DCSIMG

Phoenix flights

French band Pheonix. Picture: Contributed

French band Pheonix. Picture: Contributed

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

‘I’M IN the American Midwest in the desert,” announces Laurent Brancowitz, guitarist with French hipsters Phoenix. Your correspondent feels a clever headline coming on – Phoenix, Arizona, perhaps, or cleverer still, Paris, Texas. Somewhat tragically, the one they call Branco is in Tucson, but by way of compensation he offers up some fine and lyrical description. “I can see cactus trees and big American trucks,” he says. “I can smell ginger. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I can hear cicadas. For you, my friend, I complete the five senses, or most of them. This is a strategy I learned from Pier Paolo Pasolini, the great poet and cineaste, you know?”

‘I’M IN the American Midwest in the desert,” announces Laurent Brancowitz, guitarist with French hipsters Phoenix. Your correspondent feels a clever headline coming on – Phoenix, Arizona, perhaps, or cleverer still, Paris, Texas. Somewhat tragically, the one they call Branco is in Tucson, but by way of compensation he offers up some fine and lyrical description. “I can see cactus trees and big American trucks,” he says. “I can smell ginger. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I can hear cicadas. For you, my friend, I complete the five senses, or most of them. This is a strategy I learned from Pier Paolo Pasolini, the great poet and cineaste, you know?”

I do, sort of, and must say that we rarely get stuff like this from Kasabian. If you’ve never heard Phoenix then maybe you’re presuming they’re uncompromisingly elitist and complicated and maybe un peu pretentious. Not so, though they’re intellectual about pop in its most brilliantly simple and winning form. Bankrupt! makes it five completely charming and hook-laden albums in a row so the title must be ironic.

Phoenix – frontman Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Branco and the latter’s younger brother Christian Mazzalai – are en route to the Coachella festival in California, where they’ll air the new songs, and by the time the band get to T in the Park, the likes of Bourgeois, The Real Thing and Drakkar Noir should be even more lovable. Drakkar Noir, as in the big-in-the-80s male fragrance, black like all of Mickey Rourke’s furniture in Nine And A Half Weeks? “Oh yes. When we were kids it was the first cologne an adolescent would wear. It was aftershave even if you weren’t quite shaving, a new stage, a possibility – girls! I didn’t need it myself because I’ve always smelled good, but you must have used it, yes?” No, I was a Brut man, or rather boy, and there follows an awkward interlude where I try to impersonate a British boxer and celebrity ad-man – Henry “Splash it all over” Cooper – for the ­benefit of a Frenchman standing in an American desert who’s struggling to hear me anyway on account of the ­rumbustious insect life.

Branco, when he’s not referencing ­Pasolini, is in a playful mood. He can do this with easy confidence because ­Phoenix’s last album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was a monster, a Grammy winner and their big breakthrough. But the easy confidence also comes from being French, from not giving much of a stuff anyway. “In general, the quality of Phoenix’s music is pretty bad,” he sighs. Surely not, I say. “Oh yes. We have to work very hard for a long time to produce a few little drops that are good. It ­really is like a tap. Most of what comes out is lousy, honestly. You need patience to wait for maybe that five millilitres of ­essential oil.”

He insists the success of Wolfgang didn’t place any additional pressure on the band. “There is pressure anyway ­because the intention is always to make the best album of our lives. We always have high hopes but, like I say, little skills. On [second album] Alphabetical we hired the Paris Philharmonic for just one song, blew our whole budget and ended up not ­using the track. This time we wanted lots of harpsichords. But the serious plan you have for any record is usually very bad. It is the construction of your brain and the brain is not always the strongest ally. Crazy adventures can be fun but we decided to think again.”

Normally Phoenix shut out all other music when writing and recording, but Branco disobeyed the rule. He enthuses about “the golden age of Italian pop”. I didn’t think there was one. “Oh yes, ­Lucio Battisti and Franco Battiato, both from the 70s. I listened with Chris to Battiato for one full year, only him. Great pop, unique tenderness.” I promise to seek out his favourites, then compliment Branco and the boys for the progginess of the title track on Bankrupt! “No no, we don’t listen to prog rock. I prefer krautrock, which is more disciplined, and therefore Steve ­Reich and Philip Glass too. A lot of people talk about Pink Floyd, but for me when Syd [Barratt] left it was over. Prog, I think, is a little bit disgusting, like food when there’s too many ingredients, you know?” (Some­how it seems pointless to offer him a playlist, as he’s done for me).

The new album seems more experimental, more synthy, and I’d declare it’s possessed of a certain je ne sais quoi, if only I knew how to say this in French. Maybe Michael Jackson was influential. The songs were mixed on the vintage console used for Jackson’s Thriller, found by Branco on eBay, purchased from the owner of a Christian music recording studio in California for $17,000 and shipped to Paris in a specially built crate for another $7,000. “A lot of money but it is something magic, like the car driven by Brigitte Bardot. If I had a choice I’d have preferred Bardot’s car, but it didn’t come up for bidding that day.”

Never mind, even without Bardot’s wheels, the lives of this band must be glamorous. Branco says not, and that while Mars now lives in New York with his film-director wife Sofia Coppola, the others are “very, very unknown” in Paris, riding the Metro the same as in the days pre-fame. “For us that’s a blessing. The only difference is we’ve more tools for our art now. When we do a show we can hire a magician, tigers and 200 parrots who all say the same word. You know what it is? ‘Phoenix! Phoenix!...’ ”

• Bankrupt! (Atlantic) is out on 22 April. Phoenix play T in the Park, 12-14 July

Twitter: @aidansmith07

 

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