When Phoenix graced the stage of the world’s most famous arena – New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden – on October 20, the French indie-pop/synth-rock group exhibited one of the most talked-about live performances of 2010. Expectations were high, but the ensuing brilliance and sheer magic of the night rendered the occasion monumental. The revered and now widely-adored Versailles quartet unleashed a pulsating set defined by their sprightly guitar lines, slick grooves and euphorically pristine melodies. Even a three-song acoustic set was played in the middle of the arena, but Phoenix’s spectacular encore was unexpected, grand and mesmerising.
When the lights went down for their second encore, two figures dressed in black jumpsuits and chrome-like helmets emerged into view (hint: not members of Phoenix. Cue: a collective elicitation of disbelief and astonishment). It was, of course, seminal electronic duo/electro-robotic dance royalty, Daft Punk. The night ended with the world’s favourite French acts performing – together – Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger and Around The World before closing with Phoenix’s1901.
Additionally, Phoenix were supported by two of their favourite bands, Dirty Projectors and Wavves. Guitarist Laurent ‘Branco’ Brancowitz (born Laurent Mazzalai) recalls the thrill of the night’s performance. “We wanted to show that we could create something interesting in such a big venue, and it was also a test for ourselves to see if we could do what we do usually,” Branco muses. “That was a very interesting moment.”
Also interesting is the fact that they were able to keep the Daft Punk component a surprise. “Yeah, we somehow managed to keep it a secret,” Branco laughs. “There was this moment where we could feel the instant connection. It was really fun – and you know, I started playing music with the guys from Daft Punk, so it was very nice to be able to play with them again (Branco’s first band was Darlin’, which comprised Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk).”
It goes without saying that the Parisian accent is deeply steeped in both charm and mystique. Listening to Branco as he enunciates incoming thoughts, his tone insinuates various environments. He could be laid blissfully on a sea-side hammock or curled up in the corner of a cosy dimly-lit cafe, but Branco is taking calls via Skype these days. And the fuzzy connection is limiting Branco of his natural charm, just slightly.
Having spoken to the Mazzalai brothers on separate occasions, it’s fascinating to note their similar expressions; particularly their love of the word ‘dream’ and more generally – their romantic perspective on both art and life. They’re unashamedly emotive... effortlessly charismatic; eager to express the joys of discovering reverential moments.
In an earlier chat with Beat, Christian Mazzalai conveyed the profundity of creating their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and the band’s finest moments to date: “We’ve never been as proud as we are with this one,” he avowed. “That’s why we took our time, and I’m proud of it because we went with the direction that we had in our heads. There are very few moments in every album which are the best moments, and when we are sharing the moment – that is the best. I remember when we did Funky Squaredance (on their 2000 debut album, United), it was glorious; we felt like we were the kings of the world for one night. We love this moment where we are lost in no reality at all. I would say that almost every song [on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix] when we wrote them, we were thinking about live but not realistically, in some kind of a dream. We were like fantasising us playing them live. I would say every song – even Love Like A Sunset instrumental – is interesting; we love to play it. I don’t know how to say it, but it’s beyond pleasure….”
A year and a half later, Branco is expressing his excitement in headlining the Good Vibrations Festival. “We are really happy – it’s going to be the very last show on this tour and we have the opportunity to achieve exactly what we have in our head and in our dreams,” Branco affirms, recalling his brother’s musings on the “beyond pleasure” element of performing their fourth album live. “We really want to make it happen in Australia – that’s our plan; I think we had a nervous tension last time so we didn’t achieve it last time, but we are going to make it happen this time.”
Obviously, Phoenix have high expectations, considering their Australian performances in both 2009 and last year were rapturously received.
Even the band’s first trip to our shores in 2007 seduced crowds at the V Festival. “It was a fantastic experience,” recalled Christian. “We thought it was some kind of paradise – beautiful country, so we were very excited and we played with Pixies. It was such a cool experience because the first gig that I went to was Pixies, so it was very surreal. The first time we came, it was close to perfection – so we want to reach the real perfection.”
The members of Phoenix – the Mazzalai brothers as well as Thomas Mars (vocals) and Deck D’Arcy (bass) – grew up in the affluent suburb of Versailles in Paris, which Christian has described as “beautiful in terms of architecture, but awful in terms of culture”. “There’s no culture for kids; there’s only one bar so it’s a very boring city,” he informs. “So we had to escape, that’s why we make music – it was a different way of life.” Branco is quick to reassert his brother’s point of view: “For me, being a musician gives me fantastic opportunity to play around the world and I like the idea of seeing like another world. When we started music, we were so happy to be touring outside of our home country.”
Phoenix belong to a select group of English-speaking French musicians, and frequently sell out shows due to their danceable fusion of infectious garage rock and ethereal synth-pop. As kids, they listened to Michael Jackson and The Beatles before discovering The B-52s and My Bloody Valentine. From there, it evolved into an open field of influences, including James Brown, Frank Sinatra, country music and hip-hop.
Alongside their whirlwind tour last year, another defining moment came in winning the Best Alternative Album Grammy Award forWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It was a feat rendered even more impressive by the contenders in their field: David Byrne/Brian Eno’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, Depeche Mode’s Sounds Of The Universe and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! “We’ve been playing together for a very long time now and we never won anything,” Branco ponders. “So I think the reality is winning something doesn’t really matter, but if we had to win something, this was a good choice. And we won in the right category, so we are kind of proud to have won this award, but there are also mixed emotions with that.”
Despite being constantly praised for their brilliant live shows, Branco is extremely honest and humble about his own progression as a guitarist and musician. “My progression has been very slow,” Branco laughs. “I am a very bad guitar player. I try to create something beautiful in the process of learning to be a better guitar player. I think we’ve progressed a lot in terms of songwriting.”
Recently and amidst their hectic touring schedule, Phoenix wrote the film score for Somewhere, which was directed by Sofia Coppola ( Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Maria Antoinette) – to whom frontman Thomas Mars is married. The next step in Phoenix’s musical journey is an exciting prospect considering the recording process of the group’s fourth album was largely divergent to that of their 2006 third album, It’s Never Been Like That; not only was it recorded over two years, but it utilised their widest scope of instrumentation and production to date. At the time of our interview late last year, Branco informs that the band would be writing their new album across the New Year.
“We have a lot of new ideas,” he grins, enthused. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, and I have no idea what it’s going to sound like, but I love these moments where you don’t know what’s going to happen.” If the new songs should allude to Branco’s iridescent dreams and Christian’s “beyond pleasure” logic, then Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s follow-up may very well surpass our expectations ... again.
PHOENIX headline GOOD VIBRATIONS – along with Faithless, Nas & Damian Marley, Sasha, Ludacris, Erykah Badu, Kelis, The Ting Tings, Miike Snow, Friendly Fires, Mike Posner, Yolanda Be Cool, Rusko, Fake Blood, Sidney Samson, Bag Raiders, Koolism, Tim & Jean, Kill The Noise, Fenech Soler and heaps more – at Flemington Racecourse on Sunday February 13. All tickets and info are through goodvibrationsfestival.com.
PHOENIX’s latest album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is out now through Shock.