French-pop technophiles Phoenix have landed stateside. This time, the French Revolution will be televised.
Since their formation outside of Paris in the late ’90s, the synth-laden, guitar-gilded quartet has earned legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. With multi-instrumentalist brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz churning out a steady stream of danceable hooks on guitar and keyboards, the band has built a ravenous following around songs like “Too Young,” (from their debut album United), and “Everything Is Everything,” from its follow-up Alphabetical.
Now with the release of 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band raises its self-imposed bar once again, with a ten-song opus that marries undeniable pop panache with painstakingly-crafted, sonically sophisticated arrangements. Co-produced by fellow Frenchman Philippe Zdar, (of Cassius fame), the album brims with continuous attention to creative detail — from the jangle of guitars, propulsive Adam Ant-ish drum fills, and swirling keyboards on the infectious opener “Lizstomania,” to the artpop, Tangerine Dream-like explorations on “Love Like A Sunset.” It’s a near-perfect marriage of guilty pop pleasure and aural acumen.
Just days after the band’s game-changing appearance on Saturday Night Live, I sat down with founding member Christian Mazzalai to delve deep into the sounds behind Wolfgang, and the keys to Phoenix’s rising success.
One of the intriguing things about the new album is how many “false starts” you had — from recording on a houseboat in Paris, to holing up in a New York hotel. You were searching for something, it seems.
We started here, at the Bowery Hotel. We just had these small, very cheap recorders, some small keyboards, and guitars. That’s it. We had an idea to create without any limits of time, so we decided to take the time to go in a new direction for us. We had this fantasy to write songs like puzzles, to write pieces of music, and then to try and combine them to make songs.
We were all in one room. We didn’t want to write in a studio. Then we rented a boat. It was just to have a vibe. We didn’t have a record contract — our deal with EMI was finished. So we recorded it just like our first record, just for us. We put all our money into finding inspiration, renting beautiful places and hotel rooms. So at the end, we had no money, and we ended up staying at our friend Philippe Zdar’s place. He had a studio, which was not yet finished, and we ended up staying there for more than a year.
What kind of gear did you bring to those early sessions at the Bowery Hotel?
What we love is to use either very, very cheap instruments, or very high quality ones. We don’t like thinking in the middle. So, for example, in New York we brought this cheap Casio keyboard — it’s really like a toy. It’s small, and costs something like $20 on eBay. It has a small sampler with a microphone — very cheap, and if you press the button, you can record your own voice. So on the record, a lot of the pads are our own voices.
Are you talking about the Casio SK-1?
Yeah, exactly. The SK-1. We bought this one, and the whole series. We have something like 20 small keyboards. We bought all of them on eBay.
I have the Casio MT-65, with the minikeys and the auto-accompaniment. . . .
Ah yeah, we have it too!
There’s something about going back to the most basic of sounds. Those cheap keyboards with the built-in drums and bass lines just take you somewhere different.
Exactly. And on the SK-1, you can loop the samples in a very bad way. [Imitates the stuttering sound of a note looping.] And when you play a chord, the loops on each of the notes are not the same length, so it sounds like it’s breaking up. And that’s what we like.
Almost like the tapes on a Mellotron.
Yeah, exactly. It’s a Mellotron. They have the same beauty.
Are you using the Casios on tour with you? I noticed on your SNL appearance that you had two small keyboards in front, and then what looked like a Rhodes in the back.
Yes. There’s one Casio SK-1 on-stage, and we also have a Yamaha VSS-200. The one in the back is a custom Doepfer MIDI keyboard that we had made. The keys are totally black. And it triggers samples from our songs.
What other kinds of sounds went in to the writing sessions for the new album?
We have a small Dictaphone recorder that we adore. It’s stereo, and is really designed for taking memos, not for music at all. But if you push this one compression button, the compression is so big, like everything is magic. It’s exactly the kind of sound we love. It’s very blurry. That is one of our strategies to write songs with. You write lots of things, and then you hear them back and you can’t hear them well. They’re all blurry. So after you hear them back, you can imagine them as you want.
We would record on the Dictaphone, and then transfer it to iTunes. We had something like 15 hours of recordings — we put them on verses, bridges — we had something like 200 verses. So in the end, the album went from 15 hours to 35 minutes. It took us a year to listen back to all the music.
Were there any other instruments that inspired you during the making of Wolfgang?
We love the Fender Bullet guitars – they are really cheap and sound great. Also the [Yamaha] Tenori-On — it’s a Japanese controller with push buttons. You can do random, Steve Reich kinds of things with it. We also love the old Yamaha CS-80 analog synthesizer, which is our favorite, and the Korg Trident as well.
What were you listening to when you were coming up as a musician?
When we were teenagers, we were listening to rock music — things like Velvet Underground, which was very important for us. I don’t like virtuosity. I think it’s very dangerous, and there are very few virtuosos I love. My brother and I learned guitar together just by watching TV — very slowly, pressing the pause button while watching people like Bob Dylan — and looking for the chord he was playing. What we love is that the more we grow up, the less we are playing, in fact. I don’t really like to play big chords. I like to play two or three notes, and my brother will play the other ones. And we create harmony that way.
Like whispering at somebody instead of screaming at them.
Selected discography: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote), It’s Never Been Like That (Source), Alphabetical (Astralwerks), United (Astralwerks).
Selected gear used on Wolfgang: Casio SK-1, Yamaha CS-80, Yamaha Tenori-On, Dictaphone tape recorder.