worth of recording sessions, Ti Amo has an Italian theme, or rather a theme of an idea of Italy. “We were living in a very strange period in Europe, maybe the whole world even,” explains Brancowitz. “I think we needed something like a utopia – a dream place where everything was simpler, more pure. And for us it was related to Italy because it’s a place where we would go when we were kids on vacation, and also the place where all the movies and music we really love came from.
“I’m not really interested in Italy as a real thing, but more as a fantasy from Paris. When we filmed a video we went to the metro station called Rome on Rue de Rome. We could have gone to Italy, but the real thing was to do it in Paris – a Parisian trying to dream of something that doesn’t really exist.”
Phoenix play Margaret Court Arena on Monday February 26. Originally published in Beat Magazine.